I was a bit dumbfounded recently when I read a piece by conservative talk show host and pundit Hugh Hewitt extolling the virtues of the University of Phoenix as “offering the very best teachers in the world.” He did not list his criteria for making this judgment, but they seemed to have something to do with his distaste for the higher education/liberal media industrial complex and his trust in the free market.
I can appreciate Hewitt’s frustration with both higher education and the media, but I am deeply suspicious of his idealization of the free market’s salvific place in education. The problems with higher education have very little to do with an assumed liberal professoriate’s antipathy for capitalism if not for democracy. Nope. Business schools are doing very well and university presidents have generally proved pretty adept at acquiring das kapital. In fact, the “MBA approach” to higher education administration (which begins with thinking of students as “customers”) has achieved the kind of success that Hewitt, if he admires the business model of University of Phoenix as much as he claims to, should applaud. This is not to say that there is no crisis in higher education. There is.
One part of this crisis discloses itself in the preferences universities (and donors) give to the money makers—business schools, medical schools, scientific research institutes, law schools—at the expense of the humanities. This is simply a reflection of the culture. The culture values success, not learning, and surely not insight or wisdom—unless dollar signs are involved. Let’s face it: MBAs, MDs, and JDs promise to bring home the proverbial bacon to students and add prestige to the hallowed halls of academia through alumni donations. Not so much with the humanities. How many times do English majors hear the worn out joke “What can you do with that degree – besides work at Starbucks?” And holders of philosophy, history, fine arts, anthropology, and classics degrees are similarly met with the customary derision of smug pragmatism.
A larger component of the crisis in higher education, however, is a crisis of meaning. This has much to do with cultural attitudes toward the humanities, but, by advancing the relativistic interpretive modes of the day, scholars in the humanities have only encouraged the devaluation of their own disciplines. In short, meaning is considered a chimera in a relativistic culture, culturally determined in much the same way gender is (as the zeitgeist tells us). But, more importantly, this crisis is symptomatic of the marginalization of religious voices from the academic conversation.
The humanities have traditionally been concerned with meaning, with ultimate values. And religion—more than any other area of human life—centers itself more on the search for meaning (and its answers) than even the humanities. Unfortunately, academia’s increasing marginalization of religious belief to the sidelines of the scholarly conversation (if given a hearing at all) has been accompanied by the sidelining of meaning. This cultural move, unfortunately, undermines the idea of a university itself and, arguably, undermines the notion of human flourishing alongside it. Once religion and the idea of meaning were removed from the discussion (which happened pretty much simultaneously), the humanities had nowhere to go but relativism.
However, while the academy generally devalues religious voices in the conversation (especially Christian voices), it does have its own articles of faith. As C. John Sommerville has written in his provocative study, The Decline of the Secular University (2006), “Secularizing the university has come to mean shying away from ethical judgments since these are apt to involve ultimate or religious standards.
But one could not be around our secular universities for long without becoming aware of how much moralizing of their subject goes on.” Not only is this true of secular universities, but, increasingly, it is also the case with ostensibly Catholic institutions of higher learning who, it seems, suffer from enough of an insecurity complex that they imitate the mores of their secular counterparts in an attempt to absorb some of the latter’s perceived cultural legitimacy.
It has not always been so. The Catholic Church, need I remind anyone, invented the Western idea of a university. The medieval universities were hotbeds of philosophical and theological debate and centers of a staggering multiplicity of opinion, a concept which St. John Henry Newman reiterated and recalibrated in the early nineteenth century in the essays comprising The Idea of a University. And guess what? The Catholic Church still upholds this ethos, despite the media’s (mis)characterization of the Church as a monolithic men’s club dedicated to squelching original thought.
Indeed, in the days when he was still known as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI engaged in a series of lectures with the secularist philosopher Jürgen Habermas (published in English as The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion) that show the cordiality, intellectual perspicuity, openness, and fearlessness of this tradition—but tell a graduate humanities student about the book and you’re likely to see her shoot her mocha latte out of her nose (as I once witnessed).
It may be that the “professionalization” of the university (another inroad of the MBA mentality) has made the professoriate esteem careerism over originality—i.e., don’t rock the boat and maybe you’ll get tenure. This presents a problem. As the Christian existentialist philosopher Nicolai Berdyaev wrote—way back in 1948— “The highly cultured man of a certain style usually expresses imitative opinions upon every subject: they are average opinions, they belong to a group, though it may well be that this imitativeness belongs to a cultured elite and to a highly select group.” The result is a stagnation of ideas. Certainly, the Catholic idea of a university (though, admittedly, not always the reality) could prove an antidote to this malaise.
Turning to the University of Phoenix model, however, does not solve this problem. At best it avoids it by attending to aims deemed more “pragmatic” than the more nuanced kinds of skills necessary for ethical judgment and insight into the human condition. At worst it exacerbates the problem by encouraging the kind of materialistic pragmatism the universities already promulgate so well.
There is another way, one grounded in the Catholic intellectual tradition, and which would not need to compromise anyone’s academic sense-of-self. Secular universities, that is, need to reassert their universality which would simultaneously reassert their relevance. Catholic universities have an even greater task: they need to claim (or reclaim)—in every sense—their catholicity.
Spero columnist Michael Martin is a professor at Marygrove College in Michigan.