Saturday, January 7, 2012

University, Community, Universe

What follows are the remarks I delivered at the University of Notre Dame as a participant on a panel on "Education and Scale" at the annual conference of the Center for Ethics and Culture in November 2011.

The University as a Community within the Universe:
Getting the Relationship Right

Patrick J. Deneen
Georgetown University

This panel is entitled “Education in the Mass Age: Why Scale Matters.” If I know my compatriots well – given our shared work on a website called “Front Porch Republic,” whose motto reads “Place. Limits. Liberty.” – they will rightly argue that scale matters, and that in our age of globalization, expansion, homogenization, and consolidation, that we need to think small and insist upon the local. I want today to agree with them in part, but I want to suggest that we should be conscious of another and equally important argument in our age of secularized horizons: namely, that the gargantuanism and trends toward unification of the globe are finally too small, too narrowing, too “local.” I want to remind us today that we should be equally concerned not only with defending the local against the big, but to be wary of confusing the “big” with something bigger still, something truly universal, something not limited merely to the globe and to the human will and human action to fill that globe, but something that transcends what we today confuse as the “universal.” So, I want to suggest that a defense of the local needs to be linked with an argument in defense of the truly big, the truly comprehensive, the truly universal, that which goes beyond the saeculum in our narrow and constrained understanding of today.

Today we tend to pose the aims of smaller and arguably more local institutions – those we typically call “colleges,” particularly liberal arts colleges – against the aims of larger institutions called “universities,” by which we might typically mean “research universities.” The words we designate for the distinction between these two institutions reflect this difference of emphasis and self-understanding. The word college comes from “collegium,” meaning "community, society, guild," or literally an "association of collegae.” A college thus lays a stress upon the relationships between particular members of the community and seeks to foster an environment of learning in which the close bonds of its members is understood to be an integral part of the formation of students and the means by which faculty come to share a vision of their shared goal as educators. It is certainly this evocation of “college” that is stressed by the Patron Saint of the Front Porch Republic, Wendell Berry, in his arguments that colleges were originally formed in America as places that sought to educate the youth of particular communities in order to send them back into those communities where it was expected that they would contribute to the commonweal of those particular places.

The “university,” however – particularly today – emphasizes instead the relationship of its population to knowledge – and especially the scientific exploration and “creation” of new knowledge – and is organized around the principle of the division of labor and specialization. The members of today’s “university” – focused on the idea of attaining a knowledge of the universe – works toward this goal through specialized research that largely forestalls the creation of a community of scholars and students. Rather, the university, far from creating a “college,” in fact only can be seen to be adequately doing its work if most of its members work in extensive ignorance of the kinds of work being done by colleagues, often even those in the same departments.

The danger that is often highlighted by me and my colleagues on the Front Porch and elsewhere is that this model has become the norm, and that today every “college” is under pressure to remake itself in the image of the University, that every Ph.D. being trained today at Universities brings with him or herself the ideal of the contemporary fragmented university to institutions once designed to foster collegium. We see the acceptance of this norm in the trend today of renaming institutions once called “college” with the name of “university,” such as Bellarmine, Rider, Hollins, Beaver College (Arcadia University), even Globe College is now Globe University.

Against this trend there is a strong inclination to assert a defense of the college – the particular, the local, the community. This is right and meet, but it cedes too much of the ground of “universalism” to the contemporary University, which does not deserve this designation.

In fact, I want to suggest today that we accept too much of the narrative of a secularized conception of the university if we adopt the view that it is the collegium of the local that must be asserted against the globalizing claims of the university. For, when the local is shorn of recourse to a conception of the universal that it becomes susceptible to the attractions and claims of the false universalism, that “university” offered by today’s secular conception of knowledge.

I think this is largely the story of America’s colleges, in fact. That story has been well-told recently by thinkers such as Andrew Delbanco in a series of lectures at Princeton University entitled “Does College Really Matter? A History of Undergraduate Education,” and Anthony Kronman in his book Education’s End. Both describe the set of stages through which America’s institutions of higher education have gone, first from a wide variety of religiously-affiliated liberal arts colleges, then to a mix of land-grant and private universities that were increasingly disaffilitating, and today to a system that is dominated by the ideal of the research university and in which most institutions originally founded in a religious tradition have disaffiliated from their Churches. This particular story of disaffiliation – told well by James Burtchaell and George Marsden – should raise a discomfiting question, namely, what caused so many colleges – collegium - to become susceptible to the appeal of the call of the scientific claim to the “universal,” of a truth that could be thought to transcend the limited particularlity of the specific founding traditions of those colleges. While we tend to place the blame on the totalizing claims of the sciences, might we not raise the question whether the blame lies at least in part in the very particularity of the colleges – that is, the congregationalist foundings of many of the American liberal arts colleges that often stressed the truth of the particular community against the threat coming from forces outside those communities? Lacking a connection to, or animating vision of, a true universalism, thousands of colleges abandoned their religious affiliations, a dominant number within a century of their founding. This ought at least make us wonder not only at the power of the secular narrative, but the weakness of a particular theological understanding of “community.”

