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The argument is that universities have become too expensive, from bloated administrative costs, tenured professors who do not teach, and student amenities that approach the standards of luxury hotels. On the other hand, the internet with its possibilities for live conferencing and video streaming can convey the same knowledge at a mere fraction of the cost. To be sure, there are benefits of a traditional, residential college education, but these are not so great as to justify taking on mountains of debt. So, it is inevitable and probably a good thing that universities be replaced by online courses.
This argument is increasingly put forward by people with good judgment (although rather selectively: I do not see anyone arguing that high schools or medical schools should be replaced by the internet). But what should a Catholic think about it? I can only tell you what I think about it, as a Catholic in higher education.
My first thought is that the internet is irrelevant to the argument, since there have always been books. From time immemorial, professors have written up their lecture notes -- together with their board work, additional explanations, digressions, and replies to questions -- and sold them at low cost to the masses. These are called textbooks and may be gotten for free at one's local library. (For a complete "internet" experience, with the sound and image of a living person, read the book out loud.) But no reasonable person ever argued that libraries should replace universities. Already with the invention of the radio, never mind television, lectures could have been broadcast live to the masses, but, again, no one ever wanted to enroll in a "radio broadcast university."
The difference between those earlier times, when the argument never arose, and our own, seems to be mainly one of degradation. In our time, universities have deteriorated as universities, and human social life has degraded in quality, and only on that account can the argument seem compelling.
Universities have deteriorated for reasons that Blessed John Henry Newman long ago diagnosed, and which are implied by the Church's teaching in "Ex Corde Ecclesiae": if you extract as if by violence from the core of the university the vibrant faculty of theology which a university (as purporting to teach universal knowledge) is meant to have, then you destroy its unity. You remove what serves as the basis for genuine intellectual fellowship among the professors, and therefore you destroy also the basis for common life among the students. At the same time, in removing the university's commitment to wisdom, you leave the institution with no more than a utilitarian justification for its existence.
Social life has deteriorated because we favor virtual life over actual life. We no longer even bowl alone: we bowl online. Whatever glows and is pliant to our whims is good; that which is material and requires our service is bad. We prefer the ease of watching on a screen rather than the humiliating work of doing. They may not admit it, but friends in the same room really prefer to text each other than talk.
So if a university is merely a congeries of more or less useful courses, and people are going to spend their days online anyway, then why go through all the bother and expense of changing where you live, actually to be with some professors and fellow students? The step from an institution's degradation to its abolition seems slight, as it involves exactly the difference between the moribund and the dead. In that regard the argument that the university might be abolished is rather like the reasoning of the workaholic father who wants a divorce, and who reasons that getting divorced cannot possibly hurt his children, because he will see them no less than when he was married. Obviously, the correct course for him is to revive his moribund marriage and spend more time with his family, and the correct path for the university is to return to what it should be.
The Church in Ex Corde puts it this way: a university should be a communio of persons (the faculty together with the students), which is remarkable for its being devoted primarily to truth. The Church does not say that there is no need for that sort of institution anymore; quite the contrary, it says that our need for genuine universities has never been greater. But an internet university, it seems, can constitute no genuine communio, and its primary purpose is not truth but the economic benefit of its students.
A "personalistic" university need not be expensive. Recall that the young Karol Wotyla attended, essentially for nothing, the "underground" Jagellonian University during the Nazi occupation. A "personalistic" university might be as simple as 30 students together with two professors, one in the humanities and one in the natural sciences, each teaching two courses a semester, with half time left for research. Do the accounting and you can see that the basic costs work out to a tuition of about $10,000 per year. Everything else is "things" rather than "persons." And, whereas in an earlier time a simple university like that might have been disadvantaged, in the internet age all of the books and data of the world, and all of its cultural riches, can be at each person's finger tips. After all, technology should be used to aid and not to subvert the genuine human good.
Michael Pakaluk is Professor and Chairman of Philosophy at Ave Maria University.