Pope criticizes pragmatic universities

Nieuws | de redactie
23 augustus 2011 | In a speech to Catholic teachers in Spain, Pope Benedict XVI criticized that many universities would put “mere utility” as the principal goal of higher education. Studying is a means in itself. David Cameron would disagree.

Pope Benedict XVI criticized widespread “utilitarian approach”in higher education during his address to Catholic universityteachers on August 19. In today’s “increasingly confused andunstable” society many people believe that “the only thing thatmatters is pure technical ability”.

To the pope who himself used to be professor at the Universityof Bonn in Germany, “much is lost and the results can be tragicwhen mere utility and pure pragmatism become the principalcriteria.”

Higher education “embodies an ideal which must not be attenuatedor compromised, whether by ideologies closed to reasoned dialogueor by truckling to a purely utilitarian and economic conceptionwhich would view man solely as a consumer.”

Pope Benedict XVI visited Spain in the context of the WorldYouth Day which attracted approximately 2 million mostly catholicvisitors. During his speech, he urged teachers “to awaken [the]innate thirst for truth and yearning for transcendence [of youngstudents].”

This philosophy of understanding higher education as a means initself stands in stark contrast to the philosophy of many Europeangovernments cutting on university funding. UK’s Prime Minister,David Cameron, for instance made his neoclassical approach thelaw.

To him, British students invest in their human capital whichwill pay off in higher salaries later.  Having them pay up tothree times more in tuition fees does then not seem immoral giventhat they can finance themselves through student loans.

Full Speech

“Your Eminence, My Brother Bishops, Dear Augustinian Fathers,Dear Professors,

Distinguished Authorities, Dear Friends,

I have looked forward to this meeting with you, young professorsin the universities of Spain. You provide a splendid service in thespread of truth, in circumstances that are not always easy. I greetyou warmly and I thank you for your kind words of welcome and forthe music which has marvelously resounded in this magnificentmonastery, for centuries an eloquent witness to the life of prayerand study. In this highly symbolic place, reason and faith haveharmoniously blended in the austere stone to shape one of Spain’smost renowned monuments.

I also greet with particular affection those of you who tookpart in the recent World Congress of Catholic Universities held inAvila on the theme: “The Identity and Mission of the CatholicUniversity”.

Being here with you, I am reminded of my own first steps as aprofessor at the University of Bonn. At the time, the wounds of warwere still deeply felt and we had many material needs; these werecompensated by our passion for an exciting activity, ourinteraction with colleagues of different disciplines and our desireto respond to the deepest and most basic concerns of our students.This experience of a “Universitas” of professors and students whotogether seek the truth in all fields of knowledge, or as Alfonso Xthe Wise put it, this “counsel of masters and students with thewill and understanding needed to master the various disciplines”(Siete Partidas, partida II, tit. XXXI), helps us to see moreclearly the importance, and even the definition, of theUniversity.

The theme of the present World Youth Day – “Rooted and Built Upin Christ, and Firm in the Faith” (cf. Col 2:7) can also shed lighton your efforts to understand more clearly your own identity andwhat you are called to do. As I wrote in my Message to Young Peoplein preparation for these days, the terms “rooted, built up andfirm” all point to solid foundations on which we can construct ourlives (cf. No. 2).

But where will young people encounter those reference points ina society which is increasingly confused and unstable? At times onehas the idea that the mission of a university professor nowadays isexclusively that of forming competent and efficient professionalscapable of satisfying the demand for labor at any given time. Onealso hears it said that the only thing that matters at the presentmoment is pure technical ability. This sort of utilitarian approachto education is in fact becoming more widespread, even at theuniversity level, promoted especially by sectors outside theUniversity. All the same, you who, like myself, have had anexperience of the University, and now are members of the teachingstaff, surely are looking for something more lofty and capable ofembracing the full measure of what it is to be human. We know thatwhen mere utility and pure pragmatism become the principalcriteria, much is lost and the results can be tragic: from theabuses associated with a science which acknowledges no limitsbeyond itself, to the political totalitarianism which easily ariseswhen one eliminates any higher reference than the mere calculus ofpower. The authentic idea of the University, on the other hand, isprecisely what saves us from this reductionist and curtailed visionof humanity.

In truth, the University has always been, and is always calledto be, the “house” where one seeks the truth proper to the humanperson. Consequently it was not by accident that the Churchpromoted the universities, for Christian faith speaks to us ofChrist as the Word through whom all things were made (cf. Jn 1:3)and of men and women as made in the image and likeness of God. TheGospel message perceives a rationality inherent in creation andconsiders man as a creature participating in, and capable ofattaining to, an understanding of this rationality. The Universitythus embodies an ideal which must not be attenuated or compromised,whether by ideologies closed to reasoned dialogue or by trucklingto a purely utilitarian and economic conception which would viewman solely as a consumer.

Here we see the vital importance of your own mission. Youyourselves have the honour and responsibility of transmitting theideal of the University: an ideal which you have received from yourpredecessors, many of whom were humble followers of the Gospel and,as such, became spiritual giants. We should feel ourselves theirsuccessors, in a time quite different from their own, yet one inwhich the essential human questions continue to challenge andstimulate us. With them, we realize that we are a link in thatchain of men and women committed to teaching the faith and makingit credible to human reason. And we do this not simply by ourteaching, but by the way we live our faith and embody it, just asthe Word took flesh and dwelt among us. Young people need authenticteachers: persons open to the fullness of truth in the variousbranches of knowledge, persons who listen to and experience in ownhearts that interdisciplinary dialogue; persons who, above all, areconvinced of our human capacity to advance along the path of truth.Youth is a privileged time for seeking and encountering truth. AsPlato said: “Seek truth while you are young, for if you do not, itwill later escape your grasp” (Parmenides, 135d). This loftyaspiration is the most precious gift which you can give to yourstudents, personally and by example. It is more important than meretechnical know-how, or cold and purely functional data.

I urge you, then, never to lose that sense of enthusiasm andconcern for truth. Always remember that teaching is not just aboutcommunicating content, but about forming young people. You need tounderstand and love them, to awaken their innate thirst for truthand their yearning for transcendence. Be for them a source ofencouragement and strength.

For this to happen, we need to realize in the first place thatthe path to the fullness of truth calls for complete commitment: itis a path of understanding and love, of reason and faith. We cannotcome to know something unless we are moved by love; or, for thatmatter, love something which does not strike us as reasonable.”Understanding and love are not in separate compartments: love isrich in understanding and understanding is full of love” (Caritasin Veritate, 30). If truth and goodness go together, so too doknowledge and love. This unity leads to consistency in life andthought, that ability to inspire demanded of every goodeducator.

In the second place, we need to recognize that truth itself willalways lie beyond our grasp. We can seek it and draw near to it,but we cannot completely possess it; or put better, truth possessesus and inspires us. In intellectual and educational activity thevirtue of humility is also indispensable, since it protects us fromthe pride which bars the way to truth. We must not draw students toourselves, but set them on the path toward the truth which we seektogether. The Lord will help you in this, for he asks you to beplain and effective like salt, or like the lamp which quietlylights the room (cf. Mt 5:13).

All these things, finally, remind us to keep our gaze fixed onChrist, whose face radiates the Truth which enlightens us. Christis also the Way which leads to lasting fulfillment; he walksconstantly at our side and sustains us with his love. Rooted inhim, you will prove good guides to our young people. With thisconfidence I invoke upon you the protection of the Virgin Mary,Seat of Wisdom. May she help you to cooperate with her Son byliving a life which is personally satisfying and which brings forthrich fruits of knowledge and faith for your students.”

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