Saturday, March 11, 2017
In the current issue of The Hedgehog Review, Chad Wellmon has an essay titled "Whatever Happened to General Education?" that is worth your time. He uses his experience chairing a University of Virginia curricular reform committee as a lens through which to view the history of general education in America, tracing back to the late nineteenth century. He wants to answer this basic question:
Since at least 2000, faculty at several universities—including Harvard, Stanford, and William and Mary—have attempted to reform their curricula. They have issued reports lamenting the lack of a coherent, common experience and the absence of a shared intellectual project. Yet many of these reports have had a negligible impact, whether because of delayed votes, infinitely reconstituted committees, or faculty exhaustion. Why?
I'll let you judge the persuasiveness of his answer(s), but this paragraph jumped out at me as particularly depressing, in which he discusses the work of Thorstein Veblen, a sociologist who dismissed American universities as "little more than 'competitive businesses'" as far back as 1918:
It remains to be seen what will become of UVA’s proposed curriculum. Veblen had little confidence that universities could reform themselves, not because he considered faculty members institutionally inept or the “captains of erudition” brilliantly conniving. He doubted the possibility of change because he doubted that American culture could change. “The popular sentiment,” he wrote, fully embraced the notion that “businesslike administration [was] the only sane rule to be followed in any human enterprise.” The broader culture didn’t have the ethical resources to imagine goods and ends that were not simply economic. And, so, absent other moral imaginations, the practices and virtues that had come to organize and sustain universities were those of businesses whose only good was economic utility.
In the constant struggle to maintain the institutional integrity of Catholic colleges and universities, we often hear the diminishment of meaningful Catholic identity framed in terms of a failure of leadership or lack of will on the part of the faculty. Those might be immediate causes, but they should not distract from the deeper question: To what extent can any institution that depends on the surrounding culture chart an entirely different course than the surrounding culture? If American culture lacked the requisite non-economic moral imagination a century ago, are we any more confident in our prospects today? Even working in a meaningfully Catholic law school, many of our mission-driven decisions will, at some point, require translation into utilitarian terms in order to ensure that they gain traction with a broad set of stakeholders. Especially when a university reaches a certain size of operation and scale of aspiration, can the hoped-for impact of our work truly run counter to culture? Or are we better understood as being shaped and carried by culture, all the while looking for opportunities to nudge culture in ways that are shaped by our founding missions (the interpretation of which is, almost invariably, shaped by the broader culture)? If so, does the Catholic higher education project remain worthwhile, or is it time to reject the accrediting agencies and retreat to the catacombs to begin teaching by the candlelight of a more deliberately and rigidly defined subculture? (My quick answer to cut the suspense: yes, the project remains worthwhile, though that answer may not hold for all time and every place.)
This is not a new conversation for MoJ, but it may bear revisiting at this cultural moment. In full disclosure, my reaction to the Wellmon essay was undoubtedly influenced by the fact that I read it soon after reading several reviews of Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option - a book I have not yet read but will. More to come.