Polytechnic Utiliversity: Reinhard Hutter argues for putting the universal back in university.

Author:Hutter, Reinhard
Position:Essay
 
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University education delivers goods that are seen as commodities, as purchasable means to satisfy individual desires and solve collective problems. The knowledge it offers is a production, a techne that is a means to an end extrinsic to it. All academic disciplines in the late-modern research university have become servile arts, and the university an accidental agglomeration of advanced research competencies gathered in one facility for the sake of managerial and logistical convenience.

The ideal of a liberal education that carries its end in its very practice has been supplanted by an efficiency-driven program of knowledge making and a respective training in the communicative, mathematical, and scientific skills necessary for contributing to this knowledge making and applying it to ends dictated by individual and collective desires. The university has morphed into a polytechnicum with a functionalized, propaedeutic liberal arts appendix, a community college on steroids, with undergraduate training subdivided into functionalized pre-med, pre-law, pre-engineering training and the "salad bar" consumer curriculum in the humanities.

Let me call this the Baconian university, named after its spiritus rector, Francis Bacon. The American Association of Universities, the exclusive club of the nation's leading research universities, characterizes a research university as an institution that instills command for real-world problems. The research university combines cutting-edge research with training that is a preparation for the graduate work of highly specialized research programs. John Henry Newman had this model very much on his mind when he delivered his classic set of discourses on the "scope and nature of university education," delivered in 1852 to the Catholic intelligentsia in Dublin: "I cannot deny [that Bacon] has abundantly achieved what he proposed. His is simply a Method whereby bodily discomforts and temporal wants are to be most effectually removed from the greatest number."

This university is, of course, a thoroughly secular affair. As Brad Gregory aptly put it in The Unintended Reformation: "Regardless of the academic discipline, knowledge in the Western world today is considered secular by definition. Its assumptions, methods, content, and truth claims are and can only be secular, framed not only by the logical demand of rational coherence, but also by the methodological postulate of naturalism and its epistemological correlate, evidentiary empiricism."

Why should we care? Our late-modern society needs scholars, technicians, and experts to address the social, political, and environmental problems it has created, and the late-modern research university is able to deliver. The very success of the Baconian university carries in itself the seed of its own destruction. For if the current trend should come to its logical term--if indeed each of the advanced research competencies of the university could be located elsewhere, linked directly to companies and state labs--then the university in any substantive sense will have disappeared. To call the result of this transmutation a university would simply be an equivocation, undoubtedly useful for reasons of branding and marketing, but hardly for reasons of substance.

The university was once a unity per se that carried its end in its very practices of education and inquiry. It is now a unity per accidens, a contingent conglomeration of means that serve changing extrinsic ends, a knowledge corporation that sells goods of "know-how" in the service of ends determined by advanced techno-capitalist societies. The philosopher Benedict Ashley, educated in the early years of the University of Chicago's remarkable undergraduate program, writes in his magnum opus, The Way toward Wisdom: "The very term 'university' means many-looking-toward-one, and is related to the term 'universe,' the whole of reality. Thus, the name no longer seems appropriate to such a fragmented modern institution whose unity is provided only by a financial administration and perhaps a sports team."

This is where Newman's importance becomes most clear. His prophetic provocation offered a compelling account of the university as a unity per se--and with it a most timely appeal to theology's indispensability for the maintenance of this unity. He was a prophetic voice, a thorn in the flesh of the twentieth-century attempts at functionalizing the university to the ends of the modern bureaucratic nation-state, the communist program, the fascist state organization of the superior race and its will to power, or the desires of individual consumers in a permissive society.

Newman holds university education to be essentially liberal education--that is, education that carries its end in itself. While not necessarily embracing all or even most fields of knowledge--an obvious impossibility for quite a while now--liberal education is essentially philosophical in the sense that it fosters reflection upon one's knowledge in relationship to other fields...

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