RE-IMAGINING THE UNIVERSITY
The thesis of this
essay is that the contemporary crisis of the university presents a unique
challenge and opportunity to rethink the very idea of a university as a quest
for truth, discovery, interdisciplinary intellectual engagement, and vocation
understood as character development and preparation for life, career, and
participatory citizenship in a democracy. There is considerable skepticism
shared by students, parents, legislators, and the public regarding the
relevance, value, and cost of higher education. Students are concerned about the
marketability of their degrees. Parents fret over their children’s future
prospects and success in life. Legislators question the financial
accountability, transparency, and cost-effectiveness of higher education. But
the major concern is the public’s potential disenchantment with a system of
education which fails to deliver on its promises. As Mark William Roche laments,
“in an environment where the value of a liberal arts education is no longer
taken for granted, only a minority of undergraduate degrees are awarded in the
liberal arts” (2010: 2).
Science, technology, trade, and communications now drive all
aspects of life in the global village, including higher education. There is
increasing recognition of a crisis in the very conception of the role of a
university. Should a university focus on training technical specialists for a
high-tech global economy or emphasize a broad liberal arts curriculum? Critics
point to the fragmentation of knowledge, the lack of a unifying center, and the
fast pace of scientific and technological change which requires continuous
upgrade of skills, leaving no room for the integration of knowledge or the
education of the whole person. Yet, globalization presupposes a better knowledge
of different cultures, socio-economic and political systems, and an
understanding of the motivations, nature, and purposes of human beings.
The classical Greek paideia encompassed the education
of body, mind, and soul, reflected in John Henry Newman’s iconic The Idea of
a University (1852). The question arises: Can Newman’s ideal of the
integration of all disciplines into a “wholeness of vision” and a “true
enlargement of the mind” inspire the rediscovery of the proper role of a
university of educating the whole person? Should a university foster greater
intellectual diversity, cultural discernment, and character education for
self-fulfillment and a more felicitous social life by renewing the dialogue
between Athens (Enlightenment reason) and Jerusalem (religious faith)?
A consensus may be emerging regarding the strengths and
weaknesses of American higher education, and possible remedies. Perhaps one
should begin with the observation that American higher education remains the
envy of the world and an ideal which continues to inspire. Unlike other times
and places, America may be said to have “invented” higher education or, rather,
made it accessible to the masses in pursuing the vision of universal higher
education–a notable democratic ideal. The successes of American higher education
over the last half-century are admirable in educating millions of youth and
adults, and extending the American Promise to hitherto disadvantaged groups.
Even critics of “affirmative action” have to admit the successes, while
qualified, extending higher education opportunities to various minorities,
though the means have proven divisive, excluding disadvantaged groups that do
not fit the racial/ethnic/gender profiling, such as poor white youths from
impoverished areas like the Appalachia or the deep South. In brief, more, rather
than less, diversity is called for based on non-discriminatory criteria to
reflect the American Promise of equality of opportunity without regard to race,
ethnicity, nationality, gender, philosophical, political or religious
persuasion. This would, indeed, move us closer to realizing Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of an America where people would be judged by the strength of their
character rather than the color of their skin.
The successes of American higher education are due in no
small measure to the great diversity of some 3,500 higher education
institutions–large and small, private and public, secular and religious,
undergraduate and graduate. Yet, the cost of higher education has escalated
while a college degree no longer guarantees a favored career or occupation,
engendering renewed soul-searching regarding the meaning, relevance, and value
of university education. Higher education institutions have come under more
intense scrutiny by various stake-holders questioning in effect whether
universities really deserve public support, and especially public funding, in an
era of limits. Occasional scandals and misuse of funds by individuals or
institutions, though on a smaller scale than global corporate mismanagement,
have further undermined public confidence in educational institutions at all
levels of education, for-profit or non-profit. Universities have endeavored to
counter such perceptions by streamlining operations, often sacrificing entire
departments and programs, laying off faculty and staff, drawing on part-timers
and delaying maintenance, increasing tuition, greater administrative
stringencies and oversight, while trying to meet demands for greater
transparency, accountability, and responsiveness to market forces. Small,
underfunded colleges are even forced to close, though a better solution is to
become branch campuses of stronger institutions.
