Faith & Reason: Our universities are now temples of Mammon

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The Independent Online
Time, argued Cardinal Newman, is integral to a proper education. It is the one thing today's students are not allowed, says Margaret Atkins

YOU CANNOT serve God and Mammon, says Jesus in Matthew's Gospel, and then goes on to urge his disciples not to worry about tomorrow, for God will clothe them as he does the lilies and feed them as he does the sparrows. This might seem a piece of religious idealism if experience didn't suggest that we are losing currently losing our grip on reality. More than ever before, our society is controlled by the pursuit of wealth. From sport to science, from medicine to music, every activity is dominated by profits and audits; and each of us, perforce, is becoming a mini-accountant. We are living in a paper world, where what matters is numbers and documents rather than real events and real people. By serving Mammon, we are creating a world that is fictional.

Let me illustrate with a topical example: student fees. For the last decade or so, policy in higher education has been driven by economic imperatives. A healthy economy needs lots of graduates, we are told. Therefore the number of students has been doubled. But students are expensive: therefore they must pay their own fees.

But no one asks the real questions: what do actual students in actual universities actually do? How does learning work? Consequently, no one has noticed the most important fact about student fees: they prevent students from being students. The process is already well under way. Outside Oxford and Cambridge, the majority of students undertake paid work during term- time, and many, if not most, are effectively studying part-time. The biggest single obstacle to getting students to study is that they do not have the time. Meanwhile, policy-makers mutter about loss of public confidence, and impose yet more draconian methods of standardisation. More numbers, more paper, and less reality.

One man who thought deeply about the true purpose of universities was John Henry Newman. Soon after his much publicised conversion to Catholicism in 1845, he was asked to help found a Catholic university in Dublin. The complex world of Irish social and religious politics forced him to think subtly on many issues: the relation of religion to learning, the difference between professional training and liberal education, the value of learning for its own sake. Newman's vision was profoundly influential for most of our own century.

Two ideas were crucial: first, the primary purpose of a university is not religious, nor moral, nor economic. Students study in order to learn how to think clearly. To Newman a healthy intellect was as obviously worth having as a healthy body. It was valuable in itself, for the individual and for the community.

Secondly, Newman thought carefully about how young people actually learn. He realised that formal lectures could only play a limited role; for mature learning is not simply passive. Students need to test, to explore, to interrelate new information and ideas. They do this best in informal debate, both among themselves and with their tutors. That is how they make learning their own.

We are quietly abandoning both of Newman's key insights. Education is no longer valuable for itself, but to make money. And informal learning has been undermined by the students' lack of free time for discussion. Their education is therefore becoming steadily more passive and mechanistic: they are learning to conform, but not to think. We are turning universities into graduate-factories, because we have narrowed our human goals until all that matters is money. Although Newman believed that the ultimate purpose of life was serving God, he knew that religion leaves space for independent goods such as understanding. Mammon, however, demands total control. The universities are redefined as businesses, and we forget why we wanted them in the first place.

A balanced vision of human flourishing would allow us to criticise the system realistically. It would also enable us to appreciate genuine improvements. Wider access has opened the doors of universities to some fine mature students. They bring to their studies enthusiasm, independence, commitment, and a clear sense of why they are studying. They know that a healthy intellect is part of a good human life. They deserve society's support whether or not they will one day be rich: for they are students in the true sense of the word.

Lent is a time in which Christians pause to ask what really matters. The traditional Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving force us to question the role of money in our lives. By returning God to the centre, we can liberate ourselves into a larger vision of human happiness. We can learn to treat Mammon as a servant, not a master. And then, perhaps, we will re- establish contact with the real world, the world in which human beings actually live.