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Higher Education: Excellence Without a Soul

Michael Craven | Center for Christ & Culture | Updated: Sep 15, 2008

Higher Education: Excellence Without a Soul

Another school year has begun and an estimated 15 million young men and women will be pursuing studies at the college and university levels. However, this may not be as beneficial as we have historically believed higher education to be.

C. S. Lewis wrote, “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” This point was echoed two years ago in a Dallas Morning News article under the apt heading, “All Brains, No Soul” (August, 20, 2006). The author, Thomas Hibbs, a philosopher and dean of the Honors College at Baylor University begins by quoting Plato’s Apology, in which Plato, quoting Socrates’ defense of himself at trial, says:

You are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?

Hibbs makes the point that we Americans are becoming like the Athenians Socrates is addressing, especially when it comes to the object and aim of higher education today.

Few today attend university for the purpose of gaining wisdom or giving care to the state of their souls. Instead, the emphasis is upon obtaining a degree that, it is believed, will insure material success. In fact, the whole emphasis of higher education today seems to be of an instrumental nature: a means to an end and not an end in itself. And, sadly, even many Christians view education in the same way.

W. E. B. DuBois, the most prominent intellectual leader and political activist on behalf of African-Americans in the first half of the twentieth century, writing on the goal of higher education said, “The final product of our training must neither be a psychologist nor a brickmason, but a man. And to make men, we must have ideals, broad, pure and inspiring ends of living—not sordid money getting, not apples of gold” (The Souls of Black Folk
, 1903).

Unfortunately, these loftier goals are getting lost in the scramble for prestige and six-figure incomes. William H. Willimon, former professor and dean at Duke University, shares his observations at Duke’s school of business:

For several years, students …were asked to write a personal strategic plan for the ten-year period after their graduation …With few exceptions, they wanted three things—money, power, and things … Primarily concerned with their careers and the growth of their financial portfolios, their personal plans contained little room for family, intellectual development, spiritual growth, or social responsibility (William H. Willimon and Thomas H. Naylor, The Abandoned Generation: Rethinking Higher Education, [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995]).

By exchanging the nobler virtues for consumer-driven ends, the American university has become a setting for debauchery and hedonism virtually unparalleled.

A Rolling Stone magazine article, following the Duke Lacrosse team scandal, offers chilling insight into the depraved culture prevalent on university campuses today. Rolling Stone reports that “Sex at Duke is a sport most students participate in, on some level or another.” It goes on that “the vagaries of sex on campus have created a specific ‘hookup culture’ … As one male student describes it, it ‘exists in a whirlwind of drunkenness and horniness that lacks definition—which is what everyone likes about it [because] it’s just an environment of craziness and you don’t have to worry about it until the next morning’” (Janet Reitman, “Sex Scandal at Duke,” Rolling Stone, June 2006).

The article went on to describe an emerging attitude among young women in which they view and enthusiastically embrace this sexual anarchy as a form of liberation in which they are able to subjugate themselves to all manner of sexual debauchery in the name of unencumbered choice. There is no romance, no emotion—just pure animalistic behavior. One young woman even recognized the condition when she said, “Girls reduce themselves a lot here in order to be able to have the sexual freedom that I think they don’t have by doing that,” but she indicated little or no inclination to counter this pressure. Another young woman is quoted as saying “I’ve never been asked out on a date in my entire life—not once.” Nor has a guy ever bought her a drink, according to the author. “I think that if anybody ever did that, I would ask him if he were on drugs.” Rather, the article’s author adds, “there’s the casual one-night stand, usually bolstered by heavy drinking and followed the next morning by—well, nothing, usually” (Ibid.).

The culture presented here—in which students are obsessed with style, acceptance and pleasure—comes eerily close to the Athenians described by Socrates. While many students are still driven to excel academically, it is mainly for the purpose of achieving their material ends. However, in the absence of real wisdom and higher virtues, what we are left with is increasing generations of morally indifferent and intellectually vacuous men and women incapable of true greatness. 

Hibbs’ article cites numerous examples demonstrating this culture is not exclusive to Duke University but in fact typical of most—a fact often unknown to most parents and ignored by school administrators.

I am not suggesting that these students experience some radical transformation of values upon stepping onto the college campus. These values are generally already present—or perhaps more accurately, the moral convictions that enable them to withstand the moral pressures confronting them are simply not there. College only provides the opportunity in which such students can express their personal virtue, or lack thereof, in the absence of parental supervision.

Parents must adequately prepare their children to enter such a hostile moral environment and promote the true object of education: the cultivation of wisdom and virtue that honors God, to learn what it means to be human and to open our hearts and minds to the best that has been written and imagined. This was the purpose of a classical education and it still offers a foundation from which we may recover a right knowledge of the true, the good, and the beautiful.

© 2008 by S. Michael Craven, (An earlier version of this article appeared in September of 2006.)

My latest booklet, The Christian Mind illuminates the biblical worldview of education much more thoroughly. Order your copy HERE for only $5.00

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S. Michael Craven is the founder and President of the Center for Christ & Culture. Michael is the author of Uncompromised Faith, published by Navpress and scheduled for release January 2009. Michael's ministry is dedicated to renewal within the Church and works to equip Christians with an intelligent and thoroughly Christian approach to matters of culture in order to demonstrate the relevance of Christianity to all of life. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit:

Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.

Higher Education: Excellence Without a Soul