John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org..
This is the last of three lectures for the Thompson Lectures, Chiangmai, Thailand, June 26-28, 2002. The others are “Religion and Education,” and “Four Types of Universities.” Used by permission of the author. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
The author suggests alternatives to existing models of higher education. Liberal arts colleges should develop curricula directed to making future professionals historically, culturally, politically, and socially aware. Study and research should be organized around problems., such as the following: How can we feed humanity in the future; What would further human fulfillment? How does work contribute or take away from human well-being? What can the economy contribute? What is physical health, and how is it attained? Universities should be focused on the common good of humankind.
Now comes the fun part. It is important to consider where we are and how we have arrived here. It is important to recognize what is wrong with this. But it is equally important and more enjoyable to imagine alternatives that would be better.
It is surprising how many people believe that what is is what must be. Since higher education in general now exists in the service of the market, many assume that serving the market is what higher education necessarily does. It prepares people for better paying work and greater responsibility. To propose that higher education might have another function seems utopian or irrelevant.
Because research and teaching are now organized in terms of academic disciplines, many faculty members assume that all rigorous research and reflection must conform to this model. Thus, in German, to be careful and accurate and responsible is to be wissenschaftlich, and, unfortunately, to be wissenschaftlich is also to conform to the norms of an established Wissenschaft. This is often translated “science”, but the better English equivalent is discipline. In English we suppose that if we do not conform to the norms of a discipline we are being undisciplined in our work! Given this interpretation, it is difficult to propose an alternative organization of research and knowledge.
An historical perspective should help to open our minds to other possibilities. There were highly disciplined thinkers at Paris, and the work they did had its own intellectual and scholarly excellence. There is no universal and objective standard by which it can be declared inferior to the academic work done at Berlin. It was different, aiming at a different goal.
In addition to a historical perspective, something else is needed if we are to challenge what now is and propose something better. We must have strong convictions about better and worse. Otherwise we are likely simply to accept the results that history has brought.
At this point it is important to reemphasize that these lectures are presented from a religious perspective. Buddhists and Christians have convictions about the real needs of people that they do not derive from what is currently most popular. Both recognize the importance both of scientific knowledge and of meeting the physical needs of human beings, but both deny that either this kind of knowledge or material wealth is of primary importance for true human well-being. Hence both must object to forms that higher education has taken in recent times. Yet thus far neither community has been very creative in proposing alternative forms of higher education.
Our question now, as Buddhists and Christians, is what the purpose and goal of higher education should be. Should it renew the purposes and goals of an earlier model? You may have detected in my previous lecture that, if I had to choose among them, I would probably prove to be the ultra-conservative, favoring the earliest. I would not, of course, want to repeat what was done at the University of Paris. The humanistic contribution of the Renaissance improved the liberal arts, as well as modern natural and social sciences, must be a major part of any liberal arts education that would make sense today. But I do believe that, from either a Buddhist or a Christian point of view, liberal arts education in a value-laden context is superior to any of the forms of higher education that succeeded it.
In what follows I undertake to do two things. First, I want to describe a way to separate job preparation from research and research from liberal education. In the context of such separation, I offer a reason for reemphasizing liberal education.
But second, I have a more radical proposal for higher education. Some considerable segment of higher education should be devoted to responding to the greatest public needs of our time. This would provide a different focus from any of the earlier models. To clarify this, I will describe some of these needs as I see them and then make proposals for what a responsive form of higher education might be.
I. Sorting Out the Functions of Higher Education
Despite my appreciation for liberal arts education, I do not favor making it a part of all education beyond high school. It has its limitations, especially for our time. Society probably cannot afford to educate most of its youth through college without thereby preparing them for jobs. Many young people are not motivated to study for the sake of understanding their cultural and scientific heritage. When topics like this are studied by rote without motivation, they have little effect on students. It may be better that, after high school, many students prepare themselves for a job. For those who, later in life, decide to broaden themselves culturally, society should provide adults many opportunities for further schooling.
In my judgment, however, job training should not be thought of as higher education, and the institutions that provide it should not be called universities. The programs offered in the University of Phoenix make a great deal of sense in this context, but there is no reason to call this school a university. We can have schools of business and schools of nursing, and schools of many other types. Their cost should be borne by their “customers”, either the students or the corporations for which they are being prepared as improved “human capital”. If society decides that it is in the public interest to offer job training, it may, of course, help.
