In the Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes repeatedly expressed concerns that the Church and the University had the potential to undermine the sovereign’s authority. When I first read that passage as a naive college student, I saw no reason to challenge Hobbes’ position regarding the subversiveness of the University. After all, I thought that the University was home to many massive protests and it seemed obvious to me that the primary purpose of institutions of higher learning was to promote critical thinking.
Yet, I did not quite understand why Hobbes thought that the Church could be equally subversive. I was confounded by that bizarre assertion because the Church appeared to have the opposite influence upon young people from that of the University. Instead of promoting critical thinking, it encouraged its patrons to adhere to a religious dogma and instead of participating in protests, it promoted obedience to authority. Then, sobering realization dawned upon me: I’ve thoroughly misunderstood that passage from the Leviathan.
Hobbes was not saying that the University was potentially seditious because it promoted critical and independent thinking. In fact, he was saying the exact opposite: the University undermined the authority of the State in nearly exactly the same way the Church did. In the “Origins of Political Order“, Francis Fukuyama documented how the political power of the Catholic Church diminished the strength of the centralized governments across Western Europe. By contrast, the Orthodox Church of Russia enjoyed considerably less power and for that reason, the Tsars were able to govern with an iron-fist. He documented a similar contrast between the deeply religious medieval India that lacked a strong centralized government and the relatively secular China that has been deeply authoritarian for most of its history.
Hobbes’ point was that similarly to the Sovereign, the University and the Church had tremendous potential to inspire unconditional obedience to their authority. In so doing, they can persuade their followers to developer deeper loyalties to institutions of religious practice or “higher learning” than to the government. Unlike mere craftsmen and ordinary people who serve to provide practical benefits for others in exchange for monetary rewards, the Church and the University claim that they serve a higher purpose in society. The former generally maintains that they help people obtain salvation, find meaning in life and throughout the epochs, it has been nothing short of the vanguard of public morality. In the deeply religious Europe, it was often presumed that it was impossible for one to be moral without being religious. However, in the secular Westernized society, the average citizen clearly adheres to a different set of values more akin to those espoused by the University. Such values include participating in a democracy by voting or protesting, thinking for oneself and serving the public good. While these ideals sound great on paper, the University has only been as effective at compelling people to abide by them as the Catholic Church has been at the prequel to the Protestant Reformation.
In light of the fundamental changes to the Western collective consciousness, the University wields far greater moral authority than the Church. The traditional Christian values are often seen as antiquated, parochial and altogether out of tune with the sensibilities of the modern society. By contrast, the University emerged as the bastion of forward looking values where all sorts of causes for social justices are championed. Thus, Hobbes’ insight is quite relevant today because the University remains a politically active institution. Although most protesters on college campuses believe that their actions are driven only by their independent thought, they’ve been more influenced by the culture of the University than they realize. This becomes apparent in light of the fact that most students struggle to form coherent arguments in defense of their position. We all know it, only a few students are critical thinkers and even fewer base their political attitudes on facts or defensible rationales.
I think we should seriously consider the idea that the University indoctrinates students just as much as the Church used to and Hobbes’ wariness of the University was quite justified. Today, his fears are becoming a reality as the University poses a more formidable challenge to the U.S government than the Church did to the governments of medieval Europe. At the outset, this seems like a good thing because the government’s power must be challenged as otherwise it becomes corrupt and oppressive.
The problem is, however, the Church and the University are not immune to this problem. The Catholic Church compromised its integrity at the heyday of the sales of the indulgences and we’re beginning to see a similar problem with the modern Academia. Rampant grade inflation and the proliferation of online degree mills likens the process of acquiring a degree to that of paying priests to reserve one’s place in heaven. Similarly to the Catholic Church, the University promises its students extraordinary results such as “the joys of the life of the mind” and superior employment prospects, yet they rarely honor these promises. Only graduates with a small number of highly marketable degrees tend to reap the full rewards of a college education while the majority of their peers get buried deep in debt. As for the life of the mind, I can only refer you to William Pannapacker.