Home > Education, Universities > The Idea of a University: an Essay in Support of Professor Tom Garvin’s Thesis of Grey Philistines Taking Over Our Universities, Jim Mc Kernan, East Carolina

The Idea of a University: an Essay in Support of Professor Tom Garvin’s Thesis of Grey Philistines Taking Over Our Universities, Jim Mc Kernan, East Carolina

Jim McKernan
Social and Cultural Foundations of Education, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina, USA Email mckernanj@ecu.edu


Professor Tom Garvin’s eloquent and critical essay “Grey philistines taking over our universities” is cogent, timely, and also necessary reading at this critical juncture in Irish higher education. His remarks, which invite widespread discussion and debate, are not only applicable to education at University College Dublin, but for education in the round. I also write as a former lecturer in the Faculty of Arts who watched how the university began to ape the same processes which drove the Irish Celtic Tiger and adopted much of that education-for-profit strategy as a prolegomenon for the current situation. I have chosen as the title of my essay that of John Henry Cardinal Newman in his famous work The Idea of a University based on lectures he gave in setting up the Catholic University of Ireland in 1854; now University College Dublin. It is instructive to note that Professor Garvin’s thesis is in accord with the sentiments of Cardinal Newman. It is of further notable interest that plans are afoot to canonize Cardinal Newman in September of this year. This should be a big event for University College Dublin and the National University of Ireland. I feel sure Cardinal Newman would roll over in his grave were he to see how “education” is conducted at the university he established. It is my thesis that we are in danger of losing our concept of education in favour of lower notions of instruction and training . Let me explain. By ‘training” I mean a process which suggests the acquisition of skills and the enhancing of performance capacities. By ‘instruction’ I mean learning facts and new information-the results of retention. But by ‘education’ one understands induction into the forms and fields of knowledge: those thought processes and intellectual activities that allow one to know the epistemologies of the culture so that we can think rationally, by using it. Too often nowadays, even folks in universities confuse training and instruction with pure ‘education’. We lose sight of this concept of education at our peril.

Professor Garvin is right to lament that intellectual activity for its own sake is being hi-jacked in favour ofa penchant for managerialism and the intrusions of technical rationality so characteristic of the business-industrial complex today. Traditional (basic) research, what Garvin calls “blue sky” inquiry, in the human and social sciences is being viewed as inappropriate in favour of applied scientific “evidence-based” research methodologies where grant money is being currently channeled. This strategy is acknowledged as the legitimate way forward in official policy statements from the OECD and US Federal Government on the future of research in higher education. Those who have sought to find the truth through historical and other qualitative research methods are being ignored by funding agents across the Western World.
Professor Garvin’s thesis is sustainable. Personally, this author witnessed the same rampant technical rationality when I accepted the first Deanship of Education at Limerick University. I resigned and resumed my professorial duties in America apart from that environment. I admit I expected some of this managerialism at Limerick, which had emerged from a technological base, but not the out-of-control intrusions of technical rationality resulting in a now discredited “Total Quality Management” strategy (which has been abandoned in most American universities) for the entire university and its emphasis on “entrepreneurship”. I see this managerialism evident in every facet of education today in both the USA and Ireland. Yesterday I heard the Governor of North Carolina, a former teacher, Beverley Perdue; state that the first word a six year old should learn should be “entrepreneurship”. She was delighted to learn that our local Pitt Community College had received 21 million dollars of the President’s Stimulus Package to set up IT programs to educate hospital administrators digitalize medical recordkeeping.
What is the aim of a university education? Let us recount what Cardinal Newman argued:
“I am asked what is the end of University Education, and of the Liberal or Philosophical Knowledge which I conceive it to impart: I answer, that what I have already {103} said has been sufficient to show that it has a very tangible,real, and sufficient end, though the end cannot be divided from that knowledge itself. Knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward.”
Further on in the work Newman expands his ideas:
“Now, when I say that Knowledge is, not merely a means to something beyond it, or the preliminary of certain arts into which it naturally resolves, but an end sufficient to rest in and to pursue for its own sake, surely I am uttering no paradox, for I am stating what is both intelligible in itself, and has ever been the common judgment of philosophers and the ordinary feeling of mankind. I am saying what at least the public opinion of this day ought to be slow to deny, considering how much we have heard of late years, in opposition to Religion, of entertaining, curious, and various knowledge. I am but saying what whole volumes have been written to illustrate, viz., by a selection from the records of Philosophy, Literature, and Art, in all ages and countries, of a body of examples, to show how the most unpropitious circumstances have been unable to conquer an ardent desire for the acquisition of knowledge. That further advantages accrue to us and redound to others by its possession, over and above what it is in itself, I am very far indeed from denying; but,independent of these, we are satisfying a direct need of our nature in its very acquisition; and, whereas our nature, unlike that of the inferior creation, does not at once reach its perfection, but depends, in order to it, on a number of external aids and appliances, Knowledge, as one of the principal of these, is valuable for what its very presence in us does for us after the manner of a habit, even though it be turned to no further account, nor subserve any direct end.”

