Monday, January 11, 2010

What is the Purpose of the University - Power or Wisdom?

As David Bentley Hart points out in Atheist Delusions, the Medieval Age was not an age of magic. Magic and experimental science were the twins of the Renaissance era; one twin was sickly and died but the other twin, healthy and strong, grew into modern technological science. Both magic and science had the same goal: power. Both sought the ability to manipulate nature in such a way as to extend the power of humans to shape and control their environment and, eventually, other people.

The battle for the soul of the Western university is being fought today over whether technological science will so dominate the modern university as to drive out completely the other leading contender for the soul of the university: contemplation and the pursuit of wisdom. Whereas technological science seeks power to control and manipulate, contemplative wisdom seeks understanding of the created order in order to adapt oneself to reality and, by conforming, find peace. Whereas science is restless, impatient and imperialistic, contemplative wisdom is calm, submissive to its subject matter and gentle.

J. R. R. Tolkien, in a 1951 letter to publisher, Milton Waldman, wrote as follows about the fall of the men of Numenor, who were deceived by Sauron into attempting rebellion agains the Valar by sailing to the Undying Lands. This is the second fall of men in Tolkien's mythology and is recounted in The Silmarillion.
"There are three phases in their fall from grace. First, acquiescence, obedience that is free and willing, though without complete understanding. Then for long they obey unwillingly, murmuring more and more openly. Finally they rebel - and a rift appears between the King's men and rebels, and the the small minority of persecuted Faithful." (as found in The Silmarillion, ed. Christoper Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin, 2004, p. xxvi)
It occurs to me that the purpose of the university could very well be conceived in terms of the prevention of the endless obedience without understanding by a progressive understanding of the will and purposes of God through meditation, study of Scripture and the development of the Christian mind as one contemplates the origin, meaning and telos of all things. It is not that we ever expect to attain the same degree of perfect knowledge as God; but we can hope to grow in knowledge through contemplative wisdom as an aid to obedience. Perhaps the Numenoreans began to go wrong when they neglected contemplative wisdom and eventually became disenchanted with an obedience that seemed legalistic, that is adherence to arbitrary rules that emitted a faint whiff of tyranny because of their very arbitrariness.

This would mean that poetry, music, history, languages, theology and philosophy would be required. But so would the study of nature, the laws of nature and the scientific study of all things. But the goal would be understanding for the purpose of conforming to the ways of the creation rather than the power to control and manipulate.

The content of the curriculum would not change much but the methodology would be broader, less uniform, more suited to the unique character of each object of study. The use of a methodology that did not promise the power to control nature would not be seen as useless. The cultivation of thought about, rather than merely descriptions of things, would be seen as useful.

Most important of all, university study would not be content to describe nature, including human nature, in such a way as to permit one to predict it and thus control it. Rather, one would not be satisfied until one had penetrated to the essence of a thing so that one could understand its telos.

What we are really talking about, I suppose, is the restoration of the Aristotelian concept of final causation as central to the academic enterprise, and to the university. The question of what is the purpose of the university can only be answered, in the end, if the question of final cause is not meaningless. The word "university" implies unity, like the word "cosmos," and if there is no final cause or telos of things, then there is none of the university itself. But, in that case, there is no purpose at all. The university having a purpose - the right purpose - turns out to be closely linked to our lives having a purpose.

No comments: