This article first appeared in the Viewpoint column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 45, number 2/3 (2022). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Although his Divine Comedy takes place in the year 1300, Dante did not begin to write it until several years later. This time lag allowed Dante to put into the mouths of several of his sinners and saints dark prophecies that confuse Dante the character when he hears them but which Dante the poet knows will come true in the year 1301. Those prophecies warn of Dante’s coming exile from his beloved Florence, which would begin in 1301 and last until his death two decades later.
Forewarned Is Forearmed. Forgive me for beginning an essay directed toward high school graduates on their way to college on such a grim note, but the fact is that most universities today have become as forbidding as the Dark Wood of Error that Dante wakes to find himself in before he begins his epic journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise. Either founded upon or swiftly accommodating themselves to an increasingly radicalized postmodern worldview, American colleges and universities — a disturbing number of which claim to be Christian — have abdicated their responsibility to train students in virtue and to measure what they teach against cultural standards of goodness, truth, and beauty.
Still, there is hope. Forewarned by the prophecies he hears in all three stages of his journey, Dante the character is able to forearm himself for what is to come and keep his eyes fixed on his true and secure citizenship in the Kingdom of God. Just so, college-bound students who forearm themselves against the philosophical presuppositions and political agendas that undergird much of higher education today and who keep their eyes fixed on the true wisdom that is from above can survive and thrive in the university.
Here are some dos and don’ts to forearm the college-bound Christian.
Don’t Adopt an Attitude of Entitlement. The poisonous attitude of entitlement has come to infect not only secular Americans but Christians, as well. Too often believers are just as quick as non-believers to demand that their desires, special needs, and idiosyncrasies be catered to by parents, teachers, government leaders, and even ministers. This problem, already bad in 2020, has been exacerbated by two years of pandemic quarantine. More and more students today, with the support of their parents, expect teachers to supply them with a video of, or detailed notes for, a class that they willfully skipped because they had something else to do.
I call this attitude poisonous, but cancerous might be a better word to describe the ethos of entitlement: one that affects people at an almost cellular level, slowly transforming them from disciples willing to learn into consumers demanding a product on their own terms. Conservative Christians have stood boldly against the presuppositions of postmodernism, but they have too quickly jumped on the consumerist bandwagon.
Be Grateful for the Opportunity You Have to Study. If you would fortify yourself against the victimization narrative that undergirds so much of postmodern thought, then you must begin by letting go of your own demands for special treatment. Entitlement breeds resentment and resentment crushes gratitude. If you are not grateful for the opportunity to attend college, then you will fall for every progressive agenda that plays on the raw nerve of your resentment.
If, however, you enter college with a spirit of gratitude, and you maintain that spirit for four years, you will find that your heart, soul, and mind will be more receptive to learning what is good, true, and beautiful in the humanities and sciences. And you will learn such things despite the progressive twist that many of your professors will put on the subjects they teach. The entitled heart judges what it reads against its own bitter, self-centered emotions; the grateful heart receives what is offered it in a spirit that is open, joyous, and teachable.
Don’t Become a Cynic. The ethos of entitlement is the foe of true learning, but there is something even worse, something that kills it dead in its tracks: cynicism. Beware of fellow students or professors who would coax you into believing that wisdom and skepticism are synonymous. Avoid associating with mockers, naysayers, and scoffers. Do not allow yourself to see the world through the eyes of those who pride themselves on having “seen through” everything.
They are those who put themselves above the Great Books,1 who refuse to be “seduced” by them, to be “taken in” by their claims to embody truths of perennial, universal value. They are those who consider themselves to be “wised up,” who have found lurking in the Great Books, not goodness and beauty, but economic oppression, political power, and sexual repression. They do not enjoy the books; they use them.
