Some Thoughts on the University


Recently, Alex defined his understanding of liberaleducation and argued for the place of economics among the liberal arts. I want to continue this focus by considering the idea of the university and its role in defining and continuing the liberal arts. To borrow a phrase, I want to talk about education and the institutions in which education takes place.

If a liberal education served as the universal system of higher education, then the role of the university was the transmission of the knowledge necessary for such an education. In his defense of liberal education, Cardinal John Henry Newman adopts this fact as the motivating characteristic of the university and notes that the object of its deliberation is the student and not the advancement of the sciences. Alex’s previous posts bring to our consideration a type of higher education system focused on knowledge for its own sake which leads by happy coincidence to the growth of the student. Cardinal Newman agrees:
“Certainly a liberal education does manifest itself in a courtesy, propriety, and polish of word and action, which is beautiful in itself, and acceptable to others; but it does much more. It brings the mind into form,—for the mind is like the body. Boys outgrow their shape and their strength; their limbs have to be knit together, and their constitution needs tone. Mistaking animal spirits for vigour, and overconfident in their health, ignorant what they can bear and how to manage themselves, they are immoderate and extravagant; and fall into sharp sicknesses. . . . When the intellect has once been properly trained and formed to have a connected view or grasp of things, it will display its powers with more or less effect according {xviii} to its particular quality and capacity in the individual. In the case of most men it makes itself felt in the good sense, sobriety of thought, reasonableness, candour, self-command, and steadiness of view, which characterize it. In some it will have developed habits of business, power of influencing others, and sagacity. In others it will elicit the talent of philosophical speculation, and lead the mind forward to eminence in this or that intellectual department. In all it will be a faculty of entering with comparative ease into any subject of thought, and of taking up with aptitude any science or profession.”
Liberal education fulfills its purpose by making the vicious undergrad into something more humane. 

However, as Robert Barnett recounts, the university never was a static thing and its role reflects more what we consider the good at any point rather than a universal ideal. As higher education has moved towards promoting excellence in types of competency and away from promoting excellence in types of persons, we have gained the ability to refer to the institutions in which education takes place, the universities, as liberal or something else. The existence of liberal art/humanities colleges within universities, when viewed through this lens, become an oddity. Even self-identified liberal arts universities compartmentalize the study of the person and the evolution of social knowledge and growth into a specific competency to be mastered rather than its original purpose, an endeavor through which one matures. It becomes possible for technical competency to come into conflict with social knowledge. The process of institutional differentiation at once makes choices of enrollment into choices of system (to borrow Smithian language) and the adoption of the associated priorities and virtues identified with each type of university.

What is lost by the atomization of the university? The primary purpose of a “complete” education, a liberal education, is the ability to understand how all the disciplines interact and produce a deeper understanding of reality. This completeness is the foundation of wisdom, an understanding of the whole. Of course, for there to be a complete education, there must be an ordering principle around which we can focus the mind. Consider this example from Alasdair MacIntyre:
"What is true of history and physics in contemporary American universities is also true of theology and philosophy. They too have become almost exclusively specialized and professionalized disciplines. To whom then in such a university falls the task of integrating the various disciplines, of considering the bearing of each on the others, and of asking how each contributes to the overall understanding of the nature and order of things? The answer is “No one,” but even this answer is misleading. For there is no sense in the contemporary American university that there is such a task, that something that matters is being left undone. And so the very notion of the nature and order of things, of a single universe, different aspects of which are objects of enquiry for the various disciplines, but in such a way that each aspect needs to be related to every other, this notion no longer informs the enterprise of the contemporary American university. It has become an irrelevant concept. . . . Consider by contrast the Marxist universities of the Soviet Union or of Communist Eastern Europe between 1917 and 1991 and put aside for a moment the issues raised by their corruption by the pseudo-Marxism of Stalinist and post-Stalinist state power. They were of course atheistic and anti-theistic universities, but their atheism was not something merely negative, a denial of God’s existence. It was a consequence of the dialectical and historical materialist understanding of the nature of things that provided them with a framework within which each of the academic disciplines could find its due place. So physics, history, and economics were all taught in a way that made their mutual relevance clear, and Marxist philosophy was assigned the tasks both of spelling out this relevance in contemporary terms and of explaining how the philosophies of the past had failed, just because they were the ideologically distorted expressions of class societies.”

What if MacIntyre is wrong and there is nothing “being left undone?” Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case:


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