Anyway, Alasdair MacIntyre isn't dead, although he is a Catholic, and he recently wrote an article about John Henry Newman, who in turn wrote a book called "The Idea of a University", in which he discussed what he thought a university education should be about. No one really takes this book seriously any more, and MacIntyre thinks that this is because of three of Newman's key ideas, as follows:
- The unity of knowledge. Modern universities tend to divide themselves into different disciplines, each studying different aspects of the world from different perspectives. Newman thinks that a good education shouldn't just teach us about one way of seeing the world - say, biology - it should teach us about lots of different ways of seeing the world and, crucially, the way these different sorts of knowledge are related. We need to understand not just what each discipline contributes, but also the limitations of each discipline. We need to know what science, geography, english and politics can't tell us as much as what they can. Newman worries about what happens when people spend so much time studying the world from one perspective that they can't see it from any other perspective: people like that may make great progress in their chosen specialty, but they will deform their minds in the process. A PhD is 'too often the mark of a miseducated mind.'
- Theology is the most important discipline. Oooh, controversial. Newman thinks that theology is crucial to a university because if people are to be taught that knowledge is a unity, they need to have an idea of what that unity might be, and how the different subjects fit together. It used to be that most people agreed on a certain 'canon' of books that all educated people ought to read; what basic skills everyone should be taught: that's not the case anymore, and for Newman, only theology can give the unifying perspective that brings all the different ways of thinking about the world together.
- University isn't about teaching people how to be economically productive. Increasingly, a university education is valued because it makes people more 'marketable' and gives them 'transferable skills' so that they can go out into the world and get well paid jobs and contribute to the economy. It's getting harder and harder to justify learning for the sake of it. But for Newman, the sort of things that people learn at university are valuable in themselves.
But MacIntyre thinks that Newman was right about all three things. Whatever people end up doing once they leave university, he argues, they need to be able to make good decisions. Why might people make bad decisions? Often, it's because they make wrong assumptions about the way the world is about about the way other people will react to particular things. And where an unbalanced education really screws you over is that it leaves you unable to recognise all of your assumptions. Some of the smartest people with the best educations in the world were responsible for the Vietnam War, US policy on Iran, and the global credit crunch.
Smart people do stupid things, all the time And Newman and MacIntyre think that one of the reasons for this is because universities don't educate us properly. They teach us to be really good at one thing, but they don't teach us how that one thing we know about relates to all the other things we don't know about. They don't teach us what we don't know, and so we think that we know everything, and then we do stupid things. Even (gasp!) the theologians.
Photo credit: m00by on flickr