The End of Education: The Fragmentation of the American University

What should be the distinctive calling of the American Catholic university or college here and now? It should be to challenge its secular counterparts by recovering both for them and for itself a less fragmented conception of what an education beyond high school should be, by identifying what has gone badly wrong with even the best of secular universities. From a Catholic point of view the contemporary secular university is not at fault because it is not Catholic. It is at fault insofar as it is not a university.

Yet the major Catholic universities seem unlikely to accept this calling, if only because their administrative leaders are for the most part hell-bent on imitating their prestigious secular counterparts, which already imitate one another. So we find Notre Dame glancing nervously at Duke, only to catch Duke in the act of glancing nervously at Princeton. What is it that makes this attitude so corrupting? What has gone wrong with the secular university?

Begin with some well-known and prosaic truths. Since the nineteenth century the number of disciplines studied in American universities and colleges has steadily multiplied. To philosophy there were added psychology and political economy, soon to be transformed into economics, to which were later added political science and sociology and anthropology. To mathematics and physics were added chemistry and biology. And within each of these particular disciplines, subdisciplines and later subsubdisciplines multiplied. So it has been too with the study of Greek and Latin language and literature to which were added first English, then French, German, and Italian, then Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Farsi and... So too it has been with the multiplication of historical studies, American, European, Asian, African, ancient, medieval, modern, political, social, economic... And in all these areas there is a growing array of subdisciplines and subsubdisciplines, not to speak of the introduction of creative writing, of theater arts, and...and...and...

The history of this multiplication of disciplines is, of course, also a history of increasing specialization by scholars, and of the transformation of university or college teachers into professionalized, narrowly focused researchers who also happen to teach, specialists whose professional success and standing depend in large part on the degree of their identification with some particular subdiscipline or subsubdiscipline. That identification is secured by two successive apprenticeships, one aimed at the PhD, and a second aimed at achieving tenure. During both what is rewarded is the successful completion of those short-term tasks approved by their seniors. So respect for the prejudices of those seniors is inculcated, while long-term adventurous risk-taking and unfashionable projects tend to go unrewarded, and are therefore increasingly rarely undertaken. In this way many academics are conditioned to become respectful guardians of the disciplinary status quo, sometimes disguising this from themselves by an enthusiasm for those interdisciplinary projects that present no threat to that status quo.

These two closely related strands in the history of universities and colleges have the peculiar importance they do only because of their significant effect on a third strand, that of the changing education of our students. Consider just one such effect, on how the pattern of courses each undergraduate takes is determined, a pattern characteristically constructed from three sets of elements. There are the courses required of all undergraduates by that particular university or college. There is the individual student’s own choice of major, resulting in further requirements and further choices. And there are some electives which are entirely a matter of individual choice. About what results, three comments are to the point.

First, what students learn in their major, whatever the discipline, has more and more become what they need to learn, if they are to become specialists in that particular discipline. The major has too often become a prologue to graduate school and the undergraduates most praised are those most open to being transformed into the likeness of their professors, an outcome that would be comic, if it were not tragic. Second, students are compelled to make more or less irrevocable choices at a stage when, even if they already know what they want to learn-and many do not-they do not as yet know what they need to learn. What they do know is that their career prospects will be harmed if their grade point average is not high and therefore they have a strong motive not to take courses in which, at least at first, they may not do well. As a result, risk taking is out, for them as for their teachers, and those who most need, for example, to learn certain parts of mathematics and science, are likely to avoid taking just the courses that they most need. Moreover, their teachers depend on them for their teaching evaluations, and teachers who insist on giving students what they need rather than what they want are apt to be penalized in those evaluations. So it becomes inevitable that many students’ needs go unmet, even while their desire for As is gratified.

