In that bloated morass called American higher education, only a few institutions remain that are committed to the classical virtues and to learning as an induction into Western civilization. Hillsdale College is counted among that number.

Credit for holding that course goes to George Roche, who as the institution’s president has labored to defend the heritage of the Western world out of an unlikely corner of Michigan, in a deeply troubled time. While most of his college peers have been transformed into “chief executive officers” managing bureaucratic empires and buying off faculty favorites, Roche has held to an older model of academic leadership. Assuming the mantle of moral philosopher, Roche speaks to his community of scholars and his nation as learned analyst and wise prophet.

His new book, A World Without Heroes, is that rarest of late-20th-century phenomena: a moral essay. Where Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind looks to the corruption of philosophy as the cause of our woes, Roche digs deeper and chronicles the disease of the modern soul. The result is not for the faint of heart. The author describes our time as a war of the withered and sick against all that is whole and beautiful. While the Soviet Union celebrates the mailed fist, Roche sees the United States worshiping the raised phallus. Moral relativity has swept over our civilization, he continues, leaving in its wake a desperate struggle between Christianity and secularity. Indeed, the latter seems to be winning. America’s mawkish “pursuit of happiness,” Roche concludes, has led to a search for cheap thrills, an egoistic materialism that combines corruption of our language, ruin of our art, and general failure of our educational structures. Roche even dismisses the “phantom” of relatively high church attendance, noting that many denominations are run by and for those who do not worship.

Above all, the author laments the modern loss of the heroic, the absence of individuals nurtured by a healthy community within an objective moral order, the disappearance of persons who at risk of pain or death commit selfless acts in the name of truth. Today, he says, America is dominated by the antiheroic and its great transmitters: the electronic media, the post-Christian churches, and the schools. While it is possible to quibble on the margins of his argument, Roche’s overall indictment is powerful and unnerving.

Into our veil of tears, though, Roche does deliver hope. In crafting his argument, for example, he utilizes the insights of a fairly impressive number of 20th-century thinkers—Orwell, Lewis, Chambers, Muggeridge, Weaver, Chesterton—suggesting that, at least in brilliant dissent, the Western Christian legacy survives. He takes heart from the growing recognition that true physical science is a creature born out of Christianity, not against it, and that religion and scientific truth claims show signs of again being one, through a rediscovery of the natural law. Roche also describes a great sea change happening in America, as new generations commit themselves to the revivification of a civilization.

The author labels this volume an “enchiridion,” a small “moral” dagger bequeathed to his own children to protect them “from the swarming night.” We are fortunate that he has chosen to share it beyond his family, for George Roche’s own example testifies that our land has not yet fully succumbed to the dismal forces of the antiheroic.


[A World Without Heroes: The Modern Tragedy, by George Roche (Hillsdale, MI: Hillsdale College Press) $12.95]