The Promise of Newman’s Collegiate Ideal
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The Promise of Newman’s Collegiate Ideal

“Many changes has my mind gone through: here it has known no variation or vacillation of opinion.” the idea of a university, discourse i1

“The only advocacy that should go on in the classroom,” according to Stanley Fish, is that of the “intellectual virtues.”2 This prescription is, in the first place, an antiseptic meant to discourage college and university professors from engaging in political advocacy, but it also provides the basis of Fish’s positive defense of the enterprise of liberal education. One need not agree with his overall conception of the academic life in order to join him in affirming that the best defense a school could mount of its existence and activities would be framed in terms of the practices and persons at its heart, the practices of teaching and the person of the teacher. It is, then, a welcome development that the intellectual virtues—the virtues that characterize the good teacher—are now being discussed in several academic disciplines. Joining Fish, a literary critic, are historians of the early-modern Republic of Letters and philosophers in the emerging field of virtue epistemology; they all seek an account of intellectual [End Page 78] virtue arguments and examples with which to defend liberal education. Yet compared with the educational vision of Blessed John Henry Newman, these contemporary voices sound flat. Lacking a convincing account of the end and ordering principle of their educational endeavors, these attempts to defend the modern university by an appeal to intellectual virtue all take the form of a self-referential argument from the authority of contemporary academic life as we happen to find it. In marked contrast, Newman’s ideal of the almost “perfect institution” that would be a Catholic university “seated and living in colleges,” provides at once a more capacious and a more realistic account of the kind of human flourishing that schools are meant to foster.3 Newman’s collegiate ideal offers an institutional model and set of academic practices that promise to form students and teachers who display in their work and their lives that joy in the truth (gaudium de veritate) that is the best justification for an institution of higher learning because it is the sign of the fruitfulness that authentic liberal education offers to the world.4

Intellectual Virtues or the Virtues of Intellectuals?

Now that we have lived through the dot-com and real estate bubbles, it is “the education bubble” that we face, if Columbia’s Mark C. Taylor’s prediction comes true. With the steady disappearance of small classes taught by seasoned professors, the rise to statistical predominance of adjunct faculty and graduate assistants made melancholy by their bleak career prospects, the astounding increase in the cost of higher education, the dilution of the quality of undergraduate students, and the travails of indebtedness suffered by many institutions, it is hardly surprising that someone should write a book such as Taylor’s Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming our Colleges and Universities. Although many of his suggestions have real merit and are undergirded by an acute awareness of the shortcomings of the contemporary academy, Taylor is not likely to find his fellow teachers ready to embrace his plan as a whole. To learn from the example [End Page 79] of for-profit universities, to abolish tenure, to restore the mandatory retirement age, to encourage partnerships with corporations, to spur innovative interdisciplinary and multimedia teaching, and to abandon the academic monograph: this is a program that some may regard as nothing less than the abdication of an intellectual ideal in favor of sheer economic opportunism.5

Such would seem to be the likely reaction of Stanley Fish, whose Save the World on Your Own Time anticipates Taylor’s perspective, if not all of his arguments. Fish’s essay, peppered with anecdotes from his years of service as Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois, Chicago, argues that universities should aggressively defend their central practices and should never apologize for their proper tasks, provided they stick to them. Those tasks are to introduce students...