Humanistic education has been judged by a troubled world to be no better than the world. Riddled with chaos, inhumanity, moral impotence, and intellectual charlatanism, higher education has increasingly been subjected to adverse and even abusive criticism. And evasive as he might wish to be, or as loyal to flags, the Christian scholar and educator in the 1970s cannot escape as a context for his own enterprise the difficulties—and the apparent impotence—of secular humanism.

The first line of evidence marshalled against humanistic education has simply been the desperate persistence of a will to do evil, to destroy others and to destroy oneself. The anguished uncertainty of the Rhodes-scholar officer in Viet Nam (or of the whole American people) and the rationalized ambivalence of the beautifully educated Watergate convicts reflect a rationalization and loss of meaning that George Steiner, in the T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures for 1970, finds most extravagantly exemplified in the holocaust of World War II. The terrible separation of idea from action, art from life, that allowed German soliders, fresh from their Brahms and Mahler, to force men, women, and children into the gas chambers signifies a moral disease that still grows like a choking vine around the frail bloom of educational endeavor.

As Steiner rightly pointed out, this humanistic disorder has roots that extend deep into our cultural memory. However, they go back not merely to the romantic formulations of such eighteenth-century idealists as Fichte and Schiller, as Steiner suggested, but much earlier.

In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan couches his temptation of Eve in the most seductive intellectual terms. The preface to this tempting, however, is ...

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