We might fruitfully compare these two American versions of the “college” – the particular – and the “university,” aiming at universality, with a different set of similar institutions ranging back in time, namely, the Monastery and the medieval University. The monastery placed similar stress upon the local and particular, with monasteries becoming an integral part of the particular places, and building deep relationships with the particular people, in their particular places. But the monasteries also understood themselves to be parts of a universal whole, related in their partiality to the universal Church and devoted to the worship of God. And further, even in the activities that were devoted to particular and seemingly limited ends – particularly the work of hands that might be thought to be deeply embedded in the particularities of local place and practice (“the mechanical arts”), monastic orders understood this work to be infused with a meaning that related it to the whole, to the true universal of God’s divine order. So it states in the Rule of St. Benedict that the monk will “regard all the utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar.” Even the most mundane tasks and tools were to be understood as part of a divine order, nothing particular shorn or divorced from a relationship to the whole of creation. The “college” was also a university.

Meanwhile, the medieval university was, as today, explicitly devoted to the exploration of the universe, but a universe not limited to that discoverable by the empirical sciences. And, like today, the university was comprised of people from every part of the known world, an association of foreign students gathered together to investigate the nature of the created order and man’s place in it. However, if today the university takes people from communities in order to make them into “citizens of the world” – or citizens of nowhere – in the Middle Ages, the universities attracted foreigners from around the world and formed themselves into what was called “nations” – sovereign entities apart from, and even in deep tension with, their particular cities. If today we might conclude that town-gown relations are sometimes rife with tension, it can barely be compared to the relations between the “nations” of universities and the Nation in which it happened to be located. One famous conflict occurred on St. Scholastica’s Day in 1354 between students and citizens at Oxford when students grew angry at the late night partying of the townspeople and a small conflict turned into pitched battle within the course of several days. On the second day of conflict, “the citizens, aided by some countrymen, defeated the scholars, and ravaged their halls, slaying and wounding. Night interrupted their operations, but on the following day, ‘with hideous noises and clamours they came and invaded the scholars’s houses … and those that resisted them and stood upon their defence they killed or in a grievous sort wounded….. The crowns of some chaplains, that is, all the skin so far as the tonsure went, these diabolical imps flayed off in scorn of their clergy….” (Rait, 125-6). Now that’s a town-gown conflict…

The original meaning of the word “university” was not only invoked to indicate “universality,” but also meant, according to medieval jurists, “all kinds of community or corporation,” (Ridder Symoens, 37), in this case, “a guild in the world of learning …, a union of men living in studium and possessing some common interests to protect and advance” (Rait, 10-11). Thus, the university understood itself to be a particular organization of people – foreigners – who formed a community in the activity of investigating the universal. In order to achieve this, they had to organize themselves as a place distinct and apart from their particular places, as not to be embedded too much in the narrowing view of the city or “nation.” The “nations” of the university formed a community devoted to the universal. This idea of “university” has been replaced instead by a collection of foreigners who do not form a community in the pursuit of knowledge about the worldly, and hence become servants to the worldly and its limited and limiting ambitions.

In this very brief sketch, I think we can more valuably find in the examples of the monastic form of localism within the universal, and the medieval university’s self-understanding as a “nation” apart devoted to the exploration of the truly universal, two complementary understandings of the relationship between the particular and universal, the local and the transcendent, that point to the necessary relationship between the two, and a way of moving us beyond the false contemporary and secularized categories of “college” and “university." We can further see the false dichotomy that sometimes informs contemporary understandings between the "local" and the "universal," albeit as a way of highlighting the limitations of our contemporary conception of the "global."


Occasional or regular readers of these pages will have noticed that the site was down for the past month or so. Without further explanation, the site is back online, with a slick new re-design (feel free to weigh in - as a traditionalist, I am loath to change for the sake of change, but the old design seemed to me to have grown a bit static, and I thought a new year might be the occasion for a new birth of web design).

I will endeavor to post more regularly. Much to discuss. Happy new year to one and all.