In view of such challenges, can the university re-invent
itself to fulfill the high expectations in the twenty-first century regarding
teaching, research, and service as a repository of knowledge conveying
humanity’s intellectual heritage, providing opportunities for new discoveries,
and facilitating social mobility? Educators like Roche recall the university’s
major strength and traditional role of providing “a broad grounding in the
diverse disciplines,” or the classical liberal arts, as the best preparation for
life, career, and citizenship (2010: 5). Yet others, like William Tierney, point
out the need for “long-overdue academic and intellectual reforms” (2011: A64).
In Tierney’s view: “The curriculum-as-undergraduate-buffet should be replaced
with a pared-down list of the intellect and the acquisition of skills needed in
the 21st century” (2011: A64). Tierney notes the lack of student-faculty
interactions in and outside class, along with low expectations for both students
and faculty, reflected in student boredom and faculty apathy. Tierney calls for
“dramatic change” to recover excellence, while aware that the faculty tends to
“defend a bloated, academically incoherent curriculum” (2011: A64).
This state of affairs inspired Harvard University to reinvent
a core curriculum in 2007–its biggest curriculum overhaul in 30 years–which
introduced eight new required subject areas, including societies of the world,
culture and belief, study of ethical issues, empirical reasoning, science of
living systems and of the physical universe, and aesthetic and interpretive
understanding. There are also calls to recognize and value the scholarship of
teaching, rather than just research and publication. Clayton Christensen and
Henry Eyring confirm Tierney’s analysis and recommendation that programmatic
offerings “need to be more focused,” with some majors dropped, others shortened,
while “the number of departments and centers at most institutions need strategic
shrinking” (2011: A72).
Yet, what the academy may need is re-structuring rather than
“strategic shrinking.” Given the great diversity of higher education
institutions in the United States, a pluralism of approaches may provide the
needed flexibility to achieve the sought after goals of revitalizing teaching,
research, and service, and improving quality while assuring solvency. One such
model, which offers a regional solution to the multilayered dilemmas of access,
availability of resources, work-force training, adult education, career
advancement, and even economic development, is the Florida community colleges
experiment. With 14 million unemployed in America, and a world-wide recession,
higher education institutions could well become an engine of economic growth.
Despite millions of unemployed, tens of thousands of jobs remain unfilled due to
the lack of trained personnel. While some may object to community colleges
offering bachelor’s degrees, Florida community colleges have a proven track
record of providing educational and career advancement opportunities to an adult
population as its only viable option. According to Ryan West, of the Florida
Chamber of Commerce, allowing community colleges to award job-specific
bachelor’s degrees is “an innovative approach to the state’s work-force needs”
(Gonzalez 2010: A12).
Purists might object to such innovative programs as
“vocational,” but the fact remains that all participants benefit, including
individual students, colleges, faculty, the state, and the economy. Granted that
vocational or technical institutes may provide equivalent training in technical
aspects of various high-tech careers and vocations. But, such institutes cannot
grant bachelor’s degrees, nor, more importantly, offer comprehensive higher
education encompassing the liberal arts in which colleges excel. The challenge
for colleges that wish to provide job-specific career training for youth and
adults is to complement vocational or career education courses with a strong
core curriculum in the liberal arts. Colleges owe it to their students to offer
career-oriented programs which will lead to real jobs. More comprehensive data
collection regarding regional, state, and national job openings and job trends
is needed, along with more comprehensive student counseling regarding such
opportunities. Both the public and private sectors may want to offer
job-specific scholarships and internships, while the choice of occupation should
remain the student’s prerogative. Such innovative programs would help reduce
unemployment, encourage more youth and adults to consider a college-level
education, and re-invigorate colleges and universities with a renewed sense of
mission and accomplishment, and earn the respect due to educators’ high calling.
