When Pope Benedict XVI published Caritas in Vertitate in 2009, I was among the many who welcomed his defense of the integral dependence of charity on the substance of truth, and of truth on the gratuitous act of charity. But I also noted that there and elsewhere, Benedict had elected to contrast this Catholic vision of authentic love with contemporary relativist skepticism. “Without truth,” Benedict teaches, “charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way.”1 The great danger to authentic charity is a hollowing relativism, which renders charity a sentiment emancipated from reason, and so turns it into a rudderless humanitarianism unable any longer to identify what is properly human. But, as I wrote at the time, this contrast between a charity rooted in truth and one set adrift from it and merely hollow does not properly characterize the contrast between an authentic vision of truth and the intellectual or cultural conditions of late liberal modernity that the encyclical as a whole sets out to revive.2
To be sure, the modern liberal regime portrays itself as strictly procedural in nature and, therefore neutral or agnostic on all questions of truth. And, to be sure, this public agnosticism regarding the nature of truth leads, at least, to the appearance of a “hollow” moral relativism regarding goodness. One cannot authoritatively direct the will to what is good if the reason cannot first judge what is true. But as Paul Gottfried and James Kalb have powerfully argued, we would be mistaken to accept liberal modernity’s self-description as a procedural rather than substantive regime, as if it were concerned only with establishing the rule of political discourse and the orderly exercise of power, rather than with promoting the ends for which these things may be wielded.3
Despite typically claiming to be neutral or uninvolved in the promotion of particular social goods, liberal regimes mobilize their immense procedural machines to the end of establishing two absolute and final goods—equality and freedom, or what Kalb derisively calls “equal freedom.” This establishment requires a massive bureaucracy and constant policing “dedicated to the control and transformation of human life.”4 And while it proclaims “tolerance” and a sense of “fairness” as the two complementary cardinal virtues guiding or delimiting individual freedom, we have seen that the liberal public square proves very intolerant of any moral or intellectual claims that challenge the exclusive hegemony of tolerance. Further, liberal regimes hasten beyond the purview of mere proceduralism in the name of establishing “fairness” in the diverse substantive affairs of social life to the point of rendering freedom an insignificant good.
Although there is no natural identity between the liberalism of liberal modernity and the liberality of liberal education, I would like to propose that one of the great weaknesses of contemporary higher education has been its misguided efforts to replicate the proceduralism of liberal regimes, and therefore to obscure the substantive goods its promotes in almost clandestine fashion. The effort to conform colleges and universities to the spirit of liberalism has not caused these institutions to cease aiming at particular goods, or to cease promoting a particular conception of the good. But, rather, in the name of “openness,” “liberation,” and “diversity,” such institutions have not only worked to make the modern university a surprisingly uniform and determined (rather than “emancipated”) place; they have also made it one in which the goods aimed at are inferior to those that might be attained by, as it were, a non-liberal liberal arts education. Such goods as the liberal university promotes are all the more debased precisely because universities in a liberal regime cannot give a compelling account of them.
If I thus conclude that the contemporary university inarticulately or even incoherently holds up inferior goods as the aim of education, I do so only to offer a proposal that would allow such universities to continue to pursue those substantive ends they tacitly acknowledge even as I make a case for the creation of institutional space committed to a non-liberal conception of liberal arts education. In this, I hope to endorse and advance the recommendations Alasdair MacIntyre made two decades ago, at the conclusion of Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. There, he hopefully envisioned the establishment of “rival universities” that would allow incompatible types of enquiry to flourish apart, so that an institutional division of procedures would allow to emerge a more coherent, and so fruitfully discussible, account of the goods each one takes as its end.5 Perhaps the impoverished self-understanding of the mission of the contemporary liberal arts institution stems in part from its defining itself only against the straw man of an antiquated, elitist and racist, university in which the pursuit of the intellectual life is merely an ornament of privilege and a mask for power. If it were forced to explain itself in comparison with an actually existing non-liberal liberal arts institution, both institutions might grow in wisdom and gain clarity as to their respective missions. To that end, I offer the following reflection.