We could also have scientific research institutes. Prior to the establishment of the University of Berlin, most research took place in such institutes. Today, the ideal of disinterested research is largely ineffective. Most funds for such research come from industry, from pharmaceutical companies, from foundations interested in health, and from the government, especially the military. These funds could be redirected to institutes separate from universities, and we would all understand that their staffs were for hire.
The institutes that serve in this way would not be places for teaching most students, although those wanting to become scientific researchers could learn research methods as apprentices. The apprenticeship might involve attending lectures and reading books along with laboratory work. At some point apprentices could be given certificates of completion, qualifying them to serve as independent researchers. We may hope that, in addition, government and foundations will also fund some “pure” research. This could be included in universities, although even this form of research might be better carried out in separate institutes.
There should also be professional schools. Increasingly, the professions are being treated simply as jobs, with professionals viewed as employees of educational or medical institutions. But this direction in which our society is going should be opposed. We should restore the distinction between professionals and employees, renewing the status of professionals as having responsibility for the way their shared role in society is conducted and as eschewing the dominance of the market in their decisions. Professional schools would then be structured to socialize students into the ethos and the responsibilities of the profession as well as to provide the information and experience that are required for carrying out the expected social role.
In the past century or so, more and more groups have claimed professional status, and the meaning of “professional” has been greatly watered down. I am proposing that “professionals” be those who not only set their own standards and accept joint responsibility for their implementation but also assume a broad cultural responsibility. They must demonstrate that they are not guided in their decisions primarily by the goal of moneymaking. Their educational requirements must express this commitment to accepting a social role not primarily determined by the market.
Many groups that claim professional status could accept this standard and work toward its fuller attainment. But from the point of view both of society and many individuals employed in these fields, this may not be desirable in all cases. One could argue, for example, that architects play a social role that needs to be culturally informed and socially responsible but that this is less true for engineers. On the other hand, if engineers as a group were willing to internalize the social role of the professional, this might be a great gain for society.
If nursing is to be considered a profession, under this regime, that means that nursing will be limited to persons who are prepared to play a certain cultural and social role. This limitation may not be desirable. Our need for skilled help in hospitals and homes may be such that we do not want to limit this role to those who assume the broader responsibility of professionals. On the other hand, it may make good sense to have some professional nurses alongside a larger group who work skillfully in the field without assuming any wider cultural and social role.
The reality is that physicians, though they are classically understood to be professionals, have themselves become much less professional by this understanding. Not all doctors have a wide understanding of the culture in which they work or of the role of medicine within it. I believe that they, and society, have been impoverished by the tendency to suppose that technical expertise is more important than societal leadership. I hope that they, as a group, would choose to raise their standards in this respect rather than to become a trade union of experts in medicine, narrowly conceived.
My proposal is that liberal arts colleges should develop curricula directed to making future professionals historically, culturally, politically, and socially aware. In short it would prepare them for their roles as social and cultural leaders and not for their diverse fields. This would remove from the liberal arts college the pre-law, pre-medicine, and pre-business curricula, and allow it to devote itself to what has traditionally been its primary task.
If it is judged that an adequate liberal arts curriculum can be completed in three years instead of four, there should be no objection to this. If it is judged that, without the pre-professional work in colleges, professional schools need to extend their programs, such extension is justified. The point is only that each institution should do what it does best, and that the need to prepare future professionals to be cultural and social leaders is just as important as the need to equip them for the specifics of one profession.
If this model were adopted, the decision by those in particular fields as to whether to claim professional status would, at the same time, be a decision as to whether to require liberal arts education before study for the particular profession. Some roles in the business world can be conducted better by those who understand themselves as professionals and accept a broad cultural and social responsibility for leadership along with that for the standards of their profession. Obviously, not everyone working for businesses is likely to assume such responsibilities. Clarity about the role of liberal arts could serve to evoke reflection in many fields about the responsibilities borne by their leaders.
