Monday, March 4, 2013
Semper Ref!: On Alasdair MacIntyre’s “The End of Education: The Fragmentation of the American University”
Claude Pavur, S.J.
All the compact power of a bullet, all the promise of a life-saving pill — that is how I see Alasdair MacIntyre's sweetly bitter salvo, "The End of Education: The Fragmentation of the American University" (Commonweal CXXXIII: 18 [October 20, 2006]: 10-14, still freely available on the Web, as at http://www.metanexus.net/essay/end-education-fragmentation-american-university). MacIntyre takes the position that higher education can and ought to be less fragmented than it has allowed itself to become through the rampant differentiation of disciplines, and through the accompanying professionalization and specialization affecting teachers, curricula, and students. Catholic universities can follow a "distinctive calling" to show even their secular counterparts how a more integrated approach can be achieved. Here's the bitter part: we are not going to do it. We lack the will. And probably we lack the vision too, or any belief that the vision is a salutary one. Thus we will avoid this pill as if it were a bullet.
A pity, really. Students lose out. Educators lose out. Society loses out. The world loses out. One might easily imagine that as larger, deeper, better, more integral and unifying views of human existence are foregone, the kind of human flourishing that we desperately need will elude us by wider and wider margins. Consequently bad political and social and personal choices are made. Corruption grows; ethics weaken; the family unit collapses; crises abound; decline accelerates. The university's failures will have become society's failure, and vice-versa. We lose our grip on Shalom. We do not even want it anymore. Hell!
MacIntyre charges us with "a quite unwarranted complacency concerning our present state and our present direction." He suggests that we fail to attain through our higher education the necessary awareness of "what is at stake in answering the key questions." I find this depiction too bleak, too broad-brushed. I know many who are not really complacent at all, not unaware of what is at stake. Our academic community would not be engaging in the present dialogue and our current public representations if this vision were entirely true. Most of us are looking for the right kind of trustworthy and firmly-grounded leadership. Still, MacIntyre does hit upon some of the basic truths that many of us too easily turn away from or find too overwhelming and frustrating to begin to deal with. And yet we must deal with them. It is, or should be, a matter of conscience, as education is a matter of fiduciary responsibility. Perhaps avoidance rather than complacency has been the most troubling problem.
What locked me onto MacIntyre’s article right off was the the way that his words uncannily reflected in a seemingly perfect mirror what I had experienced as an undergraduate at Yale many years ago. That was the fragmentation he discusses. I don’t think anyone could have said it more pointedly and more accurately. Perhaps now, after several decades of “development” in higher education, it is sufficiently clear that the losses are too great. Whatever the analyses or party-positions individuals may prefer, we all deserve much better — we all need much better. And this "much better" is indeed possible. That is the sweet and hopeful part of MacIntyre’s message.
It does not really serve either academics or the society at large to remain in denial. Enough troubling critical literature about the university has been written to suggest that there is something here that demands our attention. Many people, including experienced, accomplished educators, have little confidence in Academia as it stands. So we academics must ask, Why? We owe it to ourselves, our children, our society, and the world to make our own searching explorations and critiques, humbly admitting our own limitations even at the outset. We may have to wander in the desert for another forty years or more. But let’s not fail to start the journey! Our own academic community right here, on our own campus, could make a vital leading contribution.
First let us ask: What is missing? Here’s a thought: We do not have a standing, stable, competent body that has the charge of taking the many critiques of higher education, reading them, digesting them, weighing them, and then deciding on their applicability to our community in light of our mission and identity. We have committees galore, but there is none that rises anywhere near the required level of this large-scale understanding, critique, and analysis. Much less do we have a wise and discerning and thoroughly informed body that has the executive power to work out, oversee, and constantly improve the necessary particular details. And how would anyone find the time to accomplish the necessary reading and analysis, not to mention the reflection and timely action-proposals? Indeed, some parts of the university do regularly generate self-studies and activity-reports, but what is needed stands at an altogether more radical and more far-reaching level.
Perhaps we have to engage in a multi-generational project of self-revision, a work of semper reformanda, a relentless search for the most relevant wisdom, yes, one that leads to definite actions that are tried, tested, and improved over time. But who's going to start us off? Who's going to structure the process of learning, thinking, deciding, implementing, and reviewing so that it doesn't turn into an interminable set of half-baked discussions floating off into feckless postponement, or worse, into deeply flawed and partial solutions that only weary everyone involved and self-destructively delegitimate the very effort at improvement? Any volunteers?
This may be what the faculty should expect from its leadership: support for the competent navigation of this kind of searching, ongoing, informed self-constitution. Merely achieving the right oversight structure is in itself a daunting task. It is too easy to get the wrong one, or one that is inadequate. But how can we improve and flourish without some such function being taking care of somewhere in the system? Perhaps what we need is a new kind of board, parallel to the Board of Trustees but mostly internal, one that is vitally aware of and interested in faculty operations, one that concerns itself with the details that all too easily get lost or filtered out in the present dispensation. Its focus is not to be on budgets, buildings, or brawn, not on social life or service or technology or extracurricular events, but on the education students are receiving, particularly in the classrooms and in the curricula, according to our mission and identity. I am not talking here about outcomes assessment, which can be quite fraught with questionable assumptions, but rather on something that seems a more feasible goal: it is more like “input establishment,” the creation and appropriate delivery of worthy content.
Such a board I imagine as mostly constituted by faculty, and open to all relevant representations, but not structured to be simply a representative body, because its purpose will be to leverage the best wisdom of those experienced, respected, committed individuals who best express and understand the mission and identity of the institution. How do we find those individuals? Some judgments will have to be made somewhere by knowledgeable parties and confirmed by experience. This type of board is so essential that it should be funded quite amply and quite directly on it own lines, just like any other leading administrative office. Of course it would not arise full-blown in perfect form from Day One. It would have to evolve. If it looks like bureaucratic bloat, trim less necessary bureacratic functions elsewhere. If it looks too powerful, work in check and balances.
But whether or not there is ever such a board, there is one essential perspective that I would like to bring to MacIntyre’s analysis. He speaks several times of “colleges and universities.” But it is worth underlining the fact that we will be on the wrong track if we do not insist on a basic distinction between the teleologies, student needs, and educative structures and contents of (college) undergraduate programs and those of (university) graduate ones. Research interests, professional preparation, cutting-edge academics refer more to the latter than to the former. To be fair, MacIntyre does allow for this distinction at the end of his paper, but I wish that he had delineated the two levels more directly. The most pressing and essential task before us, in my view, is not so much the reform of graduate work, but that of college education. And the weight of MacIntyre’s article directs us to that reform in a most compelling manner.