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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James Matthew Wilson
James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. An award-winning scholar of philosophical-theology and literature, he has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. Wilson is also a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure, The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, and The American Conservative. He has published five books, including most recently, a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Raised in the Great Lakes State, baptised in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas, seasoned by summers on Lake Wawasee (Indiana), and educated under the Golden Dome, Wilson is scion of a family of Hoosiers dating back to the early nineteenth century, and an offspring of Southside Chicago Poles whose tavern kept the city wet through the Depression (and prohibition) years.  He now lives under the same sentence of reluctant exile as many another native son of the Midwest, but has dug himself in for good on the margins of the Main Line in Pennsylvania with his beautiful wife, dangerous daughter, and saintly sons. For information on Wilson's scholarship and a selection of his published work, click here. See books written and recommended by James Matthew Wilson.


  1. I might say that the search for a prestitigous and universal institution is not only problematic, as you suggest, for the university trying to maintain a clear and intelligible criteria for what knowledge is important (or in the case of philosophy/theology what really can be called knowledge) but also for families that frequently have to break apart in order to seek out what seem to be the best universities. This is an interesting article on how universities that are not tied to an area, even when they are sought for a good reason such as preserving the Catholic faith, can often serve to break up the continuity of family through multiple generations:

    Children going to school out of state and marrying someone from yet another state harms the true geographical and patriarchal character of the family when it becomes a commonality rather than an exception.

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