Bill Maxwell: In defense of scholarship

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 2, 2011

By Bill Maxwell
St. Petersburg Times
As a former university professor, Pope Benedict XVI spoke from experience Aug. 19 when he addressed young university professors in Madrid. He encouraged the professors to resist pressures on the academy to focus on job skills rather than a broader education, which I translate to mean the old ideal of the scholarly life.
Given the utilitarian approach to education most American universities are embarked on, the pope’s speech interested me. The United States needs a Benedict who speaks passionately and often about the true role of professors.
“At times one has the idea that the mission of a university professor nowadays is exclusively that of forming competent and efficient professionals capable of satisfying the demand for labor at any given time,” the pontiff said, according to a transcript released by Vatican Radio. “One also hears it said that the only thing that matters at the present moment is pure technical ability.
“This sort of utilitarian approach to education is in fact becoming more widespread, even at the university level, promoted especially by sectors outside the university. All the same, you who, like myself, have had an experience of the university, and now are members of the teaching staff, surely are looking for something more lofty and capable of embracing the full measure of what it is to be human. We know that when mere utility and pure pragmatism become the principal criteria, much is lost and the results can be tragic.”
In most parts of the United States, professors, especially those at public universities, are fast becoming pawns in political agendas that are discounting their value. Driven by budget crises that give them convenient cover, many elected officials, such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Florida Gov. Rick Scott, make no secret of their intentions to “reinvent” public higher education by operating it like a business.
For generations, scholars have cautioned about the tendency in America to see everything, including university education, through the prism of the free market. More than a decade ago, for example, sociologist Robert Bellah argued that freedom in the market is tyranny in other “spheres” such as the professions, politics and education.
He said that a decent society depends on the autonomy of the spheres. When money takes over politics, only a shadow of democracy remains. Similarly, when money takes over higher education, decisions are made based on the bottom line, and professional authority is cast aside.
Departments and programs and faculty are assessed by their productivity, meaning the amount of dollars they bring in and the number of graduates they churn out. Under such conditions, universities no longer are fulfilling their real mission.
American universities should not totally ignore the values and practices of the marketplace. They cannot viably exist if they do. But our universities must not become an industry redesigned to be operated like, say, the U.S. automobile and home loan industries.
Call me out of touch, but I subscribe to the late Cardinal John Henry Newman’s idea of the university. The priest, scholar and poet who founded what is now University College Dublin, Newman argued that the university does not exist for the sole purpose of conveying information and expertise.
“A university,” he wrote, “educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and grasp it.” He further stated “the general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the color, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already.”
For Newman, as it is with Benedict, the university is a place where students live for scholarship, where labor and leisure go hand in hand, where students sacrifice, where they fashion their lives around their studies and contemplation.
I dare say that at its core, American higher education is being coarsened as our universities increasingly adopt the business model and forsake the scholarly life. I have no doubt that this trend is having a negative effect on our social order. We are losing the sense of what it means to be human.
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Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. E-mail bmaxwell@