This is the fifth of a series of essays that will explore what prominent thinkers and philosophers can teach us about today’s public multiversity, the modern university with its many colleges, departments, and other administrative units that play multiple functions and roles in our society. This essay was originally published in Front Porch Republic on July 31, 2015.
What I have been proposing so far has been a paradigm for the multiversity to adopt for its students, faculty, and administrators: to pursue truth instead of disseminating it; to acquire the ability of how to learn rather than showing how to teach; and compelling the various communities that compose the multiversity to answer the question what type of human being it ultimately wants to cultivate. From Plato we see that education is fundamentally a personal encounter between teacher and student as a type of periaroge; from Aristotle we perceive the value of prudence as the principle to organize the multiversity’s mission; from Augustine we are confronted with the question about what should be the object of our love; and from Aquinas we recognize the need to synthesize the various traditions that exist in today’s globalized world. These concepts of periagoge, prudence, love, and synthesis should be the core values of the multiversity that can have an actual impact on the lives of students which the multiversity supposedly serves.
Plato teaches that we first must be open to the possibility that truth exists and find within ourselves our desire to search for it. Although truth manifests itself in a variety of forms – mathematics and the natural sciences, the humanities and the arts, and even in pre-professional programs like business, the health sciences, and education – the first task of the teacher is to cultivate wonder into the student. General education curriculum consequently should be designed to prompt this sense of wonder for truth, in all its forms, for students; and administrators should encourage students that genuine wonder comport with rather than is contrary to utilitarian outcomes. For it is wonder, not passion, that provides us a sense of perspective of how little we know and what we should appreciate in the world. By contrast, passion is to ask us to control the world and model it after our own ideas of what truth is. Wonder is different: it allows us to step outside of ourselves and see where we belong, and how little truth we ever will obtain, in our fleeting existence.
But wonder needs to be balanced with prudence, for we have to act wisely to avoid the various pitfalls to which the multiversity can fall prey. Aristotle’s concept of prudence allows the multiversity to do this by providing a type of pedagogy of both theoretical and practical reason that students require. Prudence also can direct the other activities of the multiversity, scholarship and service, in a manner that is consistent with its mission of cultivating a certain type of human being. This, in turn, leads the multiversity to answer the question what should its students, faculty, and administrators love as a community. This is the topic that Augustine answered, and, although his theological answer would not be suitable for the multiversity, it raises the most important question for the institution: what does the multiversity love the most?
Because of the diversity of higher education institutions in the United States, even among multiversities themselves, there is no need to impose a single, normative standard on the type of human being the university should cultivate. But the question has to be asked and, more importantly, answered in a way that has a practical impact on the lives of students, faculty, and administrators. Education jargon like diversity and student empowerment often translate into ideological indoctrination rather than a Thomist attempt at synthesis or an Augustinian examination of one’s own interiority. Students could be asked to wonder if a genuine engagement is possible on the basis of reason rather than ideology between western and non-western civilizations. Unlike ideologues, who claim to know truth, the teacher for Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas know that they are at best mid-wives to it. The most they can do is encourage the student to reflect upon his or her own interiority to discover wherein truth resides. Truth is not simply knowledge-transfer, although, admittedly, this is required but should not be simply reduced to this methodology. Teaching at its best is a dialectical enterprise in a community of students and teachers with administrators trying to make the conditions of periagoge, prudence, love, and synthesis possible.
The question of scale therefore is paramount for the multiversity. Without the luxury of billion-dollar endowments or wealthy clienteles, most multiversities have to balance the ideals of periagoge, prudence, love, and synthesis with the social reality of poorly-prepared secondary students and the economic reality of continual state defunding. For remedial education, online and hybrid courses with mandatory tutorial sessions could be considered; for general education courses, a class size of no more than thirty; and for elective, seminars-style be encouraged (and for the truly exceptional student, there is always the independent study tutorial). With the exception of remedial courses, general education and seminar classes would be a mixture of both the theoretical and practical; and those in the seminar electives of their majors would remain together as a community in their junior and senior years.
Departments would take precedence in the academic direction of their programs with the colleges and other administrative units playing a supporting and coordinating role. For example, departments, not administrative units, would determine how to assess students and what constitutes success or failure. Academic centers, interdisciplinary majors and minors, and other free-standing academic units would either be abolished or embedded within an academic department; and the power and staff of college deans and university provosts and presidents would be greatly diminished, or, at least, excluded from the academic operations of the multiversity.
Such an arrangement would prevent the common occurrence that the academic community becomes rearranged every time a new administrator comes to power, for a dean often is promoted to provost after a new academic center is established; and a provost becomes president after two or more centers are built, regardless of their academic value (or, if you prefer, similar ideas like service learning, leadership training, competency education, and such). And once the dean has left, another one has taken his or her place and implemented a new set of ideas, abstracted from the reality of the classroom and campus life, in order to move up the administrative food chain.
This is not necessarily the fault of the administrators, for the multiversity has no guiding principle or useful paradigm to help them make their decisions except for vague and therefore meaningless slogans, like “something more, something better” or “advancing knowledge, transforming lives.” Perhaps periagoge, prudence, love, and synthesis are not right principles for the multiversity – for there may even be better ones out there – but they are at least connected concretely to the reality of how one learns and thereby gives direction to students, faculty, and administrators of how to do their jobs. After all, genuine learning is difficult, if not impossible, for students; and teaching, even among those who do it well, is ultimately a mystery for faculty; but establishing the conditions for these activities to transpire is perhaps the most demanding task of them all and belongs to realm of the multiversity’s administrator.