Our Modern 'Multiversity'

Turning to Alasdair MacIntyre's book God, Philosophy, Universities for yesterday's post on the Notre Dame expansion, I reread one of my favorite chapters (chapter 19), in which MacIntyre describes some of the features of modern universities against the backdrop of the marginalization of philosophy. I want to share a few excerpts that are increasingly relevant to educators at all levels.

Commenting upon the specialization that inheres in these modern institutions, MacIntyre writes:

What disappears from view in such universities, and what significantly differentiates them from many of their predecessors, is twofold: first, any large sense of and concern for enquiry into the relationships between the disciplines and, second, any conception of the disciplines as each contributing to a single shared enterprise, one whose principal aim is neither to benefit the economy nor to advance the careers of its students, but rather to achieve for teachers and students alike a certain kind of shared understanding. Universities have become, perhaps irremediably, fragmented and partitioned institutions, better renamed "multiversities," as Clark Kerr suggested almost fifty years ago. 

According to MacIntyre, part of the problem, part of the reason for the lack of a shared understanding, is that professors and departments aren't asking the right questions. We don't even generate the inquiries that might lead to synthesis. What kinds of questions might we ask? What is it that we have to ask about? He notes:

Consider the range of things that are said about human beings from the standpoints of each of the major disciplines.

From the standpoint of physics human beings are composed of fundamental particles interacting in accordance with the probabilistic generalizations of quantum mechanics. From that of chemistry we are the sites of chemical interactions, assemblages of elements and compounds. From that of biology we are multicellular organisms belonging to species each of which has its own evolutionary past. From that of historians we are intelligible only as emerging from long histories of social and economic transformations. From that of economists we are rational profit-maximizing makers of decisions. From that of psychology and sociology we shape and are shaped by our perceptions, our emotions, and our social roles and institutions. And from that of students of literature and the arts it is in the exercise of our various imaginative powers that we exhibit much that is distinctive about human beings. But how do all these relate to each other? In what does the unity of a human being consist? And how should the findings of each of these disciplines contribute to our understanding of ourselves and of our place in nature?

"It was to philosophy," writes MacIntyre, "that in the past the task of formulating and reformulating, of answering and reanswering these questions would have fallen." Eventually, for those whom MacIntyre describes as "theistic philosophers," the task of achieving the amalgamation, the shared understanding, could only be carried out within the context of theology. And yet today, as MacIntyre observes, "neither philosophy nor theology can find their due place."

MacIntyre frames his chapter as a judgment on universities, but his comments could be posed to educators at all levels. When I think of the institutions I know best (Catholic high schools), I know that more can be done. I don't know of any high school curriculums, even those that are faith-based, that pursue the questions he suggests as intentionally and rigorously as MacIntyre would have it. This isn't to say there aren't any efforts at integrating disparate fields; I know, for example, that many Catholic high schools offer impressive courses on the relationship of science and religion. At the same time, most students usually march through the day from subject to subject, rarely investigating -- because they haven't been meaningfully invited to -- what unites these subjects and what, within this unity, we can conclude about the human being. But perhaps the more pressing question is: Are faculties capable of this? Are teachers able to articulate the relationship between their departments? Do teachers seek to create a "shared understanding" of what they teach? Could they even agree on what that is?

What would it mean to achieve the synthesis, the integration, that MacIntyre seeks? In chapter 19 of his book, he proposes a program for Catholic philosophy that responds to his concerns. But I'm asking about remedies, or ways of responding, in very practical and specific ways for teachers without the training of professional philosophers. What kind of coordination would this require? I take it for granted that, whatever the response, it goes beyond isolated assignments; it goes beyond a single course. What combination of projects, books, courses, experiences, and encounters; what kind of academic path, either at the college or the high school level (or even the primary level), can enable students to begin to see, or at least to search for, the parts that make up the whole? What will illuminate the "shared understanding" underlying all their studies?

Perhaps we begin with MacIntyre's own question: "In what does the unity of a human being consist?"


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