Does the Modern University Really Matter?
By Anonymous, May 11, 2010 in Editors' Picks, Pedagogy and Teaching, What is Education?

In a 2006 issue of the Catholic journal Commonweal Alasdair MacIntyre made an intriguing point about the state of Catholic higher education.  MacIntyre observed that “From a Catholic point of view, the contemporary secular university is not at fault because it is not Catholic. [Rather,] it is at fault insofar as it is not a university.”  The problem with Catholic universities, he continues, is that they uncritically try to imitate their secular betters.  Hence, “we find Notre Dame glancing nervously at Duke, only to catch Duke in the act of glancing nervously at Princeton.”  The Catholic attempt to imitate secular higher education is problematic, says MacIntyre, because modern universities no longer care about the kinds of questions Catholics should care about.

They no longer pursue questions of value as having metaphysical as well as physical implications.  They no longer examine what is common to human existence and experience that demands sophisticated moral inquiry.  Instead, modern university proceed from the premise of fragmentation.  Disciplines compose subdisciplines, and subdisciplines compose subsubdisciplines. 

Fragmentation creates both specialized languages and codes of behavior that render a confusion of purpose in university life.  Newly minted Ph.D’s leave graduate school determined to secure tenure by appropriating the language and customs of their provincial academic turf.  They scramble for approval by jumping through hoops assigned by guardians—their seniors—who determine what is and is not significant to their particular field.  They are conditioned to protect esoteric language and customs that give their slice of academia significance.  At almost every university in America you will hear the same tired vocabulary and arguments being used in more or less identical ways.  Unfortunately, the pattern in the professorate trickles down to the students.  Too often professors want to create students in their own image.  They teach using only the categories dictated by their discipline, and they expect students to share the narrow concerns of their field. 

Alasdair MacIntyre’s assessment about the state of Catholic higher education is intriguing for those of us work at ostensibly Protestant Christian universities.  Should Protestant colleges and universities heed MacIntyre’s warning?  What about schools that claim a broad evangelical heritage?  Perhaps another way to pursue this is to ask:  Does it really matter if one attends a Christian or a secular university if both are organized around and proceed from the premise that education is first and foremost concerned with specialization?  Does the modern university, Christian or otherwise, really matter beyond its own self-justification?  Despite the proliferation of degrees, books, journals, and research institutes is intellectual life healthier today than it was before the advent of research universities in the 1880s?

The utilitarianism of the American economy increasingly sets the agenda for the modern university.  People pursue higher education not to the think about great issues and ideas such as Alasdair MacIntyre describes, but instead to receive credentials for jobs that will yield a safe, middle-class existence.  Universities have functioned so long as vocational institutions that people respect them not because of the books they produce or the moral questions they endeavor to understand, but because of the financial rewards they promise.

 The modern university, already plagued by hyper-specialization that studiously avoids  “big” conversations about the human condition, also has become dependent upon the bounty of corporate capitalism.  The first research universities in America, Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago were funded by wildly successful industrialists.  Similar financing transformed older liberal arts schools into research graduate institutions.  The primary motives for founding these institutions were to produce useful knowledge, greater productivity, and greater profits.  The federal government has also encouraged the utilitarian and vocational impulse within higher education.  Both the Morill Act of 1862 and the GI Bill of 1944, for example, insured that institutions taking federal monies provide specific vocational training and programs for their students.  It remains to be seen, and it is looking increasingly doubtful whether or not universities can continue to depend upon the benefices of big business and big government while remaining seriously engaged with the life of the mind.

  Modern universities have accommodated and in many instances sanctioned technological progress, financial security, and domination of global resources.  As a result humanistic scholars, much less theological scholars, increasingly have been forced to justify their activities in an environment controlled by “practical” considerations.  If modern universities are not providing adequate forums through which enduring questions about the human condition can be pursued, then why are so many so-called Christian universities falling over each other trying to imitate them?  Is the Christian university truly serving the community by producing more graduates trained in more obscure topics and more specialized vocational skills even if they are trained by purportedly Christian professors?  Are academics who work at Christian universities furthering the fragmentation of knowledge by refusing to challenge the all too dominant narrative of class, gender, and race as the building-blocks of humane learning?  When Christian universities follow research universities in relegating questions of human purpose to secondary considerations, then Christian higher education may be contributing further to the demise of intellectual culture under the guise of a unifying ideal that has ceased to matter.

Image credit: Photo by Dr. Marcus Gossler:

Tags: No subjects

Lee Trepanier on May 11, 2010 at 10:39 am

I was curious whether you had any specific views regarding Baylor University. From what I have read, this institution is experiencing the tension between adhering to its mission as a (Protestant) religious institution and its desire to become a research university.

Jason Wallace on May 17, 2010 at 8:31 am


Sorry for the delayed response. Finals, graduation, etc., etc. I'm not that familiar with Baylor's situation, but I have heard they are working through identity issues. I don't know, however, if these issues are research v. religious. While I'm not in the Baptist tradition my experience with Baptist universities is that often internal struggles fall out along the lines of progressive evangelical v. conservative evangelical. Not sure which is which at Baylor.


Eugen L Nagy on May 11, 2010 at 10:08 pm

An excellent commentary. I would suggest that some of the people involved with what is called nowadays Catholic Studies look at this differently; they understand the mission of CS to be this very thing, the integration of the branches of knowledge in a catholic ("universal") perspective on human existence, yet one rooted in (Catholic) faith. I am referring specifically to the people in the CS program at the University of ST Thomas in MN, whom I know fairly well.

RJ Snell on May 13, 2010 at 5:47 am

In the book, _God, Philosophy, Universities_ MacIntyre presents a very Roman Catholic understanding of the project. Can this be translated into Protestant circles?

Jason Wallace on May 17, 2010 at 11:03 am

I think MacIntyre can translate into Protestant circles with some qualification. Protestants simply do not have the rich inheritance of a natural law tradition informing their educational projects. Common sense realism died a pretty quick death with the arrival of theological modernism, and it seems Protestants have struggled to find an inhabitable educational narrative ever since.

Korey D. Maas on Jul 9, 2010 at 8:07 pm

I’d agree with the response above, with one or two qualifications. Protestants *had* a rich inheritance of natural law tradition, but increasingly abandoned it for a variety of (bad) reasons. Happily, though, there are some recent signs of attempts to recover this inheritance. Reformed folk such as David VanDrunen, Stephen Grabill, and J. Daryl Charles come to mind, as do Lutherans such as Carl Braaten, Thomas Pearson, and Antti Raunio.

Also interesting is that this natural law renaissance seems almost to coincide with the relatively recent explosion of works by Protestant authors on the natures of education, the college/university, and the scholarly vocation. I wonder if this is merely a coincidence, or if the two programs are part of a broader attempt by Protestants to recover some important, but long neglected, aspects of their various traditions. Or maybe it’s simply a case of—as “we find Notre Dame glancing nervously at Duke”—finding Protestants glancing nervously at Newman and MacIntyre?

Whatever the explanation, I’m cautiously optimistic about these developments.