The Useless University


The ancient tradition of pursuing knowledge for its own sake is slowly, quietly making a comeback.

The steady stream of web diatribes addressing the "crisis in the humanities" suggests that studying or teaching the liberal arts in the United States is hell on earth, at best a foretaste of the fires to come. But while the American higher educational system is seriously flawed, the steady stream of academic refugees into the American system from abroad certainly tells us something about the global alternatives. Behind much of the bad news regarding American universities, there is also good: There are too many PhDs for too few positions, but this in part reflects the American educational system's remarkable success. Critical theory was long dominant, but fresh perspectives are rising in its stead. There is a widening gap between academics and the public at large, but enterprising ventures like The Teaching Company have started to bridge it. In short, hope for higher education may be unfashionable, but it is not unjustified.

One problem with the rapidly expanding crisis-in-the-humanities book genre is that few discussing academic reform seem willing to examine thoroughly the ideals that generated Western universities in the first place. One exception I have pointed to before is Stratford Caldecott's Beauty for Truth's Sake. For the most part, though, books and articles discussing what has gone wrong in the American universities appear to have done little to seriously investigate the ancient and medieval origins of universities themselves.

Louis Menand's The Marketplace of Ideas distinguishes itself by providing at least some historical background, reaching back to the 19th century to discuss Charles Eliot's influential presidency at Harvard. Menand points with approval to Eliot's defense of the liberal arts as distinct from professional or vocational instruction (while strangely failing to mention Eliot's widely publicized debates with Princeton's more religiously minded Presbyterian president, James McCosh). The essence of the liberal arts, according to Eliot, was "the enthusiastic study of subjects for the love of them without any ulterior objects." He was but regurgitating the most elementary principles of a great and deep tradition, one that – it seems – is lately out of sight and mind.

In Book VII of The Republic, Socrates defended knowledge as sought after "with a view to the beautiful and good," contrasting someone who deals with numbers for the sake of buying and selling with one who contemplates the mystery of numbers themselves. Aristotle perpetuated this liberal tradition (as opposed to servile tradition), defining 'liberal' as "that which tends to enjoyment… where nothing accrues of consequence beyond the using." Education's end, for Aristotle, was the pleasure of knowing itself. Cicero agreed, adding that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake was "a condition of our happiness." Such truth, he suggested, is the first thing pursued "as soon as we escape from the pressure of necessary cares." This enterprise, as systematized by Marcus Varro and fortified by Augustine and Boethius, generated Western civilization's curricular DNA, which we know as the liberal arts. Probably the best modern articulation of this tradition came with John Henry Newman's The Idea of a University, which – I am sorry to report – seems to have made no appearance at all in our current harping about the humanities. Newman, without requiring religious commitment, articulated the Socratic inheritance exquisitely:

Truth has two attributes – beauty and power; while Useful Knowledge is the possession of truth as powerful, Liberal Knowledge is the apprehension of it as beautiful… That alone is liberal knowledge, which stands on its own pretension, which is independent of sequel, expects no complement, refuses to be informed (as it is called) by any end, or absorbed into any art, in order duly to present itself to our contemplation.

If Newman is right, then to justify the liberal arts, which would now include what we call the humanities, as instrumentally useful, is also to betray them (a fact that several perceptive bloggers have pointed out).

"That alone is liberal knowledge, which stands on its own pretension, which is independent of sequel, expects no complement, refuses to be informed (as it is called) by any end, or absorbed into any art, in order duly to present itself to our contemplation."

Should this principle – knowledge for its own sake – be understood, the amount of time it takes to obtain a degree in the humanities comes into focus. Menand complains, "You can become a lawyer in three years, an M.D. in four years, and an M.D.-Ph.D. in six years, but the median time to a doctoral degree in the humanities disciplines is nine years." But it is here that the medieval perspective illuminates, making nearly a decade of study seem not ridiculous, but just about right. Culled from Marcia L. Colish's essay, Teaching and Learning in Medieval Paris, here is what it took to get a degree at that institution which Newman called "the glory of the middle ages," the University of Paris:

The theologian's training... involved a two-part course following the arts degree, lasting at least eight years and deferring his theological license to his thirty-fifth year at the earliest – an education more grueling and protracted than that of any other learned professional. First came four years of [extremely rigorous] Bible study... On completion of his biblical course, the young theologian taught Scripture for two years, alternating lectures on Old Testament and New Testament books... Next came a two-year course in systematic theology based on the Sentences of Peter Lombard... After his course on the Sentences, the candidate taught them for two years... Then came three or four more years as a regular participant in theological disputation and preaching, his final oral examination, the award of doctorate, and his admission to the theological faculty as a licensed master.

