So I’m reading John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, which begins by asserting that the university “is a place of teaching universal knowledge”. I’m fascinated by the historical context (Catholicism in Protestant England), by the strength and substance of the ideas, and by the narrative style of carefully-constructed arguments. I’m also struck, however, by the centrality of learning as transmission, the line of demarcation between invention and teaching, and the belief that it is possible to know by disconnecting from society (although I acknowledge that concentration and flow tend to require quiet, in a pragmatic sense):
To discover and to teach are distinct functions; they are also distinct gifts, and are not commonly found united in the same person. […] He, too, who spends his day in dispensing his existing knowledge to all comers is unlikely to have either leisure or energy to acquire new. The common sense of mankind has associated the search after truth with seclusion and quiet. […] It must be allowed on the whole that, while teaching involves external engagements, the natural home for experiment and speculation is retirement.
If all three of these characteristics of institutionalized knowledge creation and production no longer align with the demands of the world we live in, what needs to change and how likely is the change to occur within organizations founded on very different ideas and assumptions?
Newman’s Idea is also crystal-clear with respect to the relationship between the university and the corporation (in his context, the Catholic Church):
Just as a commander wishes to have tall and well-formed and vigorous soldiers, not from any abstract devotion to the military standard of height or age, but for the purposes of war, and no one thinks it any thing but natural and praiseworthy in him to be contemplating, not abstract qualities, but his own living and breathing men; so, in like manner, when the Church founds a University, she is not cherishing talent, genius, or knowledge, for their own sake, but for the sake of her children.
Through the lens of organizational learning and the need for mission-driven organizations in a knowledge economy to invest in their people, this rationale stands, in my opinion.
Photo: Aerial view of Finney Chapel, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, United States (oberlin.edu)