College Needs Christ

What is the purpose of higher education?  Patrick Deneen argued recently that colleges lost their traditional purpose when they lost their connection to organized religion.

Deneen, the high-profile conservative professor of political thought at Notre Dame, didn’t just say this about higher education.  He argued that both health care and higher education lost their way when they became unmoored from Church control.

Both hospitals and universities, Deneen points out, had origins as charitable institutions run by the Church.  The current sense of crisis in both higher education and health care, he argues, has its roots in the fact that neither institution can function properly when cut off from its religious roots.

Deneen critiques both liberal and conservative analyses of higher education.  Many of today’s conservatives go wrong, he says, when they assume that market solutions will save colleges.  For their part, liberals pin too much faith on the ability of the state to regulate and direct higher education.

The market can’t be trusted to do the job, Deneen insists.  “The very idea,” he writes,

that doctors and teachers are or ought to act out of the motivations of self-interest, and provide services to their “consumers,” seems fundamentally contradictory to the kind of work and social role performed by each.

As for state control, Deneen thinks such leftist fantasies miss by an equally wide mark:

At the same time, the State is rightly suspected of being unable to fundamentally improve or even maintain the quality of either sphere. It is doubtless the case that it can assure access by the heavy hand of threats, but many rightly worry that, as a consequence, the quality of care and education will deteriorate as a result.

Neither side in America’s stunted liberal/conservative divide has grasped the essence of the underlying problem, Deneen says. College, like health care, must reconnect with its churchly roots.  As Professor Deneen puts it,

it seems increasingly evident that practices such as health care and education are likely to fail when wholly uninformed by their original motivation of religious charity. Neither functions especially well based on the profit-motive or guided by large-scale national welfare policies.

At their root, he writes, college and hospital must claim an authority over its students that neither a market-model nor a state-directed model can provide.  “Both spheres,” he says,

also require a concomitant shared commitment to commonweal on the part of those who benefit from the contributions of the professions. Doctors and teachers are not simply to be viewed as providing a service for pay, subject to the demands of “consumers.” Viewed through this market-based lens, the “buyers” make the demands on the providers. However, this understanding undermines the proper relationship between trustee and beneficiary—the doctor or teacher is actually in a relationship of responsible authority with the recipient, and ought rightly to make demands and even render judgments upon the one who is paying for the service. The trustee has a duty and a responsibility to enlarge the vision of the recipient—in matters of health (how certain behaviors might have led to a state of illness, in what ways the person ought to change their lives outside the doctor’s office), and formation (thus, a student should be challenged by the teacher not only to do well in the subject at hand, but to become a person of character in all spheres of life). Both the market and the State, however, increasingly regard the recipients simply as “consumers,” a view that is increasingly shared by every member and part of society.

 

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