Menand points out that ABD (all-but-dissertation) teaching in American universities today is a co-dependent, potentially exploitative arrangement that benefits both the University, because graduate students come cheaply, and graduate students, because there are not many jobs. But according to Colish, the twelfth century was not so different. Learning and teaching mixed then as they do today, if for no other reason than that the two skills are closely related partners in the enterprise of contemplation. So what's the rush? If – as the Parisians once believed – examining the created order (to say nothing of its Creator) is a necessarily ennobling venture worth pursuing for its own sake, then the enterprise demands time. To be sure, a stipend-dispensing University need not formally sponsor all such contemplative activity, and Menand's call for shortening our contemporary degree-granting process is worth consideration. But perhaps more worth considering is this: Extended study of the humanities may not work within the anti-metaphysical framework that has been advanced in select quarters of academia for the last several decades. If the music of the spheres is not music, but unending dissonance, then even the British-style three-year PhD is far too long. That deadening message can be transmitted in one unpleasant sitting.

In regard to the pressing issue of employment, Marcia Colish's medieval comparanda are illuminating as well. Having obtained his license, the University of Paris's new doctor "proceeded to deliver an inaugural lecture, and taught for at least two years at that level. Whether or not he acquired a coveted chair, he often moved on with startling rapidity to ecclesiastical preferment or administrative work in a religious order; theologians rarely grew old in the schools." Turns out that in twelfth-century Paris, it was hard to find that tenure-track job as well.

Part of the reason for the academy's present acridity is that many have treated doctoral programs as glorified vocational institutes – getting the degree to get the job. When the job becomes unavailable, the degree, and the years spent acquiring it, become retroactively pointless. To be sure, many who complain about academia are fully justified. They've been given a raw deal. Talent does not always rise to the top. The latest fusion of fashion and mediocrity gets tenure, while superior minds get shattering disappointment. That said, anyone who enters this line of work unaware of the employment odds was probably not among such superior minds. Most importantly, it is worth considering that – if Plato's intimations were sound – then time spent in the self-justifying humanities is time well spent, whether or not it results in certain and sustained employment.

There is good reason that it's hard to find a job teaching at the university level, both in the Middle Ages and today: such jobs are (or at least should be) enjoyable. Aristotle believed that the exercise of the mind, enhanced by the friendship of colleagues, is the essence of human flourishing. Universities – while frequently failing to realize this ideal – allow for its possibility like no place else. When such conditions are enhanced by subjects as inherently worthwhile as the humanities, life begins to look pretty good. An apocryphal tale has it that when Harvard hired its first lecturer in the fine arts, Charles Norton, the nature of his subject matter permitted his employer to ask, "And will you be needing a salary?" This is not, of course, to suggest that researching and teaching the humanities do not require work – they require a backbreaking amount. But it is worth remembering that many have found such work so inherently worthwhile, so endlessly rewarding, that they have happily done it for free.

Ultimately, the apparent crisis in the humanities may be a metaphysical one, unwilling as many of us are to make the bargain that being itself, or as we might say more clumsily, "the universe," is both beautiful and good, and thereby worth contemplating for its own sake. But should we take the gamble, the humanities (not to mention the sciences) will flourish, and will continue to be understood as their own reward. At the end of the day, even if one doesn't believe that the end of the humanities is non-instrumental enjoyment, it is worth riffing off Pascal's wager to at least pretend that it is. Enjoying one's subject matter, after all, might help in getting a job.




Matthew J. Milliner. "The Useless University." Public Discourse (January 7, 2011).

This article is reprinted and republished with the explicit permission of the Withersoon Institute. Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good is an online publication of the Witherspoon Institute that seeks to enhance the public understanding of the moral foundations of free societies by making the scholarship of the fellows and affiliated scholars of the Institute available and accessible to a general audience.


Matthew J. Milliner is a doctoral candidate in art history at Princeton University. He discussed similar matters in "The State of Higher Desperation" and responded to embittered academic xtranormal videos here. He blogs at

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