We are all familiar with the “commitment” of the contemporary university to “diversity.” At its most cynical, the term “diversity” means merely a calculus that seeks to maximize the total number of measurably different minority groups contained within a single institution. To be committed to diversity as a good means, in principle, to be committed to viewing one’s university as an empty space that needs to be filled with the greatest possible number of different beings, usually those of different race, place of origin, or religious belief. If we recognize in this chiefly a desire, born of the civil rights movements and the equity engineering of the modern welfare state, to introduce non-white persons or women into institutions that once taught primarily white male students, we should also acknowledge that such a project is evidently compatible with the university as it has traditionally been understood.
Cardinal Newman, in his vivid historical sketches of the university, celebrated them as centers in which students “from every quarter” of the world converge to learn “every kind of knowledge.”6 He insisted that, in “the nature of things, greatness and unity go together; excellence implies a center.”7 And so, in his sketches, Newman imagines the university as where the best representatives from every place congregate, and in which the very difference of the students will prove a stimulant to the intellect. On this basis, in The Idea of a University, Newman went so far as to claim the mere gathering of “a number of young men together for three or four years” will “give birth to a living teaching” quite “independent of direct instruction.”8 The testimony of the greatest modern defender of liberal education, therefore, tells us that a mere diversity of population is a reliable means of going about higher education. Not incidentally, the University of Michigan made a similar argument when it defended its use of “affirmative action” policies in student admissions.
For Newman and for contemporary academics alike, “diversity” in principle refers not just to the students but to the studies taught. As he demonstrated, a university education comprises “all branches of knowledge . . . intimately united” in a complete, sympathetic, well-balanced, circle.9 The Cardinal of course was writing not merely in defense of the university, but in defense of the place of Theology as the irreplaceable chief among the liberal arts, and in defense of the liberal arts against merely professional (useful) training. In Newman’s vision, liberal education served to communicate universal, but well-ordered, knowledge to students from all parts, that they may become “gentlemen,” or, as Mark Henrie once aptly put it, that they may become “civilized.”10 Thus, Newman insists upon a diverse student body and a diverse curriculum precisely in order to produce a singular, unified end: to refine the characters of students into gentlemen. And Newman does not hesitate to draw the lineaments of the gentlemen in concrete and evocative detail. Liberal education infuses the student with
a clear conscious view of his of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them . . . It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility. It shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them. He is at home in every society, he has common ground with every class.11
In the next discourse, Newman will provisionally define the gentleman as
one who never inflicts pain . . . The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast . . . his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful toward the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards agains unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate . . . From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend . . . He is patient, forbearing, and resigned . . . He knows the weakness of human reason as well as its strength, its province and its limits. If he is an unbeliever, he will be too profound and large-minded to ridicule religion or to act against it . . . he even supports institutions as venerable, beautiful, or useful, to which he does not assent 12.
Here we mark a divergence between Newman and the contemporary university. While both value diversity, Newman insists that the curriculum must be comprehensive but ordered to a proper unity, and that the far-flung students be themselves ordered to cultivate a specific, though not complete, sort of character. The university exists to make gentlemen, nothing else, Newman tells us, even though the complete human character must possess not only the gentleman’s religion of “imagination and sentiment,” but the rigorous knowledge and ordered affections of the saint.13
The modern liberal university proposes to be even more comprehensive in respect to student inclusion and subjects available for study than did Newman’s. But, aside from an almost absolute exclusion of theology or even discussion of religion from its classrooms, the liberal university does not impose much in the way of an order on its curriculum.14 And it does not do so precisely because it generally claims it does not wish to impose a “homogenizing” specific character on its students. But this is, as I said at the beginning, a misleading claim.
The liberal university does in fact seek to impress a certain character-form on the student no less than did Newman’s ideal university cultivate far-flung rustics into gentlemen. But because its faculty is reluctant to admit this, it does not so much seek to limit the number of departments or subjects that can be studied, but the kinds of questions that can be asked within them. This silencing of questions, in turn, at best allows the university only to reach a diluted and equivocal consensus of the type of character it exists to impress on the crude matter of its students.
