The Pursuit of Knowledge

The Idea of a University

Surely there is a better way to manage the transition from adolescence to adulthood than by spending the family savings on a four-year course in resentment.

By From the September 2010 issue

Send to Kindle

The pope is about to visit England, and is expected during the visit to announce the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the scholar, priest, and poet, who left the Anglican for the Roman Catholic Church in 1845, and who was to become the most important Catholic intellectual of his time. From 1854, for a period of five years, Newman was rector of the newly founded Catholic University of Ireland (now University College Dublin), and during that time he delivered lectures that were later published as The Idea of a University -- surely the most serene and beautiful vindication that we have of the old ideal of the scholarly life.

For Newman a university does not exist simply to convey information or expertise. The university is a society in which the student absorbs the graces and accomplishments of a higher form of life. In the university, according to Newman, the pursuit of truth and the active discussion of its meaning are integrated into a wider culture, in which the ideal of the gentleman is acknowledged as the standard. The gentleman does not merely know things; he is receptive to the tone, the meaning, the lived reality of what he knows. Thus, for Newman, "the general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already." The university of Newman's day was a place in which men (and it was then an institution for men only) lived for scholarship, and arranged their lives around the sacrifice that scholarship requires. It was not simply a repository of knowledge. It was a place where work and leisure occurred side by side, shaping each other, and each playing its part in producing the well-formed and graceful personality.

A reader of Cardinal Newman's book today is likely to agree that the university, as he describes it, would be an institution of irreplaceable value. Newman's university was to be an integral part of the social order. It was to set an example and to help young men to live up to it. It was not the antagonist but the completion of ordinary life, and the great rewards that it offered were to be purchased by social discipline. Newman's university was to be eminently respectable: critical of society only because critical of itself.

I suspect that many middle-class parents, when it comes to deciding on their teenage children's future, entertain a picture of university life that is not entirely at odds with that painted by Newman. They will recognize the gap between Newman's ideal and the imperfect realities. But they will recognize that this gap does not necessarily represent a decline. Universities now admit women, and try as best they can to offer their benefits to people in all walks of life and regardless of personal connections or social class. Those changes will count, in most eyes, as improvements. And the resources available to a modern university are many factors greater than those enjoyed by the university described by Newman, which had next to nothing in the way of lecture halls, book-lending facilities, concert halls, and places of recreation.

The middle-class father, preparing to meet tuition fees of $40,000 or more, and board and lodging on top of that, will naturally dwell on all the ways in which this represents a good investment. But when his daughter emerges three or four years later with a degree in Women's Studies, the main outward sign of which is a well-honed grievance against men in general and the last one in particular, he is likely to question the wisdom of throwing away a third of a million dollars on such an outcome. Finding that his daughter's ignorance of the classics is as great on leaving university as it was on entering it, that she has graduated from her teenage pop idols only to immerse herself in more "advanced" forms of rock and heavy metal, and that her attitude to career, marriage, childbearing, and all the other things that he had hoped for her is entirely negative, such a father is sure to regret the use of his money.

OF COURSE that is an extreme case. But it has been apparent to many commentators, at least since Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, that all is not well with the university today, and that parents have little or no guarantee that the vast cost of a university education will be rewarded with a viable product. If young James or Clarissa studies math and sciences; if he or she makes the right friends; plays viola in a string quartet; joins a theatre group; avoids drink, drugs, and promiscuous sex and holds on, against the odds, to the religion of the family home, then the experience will be worth the vast expenditure.

But I have just described an exceptional case, and certainly not the majority. Most students now graduate in soft subjects that require ideological conformity rather than intellectual growth, and most spend their leisure hours in ways of which their parents would not approve. This is often defended as the natural result of academic freedom. You cannot grant to universities the intellectual freedom that scholarship requires, it is argued, and also deny the moral freedom that enables students to adapt through their own "experiments in living." Freedom is indivisible, and without it knowledge cannot grow.

The problem with that argument is that, outside the natural sciences and a few solid humanities like philosophy and Egyptology, academic freedom is a thing of the past. What is expected of the student in many courses in the humanities and social sciences is ideological conformity, rather than critical appraisal, and censorship has become accepted as a legitimate part of the academic way of life. "No platform" policies, forbidding people of unorthodox or offensive views from addressing audiences on campus, or speech codes that condemn unorthodox statements as "hate speech" are now widely accepted. This would matter less if the opinions and idioms condemned were those of some antisocial minority. But they are usually those of the "moral majority," and are often condemned in order to appease groups (Islamists, gay activists, radical feminists) whose loyalty to the established order is questionable at best.

Under a president whose knowledge of life seems to have been acquired entirely from campus orthodoxies and who seeks to impose those orthodoxies on the American people, it is inevitable that ordinary conservative Americans should wonder whether a university education is quite the bargain that its defenders claim it to be. Surely there is a better way to manage the transition from adolescence to adulthood than by spending the family savings on a four-year course in resentment.

THE GREAT VIRTUE OF AMERICAN SOCIETY is that individual citizens have the scope, the freedom, and the habits of association that enable them to pursue their own objectives, regardless of the established institutions. We have seen this in the movement for homeschooling. We saw it in the growth of the liberal arts colleges in the 19th century, and in the continued founding of new colleges devoted to old and defiant ideals. Could we not envisage a wholly new kind of university, responsive to the wishes of parents, and liberated from the phony subjects and dubious social mores that have occupied the American campus? It seems to me that we can, and that modern technology has put this new kind of university within the reach of everyone.

I envisage an experiment in "distance learning," in which students work from home, and attend lectures, receive tutorials, and engage in discussions through Internet connections. As the Internet becomes more interactive, the need for universities to establish themselves in physical space, rather than in cyberspace, is less evident. Virtual communities of scholarship might be more volatile than real communities of scholars. But they will be far more responsive to the demands of their customers, and far cheaper to run. They could provide most of what is provided by a humanities department, with the added advantage of choosing their professors from all over the world, and paying a proper market price for them. First-rate scholars could participate in such a project, knowing that they do not have to share their earnings with the second-rate colleagues who form the solid mass of humanities departments in physical space. And although rehearsals might be difficult, the cyber-university orchestra, when it finally comes together in the two weeks of summer devoted to real meetings in real space, would enjoy a range of talent as great as the National Youth Orchestra.

Already I have begun to encounter university colleagues, marginalized for their conservative views or for their dissatisfaction with the way things are done, who are looking for other ways of continuing the great tradition of higher learning, and of passing on to the next generation some of the knowledge that was passed on to them. Such is the prevailing spirit in America, that I suspect the cyber-university will be a day-to-day reality, long before the old universities wake up to the fact that they have priced themselves out of the market. And maybe future generations will look back on those dreaming spires in cyberspace with the same nostalgia with which Newman, lecturing in the bleak surroundings of the new Catholic University of Ireland, looked back on the towers and quadrangles of his beloved Oxford. 

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Roger Scruton is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, has just been published by Oxford University Press.