Approach Knowledge with Wonder and Awe. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle believed that knowledge begins with wonder. As gratitude marks the polar opposite of entitled resentment, so wonder stands in perpetual enmity to smug cynicism. Let the books you study draw you out of yourself toward ideas and realities that transcend the narrow confines of our politics, economics, and technology. Rather than becoming someone who is proud to look down on all those “privileged” works and “oppressive” institutions that you have “seen through,” become a student who looks up at all those marvels, mysteries, and miracles that beckon you beyond cultural pride, prejudice, and parochialism.
Socrates famously claimed that his wisdom consisted in his knowledge that he knew very little. Socrates did not make this claim out of a sense of false humility but as an acknowledgment that there are more things in heaven and earth than we can grasp and that such a realization should breed in us humble awe rather than cynical disdain. If you begin your classes with bated breath, hungry for an encounter with virtue, meaning, and design, then you will be filled with a wisdom that builds up rather than puffs up.
Don’t Stand in Judgment Over the Past. Cynicism and entitlement generally go hand-in-hand with an unquestioned sense of superiority over the beliefs and achievements of our ancestors. If you approach your college education with that attitude, you will truly learn nothing. You will merely confirm the biases and intolerances that you brought with you.
The past is not a dead object to be studied dispassionately, but a living tradition to be dialogued with. Those whose orientation toward the Ancient Greco-Roman World or the Middle Ages is one of judgment and condescension insulate themselves from any real encounter with the struggles, heroes, and contributions of the ages that gave birth to Europe and America. They are those who have eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear (Matt. 13:16). They remain fixed in their progressive echo chamber no matter how many classical works they study.
Be Willing to Learn from the Past. You are not in college to cancel the past but to cancel your own ignorance about the past. The “dead-white-male” authors of the Great Books were not perfect, but then neither are we who live in the “enlightened” twenty-first century. It is true that we have overcome some of their weaknesses and sins, but we have also fallen away from many of their strengths and virtues.
Don’t waste time and energy measuring Virgil or Dante or Shakespeare or Milton against the current fashionable, contemporary standards. Be willing to learn at their feet and, for a time, to see the world through their eyes. Of course, you should not abandon your moral or intellectual discernment. Far from it! But you must stop listening to postmodern grievances for long enough to hear, really hear, what the authors are saying. The Great Books offer a distillation of the best that has been thought over the centuries. First learn to listen; then listen and learn!
The Historical Point of View. In the twenty-seventh letter of his Screwtape Letters (1942), C. S. Lewis has his senior devil, Screwtape, explain to his nephew, Wormwood, that if the humans of the present age really studied and learned from the humans of the past, they would be able to see through the devils’ temptations with ease. But no worry, Screwtape assures Wormwood, most humans don’t read old books and so lack the defense against temptation the books might have taught them.
Yes, there are those pesky academics who devote their lives to reading and studying the old books, but never fear! Those who read them are the last people in the world who can benefit from them. Why is that? Because the devils have carefully instilled in them the “historical point of view”: “when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true.”2
How to Resist It. Until you earnestly ask whether or not the books you read in college are true, you will be neither convicted nor challenged by them. As long as you hold them at arm’s length, as long as you treat them as artifacts to be weighed and sifted rather than as lathes against which to shape your beliefs and behaviors, they will leave you untouched and unchanged.
It is important to study facts about books: when and how they were written; who influenced them; who was influenced by them. But until you are willing to treat them as sources of wisdom to which you are accountable, they will remain as useless and inert as your postmodern education. —Louis Markos
Louis Markos, PhD, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his 23 books include The Myth Made Fact: Reading Greek and Roman Mythology through Christian Eyes (CAP, 2021), and From Plato to Christ: How Platonic Thought Shaped the Christian Faith (IVP, 2021).
- The Great Books, which have long formed the backbone of a liberal arts education, consist of time-tested works centered on universal issues and questions that all human beings must wrestle with. They include works by Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Shakespeare, Milton, Descartes, Pascal, Austen, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, and Eliot.
- C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, rev. ed. (1942; New York: Collier, 1982), 12