Incarnation U.

The Future of Catholic Higher Education

Jackson Lears’s lament about the sorry state of liberal education in American universities ("The Liberal Arts vs. Neoliberalism")  was all too sadly familiar. Much of the essay is a favorable review of William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep, a pungent critique of the Ivy League’s neglect of humanistic education in favor of “marketable skills.” There is much truth in Lears’s review and in Deresiewicz’s book, but I think they would both have benefited from a broader historical perspective. History is particularly important for Catholic colleges and universities—mentioned by Deresiewicz but not Lears—because of a spiritual continuity that stretches back to the origins of the university in the Catholic cultures of the twelfth century. Because of their history and the range of their present sponsorship, Catholic universities can hardly avoid “the marriage of self and soul” that Lears claims has been lost in higher education over all. How well Catholic colleges understand and deal with the challenges of modern higher education is another matter.

In Four Cultures of the West, John O’Malley, SJ, presents a compelling analysis of four ancient cultures that have defined the purpose of higher education in different ways. He labels them the prophetic, the academic, the humanistic, and the artistic. Historically, prophetic culture stems from the Bible, the other three from classical Greece. Academic culture originated with philosophers (preeminently, Aristotle); humanistic culture, from ancient schools of oratory; and artistic culture from, of course, artists. Prophecy, philosophy, and oratory are all cultures of words, while the arts are often wordless.

The clash of university cultures today is mostly a clash of the three cultures of words. Each of these has a distinct style. Prophetic culture expresses itself in personal proclamations and cries from the heart: “I say unto you...!” O’Malley characterizes academic culture as “logical, rigorous, argumentative.” It assumes neutrality before the truth. No personal or political considerations impinge on its proper task. For these reasons, it is the home of modern academic freedom. Humanistic culture, by contrast, is deeply concerned with social and political speech. While not exactly ignoring truth with a capital “T,” it seeks the language of persuasion. The great humanist Petrarch puts the contrast well: “Aristotle teaches what virtue is, I do not deny that; but his lessons lack words that sting and set afire and urge toward love of virtue.” Academic culture tends to withdraw from the public square. Humanistic culture teaches rhetoric, which is meant to be used in the marketplace and the polis.

Obviously there are tensions among these three cultures. As O’Malley puts it:

Fanaticism is never far from [prophetic] culture.... [Academic] culture must fight the tendency to feed upon itself and to slide into sterile intellectualism, carping and corrosive in its analysis of everything that crosses its path.... [Humanistic] culture, meanwhile, harbors a weakness for platitudes and a tendency to mistake them for solutions.

To academics and humanists, prophets are fanatics; to prophets, academics are pedants and humanists are wishy-washy; to humanists, academics and prophets are both wildly impractical.

Universities emerged in the Middle Ages at a moment when these three cultures were colliding. Access to the bulk of Aristotle’s philosophy had made possible an academic style that clashed sharply with the culture of the existing monastic schools, which were devoted to the prophetic word of the Bible. That culture was centered on the practice of lectio divina. But the Aristotelian academic style also had to contend with a humanistic culture that derived from the highly rhetorical style of St. Augustine, who spent much of his life teaching rhetoric. In his Confessions he employs every technique of oratory as he makes his case to an audience of one, God.

The cultural conflict evident when the first universities began remains to this day, especially at Catholic institutions where the Bible, humanistic speech, and academic proof exist side by side, each accommodating the others as best it can. The culture that dominates contemporary universities, including Catholic universities, is O’Malley’s academic style. But this has been true for only about a hundred years. The dominant style of higher education in the ancient world was not academic but humanistic, directed at educating future political leaders who needed to learn the art of persuasion. Humanistic higher education in one form or another was championed from the Sophists to Cicero, and on to the humanists of the Renaissance. Closer to our own time and place, the humanistic “classical curriculum” dominated American colleges from colonial times until the end of the nineteenth century.

American humanistic education was “classical” in two senses. First, the curriculum was dominated by classical texts—Latin and Greek authors along with the Bible. These texts offered more than a linguistic training in ancient tongues; they also presented tales of virtue to be emulated and extolled. The college curriculum was designed to hand on a long-established tradition of wisdom. Emerson’s famous 1837 Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard reflected this humanistic conception of higher education; the proper aim of college education, he said, was “character.” Cardinal John Henry Newman’s idea of a university also fit this humanistic model. The purpose of a university, Newman argued, was to produce “gentlemen,” a gentleman being someone “who causes no pain.” How was the Bible treated in humanistic education? Since the aim was “character,” the Bible came to be regarded mainly as a set of ethical instructions; Jesus was less the Savior than a moral exemplar.

