Catholic Education and the Fall of the Humanities

Virtually everyone familiar with the state of higher education today knows that the humanities are in a state of crisis. And for anyone not yet familiar, a cursory internet search for articles on the humanities will provide numerous think pieces on the scope, nature, possible causes, and speculation about how to resolve this crisis.

To provide a bare-bones summary: over the past decade at minimum, enrollment in the humanities, including history, literature, the arts, philosophy, theology and religious studies, languages, as well as many interdisciplinary programs, has tanked. This drop-off has occurred in virtually every kind of college and university: from the Ivy League to public universities to small liberal arts colleges.

In many instances, this drop-off in students pursuing degrees in the humanities has led to budget cuts for affected departments, hiring freezes, institutions dropping majors, and the shuttering of some of those small, liberal arts colleges for which the humanities were in many respects their lifeblood. Catholic schools are no exception to the crisis. Just last spring, a Catholic university in the upper Midwest announced that it would be eliminating many of its humanities majors, including theology. Just this past month, similar news came out about a Catholic university in Virginia.

It is easy and self-indulgent to decry such decisions as betrayals of the liberal arts, the purpose of higher education itself, or the nature of a Catholic university. Nevertheless, these decisions occur in a much wider context and are the result of processes many years in the making. No one college or university has much control over these circumstances.

As noted, with the possible exception of niche schools catering to a self-selecting student body, the decline in the humanities has occurred everywhere. Therefore, it is simply the case that any college or university that runs on enrollment has had, is having, or soon will have to make the same basic decisions: whether to fight what seems to be a long defeat or salvage what can be salvaged, shifting resources into STEM and career-training fields, and hope that the humanities can survive in core curricula.

As a high school teacher, it is evident to me that the changes we are seeing in higher education are not simply a matter for higher ed. Despite having many students express genuine interest in history, literature, creative writing, and even theology, almost none of my students plan on majoring in these fields. Instead, it seems everyone wants to get a degree in engineering, business, or some branch of medicine. This article is an attempt to diagnose the forces that seem to be working against humanistic learning at all levels and how humanistic learning is an integral part of Catholic education.

The Technocratic Paradigm

I believe that what Pope Francis and others have called the technocratic paradigm provides a useful key for understanding our current predicament.[1] As implied by the term “paradigm,” technocracy extends well beyond the sphere of formal education, shaping almost all facets of our lives, and for that reason can help us to see how the problem of the humanities and the liberal arts more generally has roots outside of the immediate context of university life and therefore cannot be solved within that setting alone.

As the etymological root of the word indicates, technocracy refers to a rule of technology and technique. These terms share a root in the Greek “techne,” a knowledge of doing or making, associated with craft and work, rather than pure, disinterested understanding.

Importantly, we should not assume that “technology” refers exclusively to high-tech products or even physical tools. “Technology” can refer to any object of human artifice that we use to augment our power over the world, to direct the world to our designated ends. The creation and use of technology is, of course, a constant of our species. As Pope Francis reminds us, however, our “technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities” (Laudato Si’ §107).

As a framework or paradigm, to speak of technocracy is to speak of a set of prejudices that sees the world according to the logic of technology. Put otherwise, the technocratic paradigm imagines the world and the things within it as complex machines directed to designated ends. Technocracy values—because it can only comprehend—purpose and work, means over ends, measurable progress, and control. It cannot fathom purposelessness, ends-in-themselves, and the unknowable and uncontrollable.

It is difficult to determine exactly when the technocratic paradigm achieved its current ascendant position. Certainly, it did not fall from the sky, whole and complete. It came in fits and starts. It is arguable, I think, to put its roots as far back as the European Age of Discovery and early Enlightenment. Francis Bacon and René Descartes wed human knowledge to mastery over nature and, as D.C. Schindler has shown, the modern interpretation of freedom is essentially the actualization of subjective power over reality.

With these important theoretical foundations, I believe it is fair to say that the paradigm truly came into its own in the mid-nineteenth century. It was then that modern theory was met by revolutionary technological advances. Beginning in the 1840s and 1850s the new possibilities of technology unleashed in the Industrial Revolution—displayed in so many industrial exhibitions—began thoroughly reshaping the Western cultural imagination.

