Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The Idea of A University

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So, it’s the day after Easter, and I’m still on John Henry Newman’s book, and  notmuch farther in than I was on Saturday.  I had people over, and they took down part of a tree and an enormous parasitical vine that was eating half my house, so that was good.

But as to the book–

At the beginning, at least, it is not what I expected it to be.  I’ve spent so much of my life hearing about this thing that I assume that the things I’ve heard will come to fruition in the second half.

But the first half is a set of discourses in which Newman argues against what was then called “mixed education.”  This was not a matter of the mixing of races, and it wouldn’t have occured to anybody at the time to let women into a university, never mind to mix them in classes with men.

Newman is responding to a proposal to build a university in Ireland that would admit both Protestant and Catholic students.  This was an era in which Oxford and Cambridge did not admit Catholics, and Newman, who was a graduate and fellow of Oriel College at Oxford, was forced to resign when he converted to the Catholic Church.

What he wants for Ireland is a Catholic university, not a “non-sectarian” one, and the reason he doesn’t want a non-sectarian one is that he knows that there is only one way to get it–to take theology out of the core of the curriculum and treat it not as a science but as a mere matter of opinion.

And that, Newman believes, makes a mess of the entire university curriculum, because it leaves that curriculum without an organizing idea.

Give me a minute here.

First, you’ve got to understand that what Newman thought of as a university education is not what we’re used to.  It isn’t even what we were used to before this age of narrowly focused vocational training we’ve relabeled “college.”

Newman rejects the aims and organization of the German research university in their entirety.  He does not expect a university to train scholars in particular fields, or to become the home of “departments” which parcel out bits and pieces of knowledge into separate little classifications and areas.

“The view taken of a University in these discourses,” he says, “is the following:–That it is a place of teaching universal knowledge.  This implies that its object is one the one hand intellectual, not moral; and, on the other, that it is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than its 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.”

In other words, when Newman talks of  “a University,” what he’s referring to is something closest to our great books colleges, like St. John’s in Maryland. 

And the way he formulates the problem–that he is talking about the necessity of theology having a central place in such an institution, and it therefore being a bad idea to teach Protestants and Catholics together (because they do not share such a theology)–is interesting, because he obviously isn’t using the word “theology” as a code word for teaching religion. 

That is, what Newman wants students to learn in theology is not how they should behave or worship. 

The question then arises, though–if this is not what Newman wants, why does he want theology at the center of a university’s curriculum?

The answer, I think, is that what he’s actually looking for is a single “subject” that provides the structural and intellectual framework for all the others, the eggshell into which the egg will fit. 

Newman was not only an academic and a convert to Catholicism, but eventually a Cardinal in the Catholic Church, and for him–as for a number of other people in his time–theology was the eggshell, not just for university education, but for virtually everything else.  Theology, by teaching us about the Creator of the Universe and the purpose for which He created, provided the franework through which all other ideas could be understood.

If you look at theology that way–as a framework, what I’d call a master narrative–not only the book, but a lot of modern academic life, makes a lot more sense.

I think Newman was right on at least one level:  we do need a master narrative which provides the interpretive framework for all the rest of what we study.  Without such a master narrative, what we have is just a lot of chaotic detail that doesn’t necessarily make sense and doesn’t necessarily make logic, either.

And I think that every individual person finds such a master narrative for himself, somewhere, because I don’t think that we are capable of functioning witout one.  We take the master narrative presented by our country or our religion or our politics, or we invent one for ourselves, but we all build prisms that separate and organize the light around us.

I think that a lot of the political silliness we see on college campuses these days–the speech codes that punish “inappropriate laughter,” the “diversity training” orientation seminars that resemble the more abusive forms of Eighties poppsych scams, the periodic hysterical paroxyms over deadly threats that don’t actually exist–is a symptom of a culture in search of a master narrative and an attempt to impose such a narrative by force.  For the American university of the twenty-first century–or at least a certain kind of American university–these things are its theology working itself out in day to day particulars.

I think the same is the case with our political discourse–everybody is hysterical all the time, because nobody has a master narrative that he can actually trust.  I think that’s true on the right and on the left, and more true the more stridently each side insists that it has The Answer without question. 

I will say that I don’t know, off the top of my head, whether this situation is a good thing or a bad one.

My instinct says that it’s a bad one–that no society in history has ever survived without a generally shared master narrative, and that the lack of such a narrative has had consequences for education that are–well, that make it not really education. 

A lot of my frustration with the “professional priniciples” some posters would like to substitute for such a narrative, and with things like Good Social Work Practice, are directly the result of people in various fields being unable to see how what they know is connected to everything else there is to know, or how what they know is challenged by everything else there is to know. 

The reason no one has noticed that rehab is a failure has less to do with entrenched interests than with the fact that most clinical psychologists and MSWs don’t understand the criteria for success as established by the hard sciences.   If they did understand that criteria, we might get past methods with 95% failure rates to look into new approaches to the problem of addiction. 

Instead, we start with our premises–addiction is a disease–and then just go with it, and the evidence of failure is explained away by saying  “addictions can’t be cured.”

Really?  Because I know of several people who do, in fact, seem to be “cured.”  I’m just not too sure if “cured” is the right word for it.