Classical studies were designed to produce students with the characteristics of classical architecture: rational order, balance, harmony. The rationality of the humanistic tradition is not, as O’Malley observes, the probing rationality of the philosopher, but that of the statesman who seeks harmony in society. The authors of The Federalist Papers—James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay—had all been educated in the classics. Acknowledging their debt to classical wisdom, they attributed The Federalist Papers to an author named “Publius”—a reference to Publius Valerius Publicola, a Roman consul involved in the overthrow of the ancient monarchy.


TWENTIETH-CENTURY UNIVERSITIES HAVE replaced the humanistic style with the academic style of close argument and verifiable truths. Modern research universities do not seek to recover old truths, but to discover new ones. The aim of education is not character, but knowledge; their model is not the statesman but rather the “scientist.” Yes, the typical university president’s commencement address still insists that college education improves character—I have given that speech many times over—but I suspect that such speeches draw on moral capital left over from our humanistic past. College presidents love to quote Newman’s The Idea of a University, but Newman’s university was thoroughly “humanistic.” It bears little resemblance to the modern research university, which derives from a German model of higher learning.

It should be no surprise that the dominant scientific ethos in contemporary higher education has precipitated a “crisis of the humanities” on campus. One example: literary critic Harold Bloom has been so distressed by the abandonment of the classics—like Shakespeare, whom he regards as “the inventor of the human”—that he has bequeathed his extensive library to St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, because he believes Catholic institutions are the last refuge of the classics and humanistic higher education. But in truth, most contemporary Catholic universities are also deeply committed to academic culture. Beyond the presidential rhetoric, do Catholic institutions actually convey an education in humanistic culture—or in prophetic culture, for that matter? Do they do this in the classroom? Or do they leave these things to the campus chaplain and various extracurricular activities?

Some would urge contemporary Catholic universities to take their cues from the first universities in the Middle Ages. That would be difficult. Medieval universities were really very different from our present-day institutions. To begin with, there were no Catholic universities in the twelfth century because no one thought there could be anything else. Just as important, medieval universities were much more like our contemporary professional schools; their precursors and models were schools of law (Bologna) and medicine (Montpelier). Modern American universities with large undergraduate colleges come complete with everything from football to teenage angst. Not the professional-school scene!

Nevertheless, it might be worth knowing whether one of O’Malley’s three cultures of the word predominated at those first universities? Take Aquinas as an exemplar of medieval university culture. His allegiance to Aristotle could easily place him in the academic style. Alisdair MacIntyre has suggested, however, that Thomas should not be seen as a “philosopher” in the characteristic mode of Spinoza or Kant. The Summa  can well be regarded as of a piece with humanistic culture; Thomas is seeking to strike a balance between competing views derived from the Bible, the Fathers, theologians, and philosophers: he was, on this view, more a philosophic statesman engaged in reconciliation than a system builder. How about prophetic culture, then? Etienne Gilson—who also insisted that Thomas was not mainly a philosopher, but a Christian theologian first and foremost—pointed out that Thomas was well aware of “biblicist” criticism of his work and took pains to give primacy to revelation. So what is Thomas? Aristotelian academic, Augustinian humanist, prophetic biblicist? One could make a case the he was one, two, or all three of these things, though the prophetic Augustinian monk Martin Luther suspected he was only the first: “I have the strongest doubts as to whether Thomas Aquinas is among the damned or the blessed.... [He] is responsible for the reign of Aristotle, the destroyer of godly doctrine.”

Aquinas may offer an elegantly complex balance of the three cultures, but there are ways to greatly simplify the relation of the clashing styles by putting one in charge of the others. Nineteenth-century American colleges reduced the Bible to a kind of wisdom literature, valuable mainly for its moral lessons. (These colleges didn’t worry much about scientific culture. Science was left to freelance researchers and organizations like the Royal Society.) Today, academic culture tends to subsume sacred Scripture and the humanistic classics under a “scientific model.” The Bible and Shakespeare are studied at arm’s length: students are encouraged to learn about them, but not from them.