Third, whatever pattern of courses is taken by an individual, it is unlikely to be more than a collection of bits and pieces, a specialist’s grasp of this, a semispecialist’s partial understanding of that, an introductory survey of something else. The question of how these bits and pieces might be related to one another, of whether they are or are not parts that contribute to some whole, of what, if anything, it all adds up to, not merely commonly goes unanswered, it almost always goes unasked. And how indeed could it be otherwise when every course, even when introductory, is a course in a specialized discipline taught by a teacher who may be vastly ignorant of everything outside her or his own discipline? Each part of the curriculum is someone’s responsibility, but no one has a responsibility for making the connections between the parts. To whom should this matter?

It should matter to anyone who thinks it important what conception of human nature and the human condition students have arrived at by the time they enter the adult workplace-and therefore to any Catholic. For each of the academic disciplines teaches us something significant about some aspect of human nature and the human condition. Physics tells us which particles and forces compose the body as a material object, while chemistry and biochemistry examine it as the site of various exchanges and reactions. What the functioning structures of complex living organisms, such as ourselves, are and how they have evolved we learn from biology, while sociology, anthropology, economics, and history make human beings intelligible in and through their changing cultural and social relationships. Philosophy-together with the history of inquiry-shows us how and why we are able to move toward a more and more adequate understanding of ourselves and our environments, from time to time transcending the limitations of previous modes of understanding. That human beings are also in key part what they imagine themselves to be, and how, without works of imagination, human life is diminished, we can only learn from literary and other aesthetic studies. Yet, when we have learned what all these different types of discipline have to teach-and the catalogue is far from complete-we confront questions that have so far gone unasked, just because they are not questions answerable from within any one discipline.

Is physics the fundamental discipline, so that everything else, including not only plant and nonhuman animal life, but also human actions and passions, is reducible to or determined by or explicable in terms of the fundamental laws of physics? Or is it instead the case that living organisms have properties that cannot be so explained and that human beings transcend the limitations of other living organisms, so that their thought-informed actions are directed toward ends of which no naturalistic account can be given? On how we answer these and kindred questions much turns for our characterization of the human situation. So it is too with a second set of questions. We are both products and heirs of a complex past, and on key issues we have to define our relationship to various aspects of that past, identifying what it is that we may have lost, either by rejecting this or by remaining too closely tied to that. Do we still need to understand and come to terms with Athenian democracy and the Peloponnesian War? the Middle Ages? the Enlightenment? the French Revolution? Romanticism? the rise of capitalism? the history of Marxism?

These are questions that need to be answered if we are to understand who we are here and now, if we are to understand what makes the way of life of advanced modernity distinctive. The first set can be posed adequately only by those who have acquired some understanding, not only of contemporary physical theory and of the mathematical equations which inform and structure that theory, but also of parts of molecular and evolutionary biology, not to speak of the relevant debates in the philosophy of mind from Plotinus to the present.

The second set can only be posed adequately by those who have been educated in the history of their own and its predecessor cultures. And the asking of a third set of urgent questions also requires a good deal of preliminary groundwork. These concern how we can come to terms with cultures radically different from our own, so that not only, both intellectually and imaginatively, we learn, as far as we can, to speak as their inhabitants speak, to see as they see, and to think as they think. Such learning involves coming to understand ourselves, not as we customarily do, but as they understand us. And it at once raises the question of how we are to decide between their understanding of us and our own understanding of us, between their evaluations and ours, in all those cases where there are conflicting and incompatible claims. Yet this question cannot be fruitfully formulated or seriously asked until we have assimilated, to some significant degree, the language, the way of life and thought, the works of literature and other arts, of some one particular alien culture. So we have to begin by learning, say, Mandarin or Japanese or Arabic.

From these three sets of questions a tripartite curriculum emerges. One element is mathematical and scientific, extending beyond physics to the chemistry and neurophysiology needed to understand recent discoveries about the brain. Another is historical, situating the history of ideas in their social, political, and economic contexts. And a third consists in linguistic and literary studies. All three have a philosophical component: philosophy of mind and body, the philosophical questions raised by different aspects of our past history, the interpretive and evaluative questions posed by our relationship to other cultures. So the faculty needed to teach this curriculum would consist of mathematicians, physicists, some types of biologists, intellectual, social, and economic historians, teachers of English and of one or two other languages and literatures, anthropologists, and philosophers. But it would be crucial that this should be a faculty dedicated not only to the teaching of their own discipline but also to the curriculum as a whole, a faculty with strong interests in and a worthwhile knowledge of some disciplines not their own, so that they, and not only the students, were able to formulate and pursue rival and alternative answers to the questions that give point and purpose to such a curriculum.

