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The Idea of the University:
A Reexamination

by Jaroslav Pelikan
Yale University Press, 238 pages, $30

The span of Jaroslav Pelikan’s academic career approaches half a century. In these decades he has made himself the modern master of Dogmengeschichte, the worthy successor of the great Harnack (an achievement appreciated by David Lotz in the May issue of First Things). But if the Germanic comparison suggests musty pedantry, then it utterly misrepresents Pelikan. For the scope and scintillation of his writing—liberal learning in the truest sense—has made him one of the shining ornaments of the contemporary American university. Nor has he shunned the grimier tasks required to keep the engines of modern erudition running. In addition to being Sterling Professor of History at Yale, Pelikan has also, and with notable success, served as dean of that University’s Graduate School.

From this eminence, Pelikan now assays the health and prospects of the university—the American version in particular, but seen as a species of universitas universalis. The present book originated in an invitation to Pelikan from Yale’s president Benno Schmidt to deliver a series of lectures on “The Future of the University” in anticipation of Yale’s tricentennial. (Schmidt himself has recently fled Yale’s travails, readers may recall, to a career helping to build the McDonald’s of profit-making schools.) Pelikan hit on the happy idea of conducting these lectures in a loose dialogue with John Henry Newman’s classic, The Idea of a University—also delivered originally as lectures, in the 1850s, and published in more or less final form in 1873. Thus, the keenest Victorian assessment of the university ideal serves as a touchstone for Pelikan’s own seasoned reflections more than a century later.

And these reflections do have the balance and caution that come with maturity. Newman wrote, in early middle age, with the creative verve of a man trying to build (in Catholic Ireland) a new and better version of the beloved Oxford from which his conversion to Rome had forced him into reluctant exile. Pelikan writes, a decade or two older than Newman was, with the fencing skill of a man warding off attacks on the cherished institution from which he has taken sustenance through a long and productive life. And for the reader who wants a thoughtful summation of the best conventional wisdom about universities in America, there exists no more lucid or convenient handbook than The Idea of the University.

I must admit at the outset that I wholeheartedly share Pelikan’s fondness for the modern university (which has nurtured me, too), his cheerleader’s enthusiasm for its enormous achievements, his appreciation of the values that animate it at its best, and his gracefully modulated dismay at the shallowness and misdirection of much of the current criticism of this beleaguered institution. I do not, however, share what seems to me his capacity to avert his gaze from its root-and-branch failures.

To be sure, Pelikan is far from blind to problems besetting modern universities. His book offers a long menu of them. He comments shrewdly and lucidly on such key failures as that of graduate training to prepare future professors for undergraduate teaching, that of scholars to speak to any audience wider than their fellow specialists, that of professional schools and arts-and-sciences faculties to overcome the mutual isolation that divides them one from another and debilitates their individual intellectual enterprises. He takes swipes as well at several of the less central but still egregious scandals of American higher education, such as the stench arising from big-time college athletics and the feebleness of teacher-education. And for a few of these problems that especially engage him—the preparation of schoolteachers is one—he maps out thoughtful and plausible, though not necessarily original, avenues of reform.

But then Pelikan does not strive for originality. Indeed, the eschewing of flash in favor of substance is the great strength of his book—and a quality all the more welcome for being notably absent in bestselling recent critiques of higher education. The most interesting points in The Idea of the University are those at which Pelikan latches on to a commonplace and shows how we have failed really to appreciate it. The attention he focuses on the centrality of libraries to the university’s mission—and the baleful consequences of their current malnutrition in most budgets—is a good example of this. Another is his recurrent commentary on the international linkages that bind together universities and their scholars. On this subject his allusions bring home more forcefully than most full-length essays the ways in which the increasingly international organization of knowledge will change the basic structure of academic work.

In the end—frustratingly—there are too many good things. One wishes that Pelikan had written more about less, had spelled out the implications of a handful of his really acute insights, had given us a book that is less an owner’s manual and more a cogent program for reform.

And what sort of “work of self-reformation”—to invoke Pelikan’s phrase—would he have universities initiate? As the reader of The Idea of the University proceeds through its topical chapters, its author’s disposition becomes clearer and clearer. He is a thoughtful and wide-awake Tory: careful to preserve and bolster the university’s traditional strengths, anxious to amend its more evidently dangerous weaknesses, cautious not to let new needs go unmet. A reforming conservative: not Newman, but Burke.

Yet, like Burke, Pelikan sometimes averts his eyes from unlovely realities that might put a-tumble the whole harmonious picture. Burke’s “unbought grace of life” was in fact pretty dearly bought (ask the peasants), and the great achievements of the modern university have likewise come at considerable cost. We hardly require (I hope) an academic French Revolution, tumbrels rolling through the quads. But we do need to ask more penetrating questions than even the wisest Yale Tory is apt to put.

