Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Christian Faith and the Crisis of the Universities

I very much enjoyed this essay, by Miroslav Volf (Yale), called "Life Worth Living:  Christian Faith and the Crisis of the Universities."  Among other things, it engages my friend and teacher Tony Kronman's important book, Education's End:  Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life.  Here's just a bit:

What is lost when the exploration of life worth living gets squeezed out of the university? For one, the university's character changes. In terms of the main thrust of what universities are about, they become a combination of research institutes and vocational schools. As research institutes, universities seek to explain how the world and various swaths of it function and to apply the knowledge gained to mastery over the world. As vocational schools, universities prepare students for jobs, which are increasingly knowledge based.

As sites of research, application of knowledge, and training, universities are immensely important. But if this were all there was to them, they would be seriously deficient. In research and vocational training, the most basic question is "How?" - how things (from galaxies to subatomic particles, and everything in between) work, and how to make things work for our benefit. Reason is employed for explanatory and instrumental purposes. Answering "How?" as we seek to achieve our goals is important. So is answering "What?" as we stand in wonder before the world. But perhaps the most characteristic question for humans is neither "How?" nor "What?" but "To what end?" To what end do we seek to advance knowledge and invent new technologies? To what end do we work from dusk to dawn, whatever our jobs are?

Centred on research and vocational training, universities are about cognition and instrumental rationality only, not about moral norms and meanings. They teach students how to achieve whatever ends they themselves or others set for them, but not how to evaluate and chose wisely among possible ends. Experts in means, they then remain amateurs in ends. With cognitive and instrumental prowess, they blindly follow their "preferences" bereft of reflexive standards or norms with which to evaluate them; they seek to satisfy their desires without having explored what is genuinely desirable and why. . . .

. . . The Christian faith can help universities build robust humanities programs in which the question of life worth living figures prominently. This may in fact be the most important contribution that the Christian faith has to make to the flourishing of universities, just as participating vigorously in the public debate on life worth living might be the most important contribution to public life more broadly. . . .


Garnett, Rick | Permalink