In some professional schools, liberal arts or humanistic education should continue. This is especially true of theological schools. Ministry is the profession that is least tempted to short-circuit liberal education. Much of the professional program consists in further liberal education. I refer to courses in Bible, church history, theology, and history of religions and in philosophy, sociology, and psychology of religion. The main problem here is that of most liberal education, that is, the influence of Berlin on the way liberal arts courses are taught. Instead of teaching prospective pastors what they need to know about the Bible in order to be effective in ministry, professors are tempted to give them introductions to the academic disciplines of Old Testament and New Testament.
One very important profession is education. Teachers need a renewed sense of their status as cultural and social leaders and therefore of the importance of liberal arts education in their preparation. Liberal arts education does not exclude majors, and for those who plan to teach in high school, such majors will be important. As in the case of theological education, professional work in institutions preparing teachers is likely to include further liberal studies of particular relevance to teaching along with the study and practice of effective teaching.
A sub-profession within education is college teaching. Whereas a college major should qualify one to teach that subject in high school, it does not suffice for teaching it in college. Hence much of the preparation for college teaching will be further study of the field. Specialization, however, should not be understood in terms of academic disciplines. One should specialize in the kind of study and knowledge that is most needed in liberal arts colleges, not in the kind that advances the work and status of academic guilds. Professional education for college teachers should also include considerably more attention to the art of teaching than do most of today’s graduate programs.
Today, great emphasis is placed on college teachers doing and publishing “research”. Indeed, in their training this is emphasized more than teaching. The meaning of “research” is, however, vague. Often it is simply identified with scholarly publication. Good college teachers keep current on developments in their fields, and they often have their own contributions to make. Publications of this sort grow out of their teaching and often feed back into their teaching. Publication can also express the responsibility of professionals to the wider public. This is all well and good.
But “research” sometimes identifies instead only a more rarefied and specialized activity dealing with questions of interest to the discipline but remote from the needs of college students and the public. This is often in tension with the proper role of the college teacher. It is better done in research institutes; also teachers in graduate schools may share in this work.
I am proposing all this to deal with the fact that many jobs in our society require training or education beyond high school. The liberal arts program would benefit those who want to expand their cultural understanding and take some responsibility for transmitting the culture to the future, while also preparing students to go into professional schools where the profession believes that it has social and cultural responsibilities as well as simply offering employment. Others could by-pass this and go directly into job training.
What I have proposed thus far is a clarification of the difference between job training, research, liberal arts education, and professional education, along with an indication of how they might be embodied in future institutions. It is not impossible that something like this emerge out of current developments in higher education. Today’s university has no coherent self-understanding. It performs a variety of useful functions that pull the institution as a whole in different directions. This institution could easily break up into its separate programs, recognizing that many of them can be carried forward better in separate institutions. The label “university” should apply only to the combination of the liberal arts college and the professional schools that presuppose the liberal education this college offers. More efficient ways of accomplishing other legitimate goals are already being developed, as in the case of the University of Phoenix.
II. A Different Purpose
My judgment is, however, that these proposals are not sufficient. They take for granted that a society much like our own can continue indefinitely, and they propose to meet the needs of that society as efficiently as possible. They highlight cultural and social needs that are less and less emphasized in today’s market society, thereby improving the chances of society to survive. But the changes I have proposed would still not orient the university to the greatest needs of society for advanced study and research. They ignore the deeper threats that society now faces.
These threats can be considered together under the broad rubric — the global crisis. Any hope of intelligent response requires that this be unpacked. There is no one right way of identifying its chief ingredients and of prioritizing them. Nevertheless, that must not deter us from providing some specifications of the crisis and examples of its most important ingredients.
Every formulation of these threats is itself subject to dispute. Some believe they are much less serious than they appear to others. (Cf. Bjorn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. Cambridge University Press, 2001) Since some of these “others” believe that the continuation of a decent human life on this planet is threatened, the accurate formulation of the threats is itself of great importance.
One way of approaching this task is to think of the growth of human demands on a more or less fixed natural environment. Consider a few statistics. In the twentieth century the use of energy increased sixteen fold. Water use grew nine fold. The marine fish catch was thirty-five times larger at the end of the century than at the beginning. In general food production grew faster than the fourfold increase in population.
