Tim Bradley, Staff Writer

There is a difference between knowledge and understanding. In the modern higher education system, it is important to reevaluate the role of the university in cultivating the human person. The human person can best be formed through a balance of seeking better welfare and promoting the mind.

John Haldane, Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland offered these thoughts in his December 4, 2012 lecture at the Eck Hall of Law. The lecture was sponsored by the Office of the President and the Nanovic Institute for European Studies.

University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC, heartily welcomed Haldane to the University to discuss, “The Future of the University: Philosophy, Education, and the Catholic Tradition,” a particularly important issue at a place such as Notre Dame.

Haldane began with a loosely sketched observation on what it means for a university to be Catholic. One way is for it to be Catholic in its origin, like St. Andrews or Notre Dame. Another is for its practices, particularly its liturgical practices, to be those of the Catholic Church. A third respect is for it to be sacramentally Catholic, and a fourth respect is for it to have a view about human nature that operates on the principle that grace perfects nature.

Haldane went on to discuss the teaching of philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas on the role of learning and teaching in understanding, and also the idea that human excellence and happiness require self-understanding and virtue. Catholic universities, as described above, seek to promote human excellence and happiness; as such, they also must work to promote understanding.

Developing this idea further, Haldane cited the ideas of philosophers such as Matthew Arnold, Newman, and Mill. “Arnold saw education as an essential means of the transmission of high culture, in contrast to technical training.” Newman thought that universities were not to engage in research, and that the object was to teach universal knowledge; in other words, the role of colleges is to diffuse and extend knowledge rather than advance it. Mill believed that the goal of the university is to make capable and cultivated human beings, not to be a place of professional education. This Newman-Mill-Arnold view is indeed very similar to the Plato-Aristotle-Augustine view of education.

This view has several implications for the present day. Modern universities could be said to operate for the sake of economic prosperity on the macro level by creating people fit for higher-paying jobs. Modern universities also place a huge focus on research. In fact, the word “research” has somewhat lost its true meaning. Research is not finding facts, Haldane said, it is instead making an original contribution to a specific field. Today, it is hard to find a distinction between teaching and researching. The Newman-Mill-Arnold view rejects this notion. There is a difference between scholarship and research, and there is a distinction between cultivating minds for wisdom rather than for doing specific research.

Haldane noted that it is unrealistic to think that universities will ever return to the Newman-Mill-Arnold way of thinking, but, “there is something to be said for rebalancing the university away from research and more toward teaching.” Returning to Newman, Haldane emphasized again the fundamental importance of the university in the education of the young person in order to achieve understanding because that understanding is ordered toward a further, eternal end.

In comments provided in an interview, Haldane addressed two aspects of this view that are especially important for a Catholic university such as Notre Dame: “First, and most obviously, teaching Catholic culture and Catholic contributions to culture more generally, and second, teaching this in ways that take account of the idea that grace perfects nature.”

In light of these important functions of education, Haldane noted some problems in the higher-education system that prevent even Catholic universities from successfully contributing to a person’s development and wisdom. “There is a crisis in higher education in the Western world. It has several elements: the fact that a university education is not necessarily a secure foundation for subsequent employment, the cost of running and attending colleges and universities, and a growing bureaucracy…Universities have been growing in size and we are reaching a point where this is unsustainable.”

A further problem is the emphasis on research. “[Research] is a laudable aim but modesty and realism caution against the idea that the mass or even the majority of academics are, or could be, genuinely creative. On that account I think it is worth recovering an understanding of the nature and value of scholarship.”

“This takes us back to Arnold, Mill, and Newman and the idea that education is primarily about understanding, not fact gathering,” Haldane said. Universities, particularly Catholic universities, ought to reevaluate their priorities and renew their focus on education of the whole human person ordered toward an eternal end.

Tim Bradley is a freshman studying theology and economics. He likes events that the Office of the President sponsors because of the really nice refreshments afterwards. Contact him at tbradle5@nd.edu.