The Saturday Essay: Princeton’s Concern with Morality

The Hall at Christ Church, Oxford

An academic seems no more obtuse and irrelevant than when he questions the very purpose of academia. If he himself is unable to explain why he applies himself to vague and outlandish lines of inquiry, then his cause must be hopeless, for there certainly is no one else who can provide him with a ready answer. But in this lies the plight of the scholar, for part of his task is itself to understand the content of his own vocation. For not only is he the only one equipped to grapple with the question of the meaning of scholarly pursuit, but outsourcing this question will immediately precipitate an impoverishment of his calling. One part of the scholar’s aim is achievable only in the society of other people undertaking similar pursuits. Because of this reliance of the academic on other academics, context and habitat serve as crucial determinants of the kind of work that can be accomplished at a given institution. I contend, in what brief space remains, not only that certain environments are more conducive than others to harmonious intellectual inquiry, but likewise that Oxford University has achieved a setting more suitable for such inquiry than has our own institution.

Now, social context is an amorphous entity whose sources and causes are not clearly discernible. As a result, it will be helpful to offer the brief caveat that (most likely), the sin of no particular actor is responsible for the faults that may exist in one educational context or another. The comparison of these two institutions, then, is not for the sake of casting blame upon one and salutations upon the other, but rather to bring into focus those attributes that contribute most to the flourishing conditions all scholars desire.

In his book, The Idea of the University, Cardinal John Henry Newman, himself a man of Oxford, lays out the contours of what he believes to constitute the best model for a University not concerned with religious formation. It is striking that he posits immediately that there should be a strict separation on the one hand between the attainment of knowledge in pursuit of truth and on the other hand, the moral formation of students. He states that the university “is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is, on the one hand, intellectual, not moral.” It would seem that in a man so deeply religious and occupying the clerical ranks of first the Anglican and eventually the Roman Catholic Church, he would maintain a stronger emphasis upon character formation. So crucial, however, to the first task of pursuing knowledge is freedom from narrow-minded dogmatism that he believes a check should be in place on the moral commands of which he himself is convicted. The benefits of this picture, broadly construed, are such that the University has freedom in its opinions but simultaneously holds constituents who aim for the common end of knowledge.

Princeton fails to uphold such a positive vision on several accounts. First and foremost, mere preservation of knowledge is not enough for Princeton. The operative term in this arena is production. In the non-humanities disciplines, ever encroaching upon that shrinking minority, the goal is new knowledge never before seen upon the planet. Science and engineering, in particular, are concerned with the possible applications of their discoveries. This prerogative for newness is not content to remain in the disciplines of its genesis, but also migrates across fields to create such oxymorons as “digital humanities.”

This approach favors the external production possible through education as opposed to the improvement of the individual. The downside of holding up novelty as the modus operandi is that understanding the world for its own sake becomes an outmoded and valueless exercise. In a sense, as external (and hopefully useful) knowledge become the goal, the individual gets left out. In a world of impersonal information, the person must disappear. On Newman’s model, people are educated so that we can better understand the world, our place in it, our relationship to God, and hence know better how to navigate it in our mature lives. Education, on this account, has to do first and foremost with the individual who is becoming educated. The process of learning will equip the student not only to engage in abstract thinking, but teach him to apply these abstract principles in a well-lived life.

Second, something I never thought I would say, Princeton as an institution is too concerned with morality. Princeton’s morality—let’s call it Frenetic Careerism—tends to interfere with intellectual inquiry just as Newman feared. It is frenetic, because many students pour more energy into extra-curriculars than they do into their classes. The result of this arrangement is that the average student gets less sleep than a new mom. Its morality also espouses careerism, an absolute allegiance to the production of a successful trajectory in the working world. Such a motive is very often pursued for the sake of economic gain. The outcome of this pervasive morality is that intellectual inquiry becomes stilted and shallow. This effect on the university’s aims says nothing about the validity of the morality per se, but rather illustrates the harmful influence of any dogmatism in the University context.

Against these unfortunate trends, I found a semester abroad at Oxford to offer a welcome breath of fresh air. First, the structure of the tutorial system is such that class time is minimized to just a few hours each week, opening up time for organic discussion with peers and deeper engagement with readings. When the tutorial comes around, the student must be prepared to discuss the topic or thinker one-on-one at a level of depth not replicable in the seminar setting. As such, the system encouraged study for itself and not merely as an instrumental stepping-stone. Second, academic theology is not taboo. Theology, as a real branch of knowledge, lives on in Oxford. Unlike religious studies, which has given up on the possibility that such an objective assessment of religious claims is possible, theology examines the intellectual foundations of bodies of religious doctrines. Oxford has not fallen prey to the myth, as expounded by Newman, that “Religion is not knowledge, has nothing whatever to do with knowledge, and is excluded from the University course of instruction, not simply because the exclusion cannot be helped, from political or social obstacles, but because it has not business there at all, because it is to be considered a taste, a sentiment, opinion.”

Between these two contexts there is one central and fundamental difference. Many specific differences between the two systems are only revealed in the light of this one important difference. Newman posits of the healthy academic mindset: “I am prepared to maintain that there is a knowledge worth possessing for what it is, and not merely for what it does.” One approach affirms the basic goodness of intellectual inquiry for its own sake and one does not. If this principle is denied, then academia can only be seen to be worthwhile inasmuch as it produces some kind of utility in the practical domain. But the moment it becomes a conduit towards something outside itself, it has abrogated its valid claim to intrinsic value.

Academic inquiry is a great human good when pursued for its own sake. At Oxford, I got a glimpse into a system, which, while imperfect, is closer to the ideal laid out by Newman than Princeton. While our institution serves an important duty in its own right, it is not the handmaiden of a Liberal Education.

A note from Jeff Zymeri ’20, Editor-in-Chief of the Tory: Will Nolan’s incisive piece constitutes the Tory’s first Saturday Essay, an idea inspired by The Wall Street Journal’s Saturday series of the same name. Selected by me, the Tory’s Saturday Essay will put the spotlight on the best pieces we publish, whether they be opinion or analysis. Follow the Tory on Facebook and Twitter to start your weekend with the best of our content.