Did Universities Forego Nourishment of the Soul for Money?

CommentaryOn the evening of April 14, 1912, Marion Wright of Somerset, England, who was on her way to get married, sang the final hymn in a religious service conducted aboard a steamship headed for New York. It was drawn from John Henry Newman’s poem, “The Pillar of the Cloud.” Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,Lead Thou me on!The night is dark, and I am far from home–Lead Thou me on! These words were eerily prescient. Just as Marion finished singing, the Titanic hit an iceberg. At present, universities are currently sailing through their own “encircling gloom”, and it sometimes seems as if universities are headed for an iceberg of their own. Can the thoughts of Saint John Henry Newman, dead for more than a century, offer them any navigational advice? On the surface, this may seem a strange question. Newman’s views on the purity of learning for its own sake are hard to reconcile with the current predicament facing universities. Yet, practically every book written about higher education quotes him. So what is responsible for his longevity? His famous book, “The Idea of a University,” began with a series of lectures he delivered in Dublin in 1852. Newman’s belief that universities should eschew practical employment skills troubled parents who worried about how their children would support themselves. He attacked the utilitarian view of education, which values a university for its practical products—work-ready graduates, scientific discoveries, and ideas for new businesses. He did not deny that these things were valuable, but he saw them as secondary. For Newman, the real purpose of a university was to develop “gentlemen” who “raise the intellectual tone of society” (women were not part of his vision). His new university would abjure practical learning, banish research to special institutes and allow the Catholic religion to infuse the teaching of all subjects. Today’s academics share few, if any, of Newman’s values. For example, they do not see religion as central to teaching, they would never banish professional courses, and they are firm in their belief that research is vital to a university. Yet, academics continue to turn to Newman for advice about the mission and practice of higher education in the 21st century. Liberal Education in the Age of Money We live in an age in which we measure everything in dollars and cents, including higher education. Want to make a good living? Have you considered our course on golf course management? How about surfing science? Interested in a trendy profession? No problem! Universities chase every fad. Newman was one of the first to see the way things were going: “[Some great men] argue as if everything, as well as every person, had its price; and that where there has been a great outlay, they have a right to expect a return in kind … With a fundamental principle of this nature, they very naturally go on to ask, what there is to show for the expense of a university; what is the actual worth in the market of the article called ‘a Liberal Education,’ on the supposition that it does not teach us definitely how to advance our manufactures, or to improve our lands, or to better our civil economy.” But not even Newman could have guessed just how far such thinking would go. Once justified by a desire to understand our world and our place in it, we now judge scientific research by its commercial “impact.” The arts and humanities used to be about the growth of the human spirit. In the age of money, they have become business plans for “creative industries,” judged by the size of the profits they produce. The glasses and personal items of Cardinal John Henry Newman lay on his writing desk in his living quarters, which have been untouched since his death in 1890, seen in Birmingham, England, on Aug. 11, 2010. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images) Having accepted that they are marshalling yards for life’s gravy train, it is not surprising that universities market their courses by boasting about how much money their graduates earn. It’s not just universities and students that value education in financial terms; the Australian government does too. According to Australian federal budget papers, the purpose of universities is “to grow the knowledge-based economy,” as if somewhere on earth, there exists an economy based on ignorance. Some universities have sought to calculate their exact “value” in dollars and cents. According to KPMG, an accounting firm, every dollar spent on higher education produces a return of 15 percent, which makes everyone in society better off. Sounds miraculous, and it would be if it were true. Unfortunately, as Alison Wolf showed in her book “Does Education Matter?” there is no simple, direct relationship between the amount of education in a society and its future growth rate. Switzerland is a wealthy country, yet it invests a lower percentage of its national wealth in higher education than does Poland. France, a developed country,

Did Universities Forego Nourishment of the Soul for Money?

Commentary

On the evening of April 14, 1912, Marion Wright of Somerset, England, who was on her way to get married, sang the final hymn in a religious service conducted aboard a steamship headed for New York. It was drawn from John Henry Newman’s poem, “The Pillar of the Cloud.”

Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home–
Lead Thou me on!

These words were eerily prescient. Just as Marion finished singing, the Titanic hit an iceberg.

At present, universities are currently sailing through their own “encircling gloom”, and it sometimes seems as if universities are headed for an iceberg of their own.

Can the thoughts of Saint John Henry Newman, dead for more than a century, offer them any navigational advice? On the surface, this may seem a strange question.

Newman’s views on the purity of learning for its own sake are hard to reconcile with the current predicament facing universities. Yet, practically every book written about higher education quotes him. So what is responsible for his longevity?

His famous book, “The Idea of a University,” began with a series of lectures he delivered in Dublin in 1852.

Newman’s belief that universities should eschew practical employment skills troubled parents who worried about how their children would support themselves.

He attacked the utilitarian view of education, which values a university for its practical products—work-ready graduates, scientific discoveries, and ideas for new businesses. He did not deny that these things were valuable, but he saw them as secondary.

For Newman, the real purpose of a university was to develop “gentlemen” who “raise the intellectual tone of society” (women were not part of his vision).

His new university would abjure practical learning, banish research to special institutes and allow the Catholic religion to infuse the teaching of all subjects.

Today’s academics share few, if any, of Newman’s values. For example, they do not see religion as central to teaching, they would never banish professional courses, and they are firm in their belief that research is vital to a university. Yet, academics continue to turn to Newman for advice about the mission and practice of higher education in the 21st century.

