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When does an institute of learning become a "university"?

When does an institute of learning become a ‘university’?

In our contemporary world Catholic universities occupy a special position in the intellectual life of the church. Since most of the work of the theologians is done there, both in research and in teaching, universities have a mediating role in the interplay between the magisterium and the community at large, besides mediating between the evangelical message and the local culture.

The starting point of our reflection should be a fact: universities are of human creation. (1) They are the products of a long and complex cultural evolution.

1. First an acknowledgement: I have been inspired to use the expression “house of intellect” by Barzun (see Bibliography).

What follows is clearly a summary description; but that is all we need to come to a good and operational understanding of what a Catholic university can be and how it ought to function. The analysis offered is applicable to other Catholic institutions, such as hospitals, social works, etc. At the basis of this theory there are some simple assumptions: the humanity of an institution should be affirmed and respected; the freedom of such human institutions to develop a religious dimension should be upheld; the freedom of the church to reach out for human institutions and establish various degrees of association or union with them should be recognized. It is this analysis that opens the vista for a legitimate pluralism in creating specifically Catholic institutions. (I am very much aware also of the fact that there are countries where the Catholic community has not, and does not, favor the establishment of Catholic universities.)

It would be beyond the scope of this essay to quote documents and statements concerning the nature of a university and in particular of academic freedom, issued by various societies and associations, such as the International Federation of Catholic Universities, American Association of University Professors, Canon Law Society of America jointly with the Catholic Theological Society of America, and others; they are easily available elsewhere (for references see Hansel, Kaplin, Sullivan in the Bibliography).

Universities are also marked by the particular traditions and customs of the nation to which they belong. (2)

2. For the history of universities in a nutshell, with as many details squeezed in as such a shell can hold, see A. Franzen “Universitaeten” in LTK, 10: 510-517. The name was first used in 1221 by the masters and students of Paris: nos universitas magistrorum et scolarium.

But no matter how different universities may be from one country to another, there is a common denominator that sets them apart from all other institutions: they are the “houses of intellect.”

They are specialized establishments with the purpose of supporting and promoting the operations of the human mind in acquiring and communicating knowledge. They play a particular role in the complex machinery of the human society, not unlike the way the mind plays a particular role in the human person. If their relationship with the social body is not balanced, both sides suffer. An isolated university (an ivory tower that stands alone) is bound to become a useless eyesore; a university that loses its identity (it dissolves into a political or social action group) leaves the whole community intellectually weak and undernourished. Obviously, I am not suggesting that there cannot be intellectual life outside the universities (it would be silly even to think so); I am simply stating that much of the advancement in learning and in the communication of knowledge in our culture takes place within the universities.

The inside operations of a university consist principally in gathering data, reflecting on them, searching for the laws that govern them, always with the view of communicating the information and intelligence so acquired to generations of students. Throughout it all, good teachers will know that there is more to a person than the operations of the mind, therefore they will function and present their instructions in a broader context which takes into account the needs of the whole human person and of the human family at large.

In performing their multiple task, universities may specialize further. Some will put more emphasis on research, catering mainly to graduate students; others will perform best in teaching and training undergraduates; again, some may develop adult education programs in the service of the larger communities around them. Such diversification is legitimate; each university should have the right to shape its own life and destiny—as long as it remains the house of intellect. Beyond that, theoretical discussions as to what “a university as such” or “by its essence” ought to be, may become idle speculation with little relevance to reality. Universities exist in the concrete order only. Each community has its own needs, and its own potential.

Much is said today about the duty of every university to be value-oriented. No one should quarrel with such a statement; in fact, it is difficult to see how any institution of higher learning could ever function without being value-oriented; after all, the possession of knowledge and the spreading of it are very much values in themselves. The issue is rather about what values a university should serve and promote in choosing its fields of research, in educating the citizens, and also in inserting itself into the life of the civic community. (3)

3. As a rule, the claim that the university should be value-oriented refers to orientation toward moral values. It means that the university should provide instructions for learning about values, help the students to develop a critical capacity to judge values and provide them with sound criteria for making moral decisions. It is easier said than done. The problem is that the acceptance of a value system is very much of a personal option. A “house of intellect” can certainly present the options; moreover, it can provide inspiration, e.g., by effectively upholding basic human rights on campus, by promoting international cooperation for the peaceful resolution of conflicts etc. If the institution is religiously committed, its life and operations will be permeated by religious values, which in itself is the presentation of an option.

Catholic universities, while intending to remain universities, have chosen an orientation toward religious values.

From: The Church: Learning and Teaching, by Ladislas Örsy, Michael Glazier 1987, chapter 4. Read the whole chapter here.

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