This is remarkable, and in one sense human beings can take great pride in their accomplishment. What is distressing, however, is that despite this enormous growth in overall production and consumption, half the world’s people are still lacing in necessities. They have benefited little or not at all from this enormous economic growth. We are told that a great deal more growth is required to meet these needs. The growth at which we are to aim is calculated by different authors as from six fold (“the Brundtland Report”, World Commission on Environment and Development Staff, Our Common Future. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) to thirty fold (Robin Maris, Ending Poverty).
No one supposes that we can achieve such growth in a straightforward way. At present petroleum is our most important source of energy. At present rates of us resources will be exhausted in a few decades. Continuing increase in annual use will only serve to hasten the crisis of their exhaustion. A vast increase in energy use must depend on other resources and new technologies.
In any case, our past record of increased energy use has been accompanied by a seventeen-fold increase in carbon emissions, a thirteen-fold increase in sulfur dioxide emissions, and an eightfold increase in lead emissions to the atmosphere.
It is not yet apparent how a manifold increased of energy consumption is to be achieved in the fact of dwindling supplies of our most important source and increasingly serious pollution.
But energy is only one of our problems. In many areas available fresh water is fully utilized and, indeed, the water store in aquifers is being exhausted. These are typically the places where more water is most needed. A vast increase in water availability in such places will probably require a huge program of desalinization of ocean water and transporting it. Though technically possible, this will be immensely expensive in resources and in ecological effects.
The catch of wild fish in the oceans can hardly be increased. It has reached and overreached its limits with some species. Future increase will depend of fish farming, which has its own problems.
In the past century success in feeding a growing population depended in large part on doubling cropland and a five-fold increase in irrigated land. However, even maintaining present production will prove difficult. Cropland is being lost to expanding deserts, and diminished topsoil in many areas threatens future production. Irrigated lands are subject to the problem of salinization, and irrigation will be difficult to continue in many places as aquifers are exhausted. There is little possibility of much further increase in either of these areas. Hopes for huge increases in production now hinge on technological solutions.
The great example of a technological solution in the past was the Green Revolution. Varieties of grains were developed that greatly increased per acre production. They did so, however, by increasing the capacity of the plants to take advantage of increased water supplies and of petroleum based fertilizers. They increased the vulnerability of food production to blight and insects. Thus the very success of this technological solution makes future production more precarious in face of the shortage of water and petroleum and the constant evolution of new pests. New technological solutions are likely to increase the dangers along with the quantity of production.
Among the problems to which growth in general contributes is global warming. This leads to greater irregularities of weather, more destructive storms, and rising ocean levels. The latter will be especially damaging the world’s great deltas, which are now so important agriculturally.
In the light of all this, is the present commitment to continued rapid growth wise? Can it solve the problems of poverty, or will it lead to environmental disasters that worsen the lot of the poor and, ultimately, of all humanity? Surely these are important questions — more important than those that are asked and answered in any of our established disciplines!
The urgent questions we face are not limited to ecological ones. There are social and existential ones as well. The methods of social change employed for the sake of economic growth often worsen the lot of the poor, whatever their long-term goal. Traditional communities are destroyed and replaced by vast slums around huge cities. Traditional religions are losing their hold, and it seems that only capitalist values are available to replace them. The effort of each individual to get ahead does not provide an adequate ground for social responsibility or personal meaning. Domination of the world by great centers of capital and the military might of the United States breeds deep resentment. These are also important problems.
This picture of our situation should at least raise the question in our minds as to whether it is wise simply to continue our present direction, confident that technology and the market, our current gods, will solve problems as they arise. Surely there cannot be a more important question facing humanity today. Surely, a significant part of our collective intellectual resources should be devoted to studying issues of this sort and proposing responses that could moderate, if they cannot eliminate, the crises that now loom ahead of us.
III. A University for the Common Good
What does this imply for higher education? Some may assume that the university as now organized is making an important contribution to reflection about our situation, our prospects, and how to improve them. Unfortunately, it is not. There are, of course, individual faculty members who are giving excellent leadership and there are groups of students who are deeply concerned and responsive. Further, various academic disciplines contribute to reflection about these matters. But nowhere in most universities is there a sustained examination of the problems humanity faces and a discussion of alternative responses.
One problem is that the disciplinary organization of research counts against a helpful response. The problem is not one of chemistry in separation from sociology or both in separation from economics, or even of all three in separation from philosophy and religion. Even if one identified every academic discipline that touches on the problem humanity now faces and added together such contributions to understanding and response as one can find within them, one would not have much help toward an appropriate response. The fragments would not fit together, and, in any case, everything would depend on the point of view from which one tried to arrange them.
