You speak of the “bane of assessment”, the foolishness of supposing that knowledge is a matter of facts and skills that can be measured statistically and recorded on charts and graphs.

Guénon would presumably have considered this one more “sign of the times”, yet another symptom of the “reign of quantity”. He’s speaking in what follows of “the state of mind of persons who look for the whole of reality in ‘becoming'”, but the antecedent of his initial pronoun might as well be “assessment” or “outcomes based education”:

“It amounts to the negation of all real knowledge whatsoever, even of a relative kind, since the relative is meaningless and impossible without the absolute, the contingent without the necessary, change without the unchanging, and multiplicity without unity” (The Crisis of the Modern World).

I agree, of course, that assessment is a serious ill plaguing contemporary higher education, though perhaps not the worst of its ills. Earlier this month I was asked to give the keynote at my university’s doctoral hooding ceremony, and I used the occasion—with the president, provost, and assorted deans on the stage behind me—to poke a little fun at this foolishness. Needless to say, it deserves a considerably harsher critique, but one does what one can in such a context. Better the gentle and elusive mocking, sometimes, than the outright attack. Here, if you’re interested, are my remarks on that occasion:

It’s a pleasure and privilege to be asked to speak to so erudite an audience on so joyful an occasion, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. This is the second time this academic year I’ve had the honor of addressing Carolina students during an important rite of passage. Last August I was invited to give the keynote at the opening Convocation as we welcomed the newest members of the University’s family to campus, and now I find myself at the opposite end of the educational spectrum as we bid farewell to our most seasoned scholars. My words at the beginning of the year were meant to inspire and exhort. Today I congratulate, offering my very best wishes to all of you: the newly minted doctors, of course, but also your families, friends, and mentors. I congratulate, but I also feel the need to expostulate. Here’s why.

A couple weeks ago my wife and I had a visit from some friends from Germany, a fellow academic and his wife, and during the course of their stay I mentioned that I would soon be speaking at my university’s doctoral hooding ceremony. The man, a recently retired professor of music in Düsseldorf, smiled somewhat ruefully as he recalled the German Student Movement of 1968. It seems that protests against the perceived conservatism of the academic establishment during that tumultuous time had included stripping the hoods from the gowns of hapless professors as they made their way toward their lecterns, while the students ominously chanted the slogan Unter den Talaren, Muff von 1000 Jahren: “Beneath the gowns, the musty odor of a thousand years!” The upshot, he said, was that German universities dropped the hooding phase from their doctoral graduation ceremonies, and in fact many discontinued using academic regalia altogether.

Well, I don’t know how musty you may be feeling this afternoon. But my friend’s recollections have led me to ponder the significance of what we’re up to today at a deeper level than I ever had before.

As you probably know, the academic hood has its origin in the cowl of the medieval Christian monk, the first universities in Europe having grown out of earlier monastic and cathedral schools. Unlike this colorful bit of cloth dangling over my shoulders, cowls served a thoroughly practical purpose, keeping their wearers warm during the long winter hours they spent chanting the office in drafty and unheated churches. The cowl was bestowed on novices in a special ceremony in which they made their solemn vows, committing themselves to a life of prayer and promising to uphold the discipline of their religious order, even as the hood will soon be bestowed on the new doctors in the audience as they in turn commit themselves to a life of teaching, research, and administration, upholding the scholarly standards of their respective disciplines.

I was aware of this slice of history already, but hearing about the student protests of the late ’60s in Germany got me thinking. Why do we academics continue donning and bestowing hoods anyway? We’re not monks, after all, or at least most of us aren’t, and our buildings are heated in the winter, the current level of state appropriations for higher education notwithstanding! What’s the logic in having a hood that no one actually employs as a hood and that very few ever wear except on fancy occasions like this? Why not follow the revolutionary German precedent, even if for non-revolutionary reasons, and do away with this vestigial piece of fabric? Mind you, I’m not myself advocating this break with tradition. On the contrary, I yield to no one in my love of pomp and circumstance, and empathize completely with the Chinese sage Confucius, who once defended the ritual sacrifice of sheep by telling someone who objected to it, “You love the sheep, but I love the ceremony” (Analects 3.17). Nonetheless I do wonder why, especially here in this country—an ocean away from the “mustiness” of Bologna, Paris, and Oxford—the custom of doctoral hooding has held on for so long. What’s the sense of it?