THE PROMISE OF THE LIBERAL ARTS
John Henry Newman championed the idea of a university
focusing on the liberal arts as an introduction to the great circle of knowledge
essential for a “true enlargement of the mind,” conducive to a “wholeness of
vision” and the education of the whole person. Newman was an early proponent of
the growing realization in the twenty-first century regarding the
interconnectedness of all disciplines and the unity of knowledge comprising the
very idea of a university. Yet Newman’s ideal of the university was rooted in
the classic notion emphasizing the essential role of theology in providing
standards of judgment for the integration of individual disciplines into a
larger whole. Once upon a time, the awe and wonder of religion provided an
assumed center to education–a belief in truth and ultimate meaning. Hence,
Newman saw the crisis of liberal education as directly related to the loss of
theology, and cautioned against the usurpation of theology’s role by other
disciplines (Hittinger 1999).
In our time, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Ex corde
ecclesiae (1990), on the teaching mission of the Church, offered a
restatement of Newman’s vision of educating the whole person. John Paul called
for a search for the integration of knowledge, dialogue between faith and
reason, an emphasis on ethics and the dignity of the person, and a theological
perspective for achieving these goals (1990: 7, 15-20). Alas, in a secular era,
both truth and theology have fallen upon hard times. Stratford Caldecott notes
that: “In the modern world, thanks to the rise of modern science and the decline
of religious cosmology, the arts and sciences have been separated and divorced.
Faith and reason often appear to be opposed, and we have lost any clear sense of
who we are and where we are going” (2009: 11). This leads C. John Sommerville to
conclude that the prevailing model of the secular university is “increasingly
marginal to American society,” and that this is “a result of its secularism”
(2006: 4). This is so, according to Sommerville, because “questions that might
be central to the university’s mission are too religious for it to deal with”
Sommerville contends that professional programs reflect “some
idea of human optimality, involving ethical imperatives that the university
shies away from because they raise the specter of religion” (2006: 4).
Sommerville also questions the reticence on the part of educators to require the
study of Western Civilization in favor of new intellectual fashions where the
humanities no longer offer an appreciation of culture, but only “criticism of
culture” (2006: 4, 9). Such new intellectual fashions can lead to forgetfulness
and an inability to entertain reasoned arguments or discern cultural
differences. Sommerville asks: “Should multiculturalism trump an understanding
of the forces, including religious forces, that have shaped us, so that we don’t
understand ourselves?” (2006: 5).
Even non-believing academics sense the spiritual crisis of
the university, which no longer seems to engage the perennial questions of
life’s meaning and purpose. Thus, Anthony T. Kronman bemoans the corrosive ideas
of political correctness, diversity, multiculturalism, and the “belief that
values are merely expressions of power,” since they discourage the exploration
of ”the question of life’s purpose and meaning” (2007: 7). Kronman is skeptical
of the university’s research ideal, since it “devalues the question of what
living is for” (2007: 90). The other culprit, for Kronman, is science, which
permeates our civilization “with its vast powers of control,” but which cannot
fill the spiritual void or provide answers concerning life’s meaning and value
Unlike Newman, John Paul II or Sommerville, Kronman offers
not a spiritual, religious or theological remedy, but rather a “reaffirmation of
secular humanism” (2007: 229). To Kronman, “the spiritual emptiness of our
civilization has its source in the technology whose achievements we celebrate
and on whose power we all now depend” (2007: 229). Hence, Kronman argues for a
revitalization of the humanities invoking secular humanism and secular morality,
which only begs the question of the normative bases of any morality which claims
to be more than mere subjectivity dubbed the social construction of reality (Gruenwald
1992). Kronman complains that vital questions concerning human life and meaning
are now being asked only by the religious whom he disdains as “fundamentalists.”
As Kronman avers, the wider culture has been deprived of “a strong and
independent center where such instruction might be sought, and been left with no
alternative to religious fundamentalism” (207: 203). The remedy for this state
of affairs, per Kronman, is to restore the humanities by recovering the
tradition of secular humanism and secular morality. Kronman holds science and
technology responsible for the “spiritual emptiness of our civilization,” but
reserves special ire for those who oppose secular morality–the religious and
those who merely feign religiosity:
"To this morality, the fundamentalist Protestant churches in America, the
jihadist wing of Islam, and the Pope all oppose a morality of humility and
submission, of acquiescence in our lack of control and grateful acceptance of
the power of God, on which we depend and must never foolishly arrogate to
ourselves" (2007: 235).
