Universities Have Forgotten Their Purpose: Pursuing the Contemplative Life

Editor’s note: this essay is adapted from a talk delivered by Jessica Hooten Wilson at Word on Fire’s Good News Conference on November 7, 2021, in Orlando, Florida.

Universities are suffering an identity crisis. They don’t know what they are or what they are for. Nearly forty years ago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn proclaimed, “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this happened.” It’s just as true when speaking of political disorder as when speaking of educational crisis. Without Christ as the embodiment of wisdom, without the foundation of Holy Scripture and tradition, without the end in friendship with God, what is education? Universities today, having undergone this process of secularization, are no longer able to satisfy the needs of the soul that make education intelligible.

Universities in Crisis

In a written debate with professor Jennifer Frey, the president of Wesleyan University Michael Roth asserts:

A college education should not require religious devotion, and it does not aim only for a ‘life of study.’ The purpose of college is to develop practices of learning that we can share and thereby modify or amplify, helping us contribute to our society and reshape ourselvesStudents should learn how to share what they’ve gotten better at with others…developing the skills to show others that the work one finds rewarding also has value for them.

Because Dr. Roth does not believe in universal truth—which he proudly acknowledges in his essay—there is no coherent or permanent model by which to frame education for students at his university. Instead, each student is an autonomous unit, learning a trade that they can choose according to what they prefer. The world is for their consumption and manipulation. Gone is any notion that education should form a student into the shape of God’s design, according to a vocation, or in conformity with natural law. Today, the humanities in particular appear to have little hope of offering anything more than another major among various equal choices.

In the past few years, according to reports on American colleges, we have gone from unhealthy to critical condition. Within the humanities, courses in theory have supplanted traditional content from great literature, history, and philosophy. The prevailing ideology imposed by professors leaves little room for independent thinking, no patience for those who love canonical authors, and there will be no jobs if students specialize outside of so-called vocational degrees. Debt is rising to pay exorbitant amounts with little return on the investment. Many ask, “Is college even worth it?”

From within the academy, I see further problems. Administrations focus on recruitment, retention, and data without considering the faces and stories of students. They copy best practices of other institutions without stepping outside of their fallacious presentism to be innovative or robustly distinctive. They have no courage for risk. While I’ve had devoted colleagues over the years at my institutions, I’ve also witnessed a vast number who never read a book on pedagogy or tried hospitable ways to reach students. Too often, professors go through the motions. 

And when did universities become so engrossed in so-called “student development”? I could not have told you what that meant when I was a student. I was in a sorority, though it didn’t help me develop. Now, there are so many offices with so many amenities or resources to cover everything a student needs. Why can’t an eighteen-year-old adult enroll in classes, live in an apartment, and find the resources she needs outside of campus? Universities have bloated into trying to be all things to every student. In the process, they’ve just become another retail chain. 

A Different Story of Our History

But, what if we told a different story of universities’ history? When we look to the earlier history of the founding of the universities—even before Harvard’s 1636 inauguration as a “church in the wilderness”—faith preceded and motivated the creation of the university. Going back to the classical writers, Socrates thought education was learning to love what is beautiful.

In the Middle Ages, devout monks copied manuscripts to pass on from generation to generation because they loved what they read. When universities were first established in Europe, they were built on the liberal arts, with piety as the foundation and contemplation as the telos (end). Instead of being ancillary, faith was the beginning of wisdom. The crisis of the universities, then, goes deeper than declining numbers in liberal arts and the subjugation of goods by trends. The underlying problem began hundreds of years ago when we cut Christ out of the story and lost a coherent definition of education.

Renewal through the Past 

To renew universities, we should return to the medieval vocabulary for education and should strive to re-embody many of its practices in our institutions of higher learning. Here’s my definition of education, drawn from medieval models: Education is an apprenticeship to the tradition that leads to a contemplative life.

As Plato writes in Timaeus, the student and teacher share a “feast of discourse.”

First, as an apprenticeship, education involves friendship between the master and apprentice. If there is to be a relationship, the master cannot teach thousands of students at a time. I was once in a faculty development session where the dean announced a disparity between our graduating seniors and faculty: while all of our 80 faculty believed they had mentored a student over the past year, only a third of the 500 graduates surveyed had said they were mentored. 

Immediately, I stood up to protest. If a third of students felt mentored, that’s not an indicting statistic. It means potentially that our faculty were mentoring approximately two students each. How many more would you expect us to mentor? Faculty should be relating to a handful of students every year, bringing them into their homes, attending their theater performances, soccer games, etc. But to do so, you cannot stock your faculty’s schedules with a heavy number of classes and tons of students. Don’t fudge the faculty/student number ratio with a few classes that barely made their numbers and average it with your Western Civ surveys of hundreds.