Because we now live in a market-oriented society, we turn to economists for guidance. For example, we ask economists what we should do in response to the prospects of global warming. Thus far, leading economists have encouraged us to do rather little. Viewed as an economic problem, the question is what the economic cost of global warming will be. Economists have calculated that most of our productive activity in the United States is not much affected by the weather. Only agriculture is strongly dependent on weather, and it contributes rather little to the Gross Domestic Product. Hence, economists encourage us to direct our policies toward economic growth. They assure us that we will then have the resources to pay the costs of adjustment to global warming.
The next most influential group is ecologists. Many have learned that they also have a perspective on the world situation to which attention should be paid. Their view of the appropriate response to the prospects of global warming is quite different. They encourage us to do all we can to slow it down.
Clearly sociologists, political theorists, and many others have contributions to make to this discussion. I will not discuss the issue from these other points of view. They are all fragmentary, and they reflect the categories of research that have proved fruitful for the advancement of the disciplines. They are poorly designed to give us any overview of major features of the real world.
Sad to say, the liberal arts, which I have held up as an important contribution to preparing a socially responsible leadership, do not help much either. They are oriented to the wisdom of the past, and no past generation faced the problems that now confront us. When they deal with the present, the social and cultural analyses they offer reveal important problems of many kinds, but these tend to distract us from the global crisis more than to direct our attention to it.
If we agree that some portion of higher education should be devoted to helping us all to understand the depths and complexities of the problems that face us and to envisioning ways of mitigating impending catastrophes, then what would that look like? I suggest that we have had some suggestive models at the fringe of universities in recent decades. These arose in the sixties in response to student protests against the irrelevance of their studies to the realities of their world. They provided programs focused on important issues or features of society rather than distinguished by disciplines. Three examples are ethnic studies, gender studies, and peace studies. In the seventies these were supplemented by environmental studies.
On the whole, the university has not proved hospitable to these programs over the decades. There is pressure to assimilate portions of them into existing academic disciplines. Most of those who teach in them are themselves socialized to think of good teaching and research as conforming to disciplinary norms. The defenders often try to make these new programs as much like new academic disciplines as possible. This involves a shift from the passionate inquiry and advocacy in which they all began toward methodologically self-conscious objective study of the phenomena.
Nevertheless, they continue to show that there is a fruitful way to organize teaching and research other than by academic disciplines. Of course, work that has been done in many disciplines can contribute, but it contributes to a way of reflecting and studying that does not fit any of them. My thesis is that what is distinctive about this approach can be clarified and generalized.
The clarification I would offer is that study and research can be organized around problems. The problem of how to feed humanity in the future is one that I have mentioned. It does not fit any academic discipline, but some of what has been learned in many disciplines can prove helpful. However, the goal will be to establish a new specialty that develops its own approaches to its subject matter rather than to patch together the contributions of the existing disciplines. Students who spend extended time in seeking to understand this problem and propose steps toward its solution will have to become conversant with the interconnections of climate, soils, agricultural practices, the social context of farmers, the relation of peasant farmers and agribusiness, governmental policies that affect the production of food, the earth’s natural resources, technology, the various existing and possible economies, and many other things. Among these will be the structure of beliefs and attitudes that have supported the abandonment of family farms and peasant agriculture as well as the politics involved. If the students decide that we need to return to more labor-intensive forms of agriculture, they will have to consider how we can draw people to the land and how these people can learn again the ways of farming. The students cannot become experts in a long series of disciplines. They can become experts in food production and its real prospects in our time.
I have advocated such an educational institution chiefly for the sake of society as a whole. We urgently need critical thinking about this and other problems. But this would not be its only benefit. I believe such an institution would also provide excellent education for students. Learning to identify an urgent problem, to understand its multifaceted nature, and to think through possible responses is relevant to much of life. If one has engaged in this kind of study in two or three areas during the course of one’s education, it is likely that, as life goes on, one will be able to contribute to the understanding and solution of other problems.
