Today we hear much about what is wrong with American academia.
But three American lives tell us much of what is right about its heritage.
I was reflecting on them as I returned from a three-week stay at Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville, NY, near Cooperstown. There I woke up most days to start at 4 a.m. helping the serving Priest (Fr. Anatoly, Fr. Cyprian, Fr. Seraphim, or Fr. Theophylact) prepare for the early morning Divine Liturgy, beginning our entrance prayers together by candlelight in the darkness of the beautiful and historic Cathedral. The saints surrounded us in iconography, and the dedicated figures of the priest-monks spoke to the centrality of the daily liturgical cycle. It is hard there not to feel at moments the presence of angels during the services.
Returning to a different temporality at the start of my university’s semester, I reflected on a different kind of educational dedication, evidenced in a pluralistic secular world of modern American education, with its roots in Christian faith. Three graduates of our university illustrated in their lives that dedication to the best of the liberal arts in the modern world, springing from the seven liberal arts developed in Late Antique Christian culture of the “Hellenic-Christian synthesis” at Constantinople and elsewhere, whose ripple effects long after reached places like our campus in northern Appalachia, which was originally a Baptist college when founded in 1846.
Here are the three examples, very briefly presented:
—Andrew Gregg Tucker, Class of 1862, whose grave near campus is pictured below, gave his life at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 supporting the American Republic’s ideals of liberty and justice in what Abraham Lincoln at the battlefield a few months later called “this nation under God.”
—The Rev. Edward McKnight Brawley, Class of 1875 (M.A. 1878), founded institutions of higher learning exemplifying a positive relation between faith and liberal arts education, as a pioneering African-American educator and Baptist clergyman in the era after the Civil War.
—George Henry Ramer, Class of 1950, who as a U.S. Marine gave his life in the Korean War resisting Communist totalitarian oppression, and received posthumously the Congressional Medal of Honor. He died helping his unit members survive in the middle of combat.
There are many problems and flaws with the history of American higher education — notably in recent times the large-scale adoption nationally of forms of cultural Marxism by many American academics as their educational compass, ideologies seeking to erase the cultural Christianity that nurtured the liberal arts while promoting systems that ultimate in a materialistic will-to-power obscuring the tradition. But the lives of the three figures above should inspire us to remember the greatness of the legacy of the liberal arts even in modern America, and to recommit ourselves to the difficult task of preserving, renewing, and handing on that tradition, amid all our current challenges in the mid-twenty-first century.