Friday, August 31, 2007

Ex Corde Georgiopolitanum

A column appeared in today's Georgetown student newspaper "The Hoya" in which I express reservations over the potentially bad message sent by the construction of several new campus buildings. I paste it below, or you can visit the slightly butchered Hoya version here.


New and returning students alike cannot fail to notice a discernible structure rising from a plot of land adjacent to the Leavey Student Center. What was an impressive pile of dirt when students left campus at the conclusion of last semester is now unmistakably a building in the making. Eventually, when its interior is filled and its exterior is applied, we will behold the new McDonough School of Business. In some relatively short period of time after that, a new science building will arise beside this structure, making this part of campus a swarm of active scholars, students, events and activities.

The officialdom of the University is visibly proud of these new structures, regularly featuring items about their progress in various news articles and presentations to students and alumni. While administrators beam, however, there are grounds for reservation. For, if you now look at an overhead map of Georgetown University, it is unmistakable as a matter of geographical fact that these structures are at the physical heart of the University. In particular, due to the expansion of the University behind and beyond the old main campus (those areas directly surrounding Healy Hall), the campus’s physical center has moved more or less precisely to the spot that was selected for the erection of these two new buildings. And, while it is far too late to protest, I believe that this fact sends the wrong message to members of the University community and beyond.

Careful consideration of Georgetown’s history and identity suggests that neither a business school nor even a building devoted to research in the natural sciences should be at the center of the University’s self-conception. If a University such as Georgetown should have a Business School at all (and, regrettably, it does), its previous location was appropriate – at the periphery of the campus. A Georgetown education, conceived as a classic liberal arts curriculum, should not have as its aim or object the art of moneymaking. A liberal arts education aims to steep a student in the accumulated history of human thought – in disciplines as varied as classics, literature, government, philosophy, theology and history – with a goal of educating the “whole person.” Its ends are several, including the refinement of character, the inculcation of wisdom and judgment, the preparation for responsible citizenship, and above all – as was expressed by John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University – “a knowledge which is its own end.” Nevertheless, modern life puts this form of education hard to task, as contemporary students are already keenly under pressure to transform their degrees into useful currency in today’s marketplace. Thus, a University that puts a Business School at the physical heart of its campus only reinforces the impression that encomiums to liberal education are only so much fancy rhetoric, and that a University degree is really about getting a job.

For a related reason, the placement of a new science building at the physical heart of campus also misconveys the aim of a liberal arts institution. Of course, the natural sciences are part of a complete course of liberal study, and students are rightly required to take courses in this area. Its subjects are among the avenues by which we understand more deeply the human and natural condition, and thus students should be instructed in the fields of physics, biology, and chemistry. However, a new science building devoted to advancing scientific research is a different matter.

Contemporary scientific study seeks to create new knowledge, whereas the onus on undergraduate education is to instruct the young in the basic elements of scientific understanding. A research university is dominated by its departments of natural science, engineering and computer science, and a large amount of money is provided by public and private sources for the discovery of new knowledge that can benefit society. The research university aims to produce useful knowledge above all, the kind of knowledge that modern science’s philosophical father – Francis Bacon – told us is the source of power. Knowledge becomes wholly utilitarian with the aim of conquering nature. Because of this aim, research universities do not generally stress liberal education, whose aim is quite different: thus, the training of graduate students, not the cultivation of undergraduates, becomes one of the primary activities in research universities. In a liberal arts college, the Library occupies a place of privilege on the campus (and, it once did at Georgetown, in the form of Riggs Library). In a research university, the Laboratory takes place of pride. With the construction of a science building at the new physical heart of the campus, the University again sends a wrong message about its fundamental commitments.

