In “Democracy and Higher Education” (April 4, 2012), James Barham writes,
the social origins of higher education—the traditional rationale for its existence—lay not in providing economic opportunity to one and all, but rather in the twofold task of perpetuating a cultural tradition deemed to be of inestimable worth, and of providing access to that tradition to the small minority of the population with both the ability and the inclination to undertake the strenuous effort and self-discipline necessary to attain such access.
It is no accident that the university in the West has its roots in the monastic traditions of the Catholic Church. Real learning presupposes a religious-like attitude towards the slowly and painfully accumulated fund of human knowledge. A genuine scholar enters voluntarily upon a semi-monastic spiritual quest that is best described as “sacred.”
Scholars, too, have to eat, of course, but nobody lacking a spiritual calling to the life of learning has any business embarking upon a higher degree, at least in the humanities. A hungry heart is a prerequisite for the Ph.D. as surely as any course in the catalogue.
One of the most terrible consequences of the course we are now embarked upon—and one that is too little remarked upon—is that it imperils this sacred dimension of the university’s raison d’être. Part of the reason for this is the desacralization of everything by our increasingly materialistic and scientistic culture. When the human person is reduced to a mere bundle of genes and synapses, it is not surprising that the most elevated sustenance for the human spirit accumulated over centuries should be degraded to the status of a commodity.