The mission of the modern university professor is not merely “forming competent and efficient professionals capable of satisfying the demand for labor,” Pope Benedict XVI said in a speech in Madrid on Friday. Instead, professors and students should be “looking for something more lofty and capable of embracing the full measure of what it is to be human.”
Drawing a distinction between training students for jobs and educating them to seek truth, he warned his audience of “this sort of utilitarian approach to education,” which “is in fact becoming more widespread.”
We know that when mere utility and pure pragmatism become the principal criteria, much is lost and the results can be tragic: from the abuses associated with a science which acknowledges no limits beyond itself, to the political totalitarianism which easily arises when one eliminates any higher reference than the mere calculus of power. The authentic idea of the University, on the other hand, is precisely what saves us from this reductionist and curtailed vision of humanity.
The pope’s speech was part of the World Youth Day, a tri-annual international gathering of over a million Catholic young people, held this month in Madrid.
In 1907, John Henry Newman devoted a book, The Idea of a University, to arguing that a liberal education is by definition useless, yet eminently worth pursuing. Like Newman, whom Pope Benedict XVI beatified less than one year ago, the pope urged his listeners to pursue truth.
Pope Benedict XVI also referenced the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato to further his argument. “As Plato said: ‘Seek truth while you are young, for if you do not, it will later escape your grasp” (Parmenides, 135d),’” the pope said. “This lofty aspiration is the most precious gift which you can give to your students, personally and by example. It is more important than mere technical know-how, or cold and purely functional data… We must not draw students to ourselves, but set them on the path toward the truth which we seek together.”
Theresa Civantos, a Collegiate Network fellow, is an editorial assistant at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.