One does not have to be a religious believer to question
Kronman’s analysis which, although well-intentioned, casts doubt on the adequacy
of secular humanist ideology to come to grips with the cultural and educational
crisis of an era which has forgotten God, and therefore also tends to be
dismissive of what is truly human (Gruenwald 2002). Thus, George Marsden’s
critique of contemporary university culture focuses on the lack of a spiritual
center or even “any real alternative” (1997: 3). Marsden notes that academics
tend to be “dogmatic moralists,” yet “many also espouse theories that would
undermine not only traditional moral norms, but their own as well. Others,
probably most academics, do not even try to deal with first principles” (1997:
3). Marsden wonders also about “a puzzling phenomenon that, among so many
academics who are professing Christians, all but a tiny minority keep quiet
about the intellectual implications of their faith” (1997: 6).
Curiously, Kronman’s critique of science and technology is
reminiscent of the counter-cultural ethos of the 1960s, which indicted science,
technology, the military-industrial complex, the commercialization of life, and
hot and cold wars as root causes of human alienation due to their narrow,
questionable rationality. The counter-culture’s response became the quest for
authenticity, subjectivity, and self-forgetfulness (nirvana). It was an
understandable rebellion of a generation coming of age in a century that
witnessed two world wars, untold human suffering, and the invention of doomsday
weapons, which, if anything, bespoke of humanity’s lack of control over its
destiny. Still, the “flower children” were beholden to a flawed perception of
science and technique as the new Frankenstein or exploitative tools of
post-industrial capitalist society. Likewise, Kronman sees our modern dependence
on science and technology as instrumental in creating a spiritual vacuum. Yet
science and technology are not self-generating; they are human creations, though
they tend to develop dynamics of their own once set in motion.
In brief, the contemporary spiritual crisis reaches much
deeper to its human and ultimately religious roots, which a secular academic
culture is unwilling to admit. At issue, then, is what Marsden and Stephen
Carter (1993) diagnose as the “trivialization” of religion, especially a
persistent bias against Christian perspectives, whether in academe, the news and
entertainment media, or the courts. This leads Marsden to conclude that: “In
effect, in place of a Protestant establishment we now have a virtual
establishment of nonbelief” (1997: 23).
In fairness, Kronman does point to an important cultural
dynamic: the triumph of science and technology in the twentieth century. Indeed,
science and technology unleashed unprecedented new powers for manipulating
Nature. Science and technology thus appeared to complete the Enlightenment
project of enthroning Reason as humanity’s guiding light, displacing the earlier
religious metaphysics. Yet, the triumph of science and technology flattened
humanity’s moral and spiritual cosmological horizon. Science’s empirical
methodology proved fruitful in decoding secrets of the material universe, but
its positivist “scientific method” bracketed all values as personal, subjective,
“unscientific,” if not irrelevant. Alas, by bracketing all values, science also
bracketed the human subject. Science’s instrumental rationality and the
commercial market’s utilitarian cash-nexus have proved inadequate to address the
human condition and the vast web of interpersonal relationships–social,
psychological, and spiritual.
This has led to an
existential crisis of being and of understanding due to a bifurcation of
knowledge and faith, fact and value, science and religion. Unlike Kronman,
Elaine Howard Ecklund tries to open lines of communication between the
communities of science and faith (2011: B9-10). Ecklund deploys a shrewd
approach that argues for the need for scientists to become better acquainted
with religion, ethics, and values in order to be able to communicate better with
students, and also to make science more acceptable to a skeptical public.
