Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The University and the Church

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The University and the Church

Article excerpt

In his address to American educators on April 17, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI described the work of the university as an act of intellectual charity, a work that "upholds the essential unity of knowledge against the fragmentation which ensues when reason is detached from the pursuit of the truth." The work of intellectual charity has as its accompaniment not merely faith but also hope, for as Benedict noted, "Once their passion for the fullness of truth has been awakened, young people will surely relish the discovery that the question of what they can know opens up the vast adventure of what they ought to do. Here they will experience 'in what' and 'in whom' it is possible to hope and be inspired to contribute to society in a way that engenders hope in others." (1) I want to suggest that intellectual charity rightly identifies that love necessary for the university, the love of the beautiful, the true, the good. But it may not be self-evident to many today that the university is in any real sense the location for love, even for that love of learning that was once its boast. The contemporary university is a complex place and current accounts of the education bubble raise anew the question of the larger purposes of higher education.

In one of his more provocative descriptions of the advantages of a university education, the English Catholic novelist and essayist, Evelyn Waugh, suggested that its benefits were not so much to the student as to the parents: "As soon as we become intolerable in the home, we are sent away to schools and kept there as long as our parents can afford. If they are really rich, they can keep on educating us all their lives, sending us from university to university all over the world. From their point of view, the advantages of education are direct and wholly delightful. By one simple expedient, they are relieved of the moral responsibility and physical inconvenience of having us about the house." And he concluded, "When we go to prison, they can say, 'Well, well, we did all we could. We gave him an excellent education.'" (2) On another occasion he suggested that the primary advantage to society in a university education is to take young men out of the community at a uniquely dangerous age, expose them for three years to beautiful architecture at Oxford or Cambridge and then release them back into the public when the primary danger is past.

Waugh was describing his own experience of Oxford in the 1920s, one that struck him as at once artificial and futile. In the end he did not take a degree. Instead he attended an art school before turning to fiction. But his skepticism about the university has older sources as well. In reflecting on the transition from the role of independent masters to the incorporated university, Philippus de Grevia, chancellor of the University of Paris from 1218 to 1236, described the work of his university colleagues in the following terms:

   At one time, in which each magister taught independently
   and when the name of the university was unknown, there
   were more lectures and disputations and more interest in
   scholarly things. Now, however, when you have joined yourselves
   together in a university, lectures and disputations have
   become less frequent; everything is done hastily, little is
   learnt, and the time needed for study is wasted in meetings
   and discussions. While the elders debate in their meetings and
   enact statutes, the young ones organize villainous plots and
   plan their nocturnal attacks. (3)

It was, perhaps, a more robust age than our own, at least in terms of the spirit of younger colleagues, but we see already that bureaucratic turn to procedural management at the cost of disputations, lectures, and the interest in scholarly things, a development that has achieved a much fuller form in our own time. In sharp contrast with these resolutely cynical views of the university, Dante claimed in the Convivio that the age of late adolescence is uniquely appropriate for a certain kind of transforming education, for it is at this age that the young are open to what he called a "stupor" or astonishment of mind that falls on them in the encounter with great and wonderful things. …

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