In considering the role, responsibility, and limitations of the contemporary university in the present disunity (as displayed in Charlottesville), Chad Wellmon’s recent article, “For Moral Clarity, Don’t Look to Universities” underscores an urgency to which university leaders would do well to pay attention. Wellmon suggests that “The contemporary university, at least in its local form in Charlottesville, seems institutionally incapable of moral clarity.” He quantifies this incapability by noting that, “Universities cannot impart comprehensive visions of the good. They cannot provide ultimate moral ends. Their goods are proximate.” To address this state of affairs, Wellmon prescribes recognizing the limitations of the academy and that universities ought to be looking “outside themselves and partner[ing] with other moral traditions and civic communities.” He adds that “Our common pursuit of knowledge is richer and truer when it seeks contributions from the broadest diversity of peoples.”
In each of these assertions, Wellmon is on target. In these times we have focused so much on freedom of ideas and dialogue, that we have at times forgotten the basis of and reasons for those very freedoms and the worthiness of their pursuits. Lauding the freedoms without acknowledging the responsibilities embedded within the freedoms results in purposeless freedom so divorced from a moral center that it cannot be but ultimately abused. Once the freedom is abused in hatred, there is a cultural momentum to restrict the freedoms so that the hate can’t be expressed. Before long, the freedom of ideas and dialogue that is supposed to be such a cornerstone of our educational process becomes little more than propaganda for one side or the other. Hence our present milieu.
As Wellmon suggests, the typical ends of the university are not final ends: “to create and care for knowledge and to pass that knowledge on by teaching” is not the ultimate goal. The Apostle Paul once wrote to Timothy that “the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). The goal of the university ought not to be simply related to knowledge itself, it ought to be transparently identified in recognition of the purpose of the knowledge. Any institution of learning ought to be committed not just to promoting a body of knowledge (and a culture which values that knowledge) but to helping to contextualize that knowledge in order to help facilitate the proper use of that knowledge.
Thus, while Wellmon diagnoses that university leaders are captains of erudition and not leaders of communities bound to a common moral mission, perhaps this is actually part of the problem. We cannot divorce knowledge from worldview. As we engage and interact with knowledge, we do so from a perspective. That perspective impacts how we arrive at the knowledge, how we interpret it, and how we apply it. To pretend that the university setting provides an automatic immunity from such subjectivities is to blatantly misunderstand essential principles of worldview.
The pretended neutrality so prevalent in our university culture today is destructive in its deceptiveness, obscuring knowledge and the final ends for which it exists. This guise of objectivity provides for universities and their leaders a wall of excuse to hide behind. It is as if they can say, “We are simply providing information, and helping our students to think. We are not actually trying to lead them to any particular conclusion, and thus we are not to blame.” Yet all the while they are leading their students. The question is not whether or not universities and their leaders are setting a moral tone, the question is whether or not that tone is one worth setting and one worth following.
Instead of pretending a guise of objectivity, how helpful would it be if institutions of learning were simply transparent about their ideas of the sources, understanding, and applications of knowledge? Such transparency would be broadly beneficial to students, helping them to recognize that neutrality is not necessarily the goal – love is. And that love is not nebulous and undefined. There is meaning to it, there is a source, and there is provision for it. We can no longer pretend that there are no such particulars. Our culture is being ripped apart before our very eyes and the divisions which have long existed are becoming the narrative by which our society is defined. We can do better, and we are accountable to do just that.
As one leader of a university, I do not call on students to follow me or the university. I agree with Wellmon that the university is not the final bastion or arbiter of truth (as Wellmon correctly notes, we need to look beyond the university). However, we do seek to lead. We do seek to be transparent about the worldview vantage point we take, so that students will know what they are getting, and will be able to hold us accountable for what we are practicing and what we are teaching. They will know what our formula for love is and whether or not it is worthy.