There are of course different ways in which such a curriculum might be implemented. And it would be important for it to focus on a limited number of problem areas or texts or historical episodes in the contributing disciplines, so that each problem, each text, each episode could be studied in some depth. Superficiality should be as unacceptable to the educated generalist as it is to the specialist. And a sense of complexity is perhaps even more important for generalists than for specialists, if generalists are to understand the difficulty of formulating and confronting the questions to which this curriculum will introduce them. But why is it important that someone with a higher education should engage with these questions?

Ours is a culture in which there is the sharpest of contrasts between the rigor and integrity with which issues of detail are discussed within each specialized discipline and the self-indulgent shoddiness of so much of public debate on large and general issues of great import (compare Lawrence Summers on economics with Lawrence Summers on gender issues, Cardinal Schönborn on theology with Cardinal Schönborn on evolution). One reason for this contrast is the absence of a large educated public, a public with shared standards of argument and inquiry and some shared conception of the central questions that we need to address. Such a public would be a good deal less willing to allow issues that need to be debated to be defined by those who are so wedded in advance to their own particular partisan answers that they have never found out what the questions are. And it would be unwilling to tolerate the straitjacketing of debate, so characteristic of television, within two- to five-minute periods, during which each participant interrupts and talks down the others.

The adoption of such a curriculum would serve both universities and the wider society well. But it would be of particular significance for a Catholic university and for the Catholic community. Newman argued that it is theology that is the integrative and unifying discipline needed by any university, secular, Protestant, or Catholic. And it is in the light afforded by the Catholic faith and more especially by Catholic doctrines concerning human nature and the human condition that theologians have a unique contribution to make in addressing the questions that ought to be central to an otherwise secular curriculum. It is not just that Catholic theology has its own distinctive answers to those questions, but that we can learn from it a way of addressing those questions, not just as theoretical inquiries, but as questions with practical import for our lives, asked by those who are open to God’s self-revelation. Theology can become an education in how to ask such questions.

On this point, it may be said, that theology departments are unlikely to achieve this goal, if only because they commonly suffer from the same ills of specialization and fragmentation as other departments. Yet of course the degree to which this is so varies a great deal from university to university. It is also true that everything or almost everything that must be taught in a reformed curriculum is already taught somewhere in most universities, yet not at present in a way that allows students to bring together the various things that they learn, so that they can understand what is at stake in answering the key questions. We do possess the intellectual resources to bring about the kind of change I propose. What we lack, in Catholic and in secular universities, is the will to change, and that absence of will is a symptom of a quite unwarranted complacency concerning our present state and our present direction.

“What then about specialized training for research?” someone will ask. Ours, they may say, is a knowledge-based economy and we cannot do without specialized researchers. The type of curriculum that I am proposing may teach students to ask questions in a disciplined way, something that is certainly a valuable preliminary to instruction in genuine research techniques, but it does not begin to supply the apprenticeship that researchers at the cutting edge need. Indeed it does not. It is liberal education, not job training. But the lesson is to get rid of the confusions generated by our predecessors’ admiration for the German research university and to supply both a liberal education in the arts and sciences and, for those who aspire to it, a professional, specialized training in research in the natural or the human sciences. The curriculum I am proposing, including theology, could perhaps be taught in three well-structured and strenuous years. A fourth year would thereby become available for research or professional training. We do not have to sacrifice training in research in order to provide our students with a liberal education, just as we do not have to fragment and deform so much of our students’ education, as we do now.

© 2006 Commonweal Foundation, reprinted with permission. For subscriptions, www.commonwealmagazine.org.

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