Why Johnny can’t think coherently
by Ken Myers
Alasdair MacIntyre of Notre Dame joins the chorus of observers who decry the fragmentation and bankruptcy of the modern university education system, in “The End of Education: The Fragmentation of the American University” in Commonweal; and asks if Catholic universities should do better. According to MacIntyre, the specialization and compartmentalization of faculties and academic disciplines, accompanied by the resulting marketplace mechanism of “individual student choice” as the form of curriculum structure, yields an incompletely, inadequately and superficially educated public — whether graduates from secular or Catholic universities. This “should matter to anyone who thinks it important what conceptions of human nature and the human condition students have arrived at by the time they enter the adult workplace — and therefore to any Catholic. For each of the academic disciplines teaches us something significant about some aspect of human nature and the human condition,” and should interact and integrate. MacIntyre then proposes a solution in the time-honored manner of indicating there “are questions that need to be answered if we are to understand who we are here and now.” From three sets of great questions — who are we materially? who are we historically and culturally? and, who are we to other cultures? — MacIntyre indicates that a “tripartite curriculum emerges” which emphasizes scientific, historical and linguistic studies.
Yet these distinct strands must interact and integrate, not stray into specialized cubbyholes. To avoid such superficiality, MacIntyre notes Cardinal Newman's view that “it is theology that is the integrative and unifying discipline needed by any university, secular, Protestant, or Catholic. And it is in the light afforded by the Catholic faith and more especially by Catholic doctrines concerning human nature and the human condition” that “[t]heology can become an education in how to ask such questions” as are at the foundation of liberal education. The resources exist, only the will to reform is lacking. MacIntyre ends by addressing the expected question of economic and technological demand for professional specialization as a goal for education, by suggesting a 4-year program, the first 3 of which engages in a rigorous, liberal, tripartite, question-asking curriculum, with the fourth year reserved for a professional apprenticeship in preparation for the workplace. “We do not have to sacrifice training in research in order to provide our students with a liberal education, just as we do not have to fragment and deform so much of our students' education, as we do now.”