Lightning spread across the sky, crashed. The clouds ominous, threatened a certain downpour that never came. We sat in the back of a themed pub drinking Guinness and talking philosophy, theology, current events and what role, if any, the proper notion of the university has in the public square and what future. "All has been reduced to trade school methodology."
What Newman saw more than a hundred years ago was a creeping multiversity: the sort of place one attends to learn a trade or skill and leaves - in debt - with no sense of greater learning. I lamented that so many of the young men I've taught are on the tail end of college careers no more developed as persons than when I had them in pubescence. They can work a spreadsheet and read receipts from the market but cannot, in any sense, relate to the larger world around them. The university has failed them in teaching universal knowledge.
I've been working on a series of drawings for a painting of Kateri Tekakwitha, the young Mohawk woman influenced by Jesuit missionaries who, to the chagrin of her people, took leave and adopted the Christian life. Her life was by most accounts one of no outstanding memory. Her education was rudimentary at best; her adoption of the Christian life at some points suspect. Nevertheless, here I am some few hundred years later thinking about her - drawing her - and realizing she never came into contact with any so-called university. She's on her way to sainthood.
While the good professor took leave, I told my friend one of the real problems of academia is that it attempts to domesticate certain areas of life and interest that are by nature free and wild. Plato engaged himself with the academy by a certain necessity; Socrates before him drank poison because he freely spoke things for which the youth were deemed incapable of ingesting. Philosophy, the offspring of natural and wild interest in reality, has been reduced to dusty treatises and theories which bear no impact on human life. It's become a castrated discipline.
It can safely be assumed that Kateri never heard mention of Plato or the thinkers before him or since. She was wrapped up in reality, not in a pseudo-romantic sense that one so often ascribes to American Indians, but the kind that finds comfort in the symbol. She encountered learned Jesuits of Europe rich in symbol and their symbols made sense to her reality. She wanted to share that with her people but they were, like so many of us, unwilling to let go of the ineffective.
Newman wasn't waxing sentimental. The survival of the university was - and now most certainly is - at stake. When thought, discourse and study become reduced to the pedantic, we have on our hands a subtle yet far-reaching crisis.
I think of Kateri and the fog covered hills of her youth. I think of what enthusiasm she must have experienced in first encountering a system of symbol that fit into her reality. Only a fool would not envy her that.