However, such a proposal faces a two-fold dilemma:
(1) In what some call a post-Christian era in the West,
religious faith has waned, and academics in general, and scientists in
particular, think it backward, illogical, illegitimate, reactionary, and
“unscientific” to bring up religion or morals for discussion. The popular
culture seems to counter appeals to either morality or religion with the
commercialized mantra: “If it feels good, do it.” The postmodern aversion to
absolutes or any fixed moral-ethical standards for judging individual behavior
or social action begs the question of how, then, can one discern what is just
and good, or condemn such evils as the Nazi-caused Holocaust, the Soviet Gulag,
or the Chinese laogai? (Gruenwald 2000). Yet, admitting that one takes
religion or ethics seriously immediately casts doubt in academic quarters
regarding one’s objectivity, fair-mindedness, political correctness, and
scholarly credentials, if not one’s sanity.
(2) The second major barrier for scientists taking religion,
values, or ethics seriously is embedded deeply in academic culture regarding the
compartmentalization of knowledge into disciplines, fields, and subfields. There
is a giant gulf separating the natural sciences from the social sciences and
humanities. The natural sciences claim objective, factual knowledge of the world
via the allegedly value-free “scientific method.” The social sciences have tried
to emulate the natural sciences’ empiricism, with mixed success. The humanities
have been confined to the realm of personal opinion, some would say irrelevance,
reflected in various schools of thought in philosophy and a great diversity of
ethical, aesthetic, and religious persuasions seen as merely subjective. This
led C. P. Snow to lament the division between scientists and humanists in The
Two Cultures (2003).
What Ecklund and Kronman, among others, overlook are efforts
at bridge-building across all disciplines, reconnecting knowledge, ethics and
faith, aspiring to integrate scientific facts, values, ethics, and religious
worldviews in the quest for a more holistic understanding of the promise and
challenge of being human. One such educational endeavor is the Institute for
Interdisciplinary Research, the International Christian Studies Association,
and their co-sponsored Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies: An International
Journal of Interdisciplinary and Interfaith Dialogue, a refereed trilingual
thematic annual, and a unique resource for student and faculty mentoring. Thus,
skeptics would be encouraged to learn about the prospects for redeeming the
academe’s future via a Third Culture, a culture of cultures, re-envisioning all
disciplines, theory and practice (Gruenwald 2005). Skeptics on both sides of the
evolution-creation controversy, which undermines both science education and
faith commitments, would be even more surprised at the possibility of a
conceptual-theoretical breakthrough bridging Darwinism and Intelligent Design, a
new paradigm in Thomas Kuhn’s (1973) sense–a Copernican revolution in evolution
In brief, there is hope that academic culture may yet come to
address student needs for relevance, meaning, ethical engagement, and the
spiritual quest, as well as the widespread public distrust of science. The
obstacles for transforming academic culture are formidable. Kronman is right
that the American university is modeled on the research ideal. More daunting is
the fact, noted by Louis Menand, that the American university is a “product of
the nineteenth century,” and that it has changed little structurally “since the
time of the First World War” (2010: 17). Menand is painfully aware that the
university’s research ideal, which requires narrow specialization, runs counter
to the expectation that faculty teaching should help students connect the
insights of various disciplines and specializations in order to make the college
experience relevant to real life. Menand proposes that faculty should be trained
“differently,” but dismisses interdisciplinarity as a “buzzword” and expression
of academic Angst, or a he puts it “an administrative name for an anxiety
and a hope that are personal” (2010: 125, 158).
Menand concludes that the present academic system is “a
deeply internalized one,” resistant to change (2010: 157). Of greater concern is
Menand’s observation that the academic system tends to conformism in that:
“Professors tend increasingly to think alike because the profession is
increasingly self-selected. The university may not explicitly require conformity
on more than scholarly matters, but the existing system implicitly demands and
constructs it” (2010: 155). If Menand’s observation is true, then, what the
contemporary university needs most is intellectual diversity. Menand admits that
the university professoriate is out of step with American public opinion and,
while faculty should not be a copycat or mirror the public, “a greater diversity
of views within the professoriate is a worthy goal” (2010: 155). Yet, given what
Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter identify as the “vanishing conservative”
from the faculties of American universities (in Maranto 2009: 60), such a goal
appears but a distant ideal. Despite the prevalence of “group-think” in
academia, Daniel Klein and Charlotta Stern are more optimistic that reality will
"Our hunch about the future is that the social democratic dominance within the
humanities and social sciences will grow increasingly insipid. Over time, it
will become less hostile to classical liberal and conservative ideas, and such
scholars of a mild, strategic kind will have greater success in permeating these
fields. Enlightenment has its own power and rewards, and, nowadays, even
scholarly discourse is much too contestable to succeed in keeping classical
liberalism down" (2009: 96).
