Teaching in the Constitutional University

by Will Harris

American universities have recurrently been founded (or refounded) from inside, at mid-course in their ongoing histories. The University of Pennsylvania seems to be undergoing such a process. Sometimes, this internal re-establishment takes the form of a reinvention of the "original" founders to supply foundations for an institution's re- modeled vision of its nature. Always, this process requires rethinking the commonly used, central concepts about the university in terms of a new set of first principles. What kind of a university do we want to be?

Reflecting on some of these concepts, I offer here a set of linked propositions for a well-ordered educational regime--the "Constitutional University"--an institution that takes its scholarship, teaching, and service so seriously that it does not just endorse each one of them authentically. It also embraces their connectedness in its self- understanding and its operations. A Constitutional University is attentive not only to its own constitution (the principles and structures that provide for its prosperity and the survival of its identity) but also to the most affirmative accounts of the larger constitutional orders in which it is embedded. For these broader orders, it is an idealized microcosm, a realized exemplary and experimental community, reminding and inspiring them from within.

  1. University as Community. In medieval political thought, the Latin term universitas did not originally refer to an academic institution, or to an inquiry into the "universe" (the overarching model of unity projected onto the world), or to the study of everything, although our word now partakes of all of these meanings. The initial reference was to a comprehensive association, a political community in the full sense, with an understanding of what each member owed the whole body, turning toward the center. The relationship between this complete polity and holistic knowledge, between comprehensiveness and comprehension, makes the modern American university. It is no surprise, then, when the early 19th-Century founder of the University of Michigan states: "In science, all is a republic." Or when Woodrow Wilson in his reforms at Princeton in the early 20th Century analogizes education in the knowledge of general things to the capacity of leadership in a democratic nation. In its name, the "university" has borrowed the image of polity.

  2. Knowledge as System. The currently prevailing emphasis on dividing up knowledge and absolutizing the parts (as free-standing, or related only to substantively similar parts) undermines the university's most basic constitution. In a well-ordered composition, each of the parts is proportional in the classic sense. That is, each carries the pattern of the whole; it is a portion in respect to what it configures, with the other pieces, at a larger scale.

    The powerful alternative is to redirect focus to the unity of knowledge, where the objective is to connect disciplines that organize academic inquiry-- core to core, not just edge to edge-- making a community of prospects on the world. This strategy would produce not a "core" curriculum or a "general" tour of introductions to the established departments (either of which would launch a later excursion into a specialization), but a curriculum of cores (the broad linkage of deep knowledge from a number of important areas of inquiry). Even if the institutional compartmentalization of knowledge cannot be readily refashioned in the modern university, the education we offer can be reorganized, perhaps making our students better educated than their professors.

    In addition to a model of knowledge as constitutive of wholeness, the constitutional perspective emphasizes the interplay between knowing and making. We know in order to make, to decide, to do things. But our truest thinking comes from our involvement in the making, where we become authors not only of the thing but the knowledge of how we brought it into existence by apprehending or creating it. For this enterprise, however, advanced scholarly inquiry should not take place solely at the frontiers of knowledge (another political term), at the "cutting edge" where we add something to a pre-existing collectivity of information. It should also occur at the center, the dense heart of civilized knowing, which may otherwise be taken for granted (and whose revision might change the borders of the edge).

  3. Citizens as Founders. What is the intellectual quality of mind that a Penn education is designed to cultivate? Is the effect of our education to make our graduates safe for the world, producing efficacious, entrepreneurial functionaries to fill pre-existing slots in the current structure of work and society? And, occasionally, even leaders for these institutions? On a constitutional understanding of community and knowledge, Penn might properly become a school also for founders, in the revived lineage of our institutional founders--not just Benjamin Franklin, but also William Smith (who designed the College), David Rittenhouse (who modeled the Cosmos), and James Wilson (who theorized the Constitution).

    Such graduates would be citizens of the constitutional sort, with a spacious character of mind--not only well suited for taking care of themselves and the institutions of the broader world; but also fitted for rethinking the first principles of those institutions, remaking them if our security and happiness require it; and even capable of remaking themselves, redesigning their intellects in life's mid-course, if changes in the institutions and the world require it.

    To achieve this capacity entails not so much critical reasoning as constitutional thinking: the ability to provide holistic accounts affirming a given order; to imagine systematic alternatives to it-- to deliberate at the abstract level of those who would found the structures that establish firm relationships among people or among things. The appropriate education would be, therefore, not specialist, generalist, foundationalist, or even synthesist, but compositional. Even if a single student should not encompass the universe of knowledge, each should comprehend how his or her share fits into the whole, and how it might connect with the other parts--so that the student's intellect carries the image of a comprehensiveness beyond itself.

Talk About Teaching is in its second year as a series sponsored by the Lindback Society and The College of Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Harris, a constitutional theorist, is associate professor of political science, director of the Benjamin Franklin/General Honors Program, and chair of the committee designing the residential pilot project tentatively called the David Rittenhouse Center for Advanced Undergraduate Study and Exploration (CAUSE).


Tuesday, December 12, 1995
Volume 42 Number 15

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