Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Unity and Diversity in the University Curriculum

July 17, 2017

by Jonathan Rowland

As we all know, any large university will contain dozens of departments, each of which specializes in a particular subject area, and each of which functions independently of other departments. In universities where the curriculum is not prescribed (U.S), students can pick and choose individual courses without a clear sense of whether, how or why their courses hang together. In universities that do prescribe the curriculum (U.K.), students find themselves confronted with a bewildering array of subjects from which to choose. Modern universities must seem to many students like large supermarkets which offer a perplexing range of knowledge items to be selected on the basis of interest, or whim, on the basis of prudence or chance.

Unfortunate as this may seem, it would be premature to accuse the modern university of a complete dereliction of duty. After all, its myriad of subject specialisms reflects two unavoidable facets of modern life: a massive increase in the volume of knowledge, and the productive use of specialization. These two features of modern life are inextricably linked. The sheer amount of knowledge means that scholars inevitably select a limited area in which to develop expertise. But, going deeply into a small area often produces new knowledge which in turn yields new areas of specialization. Universities cannot simply be blamed for trying to keep up with the growth of knowledge by increasing their collection of departments and sub-departments.

Yet the apparently chaotic situation of the modern university curriculum can create an unhealthy sense of uncertainty in the minds of it’s students. It can create the impression that different subject areas are merely scattered islands of information brought together under the roof of the university for no particular reason. Academic specialists might be content with this view of knowledge, but it does raise a serious question about the purpose of the university. While each individual specialism may have its own intrinsic importance, no single specialism is capable of addressing the entire range of human concerns. Therefore no specific discipline can fully answer the questions we ask about the final purpose of our learning. And, if the various disciplines cannot be related to some overriding purpose, we will have no justification for maintaining an institution that tries to bring them together under one roof.

What is at stake is not simply a question of university organization. To define the purpose of the university requires some account of the nature of knowledge itself. If the disparate areas of human knowledge have no common ground and no common purpose, we cannot expect the university to be a deeply coherent institution. If, on the other hand, human knowledge has some unifying features, we have hope that the university itself can display some coherence.

There is no disguising the fact that when the problem of modern university education is posed in this way, it leads us straight to some of the central concerns of post-modern philosophy. Let me therefore make one or two remarks on some of the trends within post-modern thought. As I see it one key theme of post-modernism has been its rejection of attempts to encapsulate human experience within a single over-arching intellectual vision. Human experience it too diverse, too varied and too unpredictable to fit into any single rational scheme of how things work. Kant’s idealism, Marx’s dialectical materialism and Freud’s analysis of the self all represent failed attempts to contain the quixotic, mercurial and mysterious dimensions of human life within the firm and controlling grasp of rational analysis. Surely there is something right in what post-modernism has to say to Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment attempts to chart definitively the varied and variable terrain of human experience.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that some post-modern attempts to resist overweening intellectual abstraction have created special problems for the modern university. Foucault’s understanding of the various branches of intellectual pursuit as isolated colonies of knowledge generated to serve the interests of contemporary social institutions leaves the modern university without any coherent framework except the pursuit and maintenance of power. We would be naive to dismiss Foucault’s insights into the relationship between knowledge and power. At the same time his unwillingness to grant a unifying vision which is capable of transcending institutional self-interest leaves us with no real resources to check the naked pursuit of power. It also leaves us without the resources to see in our pursuit of knowledge a quest which can imbue our lives with a sense of transcending value and meaning.

What I therefore hope to do is to explore a vision of the university which is based upon a definition of knowledge that avoids the hubris of modern ideologies on the one hand, and answers the nihilistic strands of post-modernism on the other. My starting point for this exploration will be John Henry Newman’s Idea of the University. Newman has left us with a classic discussion of the nature and purpose of the university which exercised considerable influence in Great Britain for some time. It is, therefore, difficult to enter a discussion of the modern, secularized university without taking some account of his position. My argument will be that his vision is largely unworkable in today’s circumstances, but that it does leave us with insights of enduring importance.

