Suicide of The West

Editors’ note: Last fall, the Buckley Program sponsored an essay contest open to student Fellows and others within the Yale community. The topic, tied to our annual conference, was James Burnham’s 1964 book, Suicide of the West. Judged by three Yale professors, the following essay was written by Theresa Oei, member of the Class of 2015 and a former Buckley Fellow. She won the first-place prize of $1,000.

The removal of ignorance is at the heart of the mission of education and rightly should be. However, it is the conception of how education is defined that liberalism has gotten wrong. Rationality embodies the human capacity to remove ignorance through a gain of knowledge, but human beings are not purely rational. An education that capitalizes only on a human capacity for reason neglects much of the human condition. While universal institutionalized schooling may satisfy the development of human rationality (although it is questionable whether even this objective is effectively accomplished), the human need for a directing, intuitive establishment of principles is neglected. Traditionally, private spheres were the spaces where the rational capability of man became fully integrated into his whole existence through religion, culture, tradition, or uncritical belief.  

“We begin our other affirmations after a categorical statement that life and the world are to be cherished.” Richard Weaver writes about how rationality alone is destructive and man needs a “metaphysical dream” that exists prior to knowledge. This dream becomes the verification and clarification of his rationality. He refers to this phenomenon as the unsentimental sentiment in his book, Ideas Have Consequences. Since the rise of liberalism, the “metaphysical dream” has come under attack as backward and irrational. Weaver clearly describes the result: “Whether we describe this as decay of religion or loss of interest in metaphysics, the result is the same; for both are centers with power to integrate, and, if they give way, there begins a dispersion which never ends until the culture lies in fragments.”

In the past, this “metaphysical dream” or foundational vision was taught at home and at church through family values and culture, but today this vision is undermined by liberalism. Parents should acknowledge and fulfill their roles as primary educators but instead have abdicated this right and privilege to a government institution. Children are pushed into institutionalized schooling from an early age and this becomes the sole source of their understanding of the world. Churches stand empty or worse, filled by half-hearted believers who have taken up the culture from guilt but hardly subscribe to a theological identity. Metaphysics and religion fall by the wayside, except as purely academic subjects taught with a historical or comparative outlook. Rather than encouraging belief, these classes frame the “metaphysical dream” as an invented chimera from a time when the world was only primitively understood. Therefore, belief in such a worldview is deemed backward and irrational. Truth is simply an empirically proven theory rather than an integrative and driving force. Data is king across every discipline and religion or metaphysics, without data to prove their worth, are consequently irrelevant. But there is a danger to the reification of rationality that is described by Horkheimer and Adorno in the Dialectic of Enlightenment. In a paradoxical regression, the metaphysical dream has been transformed by liberalism into the myth of rationality. This leads to abuses such as mass deception, a lack of moral outrage, and at its extreme barbaric human behavior.

The result of a lack of foundation for rationality is a generation of people with an education and accompanying knowledge that lack a belief in their own purpose and the purpose of the world. The controversial new book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite And the Way to a Meaningful Life, by William Deresiewicz, criticizes the Ivy League education system and unwittingly points out this phenomenon. The top students in the United States who have reached the pinnacle of institutionalized schooling at the Ivy League are miseducated. His argument that the Ivy League seems to churn out “excellent sheep” inculcated with a stale idea of success that includes wealth, prestige, and power but lack meaning, creativity, and purpose in their lives after higher education. He sees high quality affordable public education as the answer to this crisis, but he fails to pursue the real root of the problem. The liberal idea of education itself, whether public or private, is the cause. It begins long before college with the institutions of pre-k and kindergarten programs as children are whisked from private spheres to public ones. A good education isn’t just about developing mathematical, scientific, or critical reading skills rather it is about nourishing the whole person to ground human rationality in a larger context of belief and ultimate purpose. Encouraging private spheres outside of the strictly “educational” definition including family, home, or religion must be the answer to this dilemma. For in the current system, people will never learn the metaphysical dream that should be the foundation of their education and are left to wander the earth as sheep without a shepherd, searching for the truth obscured by liberalism.