A “temporal object, and a transitory possession”: Authority and The Idea of a University

I’m the Assistant Director of the Writing Fellows Program, that branch of the Writing Center that focuses most explicitly on undergraduate learning, teaching and writing. The Writing Fellows, undergrads who come from across the university, are assigned to writing intensive courses. They read and critique drafts of two formal papers, providing both marginal and end comments to help students identify strengths as well as areas for possible revision. The Fellows then meet with students individually to discuss options and strategies for revision. Each Fellow also conducts an original research project that examines through quantitative and qualitative analysis a problem or issue in peer tutoring or Writing Center practice.

The bulk of my job is spent working with the Fellows as they develop their skills as researchers, peer tutors and writing specialists. On occasion, however, I get to leave HC White and go on trips. Later this week, four Fellows and I will travel to Mount Holyoke College for the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing. (We will post about our travels for your delectation on November 16.) This year’s conference theme is “Leadership and Peer Tutoring: Hope, Vision, Collaboration, Action,” and each of the Fellows will be presenting aspects of their formal research.

The conference theme itself raises some issues that seem always to be at the fore of our discipline: in what sort of environment can one be, simultaneously, a leader and a peer? If “hope” and “vision” suggest a position that is future-orientated, what exactly are we anticipating? In the service of what are we collaborating, and against what are we taking action? Entrenched in the conference key words is ambivalence about needing and desiring forms of leadership and indeed authority while resisting the impulse to replicate the hierarchies and power dynamics of secondary and higher education as it has existed and exists now. This concern finds responses in the implementation of populist rhetoric in writing center studies, by such movements as the “de-centering” of writing centers, and the “un-conference” model of research presenting. Each of these responses illustrates a desire to reject authority, resist declamation in favor of dialogue, and promote the democratization of society via its educational systems. They also ask, implicitly or explicitly, “What sorts of learning are important, and why go to college to acquire them?” This question is one that I think about a lot, both in my Writing Center teaching and as a byproduct of my research on literature and religion in early- and mid-twentieth century England and Ireland. A forerunner to several of the figures I study is Cardinal John Henry Newman, whose series of discourses on higher education, The Idea of a University, serves as one answer.

In these discourses, Newman addresses educated Irish Catholics in the hopes of garnering support for the first Catholic university in the country, of which he was made rector (a position akin to a provost) in 1851. Until that point, Catholics—who made up the majority in Ireland—were prohibited or restricted from attaining the same benefits of a higher education as their Church of Ireland (Anglican) countrymen. Although Ireland’s premier Protestant university, Trinity College, was opened to Catholics in the late eighteenth century, Catholic students were ineligible for certain distinctions and prizes and, obviously, could not study Roman Catholic theology. That Catholic students could neither rise to the elite nor interact with seminarians were educational obstacles, Newman felt, that disenfranchised Irish Catholics in their society at large. In his attempt to draw the best Catholic students from both Ireland and England to a university that taught Roman Catholic doctrine and subordinated all subjects to theology, Newman sought to redress three hundred years of anti-Catholic legislation in both Ireland and England; indeed, his aim was nothing less than the democratization of education for both a subjugated majority and persecuted minority.

Newman’s idea of a university was radical in its perhaps archaic insistence that the point of going to college was not to gain some nebulous benefit in the future. (It’s important for me to acknowledge that the Victorian Oxford model of education he promoted in Ireland was already being revised in England.) He was disinterested in the idea of applied knowledge, that is, the “useful knowledge” he distinguished from “liberal knowledge,” the learning of the well-rounded gentleman of leisure. Rather, he believed that a university should inculcate a certain moral and intellectual rigor in its students, a habit of mind, a character—and that the knowledge imparted by the university had immediate and inherent value that should be acquired for its own sake. Newman argued that “We attain to heaven by using this world well, though it is to pass away; we perfect our nature, not by undoing it, but by adding to it what is more than nature, and directing it towards aims higher than its own” (91). In the end, the liberal knowledge Newman prized was “but a temporal object, and a transitory possession” (91); a Catholic education was no substitute for a life lived in communion with the Church.

In writing all of this, I’m not suggesting that we return to the days in which university educations served the sole purpose of training priests. But what I am saying is that Newman’s ideas about the university and its place in the cosmic order might help us gain some perspective on how we understand academic structures, the authority we let them have over us, and the relationships we cultivate within and across our institutions. A liberal education, to Newman, was in service of something bigger than the learner, or indeed the lecturers and dons and rectors. Because of that perspective, academic departments had to develop in complementary, instead of oppositional ways. It’s highly unlikely, though, that we can revise the structure of higher education from the top down—not in this day and age of intradepartmental strife and tensions between the disciplines. At the same time, it is vital that colleges and universities return with intensity to the examination of their credos and mission statements, and the difficult and thankless task of defining “the idea of a university” that will surely follow.

At Wisconsin, our idea of a university is articulated through the Wisconsin Idea, namely that “education should influence and improve people’s lives beyond the classroom”—whether those people are connected directly with the university or not. Similarly, the College of Letters and Science and the Office of Student Academic Affairs sponsors the Pathways to Excellence Program, which supports “programs that promote an excellent liberal arts education and find new ways for students to make a difference on campus.” Both principles insist upon the value of civic responsibility, communitarian practice, and service, which are, to bring my discussion full-circle, values that draw UW students to the Writing Fellows Program, and what the Writing Fellows Program tries to inculcate in its Fellows, supporting faculty, and student writers. Writing Fellows, peer tutoring centers, and other such programs form the grass-roots route for disseminating and modeling those values and allowing other, perhaps more ephemeral insights to emerge: that being conscious of the present is important, that a breadth of learning is important (and not just something you endure to get into medical school), that there is honor and satisfaction in learning and teaching, and that asserting one’s authority does not necessarily mean wresting it away from somebody else.

What is your idea of a university? Does or should education serve a greater end? (I’ve argued that it should, but I’m sure your ideas for why differ from mine.) If you were offered the rectorship of Brand New University X as Newman once was, would you accept or run, screaming, away? What is the value of tradition, and (how) should it be accommodated as competing ideas of universities emerge?

Works Cited

Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University. 1899. Ed. Frank M. Turner. New Haven: Yale, 1996.

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