A Conservative Commencement Address

College is crap.  So says the godfather of the modern conservative intellectual movement.

Though it wasn’t technically a graduation address, Russell  Kirk’s 1978 address to Hampden-Sydney College has the feel of one.  But it’s an idiosyncratic feel.  Kirk told the assembled students that college had gone to hell in a handbasket.  What could save it?  A renewed dedication to the “higher” part of higher education.

Russell Kirk kick-started the modern conservative intellectual movement with his 1953 blockbuster The Conservative Mind.  In that book, Kirk argued for a long and illustrious intellectual history for modern conservatism, reaching back through America’s finest men of letters and founding fathers to Edmund Burke.

In his 1978 address, Kirk bemoaned the state of American higher education.  Most schools had wallowed in the “educational follies” of recent trends.  The proper purpose of college, Kirk argued, was to train leaders in both profession and morality.  Since the end of World War II and new mass enrollments, colleges had lost their sense of purpose.  Kirk offered a four-part explanation of this decadence.

First, colleges no longer knew what they were for.  Instead of keeping their sights fixed on “knowledge and virtue,” universities tried to be all things to all people.

Second, colleges no longer laid out a menu of intellectual growth for students.  Colleges gave up on prescribing a course of knowledge.  Instead, in the name of freedom, colleges offered a vapid “cafeteria-style curriculum.”

Third, colleges had grown recklessly and heedlessly.  As Kirk put it,

Culturally rootless, anonymous, bewildered, bored, badly prepared for higher studies, other-directed, prey to fad and foible, presently duped by almost any unscrupulous or self-deceived ideologue, a great many of the students at Behemoth University came to feel defrauded and lost; only the more stupid did not suspect that anything was wrong with their condition.

Fourth, the decline of primary and secondary education meant that most college students no longer came prepared. Progressive fads had enervated education to such an extent that most students only knew how to fit in, not to stand out.

The central problem has been the rush to enroll, Kirk concluded.  Too many students go to college, with too little sense of purpose and too little preparation.

The cure, Kirk insisted, is to return to proper education for leaders in all professions.  With a core of truly educated people, American society and culture could rebound.  As he put it,

I am suggesting that college ought not to be a degree-mill: that it ought to be a center for genuinely humane and genuinely scientific studies, attended by young men of healthy intellectual curiosity who actually possess some interest in the development of mind and conscience. I am saying that the higher learning is meant to develop order in the commonwealth, for the republic’s sake. I am arguing that a system of higher education, which has forgotten these ends, is decadent; but that decay may be arrested, and that reform and renewal still are conceivable.

Though critics might cry “elitism,” Kirk concluded, his vision was anything but. The current vision of college as processing-plant cranked out cadres of quarter-educated elites. These dimwits moved society in preposterous directions, madly confident all the while that their elite education had prepared them for leadership.

As we wind up commencement season, I can’t help but wonder how Kirk’s lament would have gone over as a graduation speech.  It lacks some of the traditional encouraging rhetoric of that genre.  Would be-gowned professors and deans be able to sit on the stage and nod sagely as Kirk blasted their life’s work?


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