Newman argues consistently that knowledge for its own sake is a significant purpose of a scholar in a university-moreover, this is the very essence of conduct within a liberal education:
“This process of training, by which the intellect, instead of being formed or sacrificed to some particular or accidental purpose, some specific trade or profession, or study or science, is disciplined for its own sake, for the perception of its own proper object, and for its own highest culture, is called Liberal Education; and though there is no one in whom it is carried as far as is conceivable, or whose intellect would be a pattern of what intellects should be made, yet there is scarcely any one but may gain an idea of what real training is, and at least look towards it, and make its true scope and result, not something else, his standard of excellence; {153} and numbers there are who may submit themselves to it, and secure it to themselves in good measure. And to set forth the right standard, and to train according to it, and to help forward all students towards it according to their various capacities, this I conceive to be the business of a University.

The Technologisation of Education

It should be pointed out that this notion of technical means-ends rationality in education began with the Americans. In particular Franklin Bobbitt, a former engineer who became Dean of the School of Education at Stanford University. In 1918 Bobbitt argued for a form of efficiency-accountability that schools should be like factories where students are viewed as products and that the physical plant should be utilized on a shift basis throughout the school year. He became so enthralled with this that he produced a book outlining some 800 behaviours all responsible citizens should be able to perform. He operationlised the use of behavioural performance objectives and the American and European systems of educational planning have never been the same since. This “Science in Education” movement led to Educational Psychologists embracing Behaviourism as an appropriate theory for curriculum design. That is, that teachers should state specific outcomes in students in terms of behavioural performances in order to be accountable that students had mastered subject knowledge. I liked Professor Garvin’s comment relating to a remark made by Picasso that predicting outcomes makes a nonsense of any activity and in essence in education it would deny the use of imagination. My mentor Professor Lawrence Stenhouse once remarked

“Education as induction into knowledge is successful to the extent
that it makes the behavioural outcomes of the students unpredictable”

Professor Garvin also grasps an important nettle in commenting about the loss of imagination in educational culture. Mary Warnock, the English philosopher wrote that “imagination is the faculty by means of which one is able to envisage things as they are not”. The trend nowadays in education is to plan all the outcomes as behaviours in advance of instruction, and test student by means of objective type multiple choice tests to see if they have mastered this ‘rhetoric of conclusions’. On this model students never exercise their own creative imagination or critical discourse-they select random options already printed on the test page. This is not education but mere training and instruction-teaching to the test.


I believe that there are very real possibilities that education can be reclaimed from these ‘grey philistines and merchants of managerialism’. The idea of a university is that it is a community of scholars having a discourse, using a variety of research methods appropriate to their discipline to advance knowledge, to contribute to searching for truth through inquiry, to conduct teaching of this knowledge and these methods, so that students can get into perspective the knowledge which they do not yet possess and to offer service to the university and the community. The main thing is to permit academic freedom in the pursuit of these inquiries. Academic freedom means that lecturers and professors have an unfettered right to select materials and methods appropriate to their discipline and the right to conduct research that matches their curiosity and interests. The health of Irish education and society is indeed tied to this notion of academic freedom-which is being eroded at present by arguments to abolish tenure with fixed term appointments and by not appointing Professors to disciplinary chairs such as the languages (German, Spanish, French) at UCD, which Professor Caldicott, pointed out in his response to Professor Garvin’s piece. The UCD administration seems only interested in the “bottom line” here-saving funds through cost cutting vital disciplinary appointments and operations that have been hugely successful like the Language Laboratory. The reorganization of University College Dublin into Schools that are integrated and interdisciplinary does not speak to the definite epistemology of the disciplines of knowledge as historically understood. This reorganization, albeit in the name of efficiency, seems utterly incoherent to this observer. I have watched in my lifetime whole departments of Logic, Philosophy, (subjects at the core of a liberal education from medieval times) and indeed Colleges of Teacher Education, disappear due to the ‘bottom line’ mentality. The control by universities and other agencies of higher education over teaching, research and learning and their inalienable right to academic freedom must not be relinquished to external agencies and government. Dublin City University President Ferdinand Von Prondzynski’s accountability arguments are not sound. The logic of his argument makes academic freedom a joke. He says that universities should not be a place of leisurely intellectual pursuits. This is what has characterized the greatest universities throughout history. As scholars we are accountable to the standards immanent in our respective disciplines first. Of course it is right that any government or foundation granting money for research demands accountability-but the idea that these agents would run the university is a sacrilege. Further the idea that the Arts disciplines would not be funded is indicative of a Philistinian philosophy of education. As Professor Garvin suggested , one of the better ideas of mankind was to establish universities where truth and knowledge could be pursued for their own sake. I would argue that it was the setting up of universities in the 11th century in Europe (first in Italy by the Pope at Salerno and Bologna) that saved world culture and literacy from extinction during the ‘Dark Ages’. Ireland, to give her fair dues, played an essential role in establishing Monastic Schools keeping learning alive in a desperate time during the early Middle Ages. Hence the phrase “land of saints and scholars”. In this respect we owe a great debt also to our Arab friends who had perhaps the greatest institutes of higher education by the 9th and 10th centuries and who had transcribed many of the lost works of the Greeks and Roman scholars. My favourite scholar was, however, Peter Abelard, (1079-1142) the Scholastic philosopher and logician, who criticized state and church and was perhaps the greatest scholar of Paris in his day and precursor to the establishment of the secular University of Paris in or around 1160 A.D. Abelard taught us that the critical thought of an independent and free scholar would be a valuable aspect of higher education. We need to respect the various methods by which scholarship is engaged and invite our students into this search. It is a search that does not discriminate between the arts and sciences. That, I believe, is the idea of a university.

May 23rd, 2010


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