Daily Herald

Detaching universities from the Church hasn’t freed them

Roger Scruton (Getty)

Roger Scruton is right about the decline of universities. So let's remember their origins

At a London conference this Monday, Sir Roger Scruton gave an illuminating address on why people have need of nations. But what had people talking afterwards was his answer to a different kind of question: whether people have need of universities.

During the Q&A, a young conservative who had studied philosophy at Birkbeck College, where Scruton once taught, recounted how he experienced the college as a place in which he feared to speak his mind. He said his nephew was now in university, and actually fears for his physical safety if he dares speak anything which dissents from leftist orthodoxy. The young man finally asked Sir Roger a fair and pointed question: “have we lost control of the universities?” And the answer Scruton shot back was, “it seems that we have.”

“There are two solutions to this, though. One is to start new universities, outside the nexus of state control, which is what happened with Buckingham [University]. Founded by Margaret Thatcher, and where I do teach a course, and which is going in the right direction. Which does have well known reactionaries like David Starkey talking openly from the platform. That’s a possibility, though of course it is a small gesture.

“But there’s the other way forward, which is to get rid of universities altogether.

“That is to say, make sure their sources of funding dry up. They are essentially state-sponsored institutions. Withdrawing the grants that they enjoy would bring them right down to the level to which they are actually approaching, and I think that might be something that we should think about.

“On the other hand we don’t want to lose all the scientific advances that universities produce and which are necessary to a modern economy. It could be that we ought to ring fence the humanities, which after all can enjoy all this bigoted leftism largely because they make no difference whatsoever to the general economy, and just give support to the sciences.”

For all the nuance of his answer, however, the headline the next day was “‘Scruton Says Get Rid of Universities Altogether.’” It was provocative, and it was the line which drew the largest applause from his audience.

The fact that a serious philosopher and public intellectual would propose such a thing, and would be applauded for it, should make the top brass of every major university stop and think. It signals powerful pent-up emotions against the university as a civilizational institution which has lost its way. And frankly, much of the rising antipathy to universities is deserved. To the extent universities have become finishing schools for progressive society, forming generations to hold correct political opinions, they have also failed to justify their worth as institutions which form people to become wise, rather than woke. Those who govern, both nations and universities, ought to take very seriously, as a matter of real national urgency, the fact that most universities have been overtaken by political ideology.

In all of this, I agree with Scruton. But I also dissent from his view that the sciences are somehow immune from all of this, or that starving universities of government funding will achieve the desired result of restoring balance to the force.

The real root of the problem is that while universities may harken back the Academy of ancient Athens, they are truly a medieval invention.

Universities are an invention of Catholic Christianity, and their religious origin cannot be denied. This genealogy will either be honored, or it will be subverted and replaced by another religious vision for the university. “Scientism”, or “atheistic humanism,” or some version of “wokeness” stand as incredibly weak replacements for the Church. As we now see, detaching universities from the Church doesn’t make them free. It only generates a new dogmatism that binds thought, uses coercive force rather than reason to achieve agreement, and ties the mission of the university to bad political religion instead of the truly transcendent purpose that gave rise to them in the first place.

If we can take back control of the universities, if they can survive not only “wokeness”, but the coming demographic onslaught, it will not be because we got rid of them, or fenced in the humanities, or kept them just for the sciences. It will be because universities remembered the Church which gave birth to them, and so also found the true principle of their unity.

C C Pecknold is Associate Professor of Theology, and a Fellow of the Institute for Human Ecology, at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC