Is Our Obsession with Innovation Destroying Our Universities?

By Stephone Christian

Enrolling in university studies was once an act of intellectual self-empowerment. John Henry Newman, a scholar of Oxford University and a Roman Catholic cardinal, was invited in 1854 as a rector of the Catholic University of Ireland (now University College, Dublin) to discuss his philosophy on education. During his discourse, Newman stated that the purpose of a university was to generate “intellectual culture” by cultivating the minds of young scholars. What may seem strange to us today is that for Newman, “the cultivation of the intellect is an end distinct and sufficient in itself” (Newman 115).

In his search to define the purpose of a university, Newman draws an analogy between the institution of higher learning and the hospital: “I believe, as a matter of history, the business of a University to make this intellectual culture its direct scope, or to employ itself in the education of the intellect,—just as the work of a Hospital lies in healing the sick or wounded” (Newman 114) . Newman believed that through a proper education, one could attain a perfection of intellect that he called “philosophy”. According to Newman’s The Idea of a University, “philosophy” is a critical enlargement of the mind, which allows for the individual to experience and command a certain intellectual freedom. However, due to the American university model’s current emphasis on scientific innovation, it is increasingly difficult for a student to attain an intellectual freedom akin to philosophy.

Before I begin to discuss the consequences of technological innovation on the institution of the university, it is important to understand exactly what Cardinal Newman’s “philosophy” is so that we might fully comprehend the implications of its possible loss. Newman had the following to say about a person who experiences “philosophy”: “He has made a certain progress, and he has a consciousness of mental enlargement; he does not stand where he did, he has a new centre, and a range of thoughts to which he was before a stranger” (Newman 118). In the text The Idea of a University, a said degree of mental enlargement is related to the experience of men in the early 17th century who were able to finally glimpse into the realm of the divine with the aid of the telescope: “the view of the heavens which the telescope opens upon us, if allowed to fill and possess the mind, may almost whirl it round and make it dizzy. It brings in a flood of ideas, and is rightly called an intellectual enlargement” (Newman 118). This mental expansion is imperative as it allows one to not only retain information, but to also digest it and form an uninfluenced opinion. Forming an uninfluenced opinion and thinking on one’s own allows an individual to become initiated into the public sphere. If one is able to think critically one will be more likely to become a responsible citizen. If our universities ignore the importance of mental expansion, we risk losing capable men and women prepared to engage with the world and to fulfill their civic duties.

National Geographic

National Geographic. Galileo peers into the heavens and experiences an illumination of thought.

Redirecting our focus to innovation, in one of President Barack Obama’s speeches during the “Educate to Innovate” campaign, he stated that “Whether it’s improving our health or harnessing clean energy, protecting our security or succeeding in the global economy, our future depends on reaffirming America’s role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation” (Obama 1). Ultimately this touches on more than national education policy, as the concern for maintaining a competitive advantage in the marketplace has become a major preoccupation for the parents of college students. Naturally, the anxiety extends to the college students themselves. According to a study performed by Jerry A. Jacobs, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Linda Sax, a professor in education at the University of California, the number of engineering, biology, and physical science students has increased by 57, 28, 11, and 13 percent respectively (Jacobs, Sax 2). In today’s age of ceaseless technological development, however, achieving and realizing Newman’s “philosophy” is primarily done in the name of technological innovation. In today’s global market economy, technological innovation commands wealth, and for this reason an increasing number of students are studying STEM related fields as opposed to subjects rooted in the humanities. Innovation is clearly stifling the flame of academic freedom as well as limiting the possibility of intellectual enlargement.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of A young scholar undergoes a STEM oriented education.

In his book The Winds of Freedom Blow, Gerhard Casper, a political scientist and former president of Stanford University, describes intellectual freedom as one of the principle tenets of a university. According to Gerhard Casper, intellectual freedom is “the freedom to engage in fearless inquiry and the freedom to speak your mind robustly and without inhibition” (Casper 21). How can one state that the current university student has access to such freedom if employment opportunity often influences a student’s academic and intellectual endeavors so wholly? In his book The Wind of Freedom Blows, Casper warns about “letting the future make you narrow in intellect, spirit, pursuits, values”. Instead, he urges students to indulge their intellectual curiosity, no matter where their interests lie. Casper uses the words of Ulrich Von Hutten, a 16th century German scholar dedicated to academic freedom, to describe the joy derived from learning that is free from financial motives and goals. “It is a pleasure to live…studies blossom and the mind moves”. Unfortunately, today the exact opposite is true: many young scholars, concerned about market dynamics, deny themselves to be passionately moved by venturing into non-professionally-oriented disciplines, and as a result, deny themselves the opportunity for expansion of mind.

Although our government emphasizes the importance of technical innovation, it is increasingly difficult for research to find funding. Gerhard Casper wrote, “These are the worst times for university, especially public ones, because as governments face tight budgets, they do not generally assign higher education and research funding the priority that their need for innovation would suggest” (Casper 196). Research is fundamental to the purpose of a university, since it is a step in the learning process as well as a commitment to the pursuit of knowledge. As students learn new information from lecture, it is important for them to apply their new knowledge in order to gain full mastery over it. However, research has recently lost its intimate bond with teaching. Not only are fewer and fewer students allotted to perform research, but the research being performed is only conducted to bring about scientific advancement: in 2012 at Stanford University, the government allocated only about eight million dollars to research in the social sciences, in comparison to the over five hundred million dollars distributed to research in the hard sciences (National Science Institute 1). Cardinal Newman, during his fifth discourse in The Ideas of a University, stated that “the cultivation of the intellect is an end distinct and sufficient in itself, and that, so far as words go, it is an enlargement or illumination” (Newman 114). The purpose of research then should be to cultivate intellect and contribute to the knowledge base in a given scholastic field—and not to bring about a single goal. If the current university research model is based upon a single goal—innovation—then it risks betraying its commitment to knowledge and scholarship: “The university’s commitment is to knowledge and research, not to a particular content or program or to specific results” (Newman 115). Clearly Cardinal Newman would agree that our current university system is betraying this particular commitment, and the result is a loss in intellectual freedom.

