When C.S. Lewis wrote that there was more distance between us and Jane Austen than between Jane Austen and Plato, he was remarking on a cataclysm that colleges and universities had not escaped. The charters of colleges founded before the Age of Jackson reiterated the claim that the purpose of an educational institution was always, as the founders of Columbia (then King’s College) wrote, to teach Jesus Christ. As late as 1838, the statutes of the University of North Carolina forbade any derogation of the Christian religion in the university. The marriage between Christ and classical literature was then 16 centuries old. Beginning with St. Justin Martyr’s principle that whatever has been said rightly belongs to Christians, the Church espoused the teaching of a Christian classicism intended originally to provide an effective apology and, after Constantine, to make schoolboys not only intellectually well-furnished citizens but Christians.

Before the mid-19th century, most entrance examinations assumed an ability to read the New Testament, Vergil, and Cicero in the original languages, as well as a mastery of Euclid. Today, this standard is not even attained by most who teach in colleges and universities.

Before 1860, colleges were not marketplaces of ideas. That students were to be taught not what to think but how to think was considered absurd. Colleges were microcosmic cities calculated to make their citizens members of a culture, of a moral and intellectual order rooted in Athens, Rome, Sinai, and Jerusalem. (And in America, where most 18th- and 19th-century colleges were founded by Congregationalists and Presbyterians, rooted also in Geneva.) The transcendent collegiate purpose was the forming of souls pleasing to God; the temporal purpose was the furnishing of bar, bench, and pulpit, and, more broadly, the equipping of the gentlemen who would hold commissions and sit on the county court, each of whom was expected to bring into the villages of a new country something of the wisdom and polities of ancient Greece and Rome. Lighthorse Harry Lee advised his son at Harvard to “Dwell on the virtues, and to adhere to History and Ethical Authors of universal character.” John Adams advised John Quincy to study Sallust, Cicero, Livy, and Tacitus in order to learn wisdom and virtue, noting that his son would see in them “all the Charms which Language and Imagination can exhibit, and Vice and Folly painted in all their Deformity and Horror. The end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen.” The curriculum was designed to transfer Christian classicism from one generation to the next. Neither Adams nor Lee would have been happy to learn that Harvard and other colleges today do not care to teach their students what to admire and whom to obey.

A study completed this past spring titled Great Expectations: How the Public and Parents—White, African American, and Hispanic—View Higher Education contains a survey asking the question, “What Should a Student Gain from College?” The most popular goal, understandably dear to the heart of every parent, is “A sense of maturity and how to manage on their own”—a fine purpose, but one accomplished most successfully and at least expense by a stint in the Army or a job in another city. Next in popularity was the diversity goal: “An ability to get along with people different from themselves.” The third goal is something a college might conceivably do—namely, the Deweyan goal to “Teach an improved ability to solve problems and think analytically.” Following this are the career-related expertise goal, the high-tech goal, writing and speaking, and the citizenship goal of voting and volunteering. Eighth and last is “Exposure to great writers and thinkers in subjects like literature and history.” Only 32 percent of those polled considered this last goal essential.

None of the top goals of those surveyed would have been counted among the primary purposes of collegiate learning before that sudden frost Evelyn Waugh called, in Brideshead Revisited, The Age of Hooper. Instead, these goals suggest a culture populated by what C.S. Lewis called trousered apes and urban blockheads; a civilization based, Jacques Maritain wrote, upon the fecundity of money and the tyranny of the useful. This is the popular made-for-sale culture whose philosophers arc the gently ironic, relentlessly relativistic Garrison Keillor and the rootlessly conservative, pro-capitalist Rush Limbaugh; a culture whose political theory is displayed on the Sunday morning talk shows, whose sensual edge is HBO and MTV, and whose piety tends toward a religious atheism, a sentimental detritus consisting of therapy, belonging, and making this world a “better place.”

The postmodern college is a perfect mirror of this culture. It has developed what the 19th century called natural philosophy into effective disciplines that daily wring from nature fruits for mankind, but stand mute with regard to the goods of the human soul. Within its walls, the study of religion as a purely human phenomenon inculcates a kind of atheism, while its philosophies teach relativism and subjectivism. Of course, there are many happy exceptions, and it is always true that a bright 18-year-old, located in a university with 50,000 students and 5,000 professors, may happen upon true and soul-transforming things. But the contemporary college is primarily concerned with diversity, maturity, and career expertise.

Cultural revolution is like an avalanche. First, silently, a tiny fissure appears, or one stone shifts almost imperceptibly. It slowly gathers speed, then comes the avalanche, catastrophic in its destructiveness. The fissure was the failure of philosophy in the 14th century. Then came the angelism of Descartes, the attempt to know the world apart from its body; then Hume’s attack on speculative reason, that light with which we grasp reality; and then the elliptical attempt of Kant to root an objective order of knowledge in human subjectivity, an idea now represented by our cultural certainty that everything depends on one’s point of view. The movement began in 1789, but it was checked by the Congress of Vienna and by the holy intransigence of Popes Gregory XVI and Pius IX. In America, the avalanche was effectively forestalled by 19th-century religion, the Protestant Christianity of the countryside and small towns reinforced by the Catholic piety of Southern European immigrants of 1840-1870. As late as 1950, the movement made no noise. The late John Senior noted that, in 1941, an Episcopalian bishop of New York prevented Bertrand Russell from taking an appointment at City College because Russell taught immorality; but today, should any institution attempt to prevent such teaching, bishops might well be found across the picket lines, protesting the infringement of every student’s right to enjoy the liberating sensuality of his or her choice. The Enlightenment, as E, Michael Jones has argued convincingly, came to America in the 1960’s, and we have lived through the avalanche.