According to Newman, the point of an undergraduate university education is not simply to acquire knowledge (though this is part of it); nor is it to achieve ethical improvement (though a university education disposes the student toward certain virtues). On his view, the aim of a university education is to develop the intellect. Newman employs the metaphor of athletic development to explain what he means intellectual development. Just as physical exercise brings strength, tone and suppleness to the human body, academic labours bring a sensitivity, balance and breadth to the human mind. The task of the university is to help bring the inherent qualities of intellect to full and proper development. Newman is not talking about developing mental prowess of a technical kind. The final goal of the university is enlargement of mind, that is, the ability to judge in a calm, knowledgeable and careful manner, an ability he calls the philosophical habit of mind. Because this habit of mind involves not only the possession of knowledge, but also appreciating its implications for, and application to, life in general, it can be said that the goal of a university education is the acquisition of wisdom.

The university is uniquely suited to this task partly because it brings together a variety of individuals and a variety of academic disciplines which force the student to take a broader view of life than he or she might otherwise do.

Furthermore, the close proximity of several academic disciplines is essential for the proper pursuit of any specific discipline. Here Newman’s argument has a special bearing upon our concerns. On his view, disparate academic disciplines need each other for at least two related reasons. First, academic disciplines, by their very nature, tend to be theoretical and speculative. The academic is in pursuit of a consistent, coherent and conceptually satisfying account of his subject matter. But the texture of life is messier than academic theories. By the very nature of their pursuit, academics risk loosing touch with the irregular contours of day to day experience. Yet, when several disciplines work side by side, each one is reminded that the common experience of humanity is not completely captured by any single discipline. The irregularity of human life means that it is capable of being seen from several points of view and that therefore any single point of view is incomplete.

Moreover, the constant reminder that no single point of view is complete is essential for checking the imperialistic tendencies of each discipline. Any given academic discipline wants to see itself as offering the most important understanding of human life. The mutual suspicion with which different disciplines often regard each other is evidence enough that each discipline would like to see itself as the highest form of knowledge. By working together in the same institution, the different disciplines hold each other in check. By constantly rubbing shoulders they perpetuate a sense of each others limits and in that way make each other more faithful to their specific and limited avenue into human experience.

So far, what we have found in Newman’s understanding of the university might be described as a practical justification for keeping the many faculties of the university together. Each discipline benefits by being in close proximity to the others. Yet, Newman is not simply concerned with creating the proper environment for the pursuit of any given academic discipline. Perhaps the most important reason for bringing all the disciplines under one roof is that it helps the university student to become better educated. What Newman means by this is not that universities are superior educational institutions because they offer students greater range of subjects to study. He is more interested in the vision of knowledge that the university can give to each student regardless of what subject they choose to study. By seeing all the branches of knowledge in operation in one place, the student gains a sense of the whole of knowledge. The student acquires that breadth of understanding which is essential for forming the philosophical habit of mind (that capacity to judge with freedom, equitableness, calmness, and moderation).

Though Newman sees both the arts and sciences as contributing equally to a student’s sense of the breadth of knowledge, he nevertheless gives the humanities a special role in the process of education. What then is the special role of the humanities? Newman’s reply to this question is really two-fold. In his view, the constitutive elements of classical education provide the best materials for training the mind. The literature, history and philosophy of Greece and Rome – in short the backbone of traditional Western education – offer the best materials for perfecting the specific attributes of the intellect. Though the sciences are required for completeness of view, it is the humanities which provide the most ‘invigorating discipline for the unformed mind.’ So the arts are essential for developing intellectual strength and facility.

Yet, there is another aspect to Newman’s understanding of the role of the humanities. This emerges in his discussion of the purpose of literature. Literature is meant to express in language the ideas, feelings and opinions, of the human mind. Though his language sounds intellectualistic, it is clear that Newman is talking about the affective dimension of human experience. In his view, a great writer is the person who has the gift of expressing in a representative way the passions of the human heart. And because they so powerfully express the passions of the heart, great writers play a vital role exposing and defining this level of human experience. Such writers are described by Newman as the spokesmen and prophets of the human family. It is their role in defining and shaping human experience which makes them worthy of study and worth learning from.