Students are now taught, as Newman would have them be, to be “tolerant” of difference. But this tolerance is only extended on the assumption that moral and religious beliefs, and cultural traditions, are impervious to argument because largely irrational or pre-rational. And they are, therefore, to be admitted to discussion as so many impermeable objects of historical interest, rather than as rational claims that may be tested and interrogated, or as truths that may have a claim on our intellects. Any belief or tradition that contradicts this assumption by offering a rational account of itself, or by making a binding claim on our assent is deemed a threat to the neutral, liberal character of the institution—and is expunged. As such, the tolerance of the university exists to prolong the appearance of debate, or rather, of the “exchange” of ideas, wherein the ideas themselves are assumed a priori to be inassimilable like opaque chunks of metal rather than to be convertible like coins of truth.
The other consensus term of student-character-formation in the liberal university is “critical thinking.” Such a word is uncontroversial, not because everyone believes it to be an incontestable good, but because it is a word that can appear so by being filled with a wide variety of meanings. So long as no one asks of what such thinking would really consist, everyone rests content.
Tolerance and critical thinking sound like pretty thin gruel, and perhaps even benign goods. But, of course, in impressing these attributes, the liberal university generally sets about producing a character we might sketch even more specifically. Tolerant of differences, but doubtful of rational discussion as a means to resolve them; capable of critically undermining received beliefs, but ill equipped to maintain or foster deepened assent to them; the ideal product of the liberal university is one who is indignant about historical ills and fearful of the past; one who is sufficiently detached from all firm beliefs that he will be docile in the workplace of the ever-changing and unpredictable future. He is prepared for change and supportive of it, so long as he is carried along with its inevitability and not required to make serious inquiry regarding the goodness or the evil of the ends involved.
And so, there is after all a substantive consensus vision about the character the contemporary liberal university is intended to produce. It is at once specific and banal, a doctrinaire yet, on the whole, a thoughtless ideal. While I might decry this effort at character formation in the university as largely the effect of the familiar agenda of “political correctness” and the meritocratic elites who seek to form docile subjects to be plugged in to the cubicles-in-flux of global capital, I think these are sufficiently familiar, convincing, but only extrinsic causes. I would draw your attention to another—one over which those of us in the academy have greater control.
The banal consensus about the desirable formation of the contemporary student is largely a result of another banal consensus vision in the contemporary university regarding its fields of specialization, research, and teaching. However indirectly following Newman, the liberal university values above all its commitment to comprehensiveness. The slim top tier of universities seek to have the most distinguished scholar in every reputable field of research, and the distant second and third tier of universities seek to replicate this comprehensiveness as best they can. In my field of training, English literature, the top universities recruit their specialists in various genres, period, and ethnic studies, and the rest do the same to the extent they can given their limitations in cultural capital and, well, capital. One day, Harvard hires Seamus Heaney to an endowed chair, the next, a minor in Irish Studies pops up at West Jesus State College. This commitment to diversity-through-comprehensiveness leads, therefore, to an astonishing uniformity, in which the Ivy Alma Maters cut a distinguished figure, and the great masses follow along like step children sloppily dolled up in the same lipstick and rouge.15 Subject matter, methods of analysis, and live questions are not necessarily stunted, but they are mostly uniform across the academy.
These lower-tier schools usually comprise very bright people—faculty who recognize that competing against the top tier of schools on those schools’ own terms guarantees defeat (I hope they are, anyway: I was briefly head of Irish Studies at “WJSU”). And, quite often, such faculty and administrators see that they have to distinguish their school by occupying some sort of niche if it is to survive. I have noticed schools who have thus put at the center of campus life a commitment to serving the poor and the sick; a commitment to service-learning, or, in the salutary case of Augustana College, to labor and study, or to literature and the environment, or to place and the local community. And, of course, though always seeking to be comprehensive, different schools will promote their relative strengths of this-or-that field in particular departments.
These are all good things, but they leave untouched two core assumptions: that a university fulfills its institutional character simply be being comprehensive, and that the sort of character a school helps to form among its students ought to be roughly identical with all the other watery and skeptical characters produced at other schools. As such, most of the “niche” innovations supplement rather than transform the core intellectual activities of the institution, so that a given school imparts “liberal arts-plus-something” rather than challenging the accepted components of the curriculum. And, therefore, such innovations tend not to challenge or modify in any way the consensus vision of what the character of a graduate ought to look like at the end of several years of studies. They appear as market-driven decisions at the level of “branding” (not so different from offering a winning football team) that keep the school providing roughly an identical “product” to an educational “consumer,” with certain amenities thrown in as a persuasive but inessential “hook.”
