Many of the titans of industry—Reed Hastings of Netflix and Jeff Bezos of Amazon—delight in their success by pointing to various criteria they deploy to ensure a workforce of faithful votaries working at optimal strength in well-oiled machines.
They offer us models of hyper efficiency and if applied religiously, as it were, guarantee success, prosperity, good feeling, all the things society deems measures of true success.
Our universities are not inured to this sometimes maniacal propulsion toward accomplishment. After all, we breathe the same oxygen.
But there are alternative ways to view what we do in universities and Michael Sandel of Harvard University argues compellingly for what he calls a “non-economistic conception of the common good” whereby we move beyond a narrowly “meritocratic” understanding of human worth.
Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Catholic priest-psychologist, prolific author and Ivy League professor, once observed that “in our contemporary society, with its emphasis on accomplishment and success, we often live as if being productive is the same as being fruitful. Productivity gives us a certain notoriety and helps take away the fear of being useless.”
Universities are indeed about accomplishment and success; we shape citizens, pursue knowledge both practical and speculative, and, in the Catholic tradition at least, assist in the fine tuning of our social conscience.
But we are also places where rest, free time, curiosity, the disinterested quest for knowledge, and the building of community are more than aspirational. They are existential.
Welcome to the new academic year.