Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Pelikan, Newman, the University

During the academic year 1990-1991, Benno Schmidt, the president of Yale University, invited the scholar Jaroslav Pelikan
to deliver a set of public lectures together with a seminar durng the academic year 1990-91 on "The Future of the University," as the first in a series of events in preparation for the observation of Yale's tricentennial.
Those lectures, extensively revised, became The Idea of the University--a Reexamination, a volume that I recently purchased and read.

Pelikan professed himself, as the title of the first chapter reads, "In Dialogue with John Henry Newman". Elsewhere (for example in  The Vindication of Tradition and in The Melody of Theology) he has written of Newman's influence on him as historian of doctrine and as theologian. In this book he took Newman's Idea of a University as presenting ideas to agree with and argue against. The chapter titles all incorporate quotations from Newman.

Where Newman assumed and expounded the English (and Anglo-American) collegiate system, Pelikan's heritage was that of the German university as it developed during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. This is to say that he places much greater weight on the work of research, publishing, and the direction of graduate studies relative to the instruction of undergraduates. He makes a compelling case for the importance of research and publishing, so that among other considerations the matter of instruction shall not become static and dead. He considers the role of the university press and the libraries in disseminating knowledge.

Pelikan of course argues well. He exemplified the scholar as writer during his career. Yet I would argue that it  is never the case that all or even a majority of the works that come out of the universities are important. I think of Jacques Barzun's objection to the
further absurd assumption that when a man writes a scholarly book that reaches a dozen specialists he adds immeasurably to the world's knowledge; whereas if he imparts his thought and reading to one hundred and fifty students every year he is wasting his time and leaving the world in darkness.
Pelikan does acknowledge the objection to many such works:
 Yet is distressing to see how many scholarly books are still being written more with the reviewer than with the reader in mind.... Therefore scholars must learn "contemplata aliis tradere" beyond the charmed circle of other professors. if scholars are to carry out this publishing responsibility, they have the obligation to give a lot more attention than they now do to the question of how we are to publish lest we perish.
(Contemplata aliis tradere: to communicate to others the fruits of one's contemplations, the motto of the Dominican Order, as Pelikan helpfully explains on the previous page.)

There is also the question of the suitability of German model to American conditions. John Jay Chapman wrote long ago in his essay on President Eliot, referring to the elective system he had introduced to Harvard College:
Now in Germany, where every student is already a highly educated person, who knows what he wants and knows how to work, such a system is admirable. But in America, where the boys come up to college with broken sets of rudimentary reminiscence, and without knowing what they want or how to get it, the great need in any University is the need of good teaching.
 Do the boys (and girls) now come up to college with better preparation than in Chapman's day? I suspect in the sciences and in mathematics they do; in modern if not classical languages they may also. Pelikan does consider the question of secondary schools, and the university's duty to shape their instruction and materials, and to prepare their teachers. This is something that I have not often seen mentioned in my (spotty) reading of works on universities. Jacques Barzun does mention it in passing in Teacher in America, and Richard Feynman's Surely, You're Joking, Mr. Feynman has a curious few pages on textbooks for elementary instruction.

And? The book requires a second reading, which I have hardly begun. The bibliography runs to almost seventeen pages: it includes about a dozen works I have read through, half a dozen I have looked into, many more that I should read, and a couple that I will.


  1. Very interesting stuff. I might have to find a copy to read. I remain conflicted about the role/job of universities, so Pelikan might help me sort through my thoughts. Footnote: this sounds like a description of blogging -- Contemplata aliis tradere

  2. Yale University Press keeps it in print, though at $28. (I paid about $2.10 for it used.). It would be interesting to read Newman and Pelikan at about the same time--it has been almost ten years since I read Newman's The Idea of a University.

    You make an interesting point about blogging, and I thank you. It had not occurred to me.

  3. This post may interest you - a homage to a teacher who might not exist in today's universities, where publishing is thought more important than teaching:

    1. I did read Jeff's post, and had meant to comment on it. I became distracted in looking for the volume of essays in which there was something I wished to quote. Thank you for reminding me.