Bacon and Rousseau go to college

Following Irving Babbitt and connecting his work to C.S. Lewis’s later Abolition of ManRobert Koons portrays the modern university’s incoherent curriculum as descending from the anti-teleological scientific approach of Francis Bacon and the sentiment-based morality of Rousseau. 

Eliot’s elective system at Harvard was in part a curricular consequence of Rousseau’s philosophy. The student is “compelled to be free” by being denied the opportunity to undertake a coherent and well-ordered course of study. As Babbitt notes, Rousseau is essentially the resurrection of ancient Greek sophism. Translated into education, the result is what Babbitt calls “the democracy of studies.” The modern university is a mere cafeteria of courses, with no structure or principle of selection. Plato also predicted this outcome in The Laws (819A): schooling as “encyclopedic smattering and miscellaneous experiment.” Babbitt observes that a bachelor’s degree now means “merely that a man has expended a certain number of units of intellectual energy on a list of elective studies that may range from boiler-making to Bulgarian… a question of intellectual volts and amperes and ohms.”

The elective system has been sold to generations of students as a charter of individual autonomy, freeing each student to devise his own education. In practice, the system empowers professors to abandon anything resembling a coherent, student-centered plan of studies, offering in its place whatever narrow and idiosyncratic courses are most convenient to them, from their perspective as producers of original research. This endless quest for novelty drives professors of literature and history off of the customary highways of great works and great deeds and into the hinterland of minor works by second-rate authors, and the minutiae of everyday life in remote times and places. We professors give little or no thought to selecting subjects that elevate and enrich the moral imagination of the student while giving much thought to subjects that elevate and enrich our own research programs.

The modern synthesis of Bacon and Rousseau represents a Devil’s bargain: Humanists accepted the dominance of the natural sciences and technology in return for a protected role as junior partner, wrapping the naked pursuit of profit with the robes of academic tradition and the artes liberales. In turn, natural scientists protect the humanists from political pressure, freeing them to pursue Rousseauistic liberationism.

It’s important to be careful about giving individual thinkers too much credit, but Koons’ description of this bargain is devastating and largely accurate, I think.

The whole essay details Koons’ thoroughgoing indictments of the modern university system and his proposals for changing it. I’m interested to know what readers think of his analysis.

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2 comments

  1. I agree with your reservation about giving too much credit to Bacon and Rousseau, and your judgment that this is, in general, accurate as a description of the trends in academia. I would defend specialization — just not at the expense of the liberal arts and their traditional function.

    • Yes, institutions need to find ways to gain the benefits of specialization without losing what binds the disciplines together.

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