If contemporary diversity leads all departments, all schools, and the character of all graduates to look roughly alike, it would seem reasonable to propose an alternative account of diversity that takes the word more seriously and makes it conducive to a substantive good that cannot be measured with a calculator. I would suggest that the spirit of Newman’s university would be better realized if we inverted some of his pronouncements. To begin with, what if an institution were to commit itself not to attracting students and faculty from every possible state and a smattering of foreign lands, but to building up a faculty composed whenever possible of persons from a specific region and committed to educating the youth of that region? This used to be quite common, but in the impossible chase of the Ivies, even schools that stand no realistic chance of attracting a “world class” elite faculty nonetheless burn their local bridges in the attempt to do so. This reduces the cultural capital otherwise available to universities through nurturing and retaining their native population, and makes it difficult for an institution to manifest the particularities that naturally arise in a settled culture. Mobility and geographical cherry-picking homogenize more than civilize.
Second, rather than emphasizing the comprehensiveness of liberal education, as Newman expressed it, schools might take more seriously Newman’s admonition to refine the order and coherence of their curricula. Newman saw that these attributes were complementary, and in defending theology’s place in the liberal arts curriculum did so not only because it must be included if an education was to be complete, but because, as the queen of the sciences, it gave form and order to all other studies.16 As the first of all disciplines, it gives shape and relation to every last one.
So, I ask, what if universities began hiring according to specific, exclusive, and perhaps even ungeneralizable criteria about what kind of knowledge is valuable? Currently, most scholars are more loyal to their profession and the standards and interests of their field of expertise than they are to their institution. They have to be, because the institution offers little of substance to which they might feel profound intellectual fidelity. Rather than seeking to have the best-available scholar in every field, schools might specialize more, and coordinate that specialization across departments and disciplines, reaching a provisionally local but robust consensus on the attributes proper to the life of learning.
If I may offer an example: at Villanova, we have at least the leaven of some such specialization in the commitment to teaching the works of St. Augustine in several courses of an otherwise typical core curriculum. While hardly a complete realization of what I propose, it does at least begin to give the students the sense that they are being initiated into an intellectual tradition. Villanova’s less exceptional niche in being committed to students’ service in charitable works (especially the Special Olympics) actually gains in integrity insofar as it emerges from the particularly Augustinian aspects of the core curriculum. Rather than leaving questions of the good of knowledge, or the approaches to and branches of learning that are most valuable, to supra-institutional professional organizations, schools ought to make those choices themselves—not just at the risk of, but indeed toward the end of, establishing a particular, sometimes parochial, conception of the circle of knowledge. The study of St. Augustine may be justified simply because he was a great mind in the history of “world culture,” but Villanova justifies it because the writings of the Saint offer a compelling vision of human life in general and intellectual inquiry in particular, while the Saint himself manifests a dramatic story and exemplary character.
Third, building upon a less widely “imported” faculty, and a newly circumscribed curriculum that makes substantive choices about what constitutes the essential knowledge of the liberally educated person of a particular institution, we may entertain the prospect of universities’ provisionally abandoning the attempt to establish a global, banal, and diluted consensus regarding the attributes of a good graduate’s character. Some persons find the very term “gentleman” offensive or oppressive; let them find another term more acceptable, then, and at least equally substantial. We are told with pride that we live in diverse, fractured, and wildly various times, and yet schools restrict this celebration of “difference” to admissions criteria and superficial demographic festoons on an otherwise homogenous institutional coat rack.
In the best of times, it would be unsurprising if character-by-committee resulted in a least-common-denominator vision of the good student. But our educational institutions are far more geographically and culturally decentralized than were the British or French universities of Newman’s day. Individual schools ought to conceive and commit themselves to a particular vision of the good student; to the extent that they diversify their faculty, they will naturally develop institutionally-specific, competing visions of what an educated person’s character looks like. Turning away from the devouring but disintegrating center, they would imagine new exemplars of the life of the mind and of the character of the learned.17 We would then realize real diversity between institutions, rather than a uniform diversity within them. That this would result in inferior and superior character formation at different schools would be an obvious consequence, but I am not sure why we would shy away from ambitious experiments in character and virtue, in an age where nearly everyone is convinced—for often opposed reasons—that universities are failing their students both intellectually and morally.
