The Idea of the University

Pelikan’s title derives from John Henry Newman’s THE IDEA OF A UNIVERSITY. Like Newman’s work, his book is based on a series of lectures. Newman’s were presented in the 1850’s to celebrate the establishment of a Catholic institution of higher learning in Dublin, Pelikan’s in 1990-1991 to mark Yale’s tricentennial. Despite the differences of time and occasion, both affirm that knowledge is an end in itself and that a grounding in general knowledge—a liberal education—is fundamental to any pursuit.

Both also recognize the contradictions inherent in the university. How, for example, does it balance quality education and equality of opportunity? This issue is especially pressing in the United States, with its democratic heritage. Again, how does the university serve both as conservator of the past and as agent of change?

In other matters Newman and Pelikan differ. Thus, Newman, drawing on the English models of Oxford and Cambridge, regarded the teaching of undergraduates as the university’s primary responsibility. Pelikan favors the German model, which stresses research, publication, and graduate training. Pelikan does not minimize the importance of undergraduate teaching, but his idea of the university encompasses far more than Newman’s.

Because Pelikan concentrates on the theory of the university rather than the practicalities, he does not indicate how institutions are to meet these multiple demands. Nor does he address such matters as students’ intellectual apathy; faculty reluctance to teach undergraduates (who may encounter only graduate students as instructors for most of their classes); administrators’ efforts to increase the number of programs, the number of students, and especially the number of fellow administrators without enlarging the faculty; and legislators’ or trustees’ reluctance to increase funding. THE IDEA OF THE UNIVERSITY sets forth an ideal and encourages the reader to believe in the possibility of its realization. Given the centrality of the university in American life, one can only hope for the reification of Pelikan’s vision.