Steel and glass allowed human construction to take new and extraordinary forms. The steam engine broke the monopoly of muscle, wind, and current in human locomotion and the production of goods. Through the machine, human power over nature seemed potentially limitless. Marx’s axiom that “the purpose of philosophy is to change the world, not interpret it” is the culmination of the modern, technocratic project.[2]

We can also follow the development of technocracy in the shift in language about the world and the human person from aesthetic to mechanical categories. In the classical and medieval world, the world was a cosmos, an ordered and beautiful whole created out of the generosity of God’s goodness. Crucially, human art and craft participated in and imitated God’s.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the world came to be described as a clock, a vast mechanism designed and set running by a divine engineer for some purpose. In the early twentieth century, the human body was likened to a factory, even in strikingly literal fashion as in Fritz Kahn’s Der Mensch als Industriepalast. Today, we casually draw on computer and digital terminology in everyday conversation. We speak of being “hard-wired” or “programmed.” We seek “hacks” to make our lives more efficient. In countless images from newspapers and magazines and in the sci-fi narratives of film, television, and literature, we depict ourselves as computers or links in a vast digital matrix. We now have philosophers, futurists, and entrepreneurs who argue that what we think of as reality is most likely a computer simulation of another, actually real, and highly technologically advanced civilization.

The metaphysical musings of Elon Musk are not just the ramblings of a loony fringe. They, in fact, articulate the implicit ontology of technocracy. As Josef Pieper warns:

The danger inherent in this situation is that man might, erroneously, come to regard the world as a whole and the created things with it—above all, man himself—in the same manner in which he regards, correctly, his own artifacts belonging to the technological sphere; in other words, man is beginning to consider the whole of creation as completely fathomable, fully accessible to rational comprehension, and, above all, as something which it is permissible to change, transform, or even destroy.[3]

As Pieper’s warning clarifies, the problem is not technology as such. The error is that we have read the world through the lens of our capability to put the world to use and concluded that using and being used is all there is.

Technocracy and Education

All education is a kind of making, as Wendell Berry observes, and “the thing being made in a university is humanity.”[4] Education, in other words, possesses an anthropology and ethic—a vision of the human being and the good life—whether it is aware of it or not. Unfortunately, educational institutions of all kinds, including many Catholic ones, have largely refused to acknowledge this fact; and, therefore, what guides contemporary education is the technocratic vision of the human. Pope Francis describes this technocratic vision as follows:

This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation (Laudato Si’§106).

The reduction of creation to a utility is matched by an elevation of the human subject as one who makes use of the world. Human flourishing is thus identified with mastery over the world and things, which is achieved when those things are put to the subject’s use. Money is the chief means that grants such mastery and consumption is the chief form by which we make use of the things of the world and others.

Though acquisition of riches is an animating feature of technocracy, it is not simply an ethic of pure avarice. Money is not an end in itself. It is a means to project the will onto the world and so is a sign of potency. Typically, we expect this projection of the subject’s will to occur through the form of simple consumption of goods and services, but technocracy also contains altruistic dimensions.

Exemplified by the so-called Effective Altruism movement, some technocrats subject their lifestyle and charitable actions to rigorous data analysis so as to bring about the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number with each choice. Living lives of austerity that rival any from the Christian tradition, these altruists are committed to cutting all excess from their lives in order to maximize their positive impact. Despite appearances, the altruistic technocrat is still caught in the technocratic reduction.

What counts is the quantitative scope of the positive effects. Moreover, despite the appearance of care for others, those men and women to be helped are functionally data-points that must be weighed against others in a vast moral calculation that can even include hypothetical future lives. In some ways, these effective altruists are the highest form of technocrats, refusing even the wasteful enjoyment of goods they might acquire, preferring instead to put everything to use. Altruism, in this frame, is not contrary to consumption, but a special form of it.

It is this vision of the human person as master that creates the contemporary drive to the top and the pervasive anxieties of slipping down the socio-economic ladder even among those already at the top. To fail to rise or to lose one’s place is to lose the good life. It also determines the work of education, which becomes a relentless sequence of means that end in (endless) consumption. Competition is a natural state in this educational process. In order to maximize their use of the world, students and their parents will need to successfully game the entire system, distinguishing themselves from other students in order to land the few spots at the prestigious colleges that serve as gateways into the socio-economic elite.

This restrictive entry system has both clear rules (“good” grades and test scores) and numerous unwritten and shifting ones. It incentivizes and rewards measurable success, but cannot celebrate excellence.[5] We should be unsurprised that within this technocratic framework anxiety and depression is on the rise among children of all demographics; attempts are made to game the college admissions process; many adults in the middle and upper classes can only find meaning in their job and are willing to sacrifice family and social ties for the sake of work; and those unable to compete due to a lack of economic, physical, or mental resources are left to make do as the disposable cogs in the technocratic machine.

There are other possible culprits to account for these patterns, but technocracy alone explains why these effects are felt in all classes. If economic insecurity alone were an issue, there would be little movement among “elite” students and schools. Because a Harvard degree—any Harvard degree—can be reasonably expected to insulate graduates from economic hardship, there should be a sizable population of students forgoing any kind of practical study and instead enjoying four or more years reading novels or rehearsing obscure philosophical arguments.

