There is a narrative here that is not yet very distinct. It has something to do with a sense that the personal use of thinking will sometimes be at odds with what is taught us. Most of the guidance we get about using such intelligence as we have comes from educational institutions, and in the contemporary world those institutions are largely market driven.

Students are Market Commodities

The labour market is a competition. Universities understand and proclaim their mission as enabling students to perfect themselves as high-end labour market commodities. In addition to specific preparation for law, medicine, management, or engineering, for example, employers assume that university graduates have proven themselves capable, that they have been tested in general mental abilities, and also improved by university courses. Grads are assumed to have a high level of general knowledge, and interest and skill at continuing to learn. There is an expectation that grads can mentally organize and evaluate new experiences and information that might appear random and incomplete. The mental discipline of university programming is supposed to test and enhance critical thinking abilities, that is, abilities to assess claims and persuasive presentations for precision, plausibility, and logical validity, to sense relevance relations, to analyze and extrapolate. Awareness of basic investigation techniques is also assumed. Research skills go beyond laboratory experiments, and include awareness of sources of information and how to locate and use them, how to use a library, for example, to take possession of relevant material already published. The practicalities and logic of investigation should be in the skill-set of any university grad. There may even be an expectation that grads are able to get absorbed in work projects, that they are used to getting things done, and are not too self-absorbed to persevere through the hard parts, mistakes, disappointments, and failures. All this enables these people to add important value to their employer and their national economy.

The Well Rounded Gentleman

From their earliest existence, and up to, say, World War II (1939-45), universities were intended as hatcheries of clergy, lawyers, medical practitioners, and (Latin) grammar teachers. Within that mission, the ideal product of university was some version of ‘the well rounded gentleman’. Such a man was acquainted with classical literature, knew Latin (the seven Liberal Arts) and at least a second contemporary touring language. He had the ability to participate in vigorous sporting competitions and to dance and converse with ladies at formal parties. He was acquainted with a broad literary canon which, beyond Christian scripture, included refined poetry, heroic dramas, some Aristotle, the history of Rome, certain military campaigns, and the stories of important generals. He was prepared to be a soldier by practice in using weapons and transport vehicles, by athletic training, and respect for social hierarchy. His preparedness for military life included a sense of practicalities both in basic engineering principles and in ways of persuading others to join a team and follow orders, leadership skills. His presentation and communication skills included the ability to form effective sentences and short written messages, as well as clear public speeches. He valued team loyalty but respected all instances of competitive spirit, strategic cleverness, strength, and skilled performance.

Along with producing such professional scribes, it was, for a long time and until quite recently, part of the culture of university life to cultivate ‘a life of the mind’, the vita contemplativa. Perhaps that focus was most developed at the top and the bottom of the traditional university hierarchy, in the Faculty of Theology and the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Philosophy, but to some extent it pervaded university culture because of the very idea of a university. For the earliest centuries of university operation graduates would engage professionally and socially with aristocratic families and depend on them for patronage, since that was the social segment which could afford the routine services of lawyers, medical doctors, and teachers of children. Theologians entered Church hierarchies and engaged with the aristocracy as partners in social supervision and control. Qualities admired in aristocratic culture were distinctly masculine, military, and formally social, distinctly different from qualities cultivated by monkish scholarship, which was the previous high culture of literacy. University education was conceived to bring those two “high cultures” into a mutually beneficial partnership, to inject some vita contemplativa into the lives of men of action, men of affairs. Graduates should be manly but not thuggish, capable of refinement in thought and behaviour without being otherworldly or indecisive, capable of taking charge but also of deferring to higher authority. Maybe the university idea was an attempt to improve on the dominant aristocratic ideal, namely chivalry, a blending of military and Christian devotional cultures. The new life of the mind had more inspiration from the pagan literature of ancient Greece and Rome.

Do We Have a Narrative Here?

The personal use of thinking might require rejecting aristocratic values along with the quantification of value in terms of money.

Copyright © 2011 Sandy MacDonald. The moral right of the author is asserted.