It remains obvious to even the casual visitor that the true heart of Georgetown University remains in those areas around Healy Hall, those buildings and surrounding greens where Departments such as Theology, Philosophy, English and Classics are to be found. We should continue to maintain this area as the true heart of the University – even if it is no longer the University’s actual physical center – and seek to defend the University’s fundamental purpose as an institution of liberal learning. In too many contemporary institutions of higher education, the gravitational pull is toward those activities that will take place at our new physical center – toward the money-making professions and those disciplines that stress professionalism and utilitarian knowledge aimed at the mastery of nature – and not an education, as described by Newman, that is “an acquired illumination, a habit, a personal possession, and an inward endowment.”


John M├ędaille said...

Four or five years ago, the University of Dallas undertook to establish an undergraduate School of Business, an endeavor that created a serious debate in the Liberal Arts College. I can summarize the results of this debate by saying that we concluded that if the Business School was what business schools have been, then it had no place on campus at all, much less at the heart of the campus. However, such a school need not be what they are. We determined that if we could not do something unique, we would not do anything at all.

But we need to do something, for the liberal arts, as well as being ends in themselves, are also the foundation for the practical arts. And in our commercial culture, the preeminent practical art is business. As Alasdair MacIntyre noted, every age has its dominant professions, and in our age these are the professions of the businessman and the bureaucrat. Therefore, it is the duty of a Catholic university to give them a Catholic education, one that relates directly to the tasks they must perform.

I am proud to say that I believe the university has accomplished its mission. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must mention that I am not an impartial observer, since I am honored to teach the course on Catholic Social Doctrine for business students, a course which is a requirement for a business degree. The very fact that this is a requirement demonstrates the kind of degree we offer. Indeed, the University has a solid core curriculum centered around literature, theology, philosophy, and science. And the business students take an additional philosophy course (business ethics) and an additional theology course (mine) beyond the core requirements. The ethics course is not the usual exercise in consequentialism and relativism that leave students more confused about ethics then when they started, but a solid exercise in the moral life.

When I began teaching this course, I was shocked that I could find no textbooks relating the Social Doctrines to the practice of business. Since businessman and woman have the chief responsibility of actually implementing the teaching on a daily basis. I had to write my own text, The Vocation of Business: Social Justice in the Marketplace ( (I also later found one other text, the excellent Managing as if Faith Mattered by Helen Alford and John Naughton.)

I do not think that business ought to be automatically excluded from the university, even if most such schools have no place in any university because what they teach has no place in any rational universe. But that does not mean that Catholic education cannot bring to this subject something that no one else can bring; and what we can bring we ought to bring.

Patrick Deneen said...

I agree, in fact, that a properly ordered Catholic University can rightly contribute to an education in the professions, whether business, law, or medicine. What you describe at the University of Dallas is both laudable and encouraging. To my knowledge, there has been no comparable effort at Georgetown to ensure that education in the Business School (or the other professional schools) be so deeply guided and informed by its Catholic character. I hear more about the B. School's rise in the mainstream rankings than the development of any comparable curriculum steeped in Catholic pedagogy. My concerns expressed in this post are limited to the situation on the ground at Georgetown in particular - where the business school is quite clearly advertised, and organized, around the pursuit of moneymaking. Your welcome note, however, encourages me to hope that it remains possible - with conscious effort - to organize a business school otherwise.

In any event, I remain insistent that the building itself should have remained on the outskirts of the campus. But, if the mind is well-ordered, then the errant physical location of a building is of less consequence.

Chris said...

Perhaps I'm being a bit too cynical for a recent graduate, but it seems to me that considering Georgetown's fairly precarious financial situation it has some incentive to abandon its central focus on liberal arts for business as those graduates would be more likely to make money that will be donated to the university in the future. On the other, I admit my thinking could be too simplistic here.

On a related matter of campus design, I've also been somewhat disturbed by the fact that the remaining Jesuits themselves have been moved from the center of campus to the southwestern edge. This, too, seems to indicate further, albeit symbolically, the continued path away from its tradition of Catholic pedagogy.

Hans Engler said...

Mathematics, the science that used to encompass the entire quadrivium and part of logic, recently was moved to the outermost reaches of the Georgetown campus, without complaining and in fact to the general satisfaction of the members of the department. So deal with it, as they say in the Freshman dorms. :)