In his 1987 essay “The Loss of the University,” Wendell Berry prophetically describes how overspecialization of knowledge and disciplines in modern universities is a harmful product of utilitarianism and industrialization and has resulted in “career preparation” rather than an education that creates broadly-informed, fully-developed human beings capable of judgment and pursuing and knowing truth in all its forms.
I’ve been thinking and meaning to write about this topic for almost the entirety of my four years in college. What follows is merely an ounce of what I think about Berry’s analysis of the University (capital U intentional) and of education in general.
In my first semester freshman physics lab, I remember being confused about propagation of error and whether we should propagate standard deviations or standard errors. In response to my question the TA replied, “I don’t know, but you don’t need to know that,” which was the first of many instances in my education where I’ve been prescribed what I “need” and “don’t need” to know. At Hopkins, I believe that the two most frequently asked questions on campus are:
(1) Are you premed?
(2) Will this be on the test?
While I do concede that pragmatically it’s important to know what material students will be responsible for on the test, I also feel like the second question is more than occasionally asked with an underlying connotation of its sinister dual, “Do I need to learn this?” The question “Will this be on the test” deeply disturbs me, because I feel like what follows after “Do I need to know this for the test?” is “Do I need to know this for my major?”, “Do I need to know this for my job?”, and finally “Do I need to know this at all?” Once we find ourselves asking the last question, we’ve reached complacence with ignorance and “Do I need to know this for the test?” will have been the first step towards that end. I am about to stereotype and make an extreme, but not unfounded, overgeneralization to make a point. Isn’t it a bit hypocritical that in the current political climate “educated liberals” often disdain “ignorant conservatives,” when a large portion of our University education is predicated on what knowledge we should acquire to do well on tests and in our careers and relegate everything else to be unnecessary and not worth knowing?
In most of his essay, Berry criticizes the overspecialization of knowledge into “majors” and “departments” at universities that fail to communicate and exchange ideas and knowledge with each other. He doesn’t argue that the categorization of knowledge itself is harmful, and in fact acknowledges that some degree of specialization is necessary. But when the boundaries of those categories are never crossed and University departments become echo chambers of their own importance, their own success at describing truth in the world, their own influence in attracting prospective students and preparing students for careers, universities begin to rob students of a different, more complete kind of education. I agree with Berry to an extent that overspecialization is harmful to the University, but I go even further when I feel that even within particular subject domains, students—assisted by the way professors teach classes and by extension, the University—are further fragmenting knowledge into that which is necessary to know for the test and for careers and knowledge that is worth pursuing for its own sake.
The part of my education that I love is being able to draw connections and finding universal explanations between disparate subjects. There are two interpretations of Aristotle’s views of sensory perception where he writes about how sensory organs and their objects of perception “are one, but their being is different.” The first is a “literalist” interpretation in which an eye sees that a tomato is red because the eye fluid itself becomes red, leading us to perceive the tomato as such. The second is a “spiritualist” interpretation in which we somehow become aware of the tomato’s redness without our eyes taking on the form of the object of our perception. While it may be easy to condemn the first interpretation when we think about vision, when humans perceive sounds, our eardrums, auditory ossicles, inner ear hair cells, and even the neuronal firing in our brains takes on the same frequency as the sound waves that we are perceiving, which gives credibility to the literalist interpretation. I love that by learning neuroscience I can inform my study of Aristotle’s idea of perception, essences, and the soul, and vice versa. Berry’s criticism is that in the modern University, students are not instructed in how to draw these connections or even encouraged to; rather, we learn about the entirety of Aristotle’s works, and separately we learn about biological mechanisms of sense perception, but we don’t learn from them in exploring the universal truths found at the intersection of subjects that are seemingly disjoint in their contribution to our future paychecks or the national and global economic machine.
I bring up Aristotle as an example, because the things he has to say about learning, teaching, and what it means to be educated directly address Berry’s criticisms of modern education, which raises the question of what exactly has happened in the 2300 years separating the two. Aristotle writes:
"For experienced people know the fact that something is so but not the reason why it is so, whereas craftsmen know the reason why, i.e., the cause… A sign that distinguishes those who know from those do not is their ability to teach. Hence we think craft, rather than experience, is knowledge, since craftsmen can teach, while merely experienced people cannot."
And yet we live in a culture where “those who can’t do, teach” is a commonly and sometimes self-fulfillingly held belief, and we glorify University professors who publish research in reputable journals and rake in millions of dollars in grant money but do not or extremely inadequately teach. Aristotle also writes:
"There appear to be two sorts of competence. One of these is rightly called scientific knowledge of the subject, and the other is a certain type of education; for it is characteristic of an educated person to be able to reach a judgment based on a sound estimate of when people expound their conclusions in the right or wrong way... We expect an individual with this general education to judge practically all subjects.
And yet we joke about the Krieger School of “Arts and Crafts” and Hopkins considers removing the Humanities Center, both institutions in which students can contemplate logic, establish sound judgment of past, present, and future events, and apply an analytically critical education to all subjects."
For sure Berry errs in placing all this blame on the University alone. Perhaps the faults that he finds with the modern University are just manifestations of our individual and our society’s replacement of meaningful and spiritually fulfilling experiences with an insatiable hunger for technology, instant material and secular gratification, and our fetishization of STEM in the pursuit of entirely numerical explanations of both natural phenomenon and human experience. Some of the blame definitely lies with us, the students, for fencing in ourselves to what society deems as valuable or prestigious and allowing school to get in the way of our own education.
During my time at Hopkins, I’ve always felt that the greatest irony is that our school’s motto is “The Truth Shall Set You Free,” when our classrooms, halls, and libraries are filled with peers enslaved by the next exam and in ultimate despair when they feel that their academic failure in one small domain of knowledge means that entire careers are now closed off to them and their futures are in disarray. While Hopkins’ motto makes our school a conveniently poetic token of the loss of the University, I’m sure similar scenes occur at other universities across our nation as well. What then is the remedy? Berry proposes that we seek a restoration of the humanities in their ability to inform on the truths of human experience, imagination, feeling, and faith. I recently heard a depressing hypothesis that science, having conquered religion as an alternate explanation for truth (when the both are not incompatible), is now taking on the humanities as its next victim in the continued purge of all non-secular explanations of our world. He urges for universities to stop viewing students as customers to keep satisfied or as parts of a machine, but rather as vehicles to influence the fate of how truth is used and applied in the world.
At this point, I feel like I could go on about how the loss of the University has let to the irreproducibility crisis in science, the unintended exacerbation of social inequality by machine learning algorithms, etc. Instead of finding fault with the University as Berry does in part, I feel like we should ask tough questions of ourselves and of our peers about what effect our education will have on the world. We should pursue an education for ourselves greater than what is provided to us in school and be unrestrained in our pursuit of the truth not just in the sciences, but also in the universality and interconnectedness of knowledge, our human experiences, and spiritual and religious truth.