Nihilism Is Not Cheap — Liberal Education and the Limits of Reason

An education built upon lies and deceit is nothing short of an assault upon the dignity and integrity of the human person.

Nihilism is not cheap
Nihilism is not cheap (photo: 3D Animation Production Company)

While fewer students have gone off to college this fall, owing perhaps to increasing COVID-19 restrictions, those who have should probably factor in the following — that it will take at least four years to get through; that it will cost more than $100,000 to do it; and that along the way everything they may have believed at the beginning will turn out not to have been true at the end. 

In other words, nihilism is not cheap.

Unless, of course, they never believed much of anything to be begin with. For students already steeped in nihilism, four years in college will merely confirm the nothingness they learned in high school. Or from their parents.

Things used to be a bit less egregious, by the way. When the late Allan Bloom sat down to write The Closing of the American Mind, which made a huge splash when it first appeared back in 1987, the crisis of higher education was then seen in a slightly less dreadful way. Oh, it was serious enough, but not entirely bleak. The enemy then was not yet nihilism, only relativism. Here, for instance, is how Bloom’s book begins: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.”

So, yes, things have since gotten worse. Conditions have now metastasized. Which simply means, as a sheer practical matter, that to travel these days from relativism to nihilism needn’t take very long.

There are, however, a few happy exceptions. One of them is where I teach. Here at Franciscan University of Steubenville, the movement is in the opposite direction. Rather than trashing the truths young people arrive with, here the aim is to shore them up with arguments both reasonable and faith-based. Or if, God help them, they actually do show up tainted with ideological infections, the aim is to disabuse them of the disease, then start pumping fresh blood into the system. Providing lots of antibodies is what we do best.

Of course, I cannot speak for all my colleagues, concerning whose teaching methods I’m not qualified to judge, but in the one entry level class I do teach, i.e., Foundations of Catholicism, I always begin by showcasing the advantages of a Liberal Education. Paying special attention to Theology, of course, which is the very Queen of the Sciences. 

And what, I will ask, do we mean by a liberal study? They really don’t know, which is why they’re taking the class. So I tell them, quoting Mark van Doren, who once wrote a lovely little book on the subject.

“A Liberal Education” he defines “as those courses we are not at liberty to omit.” Which is neatly put, I think. And why is that? Because, at the deepest level, such courses determine what it means to be a complete human being. They set us free, in other words, which is what the word liber means; unlike, say, such servile subjects as befit the condition of a slave. The distinction traces at least as far back as Aristotle, who insisted that there are certain pursuits that lay claim to intrinsic importance, to be pursued for their own sake. Others, however, may be adjudged as merely useful, and are therefore of instrumental value only.

Typing, for instance. A wonderful tool, to be sure, but one whose mastery depends on having something to say. A poem, for example. Or a prayer to God. Or maybe just a letter to someone you love. My wife might well have spurned me long ago, if I hadn’t typed all those wonderful letters I sent her. But that was hardly the reason she married me. Imagine someone saying, “You know, Fred is really a bit of a pinhead. But, boy, can he type!”

Here is how I put it to my students. Look at it this way, I tell them. What should be the animating question in putting together a perfectly sound curriculum? The answer is that it must speak to the most basic dimensions of the human person, of which there are three — the need to know the truth of reality, which speaks to the intellect; the aspiration to seek the good, which is addressed to the will; and the capacity to take delight in the beautiful, which nourishes the sensibility.

To what extent, I then ask, is the education your parents are paying such big bucks for you to receive, at all likely to communicate truth, goodness, or beauty? What a wicked world it would be if you were fitted for such things and at the end of four years you learned that there was no truth or goodness or beauty to be found anywhere? That life, as poor Macbeth will tragically learn at the end of his own, is nothing more than “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” How might that make you feel? “What an awful swindle,” you’d say, “I’ve been made the victim of!”

And so an education built upon lies and deceit … an education not in the least interested in the pursuit of truth or goodness or beauty … is nothing short of an assault upon the dignity and integrity of the human person.

“The whole law of human existence,” declares Dostoyevsky in The Devils, “consists merely in making it possible for every man to bow down before what is infinitely great. If man were to be deprived of the infinitely great, he would refuse to go on living, and die of despair.”

It is precisely here, however, that we find ourselves face to face with an impossible sea of being, one which separates two very disparate worlds. None of us, of course, has the wit or the power to cross over. A sheer infinite abyss stands in the way. A sundering divide, as it were, between two orders of being: human reason on one side, divine Revelation on the other. It is, to put it another way, the utter incommensurability between nature and grace, history and heaven, which simply cannot be overcome. I may long to get to the other side, to look upon the face of God, but without grace I am no better than a pauper fallen down into a gutter. I see the stars above, but I’ve no way of reaching out to touch even the nearest one.

Here, then, is the outer edge of reason, beyond which it cannot go. And, yet, like Kafka, we are moved to say, “Even if salvation does not come, still I want to be worthy of it in every instant.”