Klein and Stern may be right regarding future prospects for
the academy. In the meantime, independent thought seems confined mainly to
reservations for thought and action. Conservative thought still flourishes in
such think-tanks as the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty,
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Cato Institute,
Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy,
Ethics and Public Policy Center, Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institution, Hudson
Institute, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and Manhattan Institute. Yet the
challenge remains for mainstream institutions of higher learning to encourage
true intellectual diversity beyond left and right, liberal and conservative.
THE POSTMODERN TEMPTATION
If there is to be a true reform in the academy, making it
more relevant to its central mission of teaching, research, and service in the
twenty-first century, then there is a great need for revitalizing academic
culture as free inquiry. As critics surmise, student boredom and faculty apathy
are due to the fact that the university no longer addresses perennial issues,
first principles, great questions of good and evil, ethical imperatives or
religious inspiration, which imbue life with meaning, value, and purpose. More
than an “establishment of nonbelief” is at play. Rather, what needs
interrogating is the postmodern temper, which envelops the university with
largely unexamined cultural assumptions, what one might call the postmodern
That the university needs such ideals as tolerance, civility of discourse,
openness to new ideas, appreciation of other cultures, concern for the
underprivileged, and freedom to critique existing socio-economic and political
systems, institutions and processes, is beyond question. In fact, a healthy dose
of pragmatism and even skepticism is desirable for realistic assessment of both
secular and religious utopianism and fanaticism epitomized by the Marxist
project of a classless society, which leads to the Gulag (Gruenwald 1983), and
Islam’s inversion into terrorist jihad, impugning all religious believers
as “fundamentalists.” As Sommerville counsels, “imagine universities that are
incidentally secular in the sense that religion doesn’t rule, but not officially
secularist in the sense that religion is ruled out: universities whose goal is
not to impose a privileged viewpoint but to understand all viewpoints that are
able to win a hearing” (2006: 143).
At present, Christian and other viewpoints based on a
religious conception of the self and the world are increasingly suspect in
academe. Worse, educators who espouse religious viewpoints, especially
Christianity, find to their amazement that even the courts no longer protect
their first amendment rights of free speech or conscience. Curiously, the
reigning ideal of tolerance excludes not only religious viewpoints, but all
explicitly normative approaches which dare to invoke universal standards of
ethics or absolutes that transcend the social construction of reality as mere
subjectivity. Welcome to po-mo.
It is a great irony that the prevailing postmodern ethos of
the contemporary university, which emphasizes tolerance and a non-judgmental
stance, is intolerant of all normative approaches to reality. This reflects
postmodernity’s basic premise that there are no ascertainable truths,
universals or absolutes, that all standards are socially constructed, and that
truth is but a function of the particular configuration of power in a society.
In this postmodern ethos, the Self has become the ultimate arbiter of morality.
Such radical subjectivism is the epitome of moral-ethical relativism. As William Gairdner comments: “Ironically, relativism has become our only absolute” (2009:
x). But, if everything is relative, if there are no standards for truth, beauty,
ethical conduct, meaning, and value, what, then, is the purpose of a university
education? If there is no ascertainable truth to anything in this world, beyond
human subjectivity and the shifting sands of socio-cultural whims, of what use
is a university?
If the university is to become relevant once more to real
life by encouraging human striving for excellence, self-knowledge, and
discovery, it will need to re-dedicate itself to exploring first principles,
normative standards for discerning good and evil, the permanent things and
truths about Nature and human nature. An appreciation of the normative standards
or an Archimedes point for truths, absolutes, and universals would help also
rebuild both broken selves and up-ended communities. Gairdner cautions that “it
is plainly impossible for human beings to form a community of any kind
whatsoever when all their judgments are relative. For taken to the natural
conclusion, the relativist position on any subject will always result in a
collision of private viewpoints and in human disconnection” (2009: xii).