The culture most resistant to such assimilation is the prophetic. Biblical revelation has been a challenge to the Greek academic and humanistic styles at least since Tertullian, who asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Despite his own thorough training in Greek culture, Tertullian answered “Nothing!” Salvation requires something more radical than either moral virtue or academic philosophy. As St. Paul proclaimed, “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but a demonstration of the Spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2: 4–5).

What makes prophecy so resistant to assimilation by the other cultures? Prophecy expresses itself in shouts, proclamations, and cries of the heart; it is intensely personal. I am the one whose heart is wounded! I say unto you. What authority can such personal utterances have in academic culture? Natural science, which enjoys pride of place in the modern university, excludes personal factors in its search for a universal truth. Archimedes’s exultant “Eureka!” added nothing to his scientific discovery. For its part, humanistic morality is skeptical of moral claims based on any kind of special revelation or personal authority. Insofar as religious witness is prophetic, therefore, it can fail both the academic and the humanistic standards.

Strangely enough, prophetic culture of a sort is clearly present at the contemporary university. Consider newly minted disciplines like black studies, gay studies, and women’s studies. There is a supposition that the best, if not the only, teachers in these disciplines are those who live the life. A gay-studies program staffed entirely by straights would be at best paradoxical. I call these programs “witness studies.” The gay faculty member does not just talk about the gay experience, he is a primary witness to that experience. Witness studies depend on the notion that incarnation is essential to understanding. If the model of most academic culture is intellect speaking to intellect, in witness studies incarnate minds speak to incarnate minds. Here the scientific model of dispassionate objectivity is replaced by a model of personal engagement. The voice that counts is the voice of someone who knows what it means to live as female, gay, or black in this time and place. Such disciplines can best be described as a gathering of witnesses.

Biblical religion is also a gathering of witness. One hears the cry of the heart in psalms of complaint, grief, and thanksgiving, in prophetic denunciation and proclamation. Biblical witness is incarnate, revelatory only when heart speaks to heart. And this is why teaching Biblical “truth” in institutions defined by an academic or humanistic culture may seem impossible. In the academic style, truth is abstracted from personality. In the humanistic style, the truths of moral wisdom are universal and universally available; they don’t depend on any particular revelations to a particular group of people, nor are they subject to group identity.

What might Rome say about the distinction I am trying to make? At Vatican II the early drafts of Dei verbum (“On Divine Revelation”) discussed the truth of revelation as statements of doctrine. That approach was rejected by the Council, which preferred to focus on the revelation of God himself in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6), and Dei verbum’s prologue quotes from 1 John: “We proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you.” Revelation exists in the incarnate person for those who witness—“we have seen and heard and we proclaim to you.”


CONSTRUCTING A PEDAGOGY of Biblical witness is well beyond the limits of this essay and probably beyond my ability as well, but I will offer two suggestions. First, it is necessary to open up meaningful discourse beyond the academic style currently dominant in the university. There are many modern “philosophical” critiques of academic detachment, ranging from Wittgenstein’s commitment to “ordinary language” to Emmanuel Levinas’s Talmudic reflections. Wittgenstein and Levinas are “anti-philosophers” insofar as they do not write in what O’Malley describes as the academic style of abstract proof. The anti-philosopher insists with Levinas that what is said cannot be separated from who is saying it. Similarly, Stanley Cavell asks what is the proper pitch of philosophy, its tone of voice. Does the academic-philosophical style have a tone of voice? If the academic style is tone-deaf in its search for truth, it will never touch the heart. I once heard an actor talk about his experience playing Bill Sikes opposite a child actor playing Oliver in the musical by that name. He said it was difficult. The child knew his lines and never missed a cue. However, the actor noted, when you deliver a line to another experienced actor, you expect a return of energy that enriches your performance. With the child, you get the lines without the energy. In Christian instruction, just knowing one’s dogmatic lines does not convey living faith. A pedagogy in the prophetic style would have to respond to deep needs and cares that we experience as incarnate beings: as teens and adults, men and women, and, well, as faculty and students.

If incarnation—that is, one’s individual existence at a particular time and place—has standing somewhere in the classroom of a Catholic college, it is also a fundamental issue for all colleges and universities. The university is an existential reality, situated in a specific time, place, and social context. Reflecting on the incarnational condition of higher learning might lead to a “theology of the university” that answers the question: What is the ultimate purpose of the university in the lives of those who study and teach there?  

Published in the June 12, 2015 issue: 

George Dennis O'Brien, a frequent contributor, is president emeritus of Rochester University. Among his books is Finding the Voice of the Church (University of Notre Dame).

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