Moses in Exile

Posted on October 15, 2019


Not too long ago I read two pieces in the WSJ that struck some familiar chords with me. But it wasn’t so much what was in the columns, it was what was not. Stick with me. This is a puzzle of sorts and perhaps you can help me solve it. Both had to do with education, especially higher education.

There was another section of the paper devoted to the rankings of colleges and universities across the nation. That section perhaps for another time. You can look up your favorite university and/or college online by just typing in “wsj college rankings” into our favorite search engine. Of course, you may have to spring a few bucks to subscribe to the online edition, but this is a “monetized” society to use the jargon of the younger, more radical sect. We used to call it “capitalism,” but that sounds too offensive for sensitive, progressive ears, so we’ll stick with “free enterprise” for the time being.

Speaking of progressive, let me quote from one of the articles, entitled “A Feminist Capitalist Professor Under Fire.” It’s kind of a cutesy title that drew my attention. The professor is Camille Paglia, professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her personal habits and behavior are not exactly rural Alabama, which I can relate to a lot more readily than Philadelphia, but what grabbed my attention was something that almost knocked me over.

“She recalls a ‘horrifying’ example [of the tragic decline of public education in this country] from her classroom a few years ago. She was teaching ‘Go Down, Moses,’ the famous Negro spiritual. ‘The whole thing is about antiquity,’ she says, ‘but obviously it has contemporary political references.’ She passed out the lyrics and played the music, ‘and it suddenly hit me with horror—none of them recognized the name “Moses.” And I thought: Oh my God, when Moses is erased from the West, what is left of Western civilization?”

Well, Camille, welcome to my world. A few months ago, I used “G.I. Joe” in a talk to my inmate congregation at the Tuscaloosa County Jail and I realized from the blank stares that nobody had the faintest idea who G.I. Joe was. Perhaps he was one of those dudes in the Bible that Mr. Larry always seems to be referring to.

I bet, on the other hand, most of my guys would recognize Moses. A lot of them read the Bible and Moses is in there someplace.

Ok, where are we going with this? How about columnist Peggy Noonan’s “A Progressive Defends Liberal Education” in which she takes up a new book by Anthony Kronman, a professor and former dean at Yale Law School (impressive credentials!) in which he laments the diminishing traditional liberal education in favor of one devoted to training students in skills that will help them get a good job.

Peggy does a good job of summarizing Kronman’s lament. Education is “fundamentally [a] moral enterprise whose purpose is to help students become better human beings. Universities should be devoted to not only the ‘transmission of skills’ but the ‘shaping of souls.’”

Kronman is almost poetic in describing what universities should be about. “Put the question of the meaning of life at the center of attention…What is love? Does death make life meaningless…to what extent can we transcend the circumstances of our birth and join the company of others, living and dead, whose social, political and psychological situation is remote from our own? Does modern science illuminate the human condition or obscure it?”

And then the most important question: “is there one or some that might serve as an inspiration for my own [life]? A statesman or saint whose life you just read? A poet? A physicist?”

With all due respect to my poet and physicist friends, engineers and chemists, sociologists and scientists, social scientists and humanists of all stripes and persuasions, there is an answer, but only part of it can be found in Kronman’s elegy to higher education.

Let’s take a quick trip back into the foundations of modern western universities, back to the beginnings of Oxford and Cambridge, Paris and Bologna, the great Salamanca in Spain, and move through time to Harvard and Princeton, Yale and William & Mary, all established as divinity schools, with some other fields like philosophy and languages thrown in. They were established to train ministers, priests, prelates, whatever you want to label those who preserve and teach us our faith.

That’s where the truth to the questions that Kronman and all believers in a liberal education lies. I don’t denigrate man’s mind and abilities across the spectrum of the human existence. Rationality and its application in science, medicine, industry and a whole range of human endeavors have produced remarkable changes in our existence.  But the full answers to the questions of life and the human condition are explained and illuminated in Scripture, in the Bible of our Judaic and Christian ancestors.

The genius of those who moved our civilization forward was in combining, synthesizing if you like longer words, the best of man’s nature with God’s will as expressed in the life of Jesus and the foundational theology of the Apostle Paul in his letters in the New Testament.

There is where Kronman will find the answer to his question: “is there one or some that might serve as an inspiration for my own [life]?”

Published as “Lamenting the decline of higher education,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Oct. 6, 2019