This vast movement from the first failure of philosophy in the 14th century to the fruition of the Enlightenment—marked finally by tyranny (the managerial state), terror (gulags and ovens), and license (the sexual revolution, rendered secure by the pill and Roe v. Wade)—was the matrix in which the specific educational themes that created the new culture were nurtured in the 19th century. Any catalog of these themes would include the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill, Sir Robert Peel, Lord Brougham, Benjamin Rush, and Horace Mann. In 1840, Peel and Brougham elicited from Cardinal Newman perhaps his most vehement essay, “The Tamworth Reading Room,” because they had proposed improving the English people by providing information about drainage.

The Prussian system, which made learning a function of the state, was the ideal vehicle for institutionalizing the educational utilitarianism of Peel. Made law by Frederick William III in 1819, this system was the remote progenitor of the U.S. House Committee bearing the ominous tide, “Education and the Work Force.” It was universalist, utilitarian, and dedicated to the creation of reliable citizens and workers. The Prussian system gave us bells, credit hours, Ph.D.’s, and education schools, die function of teaching having been transformed by making it an operant skill. Massachusetts, not surprisingly, was entranced by the Prussian system.

Any catalog of the themes that demolished the old colleges must also include egalitarianism. God, St. Thomas Aquinas argued, did not create equality, which may explain why it is so difficult for us to do so. When all students must be educated in the same way, education will consist of what all can learn, and since the powers of mankind are various, education will, to the degree that the ideal is enforced, consist of what the least talented can learn. Education, properly represented, should offer the best to the best; or, following the advice of Mortimer Adler, the college may offer the best to everyone, allowing each to learn what he can, but when the college takes this path, it accepts the proposition that not all will succeed.

Success in the classical curriculum represented real achievement and required application as well as intellect. One would be mistaken, when reviewing the curriculum of 1820, in assuming that everybody had mastered at the same high level everything in Dalzell’s Graeca Majora, that great anthology of Greek texts that ran from the pre-Socratics to Pausanias, or all of Terence and Horace. But he had learned something of the best.

The purpose of the classical curriculum was as much to make collegians Greeks and Romans as it was to make them great classicists, and, in the process, to make them men of virtue and, yes, Christians. At their core, Europe and her colonial dependencies are Vergil, Homer, and the Bible; a literature told in two languages that, until recently, lay just beneath the surface of our speech. Newman, in an inspired essay titled “Christianity and Letters,” pointed out that Europe was Europe because it possessed a story, a literature, and a philosophy. Cicero had been in schoolboys’ satchels in the reign of Augustus, and he was still there when Newman wrote his Idea of a University in defense of the kind of study that made young men citizens of a common civilization stretching from Plato to the Oxford Colleges he had known in the early 1820’s. T.S. Eliot, in his 1942 essay The Classics and the Man of Letters, wrote, “The culture of Europe, such as it is, is a Christian culture; and conversely, the traditional religious faith of Europe, including Britain, cannot preserve its intellectual vigor unless a high standard of Greek and Latin scholarship is maintained among its teachers.” Musing in the afterglow of Allied victory in 1945, Winston Churchill remarked to his physician. Lord Moran, that great things had disappeared during his lifetime. One was classical learning; Men no longer study the classics, Churchill noted, adding, “It was an advantage when there was one common discipline and every nation studied the doings of two states. Now, they learn how to mend motor cars.”

Of all the differences between the old college and the new, the most obvious is the absence of Jesus Christ from the presuppositions that underlie academic life. Thomas Arnold, the emblematic English schoolmaster, saw his purpose as the cure of souls. His aim was not an institution in which Christianity was the subject of the curriculum, but one in which Christianity was the context for learning. Where Christ cannot be named, theology cannot be taught, and philosophy, which leads the intellect into that borderland beyond which he answers that can only be given by God, becomes rationalistic, then relativistic, and ultimately damaging.

These were the forces that undid collegiate learning. The colleges changed because the culture changed, and the culture changed because the colleges changed. The attempt to discover causal priority is unrewarding. But the only way to have another kind of culture is to have another kind of college. Book clubs may help, and the Church itself may carry in its sacred rhetoric memories of the great tradition, but what is required is a seminary for the reawakening of another kind of culture, another kind of college, one in which God is honored as the source of truth and students are made citizens of the great civilization that began in Sinai and Athens. Such colleges must inevitably, for the time being, be countercultural in the sense in which the 1960’s revolutionaries, then already a kind of incipient establishment, merely pretended to be. These new colleges will be located at the periphery of cosmopolitan postmodernity. They will be staffed by men and women who see themselves as missionaries of the great tradition, and who will bear gladly the modest hardships of such missions. Wherever they are found—and sometimes they are within the walls of the regnant culture’s universities—these are the unlikely monastics of the 21st century, keeping alight the flame of learning amidst the bright darkness of the secular city. They are responsible not only for maintaining the great tradition but for enlarging it by incorporating the literature of the greatest intellectual event of modernity: the Catholic revival begun in the mid-19th century by Newman, Migne, and Leo XIII, which produced such rare spirits as Eliot, Flannery O’Connor, Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Allen Tate, Maurice Baring, G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walker Percy—the list goes on.

To hope that these colleges, if they are loyal to Christ and to Vergil, will be enthusiastically nurtured by the culture of our age is an illusion. Their secondary purposes are the first items in the list of parents’ goals: Getting along, knowing others from diverse backgrounds, problem solving, and the rest. But this commonality of purpose makes the countercultural college a marginal member of the American collegiate enterprise. They—we—will do well to live quietly, thereby escaping (at least for the time being) the toils of compulsory diversity and toleration. And if their real purpose—the reading of the great tradition in the light of Christ—becomes obvious and the colleges must forego the approval of the citizens of the secular city, these little commonwealths will still enjoy the approval of that more significant political culture: the City of God.