Instead, even among what used to be called the "leisure class," one finds the same obsession with STEM and a mass abandonment of humanistic learning. Human dignity is so completely identified with power and control, that even those already possessing it cannot but seek more.

Further proof of technocracy’s reach in education is evident in the informal public relations campaign of humanities departments and humanists themselves. Visit virtually any humanities department website of any college and the language will invariably include references to marketable skills. The humanities, students are often told, are worthwhile pursuits because they provide training in valued skills like creativity, critical thinking, and clarity of communication—the very skills needed to really succeed in a world that claims to reward innovation, disruption, and a strong brand.

This PR campaign has failed to convince students to major in the humanities and it will continue to fail. It fails because there is no clear connection between the actual objects of humanistic study and the skills that make it worthwhile. To claim or pretend otherwise—for instance by suggesting that studying, say, the American Civil War is good for sharpening skills in interpreting and organizing data or that writing essays on philosophy provides practice in good communication—is to confuse (final) cause and effect. One does not need a course in American history to learn how to interpret and organize data even if acquiring such skills is a genuine effect of taking such a course. Students can sense the sleight of hand. For students already inclined to doubt the value of the humanities, the deception is a good reason to become cynical or walk away.

 How will writing an essay on Plato’s theory of Forms, assessed for its accuracy on the theory and depth of analysis, contribute to learning effective communication skills for the workplace? Why assess the student on their knowledge of the material if it has nothing to do with the tangible benefits? For those students who already had an interest in the field, it is potentially heartbreaking to hear that the subject matter with which they are fascinated is just an occasion for skill-building. And, once again cynicism sets in. If it is career preparation all the way down, why not prepare for a higher-paying career more directly?

Catholic Education and the Humanities

This absence of connection between the object studied and the external purpose is not a deficiency of the humanities. It is a constitutive feature, their very source of dignity. It is also a feature that Catholic education cannot abandon and must joyfully declare. As the example above suggests, the purpose of a course on American history is nothing other than to gain greater knowledge of American history. Universally, then, the purpose of humanistic learning is nothing other than to gain a greater understanding of humanity itself according to the specific mode of the discipline. In this way, the humanities are their own end and make up the soul of the genuine liberal arts.[6]

As an end in itself, there is an inherent wastefulness in humanistic study. There is little knowledge “taken away,” whole and complete, to be deployed when needed from such learning. More often than not, what is gained in humanistic education is a greater sense of uncertainty and disorientation. Whether through studying the lives of those now dead, works of beauty made by human artists, the thought worlds of philosophers, or the manifold ways in which men and women have sought out God, life is revealed to be stranger than we thought. We are shocked to discover that the world, and those in it, cannot be fit to function.

Education as thoroughly shaped by technocracy lacks the ability to step beyond this initial shock and therefore retreats from it into the comforting space of control and mastery. What can be taken and commodified from these strange lives will be. We can repackage devotions fit for the gods into so many relaxation techniques. We can pick out from the philosophies of the dead the desired motivational phrase to confirm our choices. We can use the past as our weapon in the struggle with our tribe’s enemy. Anything that cannot be put to use can be ignored.

Catholic education, in contrast, is called by nature to take the step beyond that initial shock, for what that shock communicates is a truth that exceeds our grasp and use. As Pope St. John Paul II writes in Ex Corde Ecclesiae:

Without in any way neglecting the acquisition of useful knowledge, a Catholic University is distinguished by its free search for the whole truth about nature, man and God. The present age is in urgent need of this kind of disinterested service, namely of proclaiming the meaning of truth, that fundamental value without which freedom, justice and human dignity are extinguished. By means of a kind of universal humanism a Catholic University is completely dedicated to the research of all aspects of truth in their essential connection with the supreme Truth, who is God (§4).

Though specifically describing the character of the Catholic university, this statement describes the character of all Catholic education. Catholic education aims in no small part to acquire useless knowledge, not because it is less than useful, but because this kind of knowledge rises far above mere utility.

Though this extra-utilitarian aspect of truth can be glimpsed in all disciplines, it is especially the humanities that reveal this to us because their objects all resist complete explanation. The Catholic faith professes that the human person possesses an inestimable dignity, not by international accord, government fiat, vague social construct or on any measurable basis, but because God made us for himself. Our very being bears the seal of God’s own image and likeness. Each man and woman is an icon of God. Seeking to better understand the human person—in all her inexplicable richness through time and culture—is to glimpse in a mirror darkly the divine Source from which we and all things come.