We can now see clearly that Newman’s vision of the university is more than merely pragmatic. Implied in his conviction that it is vital for proper intellectual development that a student sees the full range of subjects in operation is the belief that all the different forms of knowledge form a coherent whole of some kind. Empirical science and ancient philosophy possess some ground of unity which allows them to function with coherent purpose next to each other in a university. Newman finds this common ground in his belief that an intelligent, omnipotent being created the world out of love. The apparently competing claims of different academic disciplines – especially the competing claims of theology and science – would eventually be reconciled because the world itself was the product of a rational maker. Because the world is intrinsically rational, the different ways of understanding it would, in the long run, be compatible with each other.

If Newman allows for an explicitly theological ground as the source of the unity of knowledge, what does he say about the academic study of theology? In other words what is his understanding of the place of theology within the academic curriculum? According to Newman, the order of creation yields reliable knowledge of its creator. Newman displays a robust confidence in the intellectual credentials of a certain kind of natural theology. By applying general rational procedures to the world around us we can arrive at intellectually defensible truths about God. Because these truths derive from the proper activity of the intellect natural theology itself is a branch of knowledge as legitimate as any other. If a university is to be truly comprehensive, it should therefore teach theology as a matter of course.

The theological aspects of Newman’s programme would be hotly contested, if not completely rejected, in most universities today. Few universities would accept that a belief in a rational creator is essential to their sense of identity and purpose. Even fewer would argue that theology should have a status in the curriculum not essentially different from biology or history. For these and other reasons, it would not seem appropriate to define the purpose of a modern, secularized university in the kind of explicitly theological terms that Newman espoused. Where then can we find a basis for the coherent pursuit of learning in a secular context?

Despite the limited utility of Newman’s explicit theological vision, the definition of the philosophical habit of mind points suggestively toward a phenomenology of the intellect which can be of help to us. The idea is simply this: training the mind involves developing specific intellectual attributes (balance, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation). This only comes about by engagement with specific bodies of knowledge like literature, history and biology. But we can only engage with this knowledge by means of specific intellectual activities like memory, analysis, systematization, criticism and use of the imagination. Given the close link between specific bodies of knowledge, Newman’s attributes of the well developed mind, and what I am calling the activities of the mind, it seems plausible to argue that what we call knowledge does have certain unifying features, at least of a descriptive kind. Perhaps we can say that any material which can be analyzed, criticized, systematised etc. and contributes to the development of the intellect stands a good chance of qualifying as a body of knowledge appropriate for study at the university level.

If we add to our phenomenology of knowledge the further claim that the purpose of rational activity is to better understand the human condition widely understood, we may find grounds of a more limited kind for defining the purpose of the university. This purpose would be the pursuit of knowledge descriptively defined, in order to understand better every aspect of our existence. Such a theory of the unity and purpose of knowledge could not guarantee that disagreements between different academic disciplines could eventually be reconciled, but it would give reasons for preserving an institution which attempts to bring all the forms of human knowledge under one roof.

Where might theology fit into this approach? Certainly the idea of theology as a branch of knowledge like all others would not be acceptable within a modern university. Nevertheless, if the pursuit of knowledge is about understanding the human condition, then questions about the final purpose of human existence cannot be avoided. Certain forms of theology, philosophy and religious studies have given definitive intellectual expression to the human quest for ultimate meaning. If these disciplines were understood as offering resources for addressing the question of final purpose, they could, without contradiction, be incorporated into the curriculum of a modern university.

Yet there are grounds for thinking that theology could play a larger role in helping to define the purpose, or perhaps more precisely, influence the ethos of the contemporary university. My suggestion that one source of unity in knowledge might be found in identifying the generic features of knowledge implies the need to reappraise the relationship between science and the arts. If all knowledge can be seen as the attempt to give intelligibility to human experience, then the various branches of knowledge must be understood as different modalities of intelligibility. Science and the arts should therefore not be seen as two competing disciplines which have little in common. Rather, they should both be understood as the attempts by the intellect to give meaning in different ways to the world we live in. On this view the traditional antagonism between the humanities and the sciences is ultimately artificial. It is not that science possesses a higher order of knowledge or the arts a deeper form of understanding. Instead, both must be seen as attempts to create intelligibility out of experience by subjecting that experience to different modes of understanding. Because the work of common intelligence upon common experience ultimately defines both approaches to reality, rapprochement should, in principle, be possible between the two.