Also, we should clarify what it means to be friends with students. It does not mean that I show up to class early to discuss students’ late-night endeavors or failing relationships. It does not mean that I neglect reading The Divine Comedy for the dozenth time, so that I can take my students to the cafeteria for lunch and spend an hour in small talk. C.S. Lewis defines friendship as two people looking at the same thing together, side by side, as it were, passionately engaged in loving something outside of themselves.

I want to invite my students into that kind of friendship, where we read Dante’s beatific vision aloud and weep in awe of its beauty, where we recite T.S. Eliot aloud to one another, where we laugh together at passages from Flannery O’Connor. Friendship means that I acknowledge what they are bringing to the conversation. As Plato writes in Timaeus, the student and teacher share a “feast of discourse.” They practice taking turns as host and guest because they can each bring something to the table.

However, for this friendship to reflect the master and apprentice form, the latter must not see himself as entitled. Instead, the apprentice needs to be grounded in humility. He should practice piety, should assume the role of a learner, which often means he has to be re-formed. Too much of his culture has taught him to be a consumer, and it is the default mode of most students. They are there to take what they can get and use what they want from college. Hugh of St. Victor advises his students not to “presume upon your own opinion, but that first you be educated and informed…. You should not presume to teach yourself…. [but seek] from learned teachers and men who have wisdom.”

As much as students need to reimagine themselves as apprentices, teachers need to understand what it means to model as a master. More will be learned from their example than their didacticism. “What we have loved, others will love, and we will teach them how,” Wordsworth writes. The master’s job is to teach the student how to love the true, good, and beautiful. Her role is to hand it on to the next generation, to see the apprentice as one who will replace her, and gratefully so.

Second, the greatest teachers will be the tradition itself. We tradere (Latin: “pass on”) the best that has been thought and said. As G.K. Chesterton quips, “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.” The democracy of the dead should be celebrated in universities (which also means we do not judge them by the sins of their times).    

Different Ends of Education

In addition to their failures in apprenticeship, universities are in crisis because they have neglected the real job of education—to cultivate souls, and ultimately, saints.

If Socrates defined education as teaching us what to love, contemplation is the practice of beholding those loves.

In the 1930s a high school principal, Anna Julia Cooper, wrote an essay on education, reminding teachers of their responsibility to “make [students] righteous.” Whereas many people were thwarting her efforts at implementing a classical education for African Americans in Washington, D.C., Dr. Cooper insisted, “In a word we are building [human beings], not chemists or farmers or cooks, or soldiers, but [people] ready to serve the body politic in whatever avocation their talent is needed.” She fought against the reductionist impulse to overspecialize students young, to teach what was most useful to their future jobs.

Cooper’s essay is directed against those who sneer, “What good is this education for the Negro?” but we might also apply the question—almost a century later—to all human beings. Do we not hear this same complaint, “What good is this education for a future nurse? An engineer? A businessman? A woman who plans to stay home as a mother?” We should hear such a question as condescending and rally, as Cooper did, against this type of prejudice that reduces souls to mere “hands.” Instead of hands, Cooper believed education dealt with souls. “The aim for education for the human soul,” she declares, “is to train aright, to give power and right direction to the intellect, the sensibilities and the will.”

If considered as a ministry of educating souls, teachers will move students towards contemplation as the highest end. 

In his 1988 Only the Lover Sings, Josef Pieper draws a catechism from Anaxagoras who precedes Plato. The Greek philosopher asks, “Why are you here on earth?” and answers, “To behold,” which Pieper points out that the Romans later translated as “contemplation.” What is contemplation but the living according to what you love, a seeing “opened up by love alone,” Pieper writes, and then exclaims that “contemplation is visual perception promoted by loving acceptance.” If Socrates defined education as teaching us what to love, contemplation is the practice of beholding those loves.

Imagining Our Way Out of Crisis

In a poem called “Reading” by Amit Majmudar, he unintentionally describes the educational journey. The poem begins with the narrator at a loss, standing before books as numerous as the stars in the sky. Then, a “blind librarian with a lantern and a hand” takes the narrator’s own hand, to show the “student” where to look. As the mentor points, the reader follows, and together, they behold with awe, as each book, “one by one,” opens “into suns.”

Majmudar may have drawn his night sky from C.S. Lewis’s metaphor of reading. Lewis writes in Experiment in Criticism, “In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.” In this vision of education, the act of reading with these guides leads one to contemplation, to an augmented vision.

In this metaphor for education, we experience an invitation outside of the self through reading and learning, yet the outcome includes a fuller version of the self than one could have tried to create alone. In this one example, we are pilgrims. We are Jacob watching the angels ascend and descend. We are students who long for one to take our hand.

For Majmudar, the blind librarian is Borges. For Dante, it was Virgil, Beatrice, and St. Bernard. For me, it was first Flannery O’Connor. But, my guides have also included Homer, Augustine, Dante, Dostoevsky, and others. Education is an apprenticeship to the tradition that leads to a contemplative life. Without this definition of education, universities will remain in crisis.

Jessica Hooten Wilson is Louise Cowan Scholar in Residence at the University of Dallas.