Religious communities are familiar with question-and-answer catechisms. Even if you’re not familiar with the Westminster or the Baltimore Catechism, you are probably familiar with another one, which is far more common in our time.
Q1: Who are you?
A1: My degree, my university.
Anyone formed to be a member of our status-anxious class of elite aspirants is familiar with the formula: “my major is X from Y university.” Those in the highest echelons of the elite even wring their hands over the proper manners in giving this response: “Can I just say, ‘I went to a college in Boston?’ Or should I come out and say, ‘I went to Harvard’?”
But knowing what the formula is for acceptance into an elite conversation is not the same as knowing something substantial. Far too many come through school learning nothing but the formula. I don’t mean “basically nothing.” I mean nothing. Universities more often subtract knowledge from their students than add it.
Schools transmit what they have inside themselves. So this is telling. Nihilism has been with us for some time hiding in subfusc. This is not an accident. The smart ones go through the system and imbibe this nothingness and become one with it. We can call them full-nihilists. They come to believe there is nothing to know.
There are those in every era who can’t drink the full metaphysical draught. Those who do learn things, but those which were never meant seriously. Like a child who mimics facial expressions because they can’t understand the words their parents use. These second sons of academia often gain some “knowledge” that is not knowledge. A gain which is truly a loss. They think they have learned something but it is only that they have been trained to parrot the empty expressions of their nihilistic masters. We can call this nihilism-lite.
They become confused.
Their souls terraformed into smaller, more sterile, more utilitarian-friendly versions of the human soul, or psychē. Not so much terraforming then, but psychoforming–that is what universities are doing. It is only a question of how they form the psychēs with which they have been entrusted. A generation or two ago most degrees were academic. Students studied Math, or Classics, or Literature. Now… well go look it up, but consider as exemplum the vast numbers of students who get an education in “education.” Can any of them answer the question: “what’s the point?” Are any of them even able to articulate it? Let us ask…
Q2: Why are you here?
A2: To get a good job.
By the end of this degree what have they been trained to care about? These degrees are what we, in the profession, call “post theoretical” meaning they never require a direct engagement with fundamental reality. Outside the profession we just say “these degrees don’t require thinking.” Why do we produce this subclass of docents?
There are a few reasons. First, all those über-cum-laude crimsons need someone to order around. Remember, they’re nihilists. Second, our current regime, built as it is on lies, requires a regular stream of Indoctrineers to further impress upon the non-college-educated populace the approved truth. Third, the myth of degrees as a store of ontological value gives the whole populace some way to pursue meaning while also establishing the noblest of lies: that the current system of rank is merited. We know how high you fly because of your scores on this test–or better because of who you are. We don’t bother looking at what you may know or have done. Heavens no, pilgrim, rather tell me what is your major? Where did you go? We no longer need to ask your GPA. In the golden future we all get an A.
The saddest thing for me is watching young people who had potential make themselves smaller. There is a dark torture in training a fellow human, as if he were a cow, to turn himself into a tool for overlords. But of course they advertise such self-abasement on the front of every glossy pamphlet at just about every school in the land.
Q3: And why do you want a good job?
A3: To make more money.
Such metaphysical surgery on the self goes hand in hand with a cognitive decline in the lost opportunity to begin an engagement with reality as humans who by nature reach out to know.
And those pious few naive enough to reach out to know are “taught” to find all knowledge determined by the cynical appeals to political and market oriented needs. What they learn is “I exist for the sake of others” but not in the generative and self giving way. No, it is a cruel parody of Christian charity–the love which theologians tell us is the source from which the gratuitousness of God created the whole world, and indeed created your very self. No this creed says you exist for the sake of others in a darker, more Hobbsian inflected sense. As the cow exists for the sake of dinner.
This form of learning is less than nothing. It is an emptying of the humanity of the student. It is wrong and it must stop.
Q4: Why do you want to make more money?
A4: Because therein lies the chief end of man.
If the current system is this rotten, why is it so hard to expose it as pure nonsense? The reason, as best as I can make out, is that it is not nonsense. Credentialism may not produce anyone who can do more than milk the bullshit job they got with their bullshit degree, but it has retained quite a great deal of the institutional, formal, and material capital needed to do actual education. For material capital, look beyond all the buildings, the labs, the publications, and the misplaced faith in the great “edifices of learning” and stare directly at the endowments of the elite universities. But for what I call the formal capital, you must see modern academia as the fundamentally theological institution it still is, replete with yes, its own catechism. As Trevor Merill has said, “Colleges and universities are the officiel credentialing bodies [even while] it’s the institutes–Elm Institute at Yale, Lumen Christi at UChicago, Zephyr at Stanford, Nova Forum at USC…that are hosting the interesting conversations and courses.”
