Friday, January 4, 2008

Me and the University: We (Non-)Scholars

I have finally graduated with two undergraduate degrees: one in biology and the other in English literature. It took me ten years to do it, six years of full time study, and I’m glad that it’s over. That’s not to say that I don’t like school any more. In fact, I kind of miss it already. But I’m apprehensive about returning as a graduate student. For some time now, I think I have moved beyond the undergraduate level of understanding the sciences and the humanities, but I don’t think I’d fit in very well as a graduate student. In many ways, my interests and writings are too broad and too unfocused. I’ve become a motivated scholar, I think, but apparently I’m not a very good one.

If a scholar is “one who has profound knowledge of a particular subject,” as the American Heritage Dictionary defines it, then I would rather not be one. And, of course, this is the purpose of a modern graduate education at the university: to obtain profound knowledge of a particular (i.e. specialized) subject. I know that I am generalizing, and that it is probably possible to get a broad education in an interdisciplinary graduate program, but those are few and far between. I also realize that specialization at the graduate level is to some degree necessary. The frontier of progress in of the disciplines has moved beyond the point where any layperson could comfortably peruse. My problem is that I am not comfortable with being a layperson. My ambition is to be literate in all of the major disciplines.

This ambition may be partially motivated by ego (all ambitions are), but it is also partially motivated by the realization that there is a unity to knowledge. Profound knowledge of just one, or maybe two, subjects cannot be very profound at all. Profundity requires not just detailed knowledge of the topic at hand but also an understanding of how it relates to the other disciplines and the larger world. A lifetime of studying the genes of fruit flies may make for a great academic career, but without a serious study of the impact this research has on the rest of biology, medicine, the philosophy of nature and ethics, I find it hard to believe that it would be profound. It is hard work, no doubt. It takes a special mind with special abilities. But this is work done in technical jargon with relatively narrow immediate goals and interests, and the geneticist who fails to go beyond it fails the minimum requirement for profundity. In this respect, there is little difference between the genetic specialist and the philosopher of symbolic logic, or the historian of amateur sports in the late 20th century, or the marxist professor of post-colonial Caribbean poetry.

The problem with wanting to be literate in all of the basic sciences and humanities is that it takes a lot of time and effort. But it is not impossible. Yet no one is really expected to master all (or even most) of them at the university any more, let alone outside of it. This is an unforeseen consequence of an undeniably good development in higher education: more people are going to colleges and universities. I’m not complaining about social progress in education, but merely following what I see as a line of cause and effect. In order to accommodate for more students with a greater range of intellectual abilities, universities have required less and less of their students. The motivation for this isn’t suspect, and I don’t think that this was a mistake in the long run. But the fact remains that a broad liberal education is a rare thing, and there is little encouragement for students to do anything other than pursue an incredibly specialized field or two.

Here is the dilemma: I'm not sure that I will be happy pursuing a masters or doctorate because of the narrow focus that will be expected of me, but I want to be around the kind of people that are at universities. I want to talk and interact with other people who are thinking about the same things that I am. Yes, it’s possible to study on my own, but I don’t want to be isolated from the conversation. I may not like the university culture, but it is the only intellectual culture in town.

—The scholar is that man who must take up into himself all the ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, all the hopes of the future. He must be an university of knowledges.

Emerson’s Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard, 1837

—Late nineteenth-century university reformers did not reject the ideal of the unity of truth…On the contrary, they hoped to create new institutional forms that would embody their belief that truth incorporated all knowledge and was morally relevant, and also provide the basis for scholarly progress. These proved to be incompatible goals. For decades reformers unsuccessfully struggled to create universities that would serve the moral aims of the classical college while contributing to the advancement of knowledge. The educational and scholarly practices that emerged from their efforts encouraged specialization rather than intellectual synthesis.

Julie A. Reuben, The Making of the Modern University

—The thing being made in the university is humanity. Given the current influence of universities, this is merely inevitable. But what universities, at least publicly supported ones, are mandated to make or to help to make is human beings in the fullest sense of those words—not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs and members of human culture.

Wendell Berry, “The Loss of the University,” 1984

—In looking at [a teen-ager leaving home for the first time] we are forced to reflect on what [this person] should learn if he [or she] is to be called educated; we must speculate on what the human potential to be fulfilled is. In the specialties we can avoid such speculation, and the avoidance of them is one of specialization’s charms. But here it is a simple duty. What are we to teach this person? The answer may not be evident, but to attempt to answer the question is already to philosophize and to begin to educate.

Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, 1987