I’m still of the opinion that we’d all be better off if psychologists and social workers and teachers were required to read and understand a lot of Homer, Shakespeare and Dickens–although Freud was required to know the first two, and made a mess of them anyway–but in the end I understand Newman’s point. 

If we do not have a framework for understanding the whole as a whole,  then we’re like the guys in that story about the elephant.  Each of us thinks our own narrow area of expertise is the whole animal, and in the end we’re wrong not only about the whole animal, but about our narrow area of expertise.

And yet.

There’s a part of me that can see some good in all the contentiousness, maybe because I’m the kind of person who likes contentiousness for its own sake.  I hate the entire us-and-them nature of contemporary politics, which isn’t really about politics at all, but about our lack of a shared moral vision.  On the other hand, I think that lack keeps the culture from getting stale, and I fear staleness–and the stiffling strangulation of conformity (see half the EU)–more than I do all the yelling we do at each other.

And now I’m going to go get lunch.

Written by janeh

April 5th, 2010 at 10:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'The Idea of A University'

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  1. I seem to have double-posted in the other topic. The computer tried to warn me but I didn’t see the original post so I didn’t believe the computer – and now there are two. Oh, well.

    I suspect that difficulty in understanding and treating addiction has far more to do with the fact that both psychiatry and the knowledge of brain chemistry are in their infancy (even compared to, say, microbiology, much less the physical sciences)than to the inadequacies of the education of social workers.

    A lot of people don’t seem to mind very much that their world view is somewhat fragmented or illogical rather than framed within a master narrative, and I suppose that’s part of human nature – we must surely have evolved to act in the presence of incomplete and conflicting information. I can see that life would be a lot calmer and coherent if we all had the same framework. That doesn’t bother me, much. I don’t like conntentiousness. I don’t mind people disagreeing with me that much, but I find that I’m getting increasingly bored and tired with the idea of squabbling over old ground yet again.


    5 Apr 10 at 1:19 pm

  2. I can’t make any intelligent contribution to a discussion of the need for a generally shared master narrative for our society. However, labeling alcoholics as victims of an incurable disease and after detox always in recovery just moves them from one addiction to another. Even if an eternity of AA meetings are not physically harmful. AA doesn’t work for everyone. I’ve seen plenty of examples of that. Accepting powerlessness and surrendering to your Higher Power makes no sense for someone who doesn’t believe in a Higher Power to begin with.


    5 Apr 10 at 3:55 pm

  3. Well, the obvious first: deciding whether a personal and a cultural master narrative is a good or a bad thing only makes sense if it’s an optional thing. Otherwise, we might as well do a cost-benefit analysis on gravity.

    I rather suspect that most individuals have one, and at least some of what we see as other people’s inconsistencies are mere nuances. On a societal level, I don’t think any culture goes without one long–because I quite agree it’s part of the bitterness of our present debates. I don’t agree that the shrillness necessarily comes from lack of belief, but because the various factions aren’t arguing about the best way to pursue agreed-on objectives, but about the objectives themselves.

    Take just two examples: This year’s debate over health insurance and the debate eight years ago over Iraq would have been been much more civilized had we “only” been arguing about how to ensure America’s security, expand health insurance coverage and reduce costs. Instead, the arguments were over the domestic role of government, and over national sovereignty against international constraints. When different factions have different notions of what is good, there can be no common objective–only a zero-sum game in which the other participant’s success MUST come at my expense.

    So, sooner or later and probably sooner, there will be a new narrative–or a split of some sort. For those who enjoy contention for its own sake, be comforted: I think most of the possibilities are too rooted in traditions of individual dissent to become exclusive as opposed to dominant. A broad concensus with the odd Menken, Blavatsky or Freud seems more likely than the return of re-education camps.

    In that sense, I’ll confess to being especially worried by that “political silliness” at the universities. The Movement certainly does have suppression of dissent in its DNA. It’s not popular, but it’s well-positioned and well-organized, and the “theology” works together a bit more smoothly with every decade. Calvinism wasn’t popular either, but if one in five of a nation was calvinist, the nation was calvinist. It’s not that hard, then or now, to convince one in five that they are part of the elect.

    And a future of endless “discussions” and confessional meetings is one I could very well live without. But I have no idea how to avert it.


    5 Apr 10 at 5:26 pm

  4. I’ll pass on this one. I’m too remote from US universities and intellectual life to make a comment.

    But I was struck by
    >First, you’ve got to understand that what Newman thought of as a university education is not what we’re used to. It isn’t even what we were used to before this age of narrowly focused vocational training we’ve relabeled “college.”

    Since I was trained in Physics and later developed an interest in History and Philosophy, I do understand the distinction Newman is making. But I recently saw a documentary on an ice storm in Montreal that came close to crippling the city. The power plants are 100s of kilometers away and 7 out of 8 of the power lines went down.

    I was reminded of the New Orleans hurricane – where so much criticism came from people who had no idea of the difficulty of aiding a city with no power, no railroads and no roads.

    I see California as 50 million people living in a dessert and New England as 30 million living in an arctic climate and few of them know where their food and power really come from.

    Perhaps there should be even more emphasis on training and less on culture?

    Or am I a philistine?


    5 Apr 10 at 8:55 pm

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