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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"The End of Education"

My Notre Dame colleague, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, has this provocative essay ("The End of Education:  The Fragmentation of the American University") in the latest issue of Commonweal magazine.  The piece opens with this:

What should be the distinctive calling of the American Catholic university or college here and now? It should be to challenge its secular counterparts by recovering both for them and for itself a less fragmented conception of what an education beyond high school should be, by identifying what has gone badly wrong with even the best of secular universities. From a Catholic point of view the contemporary secular university is not at fault because it is not Catholic. It is at fault insofar as it is not a university.

Yet the major Catholic universities seem unlikely to accept this calling, if only because their administrative leaders are for the most part hell-bent on imitating their prestigious secular counterparts, which already imitate one another. So we find Notre Dame glancing nervously at Duke, only to catch Duke in the act of glancing nervously at Princeton. What is it that makes this attitude so corrupting? What has gone wrong with the secular university?

(Cf., e.g., Marty Peretz.)  Notwithstanding this initial focus on the Catholic university, the piece has a lot to say about universities, and university education, generally.  I wonder, does it have anything to say about law schools and legal education?  More after the jump . . .

MacIntyre discusses (and, for the most part, laments) the "multiplication of disciplines", the "increasing specialization by scholars", and the "transformation of university or college teachers into professionalized, narrowly focused researchers who also happen to teach", and the "changing education of our students".  He sets out some questions -- questions about what it means to be human, and about how all the things we know and questions we ask fit together -- and then suggests a radical re-structuring of education:

From these three sets of questions a tripartite curriculum emerges. One element is mathematical and scientific, extending beyond physics to the chemistry and neurophysiology needed to understand recent discoveries about the brain. Another is historical, situating the history of ideas in their social, political, and economic contexts. And a third consists in linguistic and literary studies. All three have a philosophical component: philosophy of mind and body, the philosophical questions raised by different aspects of our past history, the interpretive and evaluative questions posed by our relationship to other cultures. So the faculty needed to teach this curriculum would consist of mathematicians, physicists, some types of biologists, intellectual, social, and economic historians, teachers of English and of one or two other languages and literatures, anthropologists, and philosophers. But it would be crucial that this should be a faculty dedicated not only to the teaching of their own discipline but also to the curriculum as a whole, a faculty with strong interests in and a worthwhile knowledge of some disciplines not their own, so that they, and not only the students, were able to formulate and pursue rival and alternative answers to the questions that give point and purpose to such a curriculum. . . .

“What then about specialized training for research?” someone will ask. Ours, they may say, is a knowledge-based economy and we cannot do without specialized researchers. The type of curriculum that I am proposing may teach students to ask questions in a disciplined way, something that is certainly a valuable preliminary to instruction in genuine research techniques, but it does not begin to supply the apprenticeship that researchers at the cutting edge need. Indeed it does not. It is liberal education, not job training. But the lesson is to get rid of the confusions generated by our predecessors’ admiration for the German research university and to supply both a liberal education in the arts and sciences and, for those who aspire to it, a professional, specialized training in research in the natural or the human sciences. The curriculum I am proposing, including theology, could perhaps be taught in three well-structured and strenuous years. A fourth year would thereby become available for research or professional training. We do not have to sacrifice training in research in order to provide our students with a liberal education, just as we do not have to fragment and deform so much of our students’ education, as we do now.


Posted by Rick Garnett on October 24, 2006 at 12:37 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Increasing specialization is both deeply troubling and somewhat unavoidable, as the sum total of human knowledge increases faster than human lifespans. That's what makes it such a hard problem, I think. And it underlies the debates that have cropped up here and elsewhere about interdisciplinary scholarship in law. Law professors love "interdisciplinary" work, but it tends to verge on dilettantism. Rigorous study in even just two disciplines, however, is almost impossible. (See, e.g., the reaction to Larry Solum's proposal for what a well-rounded legal scholar should know, although I don't think Solum was proposing mastery of subjects as opposed to familiarity with concepts.) Indeed, mastery of numerous fields within even a single discipline is just about impossible.

