As part of writing a literature review recently, I was hunting around for some kind of definition of the common good, within the Anglican educational context. The vision for education that they published in 2016 has the title Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good. It is a title that is both ambitious and contentious, marked out neither by any particular humility nor, once I had read it, by any particular understanding of the common good. It discusses human flourishing to an extent, but mainly as an individual, educational good.
The common good has long been the demesne of Catholic thinking, since the advent of Catholic social teaching and even before. The wonderful charity Together for the Common Good (T4CG), which very much has a Catholic root (both the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity are Catholic social teaching concerns), is streets ahead of Anglican thinking on this matter, and is for me the go-to place on the subject. Its regular newsletters positively heave with insight and clarity on the need for and strategies to engender the common good. Their initiative Common Good Schools is a wonderful start for lower secondary age children to consider how to enact the common good in their communities.
But there is one really interesting Church of England publication that came out in February 2020, and which goes further and more fully into a missional understanding of education than the Vision for Education, and which both defines and apples the concept of the common good in education, and that is the publication Faith in Higher Education, written under the auspices of Tim Dakin, the Bishop of Winchester. Once again it is unfortunately billed as a “vision” – with all the problems that that causes (Whose vision? Whose eyes? – more here) – but it has re-thought the emphases of higher education in terms of four principal lenses – wisdom, community, virtue and the common good.
And these, truly, are treasures. To see virtue and the common good as headings is a delight, never mind what follows! The bibliography is thorough (though I could have done with seeing more of Tom Wright and some Parker Palmer, Alistair McIntyre and Luke Bretherton in there) and gives confidence in the theological and philosophical basis on which the report sits. The report also takes seriously the role of theology in the quest for understanding, and makes a strong argument for its importance and inclusion as a tool for the research of other disciplines. It also roots strongly for the place of religion and belief as identities, guiding principles and foundations for many of today’s universities.
In the appendix, it discusses the status and particular contributions of Anglican universities in the cathedral group of universities in a way that completely resonates with my experience at York St John. As someone who is finding their professional feet and their Christian identity in a pluralist HE institution like UEL, it is a very helpful document.
Wisdom, Community, Virtue and the Common Good
Starting with the perception that HE needs re-humanising, that universities are places that are deeply humane – or should be – the authors write that people in HE, whether academics, administrators, support staff or students are ’embodied souls with physical and spiritual needs.’ The vision of such embodiment becomes real wherever:
communities form in order to seek wisdom, grow in virtue and seek the common good. That is both what higher education is for, and what it truly is.
Wisdom: from the basis that the generation and transmission of knowledge can never be enough, and never separated from its social dimension of learning, the report argues that wisdom is a better word to describe what university education is for: since we have to grow in wisdom (being born unwise), we need the constraints of wisdom literature (including the scriptures) and traditions to enable us to avoid simplistic reductionism and to be ‘comfortable with, and celebrate, thick, multi-layered and complementary descriptions of reality.’
As a result, an approach to learning that was congruent with wisdom would be interdisciplinary, in order to savour many insights; it would reject economic instrumentalism; it would serve aesthetic, environmental and political ends, not simply economic ones; it would be contemplative of the works of God; and it should ensure that impact is measured in terms of the whole of a person’s experience.
Knowledge is to be treasured, says wisdom, and the post-modern ‘competing perspectives on inaccessible realities’ needs to be challenged because of the goodness and kindness of God. We can still
hope to make progress because scholarship presupposes a God who is there. Far from being oppressive, this optimistic theocentricism means that higher education should value contestation between and within disciplines, since there is something worth arguing about.
Community: exploring the theological roots of community as lying within the Godhead, the report riffs off the ‘new community’ of Jesus’ resurrection people to argue for a flourishing community that needs shaping, working at, and defining. It means that there is a physicality to being together, eating together, learning together, as well as a growing communal sense of what it means to belong to an alma mater. There are implications for administration here (I am thinking of one of my lovely group of PGCE student teachers who has yet to visit UEL this academic year) in terms of continuity of relationship within a campus. The personal confidence that arises from this continuous relationship is ‘a precondition for intellectual challenge and robust debate.’
In practical terms, this requires the identification of multiple strands of identity and interest, overlapping socially both within class and beyond. Developing such ‘strong, multifaceted relationships is demanding, since
it takes time and requires people to cross all sorts of boundaries. The personal vulnerability this requires is the basis for demonstrating trustworthiness to each other. This is important because developing trust is essential for community…
The practical implication is ensuring that all who teach also pastor – not hiving off pastoral support to a separate team. The other implication is that parity of esteem can be fostered within an academic community even where there are inevitable disparities in age, experience and learning: ‘each is engaged in essentially the same endeavour and has something valuable to contribute.’ This in turn has implications for pay, conditions and decision-making.
