In the unforgettable Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger’s wearied heroine, recovering from some kind of spiritual crisis, mulls unhappily over her college experience.
“It was the worst of all in class . . . ” she said with decision. “That was the worst. What happened was, I got the idea in my head—and I could not get it out—that college was just one more dopey, inane place in the world dedicated to piling up treasure on earth and everything. I mean treasure is treasure, for heaven’s sake. What’s the difference whether the treasure is money, or property, or even culture, or even just plain knowledge? . . . Sometimes I think that knowledge—when it’s knowledge for knowledge’s sake, anyway—is the worst of all.”
This special contempt was warranted by the idea Franny had acquired (from where?) that knowledge was supposed to be something different from mere booty—that knowledge was, in some sense, for something.
“I don’t think it would have all got me quite so down if just once in a while—just once in a while—there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom, and that if it doesn’t, it’s just a disgusting waste of time! But there never is! You never even hear any hints dropped on a campus that wisdom is supposed to be the goal of knowledge. You hardly even hear the word ‘wisdom’ mentioned!”
Ah, wisdom—that antiquated little word.
If one scarcely heard the word in Franny’s day, fifty years ago, one can be certain it keeps a low profile today. And is that not justified? Is knowledge for wisdom? It would be entirely natural for us to reply that Franny, young thing, is out of the loop in the understanding of education. She hasn’t properly grasped the point of “knowledge for its own sake,” liberal knowledge—that distinction made so clear by John Henry Newman. “Knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward.” Not “for the sake of life and person,” or any other end external to itself. Rather, “the pursuit of knowledge promise[s] nothing beyond knowledge itself.” In a recent issue of First Things (November 2000), Peter Leithart called liberal knowledge utterly “useless”: “The liberal arts are useless in the same way that the centerpiece on a dining room table is useless; . . . useless in the way that perfecting a golf swing is useless.” Yale president Bartlett Giamatti put the same point this way: “If you pursue the study of anything not for the intrinsic rewards of exercising and developing the power of the mind” then you are not pursuing a liberal education.
It may be easy to overrule Franny Glass, but to do so would be to embrace the distortion of liberal learning that is demanded by a post-Enlightenment world closed to wisdom—a distortion ironically facilitated by none other than Newman himself. In the idea of “knowledge its own end” that was central to The Idea of a University, Newman aimed to protect wisdom from the encroachment of utility, and it has become customary for those who resist the co-option of the humanities by politics and fashion to call for a return to his ideal. But his program cannot serve as a solution. Newman was already embroiled in our troubles, and he insisted on knowledge rather than wisdom in order to escape them. In doing so, he paid no heed to the support his choice lent to a new tradition that was absolutely opposed to the heritage he meant to protect. Comparatively speaking, Newman may appear to be a defender of “that old tradition” that “began in Palestine and Greece,” but in important ways he accommodated the Enlightenment order that has effectively ended that tradition.
The problem first shows itself in the rhetoric of “uselessness.” There is no more devastating comeback to the demand for utility. But uselessness is also a dangerous term to employ in modern times. In fact, one can use it unproblematically only when addressing an audience whose sense of ultimate purpose is whole, rich, and vibrant. Aristotle extols a “wisdom” directed “at no end beyond itself” in a discourse conceived to clarify the nature of all “excellent” human action. Augustine explicates the specific role of a “wisdom” that is “loved for its own sake” in leading us to God, “the resting place of desire.” But Newman employs the idea in defensive discourses framed to confront the prejudices of a new world.
The nine discourses of The Idea of a University deal mostly with two such prejudices: that theology has no place in a contemporary university and that what society needs is modern skills, not another institution touting the “virtues of the intellect.” Newman did not challenge the modern presumption that a university is an institution for the dissemination of truths demonstrable to all—one that is incompatible with sectarian attachments—and so he was at pains to overturn the perception that “religion is not knowledge.” It is only in the final discourse that he turns from the wider world to Catholic prejudice, arguing that the subject matter of a church-run university must embrace material that is “of the world” (the study of literature, history, and art indifferent to the purposes of religion). His argument was consistent: the proper business of a university is knowledge—knowledge of God, profitless knowledge, knowledge of man. Newman thus revealed his debt to the Enlightenment thinking that has ruled the modern university ever since its founding.
To begin with, Newman held an Enlightenment view of knowledge as something fundamentally universal. “Facts and their relations” in each region of science could yield a “universal knowledge” that may be settled (using reasoning and evidence) to the satisfaction of human beings regardless of their beliefs. “I have no intention,” he explained, “of bringing into the argument the authority of the Church, or any authority at all; but I shall consider the question simply on the grounds of human reason and human wisdom.”
Second, even while promoting the idea of a “circle of knowledge” in which all the sciences formed an integrated whole, Newman conceived a university with the standard Enlightenment structure—the complete “division of labor” recommended by Kant. There were only specialties; no faculty or department was empowered to articulate an overarching understanding for the university as a whole. It was certainly not the business of theology (devoted solely to “the truths we know about God put into system”), which by virtue of its narrowness Newman compared to geology. As for a possible crowning role for philosophy, Newman’s “own conception” of a “sort of science” of philosophy was doomed to stillbirth. On the Enlightenment pattern, philosophy as Newman pictured it could hardly aspire to any station higher than narrow expertise in logic or analysis.