I think such attempts are worthwhile, however, for the same reason cross-referencing is worthwhile -- the number of connections between discrete bits of information rapidly multiplies each time two nodes are connected. For example, I just attended a talk on tax policy, and learned something that seems directly relevant to copyright policy. Increasing specialization makes such connections less likely.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Oct 24, 2006 1:40:40 PM

In many ways this just seems like typical MacIntyre, i.e., it's all been down-hill since the 16th century. I have a hard time being troubled by most of what troubles the grumpy old man.

Posted by: Matt | Oct 24, 2006 3:02:59 PM

Seems as though MacIntyre has been reading Cardinal Newman. I like.

Posted by: CL | Oct 25, 2006 1:47:11 AM

While I sympathize with Dan's characterization (Stephen Holmes' chapter on MacIntyre in The Anatomy of Antiliberalism [1993] remains relevant), believing MacIntyre will never transcend the Enlightenment until he's willing to subsume/incorporate it in fine Hegelian dialectical fashion, MacIntyre's proposal has much to recommend it, but the suggestions regarding theology are only appropriate for Catholic and Protestant institutions. For example, he speaks to Newman's argument

'that it is theology that is the integrative and unifying discipline needed by any university, secular, Protestant, or Catholic. And it is in the light afforded by the Catholic faith and more especially by Catholic doctrines concerning human nature and the human condition that theologians have a unique contribution to make in addressing the questions that ought to be central to an otherwise secular curriculum. It is not just that Catholic theology has its own distinctive answers to those questions, but that we can learn from it a way of addressing those questions, not just as theoretical inquiries, but as questions with practical import for our lives, asked by those who are open to God’s self-revelation. Theology can become an education in how to ask such questions.'

Courses in Philosophy and on Worldviews (including, but not limited to, religions) could well fulfill the function MacIntyre desires for Catholic theology, but in a way that avoids advocacy or propagation inasmuch as students learn about fundamental ethical, metaphysical and existential questions and the variegated answers on offer in an objective manner, that is: teaching *about* philosophies and worldviews (For an excellent discussion of how to go about doing this, please see Ninian Smart's Religion and the Western Mind, 1987 [the title is awful, and does not do the book justice; Smart has other work germane to this topic as well). And it is not the disciplines per se that are 'unifying and integrative,' but the philosophies (well, some philosophies, as Hadot and Nussbaum remind us) and worldviews themselves, it being left to students to decide how meaningful and appropriate they may be to their lives (they are, after all, young adults). Such a determination by the students themselves may cause, for instance, some to abandon the religious worldviews they were brought up in (a prospect that would horrify MacIntyre and communitarians in general; and that abandonment may turn out to be temporary) and even adopt a new tradition or worldview, or it may prompt them to further explore their own traditions in a way that renews their commitment and fidelity to the faith of their forebears, or it might cause them to see what's on offer as so much nonsense: in other words, we need to be clear and not at all afraid of the consequences that may follow such a study. MacIntyre wants to wield the traditional authority of religion (and one or two religions at that) over the student body, and this can hardly do for a secular university.

Insofar as MacIntyre is echoing Newman, there's not much new in light of Jaroslav Pelikan's earlier book, The Idea of the University: A Reexamination (1992). Moreover, those attracted to MacIntyre would do well to consider arguments in the following, all of which should be part of the discussion:

Aranowitz, Stanley. The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001.

Bok, Derek. Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Newman, Frank, Lara Couturier and Jamie Scurry. The Future of Higher Education: Rhetoric, Reality, and the Risks of the Market. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2004.

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Robbins, Bruce. Secular Vocations: Intellectuals, Professionalism, Culture. London: Verso, 1993.

Slaughter, Sheila and Gary Rhoades. Academic Capitalism and the New Economy: Markets, State, and Higher Education. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Oct 25, 2006 5:38:20 PM

I meant to include Alan Ryan's Liberal Anxieties and Liberal Education (1998) above as well.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Oct 25, 2006 5:48:28 PM

Whoops! I meant to say 'Matt' where I said 'Dan.'

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Oct 25, 2006 6:03:55 PM

To Patrick's fine list I would add Robert Proctor's Defining the Humanities (2d ed. 1998).

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Posted by: fake college degrees | Jun 12, 2017 3:10:59 AM

That's what makes it such a hard hassle, I think. And it underlies the debates which have cropped up here and someplace else about interdisciplinary scholarship in regulation.

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