Virtue: starting from the point that education is the intentional transformation of persons, the report argues that growth in virtue, especially the ‘personal and institutional virtues [of] self-discipline, honesty, humility, respect for evidence and for the understanding of others’ are the keys to making wisdom possible.
And this wisdom grows from very practical virtues – technical ones of accuracy and clarity, intellectual ones of humility and perseverance, and moral ones of honesty, patience, friendliness and courage. Virtue, the authors argue, does not come from ‘hitting the target’ or ‘erring.’ It derives from the central command to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and body and our neighbours as ourselves. All we do that enables that – the professional virtues that surround study, assessment and lecturing included – are critical to the life of a virtuous university.
This virtue derives from ‘careful perception’ being trained in ways to become more attentive to the world. As Parker Palmer, in another context, observes, ‘education would not be necessary if things were as they seem’ (To know as we are known, p. 19). We become open to judgment, acquiring the skills of honest scholarship, rather than simply training for the economy and its monetary rewards. This growth in virtue also reinforces a humble approach to academic freedom, caring for the whole person. Freedom does not then become freedom to do or say what we think, a freedom from accountability: rather it becomes freedom within a community of virtue, to ‘be
a unique exemplar of a life spent in pursuit of what is true, just and useful. Academic freedom is what enables scholars to make a distinctive contribution to collective wisdom.
The Common Good: The fourth of the pillars of this report concerns the common good, which is defined this way:
the common good is more than a banner to encourage social solidarity. It has deep philosophical and religious roots which give it three distinct senses. First, the common good is an aim, the good common to a community, whether that be a nation state, sports club or university. Second, the common good is a practice, that is, collective activity for a common purpose. Third, the common good refers to the conditions necessary for everyone to fulfil their individual objectives, for example, a society that values free speech is one favourable to intellectual enquiry. This rich and multifaceted conception of the common good clearly shows that it is not a utopian ideal to be imposed by one group on another.
This is a peculiarly rich definition both for the culture in which a university sits, but also for the university itself. Because it is an aim, it offers context to wisdom and virtue. Because it is a practice, it gives scope and boundaries to the university as a community. And because it offers conditions necessary for the flourishing of individual objectives, it imposes demands on leadership.
In Perry Glanzer’s and Nathan Alleman’s The Outrageous Idea of Christian Teaching, they make the point that pluralist universities generally have very thin moral traditions. Quoting an article by Chad Wellmon in the Chronicle of Higher Education, they argue:
The university has moral limitations. Universities cannot impart comprehensive visions of the good. They cannot provide ultimate moral ends. Their goods are proximate. Faculty members….need to acknowledge that most university leaders lack the language and moral imagination to confront evils such as white supremacy. They lack those things….because of what the modern research university has become….We have goods to offer, but they are not ultimate goods(quoted on p. 128 of Glanzer & Alleman, 2019).
This is interesting on a number of fronts.
As a Christian in HE, it means that I can take the four-fold vision from the Church of England for HE and use it as a strengthening of my own understanding of the role of the university. I can seek and push for more than perhaps the university imagines it can offer – or if not more, then different.
Secondly, in pursuing the common good, unanimity of thought gives way to diversity of thought and experience both within and between universities. Alistair McIntyre argues for a diversity of university types in a “mixed economy” of HE, and both the US and the UK have that, to their benefit. Further, he argues for a ‘postliberal’ university, a place of “‘constrained disagreement, of imposed participation in conflict, in which a central responsibility of higher education would be to initiate students into conflict.’
This would lead to lecturers teaching from their own identity perspectives whilst representing their opponents fairly and engaging rival viewpoints in a debate. The pretension to neutral knowledge would be laughed out of the lecture theatre, and the university would encourage and engage the thick moral traditions of students and faculty in institutionalised forums in order to maximise the learning from such conflicts. (Glanzer & Alleman, p. 163).
Thirdly, it opens up the possibilities of what a university might become within its culture, not as responder to an economic instrumentalism but as teacher and initiator of a better way of being human. The early universities, that had these sorts of goals, were for the rich, the male and the privileged. Today, with widening participation, the opportunity and urgency to teach is correspondingly wider.
The common good must include the ability ‘to assess competing claims,’ which in turn requires a level of free speech, which is ‘more than allowing everyone to say what they want, however objectionable. The imperative for higher education institutions is to protect a free speech which encourages civilised communication and debate, and hence engagement in the pursuit of a higher (common) good.’
A moment’s reflection around this last condition will expose very quickly the need for great wisdom and carefully learned virtue in the university community.