This sounds like an ambitious aspiration, but there is evidence in our society that the tendency to evaluate all of knowledge and experience in terms of the paradigm of scientific knowledge is in the process of breaking down. This move away from idealizing scientific methodology is prompting a search for new paradigms of understanding which hold out the possibility of bringing the concerns of the humanities into a more harmonious relationship with the pursuit of science. I would like now to look a three very broad areas of contemporary life which show evidence of science and humanistic concerns making contact with each other.

1. Medicine. Despite breathtaking advances in medical technology, we are witnessing in the West an increasing awareness of the limits of modern medicine. No longer do we see our local GP as possessing clear answers to all our medical problems. We are increasingly aware of both the limits of modern medicine and the complexity involved in the idea of health.

Let me illustrate what I mean by reference to the role that antibiotics have played in modern medicine. Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928 brought a change to modern medicine which was to revolutionize its practice and revolutionize our perception of the medical profession. Until that time infectious diseases had been treated with highly caustic chemicals like iodine, arsenic and quinine. These chemicals were effective in killing germs, but because of their high toxicity could easily harm patients as well. They offered at best a precarious form of medical treatment. Penicillin, by contrast, possessed the ability to kill threatening bacteria without aggressively harmful side effects to the patient. By 1941 the first patients were being very effectively cured of dangerous diseases in a safe and reliable manner.

The social impact of this discovery was immense. Penicillin was used with astonishing success during WWII to cure and minimize infections caused by war wounds. After the war, the effectiveness of penicillin stimulated the development of medicines which could control and eliminate diseases which up to that time routinely killed and crippled countless people. Tuberculosis, polio, pneumonia and influenza could not only be controlled, but in some cases eliminated from society altogether. The advent of effective antibiotics created the wide spread expectation that diseases could be contained and eventually defeated by the application of science to health problems.

One effect of this astounding success was to produce unquestioned confidence in the power of modern medicine. By mid-century medical doctors in the Western world were often the most respected members of society. Furthermore, embedded in this new confidence were important assumptions about the meaning and definition of health and illness. The sheer efficiency of modern medicine meant that health and illness were seen in largely technical terms. Illness came to be perceived as a kind of mechanical defect to the body. Health, by contrast, came to be seen as the absence of such defects.

Behind this view of health and illness lurked a very specific understanding of the body. It began to be seen as a fantastically complex organism which could only be understood in scientific terms. The body would only yield its magnificent secrets to the process of clinical interrogation. Having unlocked the truths of the body’s operation, the doctor set out to identify any malfunctions and then correct them by the application of medical technology and chemical remedies. Health and illness were treated as qualities of a beautifully functioning machine rather than conditions possessed by a human person. The psychological and spiritual dimensions of health and illness were ruled out from the start has having no proper place within the framework of modern medicine.

Nevertheless, the tenacity and deadliness of such diseases as AIDS and cancer have helped to bring a new sobriety into our assessment of the powers of modern medicine. No longer is the GP seen as possessing the power to cure all our ills. Along with an increasingly critical attitude toward modern medicine we see a wide-spread interest in alternative medicine. The array of alternative approaches is bewildering. Some emphasize diet, others the healing qualities of plant extracts, others the role that magnetic and electronic fields play in our health. Nevertheless, they all seem to have one thing in common: their aspiration toward a holistic approach to medicine. The local GP is criticized for targeting symptoms and attacking them with chemicals, overlooking the fact that human beings are integrated wholes whose biology, physiology and psychology all play a role in the possession of health or illness. Despite the frustratingly vague and esoteric character of some alternative approaches to medicine, they do represent an attempt to introduce a more humane approach to medicine which is not satisfied with a stark dichotomy between the body as a biological phenomenon and the human personality as a non-material phenomenon.