There is no time here to discuss other problems in any detail, but it may help just to list some. The example I spelled out at some length focused on food. Our society makes many other demands on natural resources that are being used at an unsustainable rate. As noted, our leaders seem to believe that technology can solve such problems through substitutions. We need focused study of the actual state of our planetary resources, how they are used, what substitutions are possible, what the cost of these technical changes will be, where we will hit real limits, and so forth. Ideally, the discussion would also consider the social and psychological factors involved, so that the problems of implementing changes rapidly can be recognized in advance.
Above we have emphasized the question of energy as a special case of natural resources. What sources of energy can and should be used in the near future and in the long term? What technological developments are now most urgent? Must we learn to use energy more frugally? If so, what lifestyle changes will be involved? Can these changes be voluntary or de we require new laws? What social and cultural changes will be needed to adjust to a changing energy situation? What political actions are needed now to bring about these changes?
Population growth is not a problem in itself, but it does seem to make many other problems more difficult to solve. Even today, it is poorly understood. Pressure on resources is, of course, a combination of population and per capita consumption. There are many psychological, sociological, and economic factors involved in both. If one great need is to reduce our pressure on the Earth, then there is a cluster of issues here that are of great urgency. They lead quickly to basic ethical and religious questions.
One difficulty today is that so many people are alienated from the political process and from institutions and leadership generally. This is especially true in the United States, but similar problems occur elsewhere as well. Most Americans have narrowed their horizons to concerns for themselves and their families, or perhaps for some limited group within society. This makes positive political action extremely difficult. It also weakens the social fabric of society and makes positive responses unlikely even to excellent proposals for change. To understand what is happening in our society and what might be done to change the direction in which we are going is another important focus of inquiry.
Some of us believe that at a deep level our problem lies in our worldview. This was largely shaped in the Enlightenment. Most research presupposes an Enlightenment understanding of the world as consisting of matter in motion, with the material entities related to one another only externally. An analogous view applies to human beings, who are understood to relate to one another only through contracts and exchanges. We need to examine this worldview as to its effects on human thought and behavior broadly. We also need to ask whether it fits the facts of both the natural and social sciences, and whether a different worldview might both fit the facts better and guide action in more positive ways. Buddhism has much to contribute to the emergence of a more realistic worldview, but thus far, I fear, even in Thailand, academic work proceeds on the assumptions of the Western Enlightenment rather than those of Buddhist enlightenment.
Another area of inquiry might be the human being and what is required for human flourishing. At present we have discovered that affluence as such does not make people happy. What would further human fulfillment? How does work contribute or take away from human well-being? What can the economy contribute? What is physical health, and how is it attained? How is modern Western medicine related to the healing arts of other traditions? Is modern medicine sustainable? What other dimensions of the human being are important? What contributions can be made by the economy? How can they be fulfilled? What role do religious traditions play?
I have emphasized global and national problems, but many believe solutions must be local, and, in any case, large-scale problems can sometimes be best studied locally. A focus might be to study the local region in terms of its capacity to sustain itself ecologically, socially, and economically. The changes needed to achieve improvement could be identified, and students could learn the obstacles to implementing them through making some effort to do so. Hence they would study also the culture and politics of the locale.
I trust that by now you will understand that there are important questions to be considered and that they are subject to rigorous inquiry that is also holistic, imaginative, and creative. The work done on each focus would overlap with others in ways that disciplines try not to do. But this overlapping can be helpful to all the special inquiries involved. Whereas it is almost impossible to incorporate the results of one discipline into another, it should be quite possible to incorporate what is learned in one of these areas into the thinking in other areas.
Exactly how the central problems selected in a university would be decided upon and defined should be left to the several institutions. No university, however large and prestigious, can do everything. The more study is given to any of these problems, even the more overlapping there is in the definitions of problems, the better. When we are seeking wisdom, instead of value-free information, we do not want sharp boundaries or the defense of turf.
What would a college look like that was organized on these principles? The first year might be spent in an overview of eco-social history and cultural-intellectual history to show how we have come to our present situation, along with a survey of the problems we face. Each of the subsequent years might be devoted to the study of one of the problems selected for foci by the university. Students would function as teams under the guidance of faculty members, and the intention and expectation would be to build on the work done in previous years and produce papers that would be of use to the public. Sometimes a team might decide to continue on for a second year with the same focus, believing that in that way it could contribute much more seriously to answering society’s questions.