In answer to the call of innovation, universities—once places of liberal education—are becoming institutions of vocational and pre-professional training. Students are taught how to perform technical tasks required of them for employment in the future, rather than being encouraged to seek out knowledge and an expansion of mind. In her book, Between Future and Past, Hannah Arendt—a political theorist and renowned philosopher—criticizes the practice of “inculcating skill” rather than true knowledge in American schools. As a consequence of this approach to teaching, in the words of Arendt, professors pass down to students “dead knowledge” (Arendt 179), and students do not gain “philosophy” but only skill. Although Arendt’s argument focuses on primary and secondary schooling, because our universities are increasingly dedicated to professional and vocational training, her arguments may apply to them as well. It is here that the university risks losing sight of its purpose. As stated previously, the purpose of a university is to cultivate the intellect and minds of the young, and nowhere is this process more critical than at the university level—a student’s formative years as a young adult. It is great reason for concern when the university—an institution once dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge—becomes a place dedicated to training in vocational skills. We must once again resume encouraging university students to pursue intellectual freedom and mental expansion so as to create responsible citizens able to fully participate in the public sphere.

The student’s mind, if trained in a vocational manner, will not be able to condense the multitude of facts and skills attained, and instead will become burdened by the sheer quantity of information. A mind trained in this manner will have no chance to obtain a truly universal intellect akin to ‘philosophy,’ and the university’s purpose will go on unfulfilled. In the words of Newman: “If they are nothing more than well-read men, men of information, they have not what specially deserves the name of culture of mind, or the type of liberal education” (Newman 121). Instead, education should encourage the comparison of ideas and old and new, as well as reflection and introspection. Isaac Newton, a mathematician of great intellect, understood the mechanics of the world by seriously reflecting on his ideas.

Illustration by Jean-leon Huens, National Geographic stock.

Illustration by Jean-leon Huens, National Geographic stock.

Pre-professional training imposed by the pursuit of scientific innovation also renders university students immature. Immaturity, as defined by Immanuel Kant, is “the inability to make use of one’s own understanding without the guidance of another” (Kant 58). Kant elaborates on this definition of Immaturity through the following examples: “If I have a book that has understanding for me, a pastor who has conscience for me, a doctor who judges my diet, and so forth, surely I do not need to trouble myself. I have no need to think” (Kant 58). When university professors hand down dead knowledge and teach the students vocational skills, students are not required to fully embrace the material. Instead, students remain immature, and just as domestic animals are scared into subservience and placid stupidity by a demonstration of the danger of proceeding on their own, students are frightened into immaturity by the fears of future financial instability from studying a non-technical discipline (Kant 59). In short, with our current educational model centered on technical advancement, it is increasingly difficult for the scholars of today to shed their immaturity and embrace enlightenment, or to think for themselves by retrieving, questioning, and reconstructing information from the past. This interaction between information from the past and present day allows “for the marriage of genius and wisdom, so that the human age might become the heir rather than the orphan of history” (Harrison 97). By becoming the “heirs” of history, students may establish a relationship with our ancestors and from them gain past knowledge. If university students were inspired to synthesize this old knowledge—wisdom—with the new information of today—genius—then the realization of Newman’s “philosophy” may become a more common occurrence than it is today.

Innovation is in no way a completely negative phenomenon—scientific and technological breakthroughs allow us to overcome challenging global problems in the realms of medicine, conservation, and economic and social progress. However, it is true that the effects of the pursuit of innovation have had negative consequences on the intellectual freedom of today’s university scholars. Intellectual freedom is an important aspect of a young scholar’s education as it allows for a student to develop a certain degree of mental expansion necessary to enter the public sphere as a responsible citizen. In the way of intellectual expansion, which Newman referred to as “philosophy”, are the changes our nation’s focus on innovation has brought to the university model. These changes include a reduction of funding research in non-technical academic fields, as well as the training of students in a pre-professional manner by indoctrinating them with skills and information, rather than knowledge. If we continue in this manner, we risk endangering the American republic by failing to produce citizens able to synthesize information and think for themselves. As a solution to avert such a tragedy, I propose extending undergraduate education from four years to five. The extra year of study will allow young scholars the time necessary to reflect and reconstruct the information from their studies—as did Newton—to hopefully develop a mental expansion akin to “philosophy”.


 Work Cited

 Arendt, Hannah. “The Crisis in Education”. 2009. Between Past and Future. Viking         press, 1968. Print.

Casper, Gerhard. The Winds of Freedom Blow. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2014. Print.

Harrison, Robert Pogue. “Wisdom and Genius.” Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age”. 1st ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014. Print.

Jacobs, Jerry, and Linda Sax. “Study Finds Increased STEM Enrollment since the Recession insidehighered.”, 2013. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” What is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions.Tran. James Schmidt. Ed. James Schmidt. 1st ed. London, England: University of California Press, 1996. Print.

National Science Foundation. “Stanford University total R&D expenditures in 2012”. 2012. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

Newman, John Henry. “Discourse VI: Knowledge Viewed in Relation to Learning.” The Idea of a University. Ed. I. T. Ker. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976. Print.

President Obama, Barrack. “Remarks by the President on the “Educate to Innovate” Campaign and Science Teaching and Mentoring Awards” The White House Office of Press Secretary. 6 Jan. 2010. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

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