Relativism is not only corrosive of social relations, but undermines the very
purposes of a university education: to learn the truth about ourselves and the
world. Gairdner argues convincingly that relativism is self-refuting, logically
incoherent, anti-liberal, that it undermines freedom and democracy, and even
requires absolutes (2009: 31-43). More to the point, Gairdner’s study offers a
catalogue of universals in nature, human life, and culture, which stand in stark
contrast to po-mo’s denial of absolutes and universals in favor of “difference.”
Gairdner shows that the universals of law–natural law and moral law–are common
to all cultures, times and places, and offers an insight which ought to guide a
true university educating the whole person:
"All humans must cultivate a higher self (guided by the compass of natural law)
that seeks the common good and is based in right reason in order to control or
guide their own wayward or unnatural passions and unjust urges" (2009: 193).
This recalls the classical Greek paideia of educating
body, mind, and soul (Gruenwald 1999). It reveals also the fundamental flaw in
the postmodern ethos: a one-dimensional, reductionist conception of human
nature, which extols the id (instinctual drives) and ego (self-centeredness or
narcissism), and bars the superego (conscience). Po-mo’s skewed conception of
human nature thus precludes the right ordering of the soul, where the appetites
and the spirited element should be subordinate to the intellect or reason.
Christianity ennobled the classic conception of human nature by connecting its
aspirations to a vertical dimension of transcendence (Gruenwald 2007). This is
why Caldecott can conclude that “the Christian conception of freedom is larger
and fuller than the modern conception, for it includes both vertical and
horizontal dimensions” (2009: 139).
Crucially, what po-mo
denies explicitly or implicitly in acknowledging only “difference” is a
universal human nature which is the bedrock for sociality, common bonds, and
community. Without a common human nature, we are all condemned to “bowl alone.”
In brief, in denying universals and absolutes, po-mo reduces the complex human
being to a one-dimensional man driven by instincts, socialized by prevailing
cultural prejudices, and incapable of reaching for the spiritual nexus of
transcendence. To be relevant, then, the twenty-first century university needs
to rediscover the universals of law–natural law and the moral law. This is
imperative, in Gairdner’s view, because
"all normal human beings carry the compass of natural law within: an innate
sense of the rightness of things like justice, truth telling, fairness, equity,
love, courage, wisdom, and so on, which are understood universally as rough
standards of moral conduct and right reason by which all human beings attempt to
guide themselves" (2009: 193).
Gairdner concludes that this, then, is the natural law. Tradition–a shorthand
for centuries of accumulated experience and a measure of wisdom–teaches also
that the natural law and the moral law reflect the divine law, and point to a
universal Law-Giver or God. This is perhaps what makes natural law and the moral
law suspect to those who are a law unto themselves.
BEYOND POLITICAL CORRECTNESS
Some might question whether moral-ethical relativism is the
root cause of the crisis of the contemporary university. Thus, John Agresto
claims that he has “never met a relativist in academe in all my life, at least
not in the humanities and social sciences” (in Maranto 2009: 288). Agresto
explains that: “In fact, those most bent on proselytizing their students are
always the farthest from relativism that one can find. They know what is true
and what is false, what is just and unjust, good and bad, and if they have their
way, their students will soon know it, too. Proselytizing is, in a way, their
‘job’” (in Maranto 2009: 288-89). Agresto’s description of proselytizing fits to
a “T” the postmodern turn in the academy known as “political correctness,”
enforced by the PC thought police with controversial “speech codes,” obligatory
“sensitivity” training for infractions, and ideologically pre-loaded freshman
orientation for incoming students, which inculcate such “progressive” ideologies
as multiculturalism (code name for disparaging Western civilization), radical
feminism, gay-lesbian activism, and sundry left-liberal intellectual fashions.