Of course, individuals would take their own projects on assignment by the team, but the emphasis would be on contributing to the team effort. There would be no grades, but the team as a whole would periodically give feedback to each of its members. Anyone who, in the judgment of both students and faculty, failed to contribute to the effort would simply be dropped from the team. He or she could try again the next year.
What I have depicted here does not exist and is not immediately in prospect. Nevertheless, there are some moves in this direction. A number of small colleges, chiefly those from the left wing of the Reformation and with Roman Catholic commitments, have seriously asked the question of their mission in the context of awareness of the global crisis. There is a new Buddhist college in California that may go farther than any other in the direction I have identified. All these colleges have modified their curriculum (in various ways) so as to introduce their students to dimensions of the problem and prepare them to live and serve in the real, threatened world. The focus is often ecological, but not to the exclusion of human concerns. To whatever extent they order the curriculum to articulating and responding to basic needs of humanity or of our own society, they will be transforming themselves into the new type of higher education for which I call.
One question posed by this proposal is whether this problem-oriented curriculum should take the place of the liberal arts curriculum. Is this the education needed in preparation for becoming a responsible professional or just a good citizen? Actually, I incline to think it would be a better education for this purpose than the liberal arts one. However, I note that in the past, a variety of types of institutions of higher education have existed side-by-side. As long as each type makes a positive contribution, this seems good. Although I hope that more colleges will shift from liberal arts to problem-solving, I think it will be well for the two types to exist side-by-side. No doubt that will lead to hybrid forms as well.
IV. Religion and Higher Education
I have not spoken directly of the relation of Buddhism and Christianity to higher education. Nevertheless, that has in fact been my topic. My first proposal for the reorganization of higher education accented the distinctive role of the professions and the importance of liberal arts in this context. Historically this is a return to the Christian model of Paris with, of course, many changes in the content of the liberal arts and of professional education. In my concluding proposal, I have criticized current higher education, including liberal arts colleges, and expressed my hope that they can direct some of their vast resources to helping humanity find its way through its most difficult problems. This critique and proposal stems from my Christian conviction that God loves the world and seeks through us to save it.
There is also the broader question: What can provide the motivation and vision to inspire the development of a new kind of higher education? As I have noted, in fact this has come chiefly from colleges that take seriously the religious convictions in their traditions. I believe that without a traditional religious basis, or a religiously-tinged passion arising from our new global situation, there will be little critique of either disciplinolatry or economism, and little impetus to develop new patterns.
Unfortunately, only a few of the church-related colleges are open to this kind of change. Most mainline Christian colleges have modeled themselves on secular institutions. They seek “excellence” as defined by the same standards as secular institutions. If they ask about their distinctive role as Christian institutions at all, the answers are likely to be superficial. Schools belonging to conservative churches, on the other hand, are often very conscious of their Christian grounds, but they typically express this in terms of conservative mores, an emphasis on pious practices, and the teaching of Christian doctrine in the curriculum.
The schools that are moving in the direction for which I am calling are those that are clearly committed to the Christian faith or the Buddhist vision but understand their Christianity or Buddhism as leading to responsibility to the world and its people. In the United States they are usually schools of religious bodies that have not, or at least not long, understood themselves as part of the mainstream of American and academic culture. They are, therefore, more willing to be different, if that difference expresses their distinctive faith. A few small private schools without connections to religious institutions also engage in fresh explorations of what higher education should be about.
We can hope that these schools will be joined by others. In the United States, what used to be mainline Christian denominations are now old-line denominations. These are no longer quasi-established. Some Christian leaders are celebrating this disestablishment as an opportunity to become faithful to our heritage and sources. The colleges of these denominations are increasingly forced to choose whether to give up their remaining identification as Christian and compete in a purely secular context or to rethink their responsibilities as Christian institutions. If they decide on this latter role, then there is a real possibility that they will ask what they can do for humanity and the Earth at this juncture of world history. This could lead them in the direction in which I am calling them.
For these reasons I do not believe that the idea of colleges that order themselves to responding to the world’s most urgent problems is simply a fantasy. Something along these lines is beginning to happen. If we identify it, raise the question of its merits, and celebrate the new experiments, perhaps we can nurture the possibility into full realization.