The Crisis in the 21st Century – I.II. Miseducation (Part III)
Has the world changed? Is the University more fittingly an institution which conforms to the whims of the world? Is there really any call for a universal knowledge, for a pursuit of objective truth – particularly at the cost of practical and professional skill? One could postulate that it has always been so, that the demand for a liberal education merely fit the times in which the world demanded philosophers, theologians, and an educated nobility or aristocracy. It may be true that the University has only met the world on the grounds determined by the latter; but as to whether or not that is fitting is another matter entirely; one which demands attention be paid not to the mutable, but the immutable; not the temporal, but the eternal. So far, these essays have looked at the University in terms of what it has been; now is the time to look at it in terms of what it ought to be, its essence and perfection.
Part of the rhetoric against traditionalism, conservatism, and orthodox Catholicism, is that the proponents of such desire to “go back in time”; the implication being that Progress is inevitable and has made obsolete the teaching and designs of that old, cryptic, Papal-Authoritarian order. The same goes for those who oppose the liberal arts, which are considered outdated, outmoded, and irrelevant to anything but the periods that asked for them; reinstalling them would be a regressive move. Of course, it is a myth that man gets better with time; that the quality of man can be gauged by the quality of his possessions. The University centered around the liberal arts has not been tried and found wanting; it has been tried and found too difficult for too many, and so abandoned.1 The University is not entirely unlike professional sports: some are better predisposed to it, some worker harder for it, and some are simply incapable of performing at that level. No one would have ever rooted for or against Barry Sanders had he not been a better running back than the average Joe on the street; why hold standards for a man’s physical performance and not his intellectual? A man cannot join a professional sports team without trial; and yet the vastly more complex workings of the mind go with a laughable parody of such scrutiny? There are standardized tests for athletes, things which they are all expected to do; but a man makes it into the best leagues for his extraordinary abilities, not his ordinary. The standards are not lowered, but raised; why is it the opposite with so-called higher education?
Ideally, the University evaluates a man’s intellect and attempts, if he is capable, to give him a hand up; for in contrast to the limits of the body, the intellect may continue to develop until the body expires entirely. Such development, of those for whom it is fitting, for those who not only meet the minimum standards but far exceed them (particularly as they stand now) is the purpose of the University. In the words of Blessed Cardinal Newman, the University:
“is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is, on the one hand, intellectual, not moral; and, on the other, that it is diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement.. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students; if religious training, I do not see how it can be the seat of literature and science.” 2
That is indeed the essence of the University: the imparting of knowledge (what Barzun calls “instruction”), not merely as a tool to be applied to some immediate purpose, to some job or task, but rather as an end in itself. For knowledge to be such an end in itself, it cannot be strictly limited or pinned down within one narrow topic. A man with extensive knowledge of naught but quantum physics, musical forms, or historical facts has but a very long thread of what ought to be a tapestry. It is fruitless without a broad perspective, frivolous unless possessed by a mind liberal and philosophical. Truthfully, for a mind to be genuinely liberal it must be thoroughly philosophical – the latter not being the possession of complex terms and sophistical utterances, what is merely an aggrandized rhetoric, but the deft insight that comes with experience, reflection, and reconsideration to the ardent lover of truth. Such a mind moves beyond merely knowing facts in a linear succession, what is an infinitely divisible but limited quantity of data. Indeed, as far as knowledge is related to the good of a person, is an end of itself, and is that which the University seeks to impart to its students, it is none other that which brings man to philosophia, to the love of wisdom; which in turn makes all the knowledge truly relevant: “The principle of real dignity in Knowledge… is this germ within it of a scientific or philosophical process.”3 Everything of which man learns may contribute to his possession of knowledge, not as a mere accretion of facts, disconnected and at best juxtaposed, but as part of an attempt to understand the universe as a whole.
It is at this point that a metaphysical, linguistic digression onto the words “universal,” “universe,” and “university,” must unfortunately be excused. Etymologically, all three words stem from the same two Latin roots: uni, meaning “one,” and vertere, “to turn,” notably the same root of the English “verse,” as in poetry. This etymological inquiry lends itself to many various interpretations of the latter part of the combination; but what admits no ambiguities, fittingly, is the singularity of the words’ first half. There may be turns, there may be a turning, there may be stanzas, lines, and words; but it all turns into one, the pieces, separate parts, are inevitably unified into a single whole that coheres as some sort of perceptible totality; the words become lines, lines become stanzas, stanzas become a poem; words, though still distinct, unique, and themselves, nonetheless show to the mind of the reader that there is something one, something which makes them whole; words indicate the Word. Therefore, wholeness is a concept indivisible from that of the University: it is in the very meaning of the word.
It must be noted that while the essence of the University is the teaching of universal knowledge, it necessarily must have accidentals, which may either aid or hinder the achievement of that which is essential; just as a man’s essence is in his spiritual soul, the essence acts through the accidental medium of the body. A man deprived of his senses has a harder time with everything in life, according to the degree of his deprivation. So too does the University suffer if deprived of those accidents which are fitting to it. Like the words of a poem, which are similarly composed of smaller bits inessential to their particular meaning – consider how words may have nigh identical meanings in quite different languages – so too are the accidentals of the University not of its essence but nonetheless necessary. One cannot have a poem without words – nor can one have a good poem without the right words. Thus, a university may be had without residential community; it can be had without an overarching direction of intellectual formation; it can be had without any perspectival commonality amongst its students. Institutions that claim to provide higher education can be as heterogeneous, pluralistic, and relativistic as they please; but they are not universities. Can unity be had in that which not only is fragmented, but which rejects the possibility of intellectual unity? Ultimately, only that institution which unifies its teaching in a philosophically-informed theological apex can truly be called the University, for only such an institution is truly universal, linking all that can be known in that which is itself supremely Knowable. Discovery of the Truth is not contingent entirely upon it – but defense of it is; and without such a defense, humanity, not proceeding upwards, will inevitably slide down.
1 Cf. Chesterton, G.K. What’s Wrong with the World. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994: 37.
2 Newman, 3
3 Newman, 85.