This is why humanistic study can be so disorienting. We are thrown into uncertainty when we behold a truth that we can never fathom. We are thrown into wonder. To suggest that this human person could be reduced to explanation and use is blasphemous. However, to embrace the inexhaustible marvel of the human person, to embrace a thoroughly Catholic humanism, is in fact a source of joy. Strange as it may sound to those thoroughly shaped by technocracy, students often love to learn free from external purpose and pressure. They yearn for a truth greater than themselves and delight in finding it. Catholic schools can and must be centers that cultivate that yearning and nurture that delight. They must be recognized as centers of joy.

In no way are we to deny or downplay the evils of humanity, nor is it an invitation to fit the humanities to pre-packaged narratives that superficially confirm Catholic doctrine, but in fact instrumentalize humanity for ideological purposes. Nor should this call be interpreted as a snobbish dismissal of the role education plays in career preparation. In fact, it may be that given the pressures on Catholic schools, it is precisely within business, nursing, STEM, and other practical courses of study that we need this Catholic humanism.

We are past the point at which required English and Theology classes will suffice to avoid technocratic hegemony. Indeed, even a hypothetical Catholic trade school—an imagined Academy of St. Joseph the Worker—would, as Catholic, educate students for human work, and therefore a work that always contains a trace of the gratuitous, an element not reducible to technocratic function. It is this gratuitous dimension of all that is human that dignifies human work and separates it from the automated.

Ultimately, what must animate Catholic education at all levels is a distinct vision of human flourishing. If the human person ought never to be put to use, then so too the human person ought never to confuse mastery with the good life. Seeking to reach the summit of earthly power degrades the seeker more than it degrades all those used in his or her search. Catholic education must not tire of saying this. But, it cannot merely negate. It must posit. The pinnacle of human existence is not and cannot be found in the subjugation of the world. The pinnacle is to share in God’s life, who relates to the world not as an object to be exploited but as the object of his love.

The pinnacle is to share in the life of Christ, who conquered sin and death through his emptying of self unto death. The Mighty One reveals his power in powerlessness. The God revealed in Creation and Redemption is a God who turns our fallen expectations on their head. We find in him no domination, no manipulation, no system-building, no exploitation. Instead, we find an eternal play of love. As Wisdom, the principle of God’s creative act, declares in the book of Proverbs:

[In the beginning] I was beside him as his craftsman/ and I was his delight day by day/ Playing before him all the while/ playing on the surface of his earth/ and I found delight in the sons of men (8:30–31)

All education is a kind of making, and Catholic education should make human persons able to delight in the play of Wisdom.

[1] There are other ways of naming this ascendant cultural frame. Decades ago, Josef Pieper spoke of “the world of total work” or “the workaday world.” More recently, D.C. Schindler has written about the “diabolical.” I have chosen to use “technocratic paradigm” because I think it most effectively conveys the overarching rationale of our present moment and matches the language of Pope Francis.

[2] Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, XI.

[3] Josef Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas: Three Essays (New York: Pantheon, 1957) 92.

[4] Wendell Berry, “The Loss of the University,” in Home Economics (Berkeley: Counterpoint) 77.

[5] See D.C. Schindler, Freedom from Reality: The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty, 168. Following the ancient Greeks, Schindler distinguishes these two according to appearances (seeming) and reality (being). Success represents an achievement according to appearances. It tends toward “an impressive quantity of effects or managed to earn the esteem” of others, but lacks any inner meaning or cohesion beyond generating esteem or reward. Excellence, in contrast, concerns achieving a fullness of life, determined not by external reward or effects, but by the inner meaning and cohesion of that life. I think educators can easily call to mind those students who, however perfect their work, are motivated by the desire for a good grade in contrast to those other students who are motivated by a desire to better understand the subject matter.

[6] Mathematics and the various sciences can, in principle and did in the past, belong to the liberal arts as well. However, in contemporary practice, we often treat these disciplines as contributors to the work of engineering and technology. As Josef Pieper notes, one justifiably says, “We need more mathematicians in this country so that…” because mathematics can be readily put to use in a large number of applications. However, it is possibly meaningless to say, “We need more poets in this country so that…” because what follows the “so that…” would turn poetry into advertising or propaganda (Pieper, “The Philosophical Act,” in Leisure, the Basis of Culture [San Francisco: Ignatuis Press], 89).

Featured Image: Detail of Kazimierz Malewicz's Composition with the Mona Lisa, 1914; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD. 


Brendan McInerny

Brendan McInerny teaches theology at Holy Family Catholic High School in Victoria, MN. He is the author of The Trinitarian Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar: An Introduction. His current project is on the theology of play.

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