The change I am talking about has nothing to do with politics, as that is ordinarily understood. I know we have a new president who campaigned on the idea of change and is now attempting to govern as if he can make the world anew. That form of change is taking its own entirely predictable course, and, in the end, is much less interesting than the one I want to mention to you.
The freshmen Ashbrook Scholars have arrived on campus, all forty-two of them. They were admitted to the program because they are capable and eager and—in some profound way not yet fully visible to themselves—are now on the verge of becoming serious. They know that they have moved into a world entirely different from the one they have been living in. As one of them said after arriving, “I feel like the world has changed.”
Because they have already had conversations with us, they already know what our disposition toward education is and something about what we stand for. By giving their consent to our honor code they know, as Churchill might say, that they have become serious people, making their first step into self-government.
They will have read and studied Churchill’s My Early Life, as well as written an essay on it. Churchill’s book is especially good for them to read because it is nothing less than an adventure story of his youth (until 1900, when he is elected to Parliament for the first time, at age 25) and his education. Winston encourages the young to be ambitious and to accept their responsibilities. Those “thirsty for knowledge and longing to hear about things” should go to a university and take advantage of the opportunity, rather than fritter away their time in the pursuit of trivial things, which most students in fact do. This “precious fleeting opportunity” must be taken advantage of, and he regrets not having had that opportunity himself, instead having had to devise his own “curious education,” without guidance from those who had devoted their lives to a subject. As he explains why he envies “those young cubs at the university,” our young Ashbrook Scholars begin to see what the great man’s life and advice might mean for them.
They will have also read Pride and Prejudice aloud to themselves and Allan Bloom’s lengthy 1982 essay, “Our Listless Universities.”
Finally, they arrive on campus (a day before the other freshmen) and are thrown together at Mishler House where they meet one another for the first time. We give them a few hours to unpack their necessities and then, over a long lunch that includes family, we begin to talk a bit about why they are here and what they should expect from us, and what we may expect from them. They are not surprised that this conversation is unusual, that the things said are not the ordinary things colleges say to incoming students.
During the next two days—before classes start—they find themselves in seminars lasting more than nine hours. In one such seminar this year we found ourselves talking at length about what Bloom meant by his assertion that the greatest enemy of liberal education is the weird and self-defeating assumption that “truth is relative to culture,” and how this prejudice in favor of cultural relativism undermines our common humanity in the intellect, the thing that makes a university possible in the first place. Isn’t the human mind free? Isn’t education possible? The conversation was electric. Everyone saw its significance, why the question is worth the pursuit.
We do not talk about their majors, what they might want to emphasize during their four years here, what practical value any training they receive here may have. We avoid the stale and flat talk about how higher education may be the gateway to employment, or how it encourages the development of skills.
Nor do we talk about how all specialties are equal, that there is no way to tell something is more or less worthy of study. In fact we tell them that they have a right to demand of each program and professor—of both the field of study and the person claiming expertise in the field—a justification for the field and the professor’s work, the practice of his or her mind. We tell the students that if the faculty cannot explain the purpose of their study, it is not a study worth the student’s time.
This curious start to the Ashbrook Scholars’ higher education works because they are—as soon as they arrive on campus—immersed into the fundamental questions revolving around freedom, God, justice, happiness. This intellectual adventure—difficult though it may be—grips the students right away. They realize that the human mind is not to be trifled with. It is made to think about the big things, for it finds seeking the truth about man both a good and a pleasure.
They see at once that the next few years are a gift of time in which they may, for the first time in their lives, pursue these high-minded ends, travelling in the company of other good and willing companions into a new world of intellectual possibility.
Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of political science at Ashland University.