In the preface of his The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman says that a University “is a place of teaching universal knowledge.” Its purpose is not discovery or advancement of knowledge — if it were, he argues, there’d be no reason to have students. Newman suggests that special academies are the proper place for the advancement of natural sciences and philosophy. In his day there were things like the Royal Society in England and the French Academy. In our day we have also newer institutions of this sort, such as the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. We also have University professors who value research much more than teaching. To round it all out, we have think-tanks as well, but I’m not sure Newman would consider them discoverers of truth.

Newman turns to the history of discovery to support his argument. Many revolutionary thinkers were loners at least for a large part of their careers. Examples include Thales, Pythagoras, Plato, and Newton. Of course, there were exceptions, but Newman argues there weren’t as many. Furthermore, he claims it is only logical that fundamental advances in knowledge would require untroubled leisure for brilliant minds. On the other, hand, how can anyone expect new discoveries from those who are wearied by the task of teaching? (Here I imagine many “Amens” from faculty soon to appear before tenure review boards.)

There are in every field enough notable exceptions to the loner-rule to make the opposite case. I won’t give a detailed argument, but will amuse myself by pointing to two titans of my field, mathematics. Though math is known for its abundance of quirky characters, much good work has come from those also saddled with significant teaching duties. For example, Karl Weierstrass, often called “the father of modern analysis” was a teacher; besides math, he taught other subjects, including physics and gymnastics, according to Wikipedia. Indeed some great mathematicians did math merely as a hobby, while engaged in another full-time occupation: a prime example is Pierre de Fermat, who was a lawyer.

On the other hand, perhaps our world, worried about the quality of undergraduate education, would welcome such a separation between teaching and research. Let each do what he or she is best at. The researchers, unfettered by mundane things like writing understandable lectures, holding office hours, and assigning grades, would produce a prodigious wealth of knowledge in all the various disciplines; those skilled at teaching would produce graduates who can think clearly, participate in democracy as intelligent citizens, and who are ready to bring their skills and creativity to the workforce. No more pretending faculty can do everything all at once or that you need a genius mathematician to teach calculus to tomorrow’s accountant.

I suspect some professors would be in favor of this model if they could get appointments to the Academies; against if not.

Others, though, would feel something missing from the intellectual endeavor if forced to give up either teaching or research. There is a difficult-to-articulate sense in which teaching and research are mutually supportive.

It is also interesting to note that John Paul II’s important document on higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesia, states that both teaching and research are important parts of the modern university. The opening paragraph unfolds Augustine’s “gaudium de veritate” (joy in truth) as “that joy of searching for, discovering and communicating truth in every field of knowledge.” Here the communication of truth seems to be presented as the natural and inseparable companion of searching for and discovering it.

It must be noted that the context of Newman’s work was the call from the Pope to establish a Catholic University in Ireland. Perhaps it made more sense in that part of the world to build up good teaching before looking for superstars in the advancement of knowledge. I hope in future posts to consider in more detail Newman’s vision for higher education.