I can imagine one response to this question. There’s no sense to it, the cynic will say, but neither—he will add—is there any sense in much of modern higher education, and that’s precisely the point of the hood’s continued use! In publicly donning a garment which is so far from serving its original purpose that we’re obliged to wear these silly hats in ironical compensation, we academics perform an important if somewhat comic role. We stand as emblems of the numerous antinomies lying at the heart of the contemporary university, an institution which still claims to be a portal to self-knowledge and the examined life while at the same time functioning as a large and often unwieldy business enterprise. Decked out for occasions like this, says the cynic, we’re visible reminders of what happens when (for example) we treat a student’s grasp of King Lear or the Symphony No. 9 in D Minor or The Second Treatise of Civil Government—or, for that matter, the Second Law of Thermodynamics—as if it were a measurable “learning outcome”.

I myself am no cynic, however, or not at least when I’m not involved in assessment! While I certainly see these various levels of irony, both sartorial and otherwise, I prefer to look upon this pseudo-cowl of mine in much the same way as I look upon my pseudo-degree designation, as a superficial deception masking a deeper and altogether positive truth. I’m reminded of a Zen Buddhist saying: “Even false words are true if they lead to enlightenment; even true words are false if they breed attachment.” True enough, the garment affixed round my neck isn’t really a hood, or not at least a certain kind of hood, one that protects from the weather. But so what? The Ph.D. that’s affixed to my name isn’t really a Ph.D. either. I’m a Doctor, for sure—that’s just Latin for “teacher”—but I’m not a Philosophiae Doctor, not in other words a teacher “of philosophy”, or rather not a certain kind of philosophy, the kind which consists in sorting through types of argument and in using terms like modus tollens.

But again I say, so what? At a deeper, etymological level, philosophy is significantly more than inferential analysis, even as a doctoral hood is something more than a warmer for ears. Coined by the ancient Greek Pythagoras, who was as much a mathematician and physicist as he was a philosopher in our modern, departmental sense of the word, the term “philosophy” is rooted in the philia, or love, of sophia, or wisdom; and wisdom (howsoever you might choose to define it) is a virtue over which no single academic discipline could ever claim a monopoly. Everyone who wants to know what is so and to live accordingly is a philosopher, whether his degree is in anthropology or zoology or anything else in between; and anyone who evinces his love for such knowledge in a way that elicits a similar love in other people is a teacher of philosophy, whether he’s an administrator or researcher or anything else in between, and whether (I might add) his name is followed by Ph.D., Ed.D., D.N.P., D.M.A., Dr. P.H., or no suffix at all.

No suffix at all? Wait just a minute. Is that where this is all going to end? We’ve labored hard for these abbreviations, you may be thinking, and was it only to be told now that it doesn’t make any difference? Those German students stripped their professors of a piece of extraneous cloth, but this professor now proposes to strip us students of our very degrees. Well, hardly! If that is what you’re thinking, you couldn’t be more mistaken. I assure you, quite the contrary, that thirty-some years have in no way dimmed my own delectable memories of the goal you’ve arrived at today, and I’m happy to congratulate you all very heartily for the tenacious intelligence and intelligent tenacity that have brought you to the pinnacle of student accomplishment in your several fields. Nevertheless, as I bring these remarks to a close, I certainly would like to strip us all of the notion that being a Doctor is somehow dependent on a smattering of letters and periods. Surely there’s more to being a teacher, whether professionally or incidentally, than a simple suffix, even as there was (and is) more to being a monk than one’s headgear.

If only the hoodless hoodings we’re about to witness would draw our minds and hearts back to the ancient Greek roots of our true vocation, a vocation we share fundamentally with all human beings, then the seeming duplicity of this ceremonial bestowal will have served, after all, a very practical purpose.