Liberal Education in the Age of Money

We live in an age in which we measure everything in dollars and cents, including higher education. Want to make a good living? Have you considered our course on golf course management? How about surfing science? Interested in a trendy profession? No problem! Universities chase every fad.

Newman was one of the first to see the way things were going:

“[Some great men] argue as if everything, as well as every person, had its price; and that where there has been a great outlay, they have a right to expect a return in kind … With a fundamental principle of this nature, they very naturally go on to ask, what there is to show for the expense of a university; what is the actual worth in the market of the article called ‘a Liberal Education,’ on the supposition that it does not teach us definitely how to advance our manufactures, or to improve our lands, or to better our civil economy.”

But not even Newman could have guessed just how far such thinking would go. Once justified by a desire to understand our world and our place in it, we now judge scientific research by its commercial “impact.”

The arts and humanities used to be about the growth of the human spirit. In the age of money, they have become business plans for “creative industries,” judged by the size of the profits they produce.

Epoch Times Photo
The glasses and personal items of Cardinal John Henry Newman lay on his writing desk in his living quarters, which have been untouched since his death in 1890, seen in Birmingham, England, on Aug. 11, 2010. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Having accepted that they are marshalling yards for life’s gravy train, it is not surprising that universities market their courses by boasting about how much money their graduates earn. It’s not just universities and students that value education in financial terms; the Australian government does too.

According to Australian federal budget papers, the purpose of universities is “to grow the knowledge-based economy,” as if somewhere on earth, there exists an economy based on ignorance.

Some universities have sought to calculate their exact “value” in dollars and cents. According to KPMG, an accounting firm, every dollar spent on higher education produces a return of 15 percent, which makes everyone in society better off. Sounds miraculous, and it would be if it were true.

Unfortunately, as Alison Wolf showed in her book “Does Education Matter?” there is no simple, direct relationship between the amount of education in a society and its future growth rate.

Switzerland is a wealthy country, yet it invests a lower percentage of its national wealth in higher education than does Poland. France, a developed country, invests less than Chile, a developing one. The UK is home to many of the world’s leading universities, yet its economy is under pressure.

Assessing the value of universities by their contribution to the GDP is what philosophers call a “category error.” Of course, universities contribute to the economy; so does Shakespeare. Tourists to Stratford-upon-Avon spend millions per year on hotel rooms, meals, and coffee mugs with quotes from Hamlet. The wine sold during intervals at the Globe Theatre amounts to more than a hundred thousand dollars. Should we conclude that Shakespeare is valuable because he helps to sell books, coffee mugs, and wine? Of course not.

Oscar Wilde’s words bear repeating: we seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Newman retains his appeal because he eloquently resisted the idea that we should measure higher education in financial terms. He argued instead for a higher purpose: “University training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, … and refining the intercourse of private life.”

We do not have to take Newman’s word for this. Carefully conducted studies have found university graduates are more likely to vote than non-graduates in countries where voting is not compulsory, less likely to commit crimes and more likely to volunteer to participate in public debate. They are also more tolerant toward minorities and migrants than the average citizen.

Universities demean and diminish their work when they construe their aim as only making money. It is the reason Newman’s arguments remain popular.

Newman’s Modern Relevance

Despite his eloquence, Newman was wrong about practical knowledge. Universities are right to be concerned with preparing students for paid work—a fulfilling career is part of a good life.

But there is a problem; the skills required for employment today are not necessarily the ones society will need in the future. Students leaving university this year will retire around 2065. We don’t know what the world will look like next year, let alone 2065.

To prepare graduates for an ever-changing future, universities need to do more than teach them a narrow set of vocational skills. They also need to help graduates develop traits that allow them to keep learning.

Epoch Times Photo
Universities currently fail to help students develop life-long skills, focusing on narrow set of specialised vocational skills. (Dreamstime/TNS)

In Newman’s words, the goal of higher education is to:

“Open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, eloquent expression.”

In contrast to job-related skills, Newman’s skills never become obsolete.

Universities short-change students when they focus just on money. If universities do their jobs properly, graduates acquire more than just job skills. They learn about themselves. They learn what they consider essential and what is trivial; they learn what to mock and what to take seriously, what to live for and what is worth dying for.

Unfortunately, much has been lost from higher education in the age of money. Some modern writers claim that education has lost its soul. ”The Lost Soul of Higher Education” by Ellen Schrecker and ”Excellence Without a Soul” by Harry R. Lewis are two recent examples. I don’t think I have ever heard any of my academic colleagues utter the word soul, at least not in connection with university learning.

Yet the soul is precisely the right word. Our universities have made a Faustian bargain and traded our souls for money. Such transactions rarely become win-win propositions.

It’s not too late to turn things around; Newman provides a way for the university to reclaim its soul.

His university may have failed, and his attitudes toward research and practical knowledge belong to a different age. Still, John Henry Newman’s defence of a liberal education remains apposite today, a kindly humanistic light amid the encircling gloom.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


Follow

Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz has served as vice chancellor of Australia's Macquarie University, Murdoch University, and the UK's Brunel University. He has advised and chaired numerous education bodies including the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). As an academic, Schwartz's research spans clinical psychology, psychiatry, and public health—he has also published over 100 articles in scientific journals and 13 books.