To this last point I would add one observation that returns us to the thoughts with which I began this essay. I am asking individual universities to conceive of and promote distinct and substantial visions of human character among their respective student bodies. The liberal university, as I have noted, tends to obscure or minimize its claims about the substantive nature of the education it offers. It claims to find a place, opportunity, or a method for everything, but falls rather silent when it comes to the question of its final cause, which is the fully educated and formed human person. The inarticulate and impoverished consensus view is not the worst consequence of this fact. For, what I have been trying to lead us toward is agreement that the character of the student is the artwork of the university and, even apart from their curricula, universities ought to understand themselves in terms of it. In my experience, those universities that possess, more often by tradition than ambition, a particularistic vision of what constitutes a good example of its students attract to their quads the kind of students sympathetic to, and capable of fulfilling, that vision. Further, I have found that students who are initiated into the aspects of such a vision prove to be better students over-all, precisely because they sense that their individual course work is constitutive of themselves as members of an intellectual community; it is part of a project of self- and social-cultivation directed toward an exemplary ideal.
To advert once more to my own experience, one which in fact first stimulated my thinking on these matters, I would recall my days of teaching at the University of Notre Dame. As I might at other universities, I found myself frequently professing theology and literature to many students majoring in pre-medicine, business, and engineering. These students had no professional interest in parsing the poems of George Herbert in light of the theology of St. Francis de Sales. But they did do it, and they enjoyed it: not because they needed such learning to become doctors, marketing specialists, or bridge-builders, but because they had come to their Alma Mater with a robust conception of what a Notre Dame student ought to know and ought to be. They visibly sensed and revered not just the expectations of their parents but the venerable and vivid legacy of past generations as they undertook their course work. Though some of them could not have painted in vivid colors the interior composition of the ideal Notre Dame student, they had the image of it in their souls and they drove those souls to expand and conform to it.
Rather than merely retrieving Newman’s defense of knowledge as its own end, or giving in to the debased conception of students as docile, undogmatic, agents of social change, our universities ought to search after particular, inevitably disputed, and justly limited, visions of a fully-formed, liberally educated character, and to take it as the formal principle of everything they do.
Liberalism in society or in the university, despite itself, makes substantive claims about what is good. Those claims are inadequate, but their very inadequacies should relieve us of anxieties about maintaining a merely procedural account of human life or higher education. Such an account could never accurately describe any actual life or school. The non-liberal university that most confidently sets forth an image of a good student, a good human being, will attract students to itself simply because it is offering what all persons by their nature need, but which modern liberalism either denies them or provides only weakly. The university that seeks to be everything to everybody winds up providing an insufficient something for all; but I have proposed that the way forward would be for various institutions to elect to be some one thing to some students and, within such constraints, to lead them to a flourishing all the greater for being more particular, more substantial, and, at the last, something worthy of their love.
1. Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 10.
2. See, James Matthew Wilson, “Gratuitous Foundations: Benedict XVI’s Humanism of the Gift” in The Publican of Philadelphia Winter 2010: 16-33. Reprinted in Front Porch Republic (www.frontporchrepublic.com) on April 15, 2010 and April 19, 2010.
3. James Kalb, The Tyranny of Liberalism (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2008), 75. Cf. Paul Gottfried, After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).
4. Kalb, 75.
5. Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Versions of Moral Inquiry (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 234.
6. John Henry Newman, Rise and Progress of Universities and Benedictine Essays (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 15.
7. Ibid. 16.
8. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: Unversity of Notre Dame Press, 1982)109, 111.
9. Ibid., 75.
10. Ibid. 159. Cf. Mark C. Henrie, “Why Go to College?” The Canon (Spring 2008): 24-35.
11. Newman, 135.
12. Newman, 159-160.
14. MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions, 7.
15. This observation is persuasively demonstrated in Paul A. Cantor, “When Diversity Is Not Diversity: A Brief History of the English Department.” The Politically Correct University: Problems, Scope, and Reforms. Eds. Robert Maranto, et al. Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 2009. 159-174.
16. Newman, 14, 38, 50.
17. Cf. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue Third Edition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 263.