As George Marsden has suggested, Newman’s claim that “religious truth is not only a portion, but a condition of general knowledge” may well have implied something more than the mere inclusion of theology among university subjects. But Newman did not elaborate it. Moreover, in its context, this passage has an entirely polemical intent; it merely turns the idea of “general knowledge” against those who wished to exclude theology from the university entirely. By Newman’s day, there would be no more summae to order the whole of our knowledge, and that is a truly pivotal development. The task of integration was now handed to the individual”which is another way of saying that the big picture was no longer a concern of education at all.
The fact that Newman’s university was not intended to assist Catholics in their Catholicism needs special underlining. “Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another . . . . Liberal education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman.” Once Newman has clarified that the qualities of the gentleman “are no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness,” and “may attach to the man of the world, to the profligate,” the implication has become quite clear. And is this not a knowledge acceptable to the wider modern world? What, by now, is the difference between knowledge and “treasure on earth”? Paul’s message in his first letter to the Corinthians (1:20-21) rings through the ages: “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
As the designer of a public institution, Newman may have imagined that he was not free to fiddle with the reigning conception of knowledge. But in accepting that understanding he capitulated to the late-modern distinction between fact and value, an Enlightenment legacy. The fact/value distinction is not a dichotomy inherent in human thought. It is a distinction that was devised at a particular historical juncture. Knowledge (involving argument, demonstration, evidence) was now conceived as an antidote to preaching (which was understood as an appeal to evidence not universally visible to “the public,” that newly heterogeneous client body of the modern university). By its strategic embrace of “universal knowledge,” Newman’s university took on the modus operandi of an enterprise altogether indifferent to the aims of education. Such an enterprise cannot further genuine liberal learning, which is a function of wisdom—of learning to live. As John Paul II put it very clearly in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, “What is at stake [in education] is the very meaning of the human person.”
To acquire wisdom is to learn not facts but the nature of things relative to the human task, which for the Christian is to become what God desires. Because the fulfillment of God’s will (and nothing else) is the Christian purpose, the world has a character”it is the material in and through which we are assisted or obstructed on that journey. History, philosophy, art, literature—all these things, if not filtered through a standard of mass experience—help us to understand the nature of things: as Augustine put it, “that which really exists” in the realm of our true fulfillment.
Helping the student to read, and so to acquire this wisdom, is what education is for. John Paul II expressed it with wonderful clarity in his constitution for Catholic universities. Here “scholars will be engaged in a constant effort to determine the relative place and meaning of each of the various disciplines within the context of a vision of the human person and the world that is enlightened by the gospel.” And that is something a university built of Enlightenment distinctions cannot do.
The false dichotomy of (universal) knowledge and (private) opinion and the phony division between public and private learning is fatal to education, which is precisely an illumination (as the Pope has observed) by which students are “helped to live their Christian vocation.” The modern professor is no longer free to interpret reality in a meaningful way; such interpretation has been privatized—turned into solitary guesswork. But the ancient notion of education is that the individual not be condemned to learn about life alone: education is a communitarian reality. “Happy is the man who meditates on wisdom . . . ; he places his children under her protection and lodges under her boughs” (Sirach 14:20-26)—that is, he takes this upon himself, not letting his children wander unaided. The professor shows by example how to read in the face of real questions—not how to read as if the problem were the engineering of agreement with nameless colleagues. The student needs to talk through his grasp of the meaning of Emerson or Michelangelo for his own life, and do this as part of his social existence.
To view “knowledge” (understood as the product of modern scholarly argument) as an ultimate good—the great lesson that universities have taken from Newman—is to embrace senseless productivity and to confuse the education of those who recognize a destiny with that of those who do not. To make widely acceptable “evidence” the core principle of research merely creates “democratic” institutions that are useless—defensible to all but servant to none. Newman inherited the Enlightenment ambition to address all people—thus his talk of human reason, human civilization, universal knowledge—and to the extent that Western society as a whole embraces no common purpose by which to define rationality, civilization, or knowledge, this did nothing but smooth the way for the one thing that such a society could hold in common: commodifiable mass experience, which in the realm of intellect unfolds as the informational commodity, the widely retailable statement. Higher education since the Enlightenment has seen the cutting off of education from its fundamental source of nourishment: a concrete and shared sense of the meaning of a human life.
Newman’s translation of wisdom into knowledge is actually an attempt to fabricate a wisdom acceptable to modernity—to reconstruct wisdom outside the communitarian, nonuniversal conditions in which the concept has meaning. But one cannot afford (borrowing an excellent expression from Newman) to be “friends with the world.” One must go beyond knowledge “about God” to believe in a knowledge from God. One must have the courage to dismiss irrelevant conceptions of “evidence”—to write and teach to help the lost, not satisfy the scholars.
Edward Tingley is an independent scholar and an editor at the Canadian Centre for Architecture.