The Idea of a University

Thanks to the Hoover Institution, I’ve been privileged to spend a week here at Stanford, connecting and reconnecting with various professors I know, walking the exquisite grounds, envying Peter Robinson for the lemon tree he has in his backyard, and in general enjoying the best of university life. It’s fascinating to see these communities in action, and all they have to offer. The specialization is astounding: there’s almost no field of endeavor that doesn’t have some great group of minds looking at it, and trying to work out solutions for nearly every challenge.

At the same time, I’ve always been a believer in the liberal arts. Much of what passes for the liberal arts today, of course, is cotton candy. Yet at its core, the training of the mind that comes with a true liberal arts program seems to me of increasing value in our age, as is the role of small, liberal arts colleges. Here’s a talk I gave recently at Ave Maria University, one of those schools, and the justification for it. 

Note that I did not refer to Satan, unlike someone else who has gained notoriety for a speech at Ave. Though I share with Evelyn Waugh the idea that it is a wicked thing indeed to propose that an education should be aimed at fitting a student for the modern world. The allusion will become clear in the speech, and here is a link to a review of the book in question in the New York Times in 1959 by no less than George Orwell. 

  1. Stuart Creque

    I went to UC Berkeley and studied electrical engineering and computer science.  But I still recall there being an ‘r’ in ‘University’.

    (Just kidding.)

  2. Ignatius J. Reilly

    Great speech, Mr. McGurn… although I liked the Waugh excerpt better the first time I saw it in a speech… years ago, by WFB, Jr.

  3. Aaron Miller
    Bill McGurn: It’s fascinating to see these communities in action, and all they have to offer. The specialization is astounding: there’s almost no field of endeavor that doesn’t have some great group of minds looking at it, and trying to work out solutions for nearly every challenge.

    I respect specialists, but I hate experts.

  4. Bill McGurn
    C

    Rex, which speech is that? I’d like to read that one. 

  5. Crow

    As a fellow defender of the liberal arts (properly understood), I enjoyed your speech, Bill.

    This especially:

    So when I look out at the modern campus, it is not immorality that alarms me. It is the soul-sucking mediocrity of its aspirations.

  6. EJHill

    Specialization is astounding. But it is also very limiting. Problems tend to be looked at by a group of people with a very narrow perspective.

    A couple of weeks ago I posted a video from CBS News about a 17-year-old girl in California who may have invented a cure for cancer. Her ability to do so wasn’t limited by the “knowledge” she had already been taught wouldn’t work.

  7. George Savage

    Fitting our most capable minds for the modern world is epidemic, and a key contributor to much that ails us.  

    Specialization is necessary in science, and has yielded enormous benefits.  However, the specialist does not realize the inevitability of tradeoffs given finite time; what has been gained comes at a cost.  And without a realization that he is in some important manner deficient, that he should at least cultivate a certain  modesty about the limits of individual intellectual achievement, the specialist tends to hubris, assuming that his is the cleverest generation of all time, and so makes a golden calf of his own intellect, blinded to the very fact of his blindness.

  8. michael kelley

    In your undergraduate years, do you learn facts and rules and variables and how facts and rules and variables mesh together to assemble a conclusion?

    Or do you simply sit around a very expensive classroom conversing about “neat” concepts with little background in life or in concepts?

    It is the process that teaches, that matters.

    Anthropology 101 or Biz Stats or Sociology?  They are a joke.  That’s what you learn after you’ve learned How to Learn.

    If you don’t study specific science in those years, study Latin and Greek.  There are no other Liberal Arts except for Rhetoric.

    Learn how to…………think.

    Sorry for being so claustrophobic or whatever the denizens of “Psych 101″ might label me.

  9. Ansonia

    I loved your speech, and would like to find out more about Ave Maria University with my niece in mind. But if anything, Orwell’s book review (Just read it. Thank you for making me aware of it.) makes me think he would have agreed with you and with Waugh’s character, Scott-King, about what students should be taught.

    In the review, Orwell only seems to be saying that a  Scott-King type–a person who is already educated –should read an occasional marxist pamphlet in order to more effectively fight the modern world.

  10. Bill McGurn
    C

    Ansonia, I think that’s it exactly. It seems to me that the liberal arts come first, to prepare a mind for critical thinking, so that when that mind applies itself to other areas, it is prepared. Specialization seems to me the same kind of issue: It’s no problem if the foundation is strong.

  11. Austin Arnold

    Very astute, George. The need to specialize for the sake of economic or personal satisfaction does come at a cost, and as you mentioned, time. 

    George Savage: Fitting our most capable minds for the modern world is epidemic, and a key contributor to much that ails us.  

    Specialization is necessary in science, and has yielded enormous benefits.  However, the specialist does not realize the inevitability of tradeoffs given finite time; what has been gained comes at a cost.  And without a realization that he is in some important manner deficient, that he should at least cultivate a certain  modesty about the limits of individual intellectual achievement, the specialist tends to hubris, assuming that his is the cleverest generation of all time, and so makes a golden calf of his own intellect, blinded to the very fact of his blindness. · Feb 23 at 5:27pm

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