Provincializing the University: A Proposal for Reform

By James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

Last November, FPR readers may recall, some of our writers held a panel discussion on The Place of Education at the University of Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture’s annual conference.  My comments gave an account of Cardinal Newman’s classic defense of liberal arts education in The Idea of a University, challenging some of its fundmental premises in hopes of better realizing its highest purpose.

An essay based on those comments has now been published at AnamnesisAmong my proposals are the following, which challenge the vapid rhetoric of “diversity” common in the academy today and which seeks to help schools attain to diversity in its most authentic form.  In brief, I would seek to provincialize the university and thereby better equip it to help students order themselves to the contemplation of the Good in a form more substantive than the buffets of the contemporary school typically allow:

If contemporary diversity leads all departments, all schools, and the character of all graduates to look roughly alike, it would seem reasonable to propose an alternative account of diversity that takes the word more seriously and makes it conducive to a substantive good that cannot be measured with a calculator.  I would suggest that the spirit of Newman’s university would be better realized if we inverted some of his pronouncements.  To begin with, what if an institution were to commit itself not to attracting students and faculty from every possible state and a smattering of foreign lands, but to building up a faculty composed whenever possible of persons from a specific region and committed to educating the youth of that region?  This used to be quite common, but in the impossible chase of the Ivies, even schools that stand no realistic chance of attracting a “world class” elite faculty nonetheless burn their local bridges in the attempt to do so.  This reduces the cultural capital otherwise available to universities through nurturing and retaining their native population, and makes it difficult for an institution to manifest the particularities that naturally arise in a settled culture.  Mobility and geographical cherry-picking homogenize more than civilize.

Second, rather than emphasizing the comprehensiveness of liberal education, as Newman expressed it, schools might take more seriously Newman’s admonition to refine the order and coherence of their curricula.  Newman saw that these attributes were complementary, and in defending theology’s place in the liberal arts curriculum did so not only because it must be included if an education was to be complete, but because, as the queen of the sciences, it gave form and order to all other studies.15  As the first of all disciplines, it gives shape and relation to every last one.

So, I ask, what if universities began hiring according to specific, exclusive, and perhaps even ungeneralizable criteria about what kind of knowledge is valuable?  Currently, most scholars are more loyal to their profession and the standards and interests of their field of expertise than they are to their institution.  They have to be, because the institution offers little of substance to which they might feel profound intellectual fidelity.  Rather than seeking to have the best-available scholar in every field, schools might specialize more, and coordinate that specialization across departments and disciplines, reaching a provisionally local but robust consensus on the attributes proper to the life of learning.

You can read the full essay here.

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