In his classic statement The Idea of the University, John Henry Newman argues that liberal education can be justified only if "knowledge is capable of being its own end." Although Newman defended professional training, he argued forcefully that universities ought to develop in students a philosophical habit of mind, a habit of wonder and an ability to trace the relationships among different parts of knowledge. One of the reasons for the inclusion of all branches of knowledge in the university curriculum is that even though students "cannot pursue every subject, they will still gain from living among those who represent the whole circle."
There are manifold obstacles to realizing Newmans idea in todays university. Given the increasing emphasis on specialization in faculty research, few if any faculty can be said even to approximate representing the "whole circle." And of course students do not "live among" the faculty anyhow. The shared libertarianism of faculty and students results in a diminishing number of contact hours between students and faculty, and even between faculty, who rarely know colleagues outside their departments.
Specialization breeds an inevitable individualism and elevates narrow expertise over breadth of learning. Clearly a university cannot do without rigorous, specialized knowledge in its faculty. The challenge Mr. Lewis and others pose is whether universities can create incentives to balance focus with breadth.
This would entail another sense of liberalism. Such a liberality or generosity of spirit would revive a proper appreciation of amateurism – not in the sense of an absence of serious training but in the etymological meaning of the word "amateur," from the French for "lover."
In an academic context, an amateur would be one who has a passionate enthusiasm for knowledge, an infectious joy at human inquiry itself and a commitment to transforming students from dependent absorbers of information into colleagues in a shared pursuit of knowledge. This spirit of wonder is the most compelling embodiment of Newmans claim that knowledge is an end in itself. Such a spirit knows no bounds – it can be equally present in an English poetry class, a chemistry lab, a music tutorial or a philosophy seminar.
The modern university seems to offer an excellent example of "the joyless quest for joy," for which genuine liberal education may be something of an antidote.
Read the whole thing.
Hat tip: Rick Garnett.