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Academia's Dilemma Runs Deeper than You Think

Many of us millennials chose a profession at a young age, pursued the pertaining academic path, and then began a career in that profession that will consume the greater part of our life. We went to college to learn a trade, not to become educated. Our true education will come from life experience, because our academic education just gave we what we needed to get a secure job.

In fact, most of us spend our entire lives trying to learn the answers to fundamental questions, like "Who am I?", ‘Why do I exist?’, ‘What’s the most important thing in life?’, and ‘how should I live?’, questions that should have been discussed in school. Understandably, every discipline has become so complex that it takes years to learn enough to become efficient in it. So it makes sense to take up our school years to learn it.

The problem goes deeper than this though, because most colleges do actually require a core curriculum involving a good balance of the humanities--where we can learn about the great thinkers who contemplated the aforementioned important questions. Just about everyone with a bachelor’s degree took at least a class or two that discussed Plato's Republic and Milton's Paradise Lost, for example. But ask us how Plato or Milton contributed to the formation of Western Civilization, or why their contribution to civilization is important to who we are today, and we would most likely have no answer. We learned the data of the classics, but not the meaning.

The Big Picture

This leads me to believe that the segregation of disciplines in academia is intentional. I believe over-specialization a component in an education system inadvertently numbs our desire for meaning. Our education narrowed our vision of reality so we could stay focused on learning a trade. So there is a good intention there, but not much wisdom because this type of education blocked our view of the big picture in the process. Showing people the big picture stimulates the mind and stirs up the imagination. It brings a sense of wonder to the student by showing them the many giants whose shoulders we stand upon. But when one's education does not show the big picture, a void is left wide open when that person gets his diploma and enters the real world. We have a generation of young professionals in the world today who were never shown the big picture, and if you don’t see the whole picture yourself, other people can tell you it’s something it’s really not. This is the only way so many errant philosophies can prevail, as they do in today's world. In his book Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education the late Oxford graduate Stratford Caldecott calls this academic dilemma the “elimination of meaning." He states:

The fragmentation of education into disciplines teaches us that the world is made of bits we can use and consume as we choose. This fragmentation is a denial of ultimate meaning. Contemporary education therefore tends to the elimination of meaning–except in the sense of a meaning that we impose by force upon the world.

Universities in America have become mostly trade schools and think tanks for modern paradigms. To call them comprehensive centers of learning would beg the question: ‘Why is so much left out? Why do history teachers gloss over the “Dark Ages” or why do religious studies teachers give other religions more attention than Christianity? Are they afraid of the wisdom of our past? Or do we have some sort of “hereditary boredom” for the things we think we know?

Ask yourself this question next time you find yourself in a deep conversation with your peers: Do we understand the core principles of the subjects we study? Do we see how our everyday conversations, and our lives for that matter, play a part in the grander dialogue of the centuries?

The Problem is Rooted in Philosophy

Philosophy sets the foundations for academics; our academic system can be traced back to the schools of Athens, where great philosophers discussed the concepts that laid the building blocks of the education system of the West: epistemology, metaphysics, the study of the natural world, logic, ethics, political theory, and so on. They were once known as the liberal arts.

One of the original philosophical concepts that fascinated ancient philosophers was the difference between perception and reality. Modern philosophy has in large part returned to the same question, and many conclude with Descartes that the only validation of our existence is our own consciousness. This is a precarious foundation for education.

Somewhere along the way, we began to slowly abandon our original liberal arts foundation. As methodical doubt made its way into every discipline, in turn every philosopher came up with their own speculations about what is real and what is relative. This just confused the heck out of everyone, causing many people to believe that nothing is true.

Relativism became the prevailing philosophy of the day. and in order for relativism to be believable you have to keep all areas of knowledge separate, because if you acknowledged how they all tied together to create one great big, enlightening picture of reality, then you wouldn’t be able to create your own reality and wouldn’t be able to believe whatever you want.

Subsequently, we trade truth for our own perception of truth. If everyone gets to have their own truth, it would be impossible to piece together a picture of the truth--not so much because there would be so many pieces--but because the pieces are bound to not fit together. The only education we can receive in the relativism scenario is one where the big picture doesn't matter, and each subject exists in isolation. This is the modern dilemma we have inherited, and it has led to a crisis for anyone who is searching for meaning in life.

In short, we've abandoned the truth so we could live the way we want. The "fragmentation of education into disciplines" is just a symptom of that deeper problem.

This article was first published June 30, 2013 and was modified on September 28, 2019.

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