We need, in the first instance, to ask where the major work of American higher education goes on. The answer is that it is not at Yale or Chicago (Pelikan’s principal avatars of the University) or, for that matter, Michigan, where I teach. The vast majority of American students get their degrees from Ripon College, Prairie View A & M, Phillips University, the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and so on. These institutions do not share with Yale and Chicago and Michigan a first-rank research library, a panoply of professional schools, or a continent-hopping faculty. Yet, realistically, they are the heart of the matter; for, when mass higher education became a fact of life, the university took on strange and protean shapes. But these, Pelikan’s reader comes to feel, are lesser breeds without the Law. Pelikan nods occasionally in their direction, and not condescendingly. But it is all too clear that when he thinks “university,” he thinks Chicago and Yale.

And even in thinking about Chicago and Yale, he pulls up short when nearing the verge of their (and most universities’) crippling wrongs. All the overblown carping about political correctness and the search for tenured radicals under every podium—from which The Idea of the University brings blessed respite—has served to distract attention from problems in higher education that run much deeper. Some of these Pelikan confronts. But it is almost as if he can not quite bear to look upon the most scarlet sins of the Alma Mater he loves so well and so admirably.

The words “general education,” “core curriculum,” even “curriculum” are strikingly absent from the index. “Undergraduate education” leads to some oblique references to these matters. But mostly Pelikan chooses to avoid discussing the structure of undergraduate education and its relation to the aims of liberal learning. This is an odd omission for someone whose interlocutor is Newman. It becomes even odder when one recalls how much time in recent years colleges and universities have devoted to wrangling over core curricula and graduation requirements.

Surely the salient issue in undergraduate education today is not class size, teaching method, relation to professional education, or connection with research, but its very coherence. Lacking consensus on the aims of education, faculties can hardly achieve it on the content. With a few honorable exceptions (Pelikan’s alma mater, Chicago, distinguished among them) colleges and universities have let general education slide into confused fragmentation. Students must take a bit of this and a little of that; but how it all fits together comprises a great mystery—especially to the students for whom the Age of Faith has returned. The relatively rare efforts to reconstruct some kind of order, among which Harvard’s is perhaps the most publicized, have focused on cultivating higher-order skills, such as moral reasoning. This neatly evades the real issue: whether there is to be common knowledge. That is, whether our high culture coheres at all.

Similar issues emerge, not surprisingly, in graduate education and in scholarship. Pelikan notes, and laments, the gathering momentum towards hyperspecialization in both, reflected in the scholar’s loss of the capacity to speak to a generally educated audience—or even to scholars in related disciplines. But he does not go on to inquire into the university’s larger relation to this fragmentation of knowledge. Yet all of these sore spots are portions of a single great wound.

There is no more patent or defining characteristic of modern intellectual life than its fragmentation. What has been lost over the past century or so is the conviction of the unity of knowledge. The belief stemmed ultimately from faith in the unity of creation and the Creator. But it was always embodied more immediately in some intellectual (and academic) tradition, such as Aristotelian scholasticism or the Scottish Enlightenment’s melding of common-sense realism, moral philosophy, and social inquiry. As the former perfused medieval universities, so the latter dominated Anglo-American intellectual life (and colleges) through much of the nineteenth century.

The fading of this root conviction, and the sundering of the loosely cohering traditions that made it concrete, involved (to borrow a phrase from Newman) both loss and gain. Both were evident in universities. Anyone worried about politically correct intolerance would reassure himself if he could visit almost any American college circa 1850 and learn what closed-mindedness and limits to dissent really mean. Yet anyone with access to a major library actually can read, in the yellowed pages of Victorian reviews, learned professors discussing the significance of their research in terms accessible to any literate person.

Universities have become (and this is virtually an axiom of The Idea of the University) the centers of organized knowledge in the modern world. Can they do anything to restore coherence to intellectual life, to reconnect the severed regions of knowledge, to rebuild a truly common discourse? And can they do this without sacrificing academic freedom, the openness and the creativity that were won only by dynamiting the old unitary traditions? Alasdair MacIntyre and Richard Rorty would not make happy bunkmates, but both insist that real discourse requires shared intellectual and moral ground. If so, then universities need to learn again how to cultivate it.

There can hardly be a question that goes more directly to the heart of the present condition of the university—nor one that could set off more and bitterer fights within it. And Pelikan steps carefully around it. In doing so, he reflects the nervousness of other leaders of higher education. For scarcely anyone in or around universities wants to touch a fuse to this powder keg: especially when a stick of dynamite labeled “race” or “gender” or “financial crisis” or “accountability” is apt to blow up in the provost’s office at any moment.

Pelikan is right in implying, in both the tone of his voice and the tenor of his recommendations, that university reformers should tread carefully, for, with all its defects, the university remains among our most vital and valuable institutions. It still works, however sporadically and creakily. It is a custodian and amender of our intellectual heritage, a needed critical voice, a stairway of social mobility, an engine of material progress, and a teacher by example of the great truth that some things matter more than material progress. All of these lessons Pelikan teaches with conviction, good sense, lucidity, a wealth of ripened experience, and his own compelling personal witness. But the university also needs a thorough rethinking; it needs answers to very big, very hard questions. About this, The Idea of the University maintains discreet silence.

James Turner is Professor of History at the University of Michigan.