How can this be? We must consider the word “credential.” What does it mean? A piece of paper indicating my suitability for some task. The liberal arts form of which was meant to indicate the holder was suitable for anything suitably human[e]. The more technical meaning (for example a credential in engineering, or in sacred theology) indicated that you were suitable for building the bridge or bridging the chasm between God and man. The root of credential in Latin is credens–trusting. That bridge can be trusted because that man can be trusted to have inside himself–as a woman who is pregnant with child–the knowledge of bridges. I can trust this bridge because it was born of that man. And that man knows, and can be trusted to know. This churchman can be trusted to save my only child because he contains and preserves and passes on the knowledge of salvation. This church is pregnant with knowledge of divine mysteries the measure of which I cannot fathom. I trust them. I step into this church as I step onto that bridge. A step of faith.
And this trust is the secular hook on which the virtue of faith hangs as a garland graces a man’s head. If we dig a bit deeper than credens we hunt the root to its source: credo, “I believe.” Whence the English word “creed.” It is the first word of the Nicene Creed, which is itself, in a way, an extended answer to a question, much like one you’d find in a catechism: “Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem.” It is a word Beethoven repeats, elaborates on, and returns to every chance he has in the splendid Missa Solemnis in D-Major, and does so far out of proportion to any other word or motif in the third movement of that masterpiece. Such masterful competence, wherever it is found, flows from the creed of the competent man.
The paper they hand you when you graduate is ultimately only as valuable as the truth the institution is willing to stand up for. If what it stands up for is platitudes, buyer beware.
A credentialing body that lacks a creed, or one whose creed is raw nihilism, cannot recommend anyone or anything and has nothing to recommend itself to you.
Q5: Why does the university system exist?
A5: To make the world a better place.
Is the world a better place with young people’s heads stuffed with nonsense? Their credit history dragged down by debt? The horizon of their career prospects a gig job or, at best, a cubicle?
We need to push through.
A future is coming in which you will be judged based on what you know and can demonstrate, not what piece of paper you got and from where. Hollow credentialism can not renew itself.
What will take its place?
At first it will be a rediscovery of actual learning by individuals and small groups of friends. People who by nature desire to know and who push through the system, beyond the walls, driven by an unquenched thirst for truth and goodness. A thirst made thirstier by the spoonfed dust of modern education.
Beyond the wall they’ll find a few philosophers hiding just outside the walls in their shacks. Refugees of the old system. And from the joy of the conversations they have there they will begin trying to translate what they are talking about into beautiful works of writing.
The conversations will grow, some of these venturers will decide they need to set up organizations, a counter polis, to carry on the conversation. These organizations are already in existence; this is where we are in the process. Friends who know. Such knowledge leads to competence. Competent groups of friends found new institutions.
I see new organizations, I see this happening all over the internet. A non-exhaustive list of those teaching the liberal arts range from the theologically grounded Davenant Hall, Theopolis, Lyceum, or Magnus Institute.
To those focused on bespoke philosophical quests, the courses offered by my friend Michael Millerman.
Then there are those who are teaching practical job skills. These range from the prolific “bootcamp” schools that train you in everything from design to coding. And for those looking for more of a generic “career launch” program, things like Praxis are popping up too. I count these as not nihilism-lite because they don’t attempt to fuse your identity with their brand, and they don’t suspect their piece of paper means much beyond what they’ll train you to do.
These networks are expanding the genuine search for truth, goodness, and a blessed way of life far and wide. I have young people email me, young people in once great colleges, who say unashamedly, “I got my entire education on the internet.”
The collapse of higher education is underway. It is upon us. Whatever betide, you have come to the end of the university that you have known. And with it passes much that was fair of a former age, much that needs preserving.
We need to begin planning to preserve and transmit and grow what remains of humane knowledge for a future which we will not live to see. And we need to consider what it means to come together as a broad umbrella of organizations to ask the more structural questions that need to be resolved. What went wrong? Can we rebuild in such a way to avoid the same fate? How do we plan to offer an actual humane education to the ~20 million college students currently in the US? What about the rest of the world?
And most importantly of all we will, each of us, need to determine what the creed will be which we will hold to and–if necessary–die for, rather than betray and live. Only such as these will be able to weather the storm and gather those who remain. I recommend a common starting point: the truth. Those who don’t believe the truth exists need not apply to the future. They have nothing to teach us and no way to learn what we know.
Colin Chan Redemer is Vice-President of The Davenant Institute, Poetry Editor of Ad Fontes, co-founder of Davenant Hall, and Adjunct Associate Professor at Saint Mary’s College of California. He loves teaching at the intersection of history, philosophy, literature, and Christianity. His writing has appeared in the Englewood Review of Books, Evansville Review, Sojourners Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives in community with his wife, kids, and fellow church members, in Oakland, California.
Translated: I believe in one God the Father Almighty. ↑