"The object of all good literature is to purge the soul of its petty troubles." ~ P.G. Wodehouse

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Polytechnic Utiliversity by Reinhard Hütter

In case you missed it, there was an excellent piece on higher education by Reinhard Hütter in the November 2013 issue of First Things entitled "Polytechnic Utiliversity: Putting the Universal Back in University." Hütter offered a thoughtful and challenging look at the ideal set out by John Henry Newman about what a university should be, and  Hütter compared this with the utilitarian, professionally focused institution that the larger universities have become. The second paragraph of the essay gives you the sense of his perspective:

"The ideal of a liberal education that carries its end in its very practice has been supplanted by an efficiency-driven program of knowledge making and a respective training in the communicative, mathematical, and scientific skills necessary for contributing to this knowledge making and applying it to ends dictated by individual and collective desires. The university has morphed into a polytechnicum with a functionalized, propaedeutic liberal arts appendix, a community college on steroids, with undergraduate training subdivided into functionalized pre-med, pre-law, pre-engineering training and the “salad bar” consumer curriculum in the humanities."
Hütter attributes the beginning of the "efficiency-driven program" to Francis Bacon and points to Friedrich Nietschze as anticipating what would happen with a "purely secular utilitarian knowledge production." Newman forms the backbone of Hütter's argument that theology and universal perspectives offer the best way forward in university education. The knowledge of God or of religious truth, according to Newman, is greater than any knowledge available through human reason and natural theology. Newman, as quoted by Hütter, states:
“Admit a God,” he writes, “and you introduce among the subjects of your knowledge, a fact encompassing, closing in upon, absorbing, every other fact conceivable. How can we investigate any part of any order of Knowledge, and stop short of that which enters into every order? All true principles run over with it, all phenomena converge to it; it is truly the First and the Last . . . . You will soon break up into fragments the whole circle of secular knowledge, if you begin the mutilation with divine.”  

And well, that appears to be what the modern university has done.

Disappointingly, Hütter ends the essay with only two possible options: give up and let the "polytechnic utiliversity" and the consumer version of education have its way or to fight for Newman's idea of a university, which Hütter terms an "all-too-unlikely utopia." It is hard to fight for something that is not quite possible or viewed as utopia. Is there no middle way (preferably a middle way on the Newman side of the middle)? Are small liberal arts colleges and universities the hope? The financial pressures of the last few years have made our consumer-minded society harder to sell on the liberal arts, but for the sake of humanity, I hope that the "dystopia" of the utiliversity is not "all-too-likely."

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