Georgia, we're bringing our regional conference your way!

College: The Golden Calf of the Classical Renewal

I have become increasingly concerned that college has become an idol for Christian Classical educators.

Even as university systems and colleges nationwide enter the twilight of their golden age (many of them are bankrupt and cutting programs, particuarly those related to the humanities) we continue to cater to our culture’s college obssesion; we have ostensibly bought into the notion that the quality of an education is measured by the quality of the college a student attends (and subsequently the quality of the job the student gets). Disturbingly, we classical eduators are often most guilty of this, as if we believe that the only way to prove to the world at-large that what we’re doing has meaning is to get kids into the best colleges.

Maybe that’s true. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe we need to stop caring whether the rest of the world thinks what we’re doing is meaningful. Maybe we need to be more like Rhett Butler and… well, nevermind.

This Christian classical renewal is inheritantly counter-cultural. Philosphically and idealogically it stands in stark, antithetical contrast to the fundmental tenets of modern progressive pedagogy. Supposedly, we Christian classical educators are interested, above all, in the cultivation of wisdom and virtue. If so, we’re interested in achieving something that is, by it’s very nature, hard to quanitify. We can’t know whether we successfully achieved that goal for years and, unless we keep in close contact with our students, we might never find out for sure. Because modern education is all about money, it’s also all about measurement. It wants to teach in an easily measureable fashion and college makes measurement a simple equation.

So I don’t mean to sound tribal, but shouldn’t we fear the moment we and the educational world-at-large are aligned? I believe so, and that’s why I find our overwhelming idolization of college to be profoundly disturbing.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should eliminate guidance counselors from our schools or discourage our students from attending good colleges.** On the contrary. We should care deeply about preparing our students to suceed in college and to survive there. We should daily evaluate whether our students will be able to navigate the tricky waters of today’s higher ed culture.

But we also need to examine our priorities. It’s a matter of degree. The more we prioritize college the more we will prioritize the things that colleges prioritize: test scores, money, jobs, admissions. And the more we prioritize those things the less we will prioritize the higher things we are most called to prioritize: character formation, virtue, true understanding. It’s all about degree (pun intended). College isn’t, in and of itself, an inherantly bad thing, just as test scores, money, jobs, and admissions aren’t inherantly bad. But if they distract us from our calling they become negatives.

We all know the story of the Israelites and the golden calf, found in Exodus 32, in which the Israelites, panicked at Moses’ delayed descent down Sinai, make for themselves a golden calf “to go before [them]”. In response, God tells Moses to return to his people for they have “corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” (v 7-8).

God’s wrath didn’t “burn with fire” against the Israelites because there was something inherantly wrong with a calf made of gold. In fact, the Old Testament seems to suggest that God may have a particular affinity for all things Au. He was angry at why they created the golden calf. They replaced worship of Him with fear; they lacked faith and so they turned to a golden idol.

I’ve often thought that this story doesn’t make sense. How could the Israelites, having seen the work of God first hand, been so full of doubt? How could they have abandonded all reason and been deceived into believing that a golden calf actually did anything on their behalf? God’s frustration is understandable. So close to the land he’d promised, and to which he’d providentially guided them, God’s chosen people “broke loose” from the way He’d set before them.

There is a land of milk and honey waiting for us too. Yes, it’s a land plentiful with enemies, as all good lands are. But it’s a land worth fighting for. And we will win it only if we stay the course. If we are faithful. If we avoid distraction.

As my colleague, Brian Phillips, has said, if we focus on cultivating wisdom and virtue, college is likely to come with it (if it should***). But if we focus primarly on college, wisdom and virtue isn’t guaranteed in the package. Quite the opposite, in many cases.

Or, as CS Lewis wrote, “aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”

** There are many very good colleges out there, doing very good work. This post should not be taken as an attack upon them.

*** A quick aside – the assertion that everyone should go to college is absurdly false. And the fact that our society makes life hard on those who don’t go to college is of the devil. After all, are we sure we really want our students spending four or more of their most formative years embedded in a world of fornication and lies? But that’s a conversation for another post on another day.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles