Universities and the Dangers of Docility

 
 

We need docile teachers and students, those unafraid of the fundamental questions and the highest things: those who want truth.

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Despite their stellar global rankings, American universities are surrounded by a dominant mood of anxiety. For those who study, teach, or work in the university, innovative research and international prestige often take a backseat to worries about getting in, staying in, and paying for higher education.

Many students and their parents wonder if college is worth the cost, worry about poor educational results, note the uneasy state of campus politics, or struggle to cope with heavy loans and gloomy postgraduate prospects. Further, a significant number of institutions may simply not be able to keep their lights on for much longer.

Even if these anxieties are overblown, they are nevertheless strongly felt. In part, they explain our nation’s obsession with college rankings, endowments, test results, and selectivity. As Mark Shiffman notes, students afflicted “with a desperate compulsion for competitive advantage . . . rack up majors, minors, certificates, credentials, and internships to keep them running for what they feel to be an ever more elusive success. They’re driven by fear.” Or, as William Deresiewicz commented in a now-famous essay, it is the winners of this competitive race who are often the most “anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose; trapped in a bubble of privilege, headed meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”

Studiousness vs. Docility

Little wonder, then, that studiousness is often considered the chief virtue of the student. Studiousness, as explained by Aquinas, “denotes keen application of the mind” to the acquisition of knowledge. For the most diligent and ambitious students, the hard work of study and keen application of the mind define their “desperate compulsion for competitive advantage.” But while hard work is a necessary precondition for being a good student, the essential virtue is not studiousness but rather docility, explains Fr. James Schall in his new book, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught. Revisiting a theme from an essay he wrote some years ago, “What a Student Owes His Teacher,” Schall explores docility, the willingness to learn. Such willingness usually entails the hard work of study, to be sure, but even the most diligent of workers is not always teachable.

It’s not obvious what this means. Even if students’ motives are mixed, and their ultimate reason for study is a high-paying job and early retirement, they seem willing to learn inasmuch as they work to master the material. According to Schall, however, learning is not equivalent to passing exams. The docile student is one who wishes to learn the “truth of things” or “what is.” Wanting to know the truth of things is different from wanting to ace the test.

Augustine puts it this way in On the Teacher:

those who are pupils consider within themselves whether what has been explained has been said truly; looking of course to that interior truth, according to the measure of which each is able. Thus they learn, and when the interior truth makes known to them that true things have been said, they applaud.

The docile student does not merely accept whatever the teacher says, but tests and judges the truth of the explanation. Rather than passivity, teachability requires an active seeking and reaching for truth, even against the opinions of the teacher. The docile student demands proof, not necessarily in the sense of a demonstrated argument, but in the older sense of revealing the goodness (probus) of a thing, the way young athletes prove themselves on the field, or how the military tests weapons at a “proving ground.” Such proof demonstrates goodness, integrity, and worthwhileness. Docility may demand rigorous evidence, but ultimately it seeks goodness and worth. Actively willing to learn what is the case, the docile student tests and considers, deliberates and discerns. He or she does not merely wait for pronouncements to transcribe.

Like all virtues, docility is not a passivity but a disposition to act—and act well. We delight in and applaud the truth. We must act, because we begin in ignorance and in dissatisfaction with our ignorance. Our intellect is not satisfied with ignorance because that is not what it was made for. This sort of dissatisfaction is not without its costs, of course. As Schall’s fellow Jesuit Bernard Lonergan once put it,

deep within us all, emergent when the noise of the other appetites is stilled, there is a drive to know, to understand, to see why, to discover the reason, to find the cause, to explain. . . . It can absorb a man. It can keep him for hours, day after day, year after year, in the narrow prison of his study or his laboratory.

Schall reminds us that Socrates was killed for his desire to understand. Such questions were not safely asked in the city, “but only apart from it, in a place protected from the disorder of souls revealed in a city that would kill its best man.” Given the danger of docility, of wanting to know the truth of things rather than mere custom, Plato retreated to the academy, “where the fundamental questions of man could be asked.”

Free Inquiry into the Highest Things

Now, given the many and varied pathologies of the contemporary academy, Plato (and Schall) may seem quaint at best, culpably naïve at worst. It is now considered newsworthy when the University of Chicago remains “firm in its belief that a culture of intense inquiry and informed argument generates lasting ideas, and that the members of its community have a responsibility both to challenge and to listen.” While for many of us, it is self-evident that “without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university,” a good many others disagree. Like Socrates in a hostile city, the truly docile are not always at home in the university.

In my judgment, we ought to resist the temptation to reduce the problem to politics, as if the university would recover its function simply by insisting on intellectual diversity and free inquiry. While a university ceases to be a university without open inquiry, this is insufficient for a university to serve its proper function. As Schall suggests, even though few universities understand it as their “primary or even secondary purpose,” they exist to seek and understand the “highest things.” Inquiry is not enough; we must inquire about the highest things.

In his Idea of the University, John Henry Newman suggests that the various disciplines and domains of knowledge splinter and drift apart in the absence of theology’s integrating insight. We see this, in part, in the disciplinary silos, overspecialization, and absence of core programs and general education in many institutions. If knowledge does not ultimately integrate in the most noble Mind, it’s difficult to understand why we should attempt the same. Moreover, Newman argues that we risk distorting the other disciplines when, in the absence of theology, they claim more for themselves than they ought. For instance, science tells us nothing directly concerning the existence or non-existence of the Divine, for a transcendent God is not a being within the immanent order studied by science, and when scientists “go rogue” and make pronouncements about God they thus distort both science and theology. (Think Richard Dawkins.)

Neglecting the highest things, too many universities do not function as universities at all. Facing a somewhat similar situation, Plato docilely left the city for the academy. Yet if the modern academy is not living up to its ideals, as many think is the case, it seems an uneasy home. We oughtn’t leave the academy entirely but instead practice a kind of faithful presence. This may mean the presence of people of faith, whether theologians or otherwise, but it suggests more the presence of those who are faithful to the truth of things, to what is, whatever their faith or lack thereof. Faithful presence means keeping faith with the institution’s purpose, calling the university to be itself, to be what it is for. We need docile teachers and students, those unafraid of the fundamental questions and the highest things: those who want truth.

During his long career, Schall has shown himself to be a docile teacher. In his many books and essays, including Docilitas, he loops back to the highest things, and to the role of teachers, students, friends, and good books in helping us recover our bearings and seek those things worth seeking. While readers familiar with his work won’t find much that’s new in these essays, many of which were occasional lectures and are given to some redundancy, those who’ve not read him before will find Docilitas an excellent introduction to his thought, and to the docile desire for truth that impels him on.

Fortunately, the desire for truth is intrinsic to every human, with the intellect naturally oriented toward understanding what is the case. Our questions do not cease, and our delight in knowing cannot be eradicated, even if it can be confused, stunted, and impaired. Schall’s citation of Augustine is a hopeful one, for Augustine reminds us of the “interior truth,” the intellect itself and its natural trajectory toward the truth of things. So long as there are intellects, the university can recover itself. It may finally live up to its highest ideals and best purpose, if we are but docile.

R.J. Snell directs the Center on Ethics and the University at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is senior fellow of the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. His books include The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode, and Acedia and Its Discontents.

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