Recently I had the privilege of coming across an old blog post by J. Budziszewski on “What’s Wrong with Universities?”:
[Conservatives] are right about the need for [academic] reform, but they are mistaken about what kind of reform is needed. And they are utterly confused in thinking that the problem is that universities are “still tied to medieval origins.”
Medieval students had to master seven elementary studies before going on to advanced degrees. The first three, called the trivium, were grammar, or the laws of language; rhetoric, or the laws of argument; and dialectic, or the laws of clear thought. The next four, called the quadrivium, were arithmetic, or the laws of number; geometry, or the laws of figure; music, or the laws of harmony; and astronomy, or the laws of inherent motion.
Why these seven? Because medieval universities were organized around the view that the universe makes sense, that knowledge is grasping that sense, that the mind can really grasp it, that all knowledge is related, and that all of its parts form a meaningful whole.
By contrast, our universities are organized around – what? Actually, they aren’t universities at all, because they have given up their vision, the coherence of universal reality and its friendliness to the rational mind. . . .
This is not the sort of problem which can be solved by cost-savings, team-teaching, or distance learning. Such solutions are merely economic. The problem is spiritual.
J. Budziszevski’s point came back to my mind when reading a few recent arguments on the state of marriage in America. The first comes from a post by Justin Taylor of The Gospel Coalition, which attributes our current problem to “de-condensation”. Quoting Sarah Perry, he states, in the past, “time, artifacts, institutions, and even people are more condensed”; however, in this year of our Lord 2019:
Almost every technological advance is a de-condensation:
it abstracts a particular function away from an object, a person, or an institution, and allows it to grow separately from all the things it used to be connected to.
Writing de-condenses communication: communication can now take place abstracted from face-to-face speech.
First off, the idea of “de-condensation” makes little sense to a social scientist like myself. Does writing count as an instance of “de-condensation”? If so, is there anything wrong with abstracting the function of thought away from direct communication? Does technological advance always result in this process of abstraction?
It would seem that the example of markets might help us: “Markets de-condense production and consumption”. But that’s simply not true. The market was understood for most of human history as a meeting place for buyers and sellers. It’s also important to note that the market as understood in economics is a process, not a place or institution (though it might rely on extra-economics institutions to function).
Justin Taylor goes on his post to turn to Alastair Robert’s thoughts on marriage and “de-condensation”:
Marriage traditionally functioned as a socially integrating institution and has been regarded as sacred or holy by many societies as a result, right down to the present. . . . The power of marriage and family as an institution arose in large measure from the vast array of functions that were condensed within it: provision, security, welfare, healthcare, education, investment, employment, public representation, community, religious practice, etc., etc. However, over the last few centuries marriage has been radically de-condensed, many of its former functions outsourced to other institutions or drastically reduced through new technologies. Whereas marriage was once a deeply meaningful necessity for people’s physical and social survival, now it is steadily reduced to a realm of sentimental community. Without the force of necessity holding people together, the deeper integrating goods that marriage once represented are harder to perceive and its meaning is drastically diminished. Marriage becomes much weaker as an institution.
Marriage once powerfully represented the condense and integrated meaning of human sexuality, a deep mystery of the union of man and woman, the wonder of the other sex and the deeper reality of our own, the most fundamental common project of all human society, the union of our most animal of drives with the highest of our ideals, the connection between our bodies and our deepest selves, the significance of the loving and committed sexual bond as the site where the gift of new life is welcomed into the world, the difference between human making and human begetting, the miracle of the development of new life, the wondrous natural blossoming of private sexual unions into public families, a bond that stretches over generations, the deep union of blood, the interplay and union of the sexes in all areas of human life and society, the maturation of man and woman together and in union through all of the seasons of their lives, until they cross the threshold of death.
This meaning hasn’t entirely disappeared, but it is fast fading. Through many and various developments, the meaning of marriage in relation to human sexuality has been slowly eroded. Human sexuality is being de-condensed. Contraception and prophylactics separate sexual relations from procreative potential and reduce the need for discriminating choice of partners, reducing sex to primarily genital stimulation. Porn offers to satisfy our unruly lusts, compartmentalizing our sexuality. Reproductive technology separates procreation from sexual congress. It abstracts bodily material from persons and biological parenthood from social parenthood. Surrogacy abstracts child-bearing from motherhood. The coming together of bodies is no longer presumed to necessitate a uniting of selves. Sexual reassignment surgery and hormone replacement therapy reinforce the abstraction of one’s gender from one’s natural bodily sex. Social science de-condenses the function of ‘parenting’ from the condense reality of being a mother or father.
I don’t know if any serious scholar would disagree with the sketch given above, but I’m not quite sure “de-condensation” is the boogeyman these bloggers present it to be. Allan Carlson has noted some of the blessings bestowed on family life by the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, “children were also routinely beaten and sexually abused”, and “[i]nfanticide of a more deliberate sort was also practiced”. However, after “a counter-culture began to take shape” whose “earliest expressions could befound in art”, which led to ” the breakthrough and cultural victory of these revolutionary new human sentiments — conjugal family bonds, maternal love, and domesticity”. Carlson concludes that “it unlikely that either the modern family or the free enterprise system could long survive the demise of the other”.
The point I wish to make clear is that if we believe “de-condensation” is the problem, it didn’t arise in the Industrial Revolution or the rise of classical liberal thought. The origins of our problems have to be sought in more recent years, such as the demise of the family wage in the 1960’s, the deterioration of social conditions favorable to family formation, or the failure of leaders in the Evangelical church to prepare adolescents to change from bobby socks to stockings. It’s also not clear that market-oriented solutions to the modern problem of marriage and families will make things better, either. Such experimental policies were tried in Finland and failed.
So what’s behind our crisis in marriage and inability to fix it? I believe it’s a spiritual problem attributable to three ideologies which arose during the Sexual Revolution — the Divorce Ideology, the Contraceptive Ideology, and the Gender Ideology. None of these beliefs can be sustained in a natural social order, and thus need the support of the state to support their existence. We might call this the Sexual State, and we need to understand it and where it came from. Most importantly, we need to understand that “man does not live by bread alone” and requires spiritual goals to give direction to his actions.
Tu ne cede malis, sed contra audentior ito.