2. Technology and ethics. The power of scientifically grounded technology has reached such proportions that it is forcing new ethical questions upon us.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the Second World War and especially the Holocaust. These experiences have generated entire disciplines of study which have as their basis the moral evaluation of the effects of technological power. Holocaust studies gains much of its meaning from its attempt to understand and criticize on an ethical basis the consequences of a staggeringly destructive feat of technology.

My point is simply this: scientifically grounded technology has progressed so far that technology can no longer be viewed as an ethically neutral extension of human power. The extension of this power has reminded us once again that the world we live in cannot be neatly divided into a rational, neutral scientific side, and an emotional, human ethical side. Science can no longer be done without facing its ethical implications.

3. Cosmology and religion. If the tone of my remarks up to now has tended to be somewhat critical of science, let that not be mistaken for hostility: far from it. The material and intellectual benefits that modern science has brought us are undeniable. Furthermore, there are some very exciting developments in modern science which could have very positive implications for the relationship between science and religion. Recent work in cosmology has shown that science can make a powerful appeal to our imaginations. The ability of cosmology to capture our attention is evidenced by the fact that Stephen Hawking’s attempt to explain astrophysics became a best seller (A Brief History of Time) Think also of the photographs sent back from the Hubble telescope which expose vast and stunningly beautiful configurations of stars and cosmic gases. Telescopes more powerful than the Hubble promise to reveal new information about the birth of the cosmos.

What has all this got to do with the coherence of the curriculum of a modern university? I argued earlier that theological and religious studies could find their place in a modern university because they provide resources for answering questions about the purpose of our existence. Furthermore, it can be argued that an institution like the university, which is dedicated to critical enquiry, will encourage students to ask basic questions about what they are doing. But modern universities will argue that religion leads to sectarianism, authoritarianism, and anti-intellectualism. There are certainly examples of intolerant religion around. The phenomenon of Fundamentalism in most of the world’s major religions would seem to point to the dangers of introducing the study of religion into an environment dedicated to the free, autonomous pursuit of knowledge. How can theology be present in the university curriculum without the threat of dogmatism?

Here the work of cosmology can be of help to us. The application of human intelligence to understanding the universe has generated a sense of wonder at the beauty and magnitude of the cosmos. It suggests that wonder and human intelligence are closely related. Our desire to make sense of existence and to produce different ways of understanding our existence (scientifically, artistically, historically, philosophically, theologically) is not just about satisfying intellectual curiosity. The world we live in is splendid, many-faceted and beautiful. Our desire to understand it must surely be prompted by a sense of its beauty and greatness. If the pursuit of knowledge is rooted in wonder, then this suggests something very important about the organization of the university and the place of theology within in it. It suggests that all the disciplines must see themselves united in the pursuit of a greatness that transcends any particular discipline.

If wonder and awe are at the root of all knowing, then theology and other forms of knowledge have an important obligation to each other. A sense of wonder should inform at its very foundations the pursuit of all our knowledge. This means that no forms of dogmatism, whether religious or scientific, will find a place in the properly ordered university. For wonder is a progenitor of humility and humility means that no single discipline can claim ultimate hegemony over the others. Furthermore, theology and religious studies could remain in the university as a constant reminder that an orientation to transcendence, however broadly conceived, because it is intrinsic to the possibility of any knowledge, should be an essential characteristic of the ethos of the modern university.

In conclusion, therefore, I would offer the following recommendations to any secular university.

First, specific practical steps should be taken to ensure that the various faculties within the university see themselves as operating together in the pursuit of knowledge. Occasional congregations of all university faculties would could address the question of common purpose.

Second, continual attention should be given to exploring the inner connections between the different disciplines of the university. The explosion in knowledge is set to continue and specialization will be integral to this process. The search for unity, coherence and inter-connectedness will therefore be all the more urgent. Regular inter-disciplinary seminars and could and sometimes do contribute to this end.

Third, the university curriculum should contain some courses which specifically address questions about the final purposes of human life. Many of the humanities do this as part of their character, but concentrated attention to basic questions will be required for students to begin to make sense of the bewildering variety of knowledge they will encounter in the university, and more importantly, to begin to make sense of all that awaits them beyond the walled groves of Academe.

Jonathan Rowland is a theologian based in Oxford, England.

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