postmodernism in the academy found a congenial ally in “political correctness”
as a method of “deconstruction.” Gairdner suggests that attacking the West
became the fashionable aim of the politics of postmodernism, while
deconstruction, “politically speaking, and despite protestations to the
contrary, was indeed about destruction: of Western philosophy, morality,
society, science, the lot. Derrida’s brand of radical linguistic polyvalence was
the tool” (2009: 264-65). Gairdner is hopeful that the postmodern era may be
coming to an end, since there is a “recurring hunger for universals” (2009:
303). As Gairdner muses, “universals of all kinds point to a common humanity,”
while po-mo was “a repudiation not only of all standards, foundations, and
concepts of the general and universal but even of the very idea of such things”
It is only unclear why Agresto faults “the libertarian right”
and “the most vociferous critics of PC,” rather than “the left,” as the worst
offenders in terms of proselytizing students, when the overwhelming evidence
amassed in the multi-authored volume on The Politically Correct University
points in the other direction (in Maranto 2009: 289). In Agresto’s view, to
reform the politically correct university entails reforming the liberal arts.
But he offers few pointers beyond the usual lip-service to the liberal arts as
an ideal. Paradoxically, Agresto acknowledges what he calls
"the subtler politicization that imbues many courses, often without the
professor, much less the students, seeing it. In some places, a Marxist or
feminist analysis just seems natural. That’s the way the professor was taught in
graduate school, that’s what he thinks constitutes analysis, and that’s the
basis on which he constructs his syllabus. He doesn’t see it as political,
because he thinks that way of looking at the material is what professors do” (in Maranto 2009: 291).
Agresto’s admission concerning the creeping politicization of
the academy confirms the cogency of our thesis regarding the urgent need for
re-imagining the university as free inquiry in the quest for truth, and an
institution fostering moral and intellectual integrity par excellence. Yet Agresto’s proposed remedy is less than convincing. It is too general and
abstract, invoking administrative restructuring and vague reforms rather than
coming to grips with salient issues underlying the crisis of the contemporary
university. According to Agresto: “Truly to begin to break the back of the PC
university would involve reforming graduate education, reforming the nature of
the PhD, and breaking the nexus between ‘cutting-edge scholarship’ and earning a
doctorate. Yet hardly any of the foes of political correctness seem prepared to
talk about this” (in Maranto 2009: 291).
Institutional reforms may, indeed, prove helpful, especially
with regard to encouraging interdisciplinary exploration by breaking down
barriers between disciplines to overcome the departmental compartmentalization
of knowledge and resulting overspecialization referred to in common parlance as
“knowing too much about too little.” Institutional reforms can also help advance
such crucial objectives as more comprehensive student counseling and more
focused career preparation combined with a strong core curriculum in the liberal
arts, more transparency in fiscal management, oversight and accountability, more
full-time opportunities and shared governance, and even a more congenial public
perception of the reality and promise of higher education. But as educators we
know that the key to reforming any institution–including the university–needs to
begin with people: students, faculty, and administrators.
In sum, the university needs to re-dedicate itself to the
search for truth about ourselves and the world without cant and politically
correct ideologies. Beyond a multiversity, a true university would better
fulfill the American Promise of higher education, reflecting Newman’s ideal of
the “enlargement of the mind” and a “wholeness of vision” in educating the whole
person. Such education might even be conducive to the rediscovery and a new
appreciation of the timeless Biblical injunction that “ye shall know the truth,
and the truth shall make you free” (John 8: 32).
C. S. Lewis formulated the classic dilemma of freedom of
choice and ethics as a quest for identifying truth as “correspondence to
reality,” also known as the Tao (the Way or the Road), defined as “the
doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true,
and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of
things we are” (1996: 30). Lewis further points out St. Augustine’s conception
of virtue as “ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in
which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate
to it” (1996: 28-29). This leads to the conclusion that truth, freedom, and
virtue are the quintessential aspects of the human striving for excellence and
self-understanding as prerequisites for a more felicitous social life. These are
also the irreplaceable ideals for a higher education which can empower
individuals to discern what is true, good, and beautiful.
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