When speaking of the University, common images that come to mind are the flashes of individual tests, individual essays and most importantly the individual diploma hanging on the wall. There is no notion of the community, and instead the learning process is focused on the individual’s obtainment of knowledge. In Robert Pirsig’s Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig epitomizes this common notion of a University through his character Phaedrus. Though Phaedrus embodies this idea of learning for oneself, he is unable to reach definite conclusions, grow his ideas nor continue to be a valuable member of society.
On the other hand, John Henry Newman in The Idea of the University argues that the best type of learning is learning with others. Within this University that Newman speaks of, a professor’s job is to bestow the students with knowledge, let us say this is an undrinkable salt water. Though this water surrounds the students, it is the students job to make this water drinkable, or in the sake of knowledge, useful.
No one can do this alone, instead they being drowning at the very thought of it. A community of learners, on the other hand, has the capability do so. By working together, each student can make their own drinkable water. They can then enliven themselves and each other with this water, or more importantly knowledge. Let me add that each student’s conversion of the water will be different, just like their process for obtaining knowledge. Not only this, but their final product will slightly different, maybe some will go as far to add ice or even lemon. What is important to emphasize, though, is the fact that their knowledge will enliven themselves and the community around them. Conventional wisdom has it that there are two distinct roles within a University: a professor and a student. Many people would go as far as to say that a professor’s job is to deliver knowledge to students, and a student’s job is to absorb it, without reservation. Pirsig emphasizes how this relationship can fail through his description of Phaedrus’ time in the interdisciplinary Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago. One student in Phaedrus’ philosophy class questions Aristotle’s views of rhetoric stating that within the text, There are some dubious statements,’ and the professor responds, We are not here to learn what you thinkWe are here to learn what Aristotle thinks,’ (Pirsig 371). Basically, Pirsig is saying that there is a problem with the conventional professor-student relationship. This is because when a professor begins to feel vulnerable, like in the situation above, the professor transforms into a sovereign leader. When students live under an oppressive regime in the classroom they find themselves incapable to learn on their own terms. I agree that this relationship does need to change, a point that needs emphasizing since so many believe that if the system has operated this long, it can continue to work. I think Phaedrus is mistaken because he overlooks the real reason why the student is struggling with the professor. The issue that this lone student and Phaedrus both experience is that they are confronting the knowledge that the Professor has avowed individually. Instead, to gain more use out of the knowledge John Henry Newman would argue that these students should work with others. This will enable them to, to adjust together the claims and relations of their subjects of investigation, (Newman 77). Newman would surely extend this same argument that collaboration must take place between opinions on a certain subject matter, such as Aristotle. The adjustment of claims, which Newman discusses, improves education for the student. Their argument becomes stronger and their understanding broadens. No longer does the tyrannical professor have control of the students’ learning; instead, through each other, they can take back control.The importance of one’s education is not that of which they learn from a professor, instead it is that they learn with their fellow students. John Henry Newman contrasts two different Universities, one that, gave its degrees to any person who passed an examination in a wide range of subjects, with a, University that had no professors or examinations at all, but merely brought a number of young men together for three or four year, (Newman 105). After contrasting these two opposing Universities, Newman declares that he has, no hesitation giving preference to that University which did nothing, (Newman 105). The essence of Newman’s argument is that a University is better off bringing students together to learn from each other rather than having professors force knowledge upon them. He insists that this type of University will give rise youthful community of learners. This community of learners will breed competitiveness and force each student’s ideas to be challenged. Here many proponents of the traditional University would probably object that the point of a University is to learn for oneself, after all in the end it is your knowledge that you have gained and your diploma that is hung on the wall. While this stance has some ground, Phaedrus is just one example of how obtaining knowledge with no collaboration hinders a person’s ability to reach a conclusion. As Pirsig states, He [Phaedrus] had an ax to the grind and all he sought were those things that helped him grind it, (Pirsig 373). In other words, Pirsig believes that Phaedrus unfairly sought out knowledge that would only prove his theory of quality. Collaboration with others could have been a positive experience for Phaedrus. If others had tested his idea, it could have developed into a complete conclusion. I would like to further this idea saying that the point of collaboration in a University is to challenge, amend, and grow our ideas. This causes each individual in the community to enlarge their minds in order to see a greater, larger version of the world. Despite the fact that it is important that by learning with others there is an enlargement of the mind, one must be able to answer the question: why is this enlargement important? The answer is: one must learn with others in order to learn for them. In other words, by learning with others you are able to see who you will impact by learning your own specific subject. Newman agrees when he writes, It is a great then to enlarge the range of studies which a University professesand though they cannot pursue every subject which is open to them, they will be gainers by living among those and under those who represent the whole circle, (Newman 77). In making this comment, Newman urges us to look at those we are learning with and how we can enliven them. No longer is a person learning only for themselves, they are learning to enrich the community they are in now and the society they will be a member of in the future. When Phaedrus limits his learning he loses his, understanding of what it is to be part of the world, and not an enemy of it, (Pirsig 387). Pirsig’s point is that when Phaedrus limited himself to just obtaining knowledge by himself, he was no longer able to function in society. Ultimately, what is at stake here is if we do not learn with others, we will not be able to function in society. Additionally, no matter how much knowledge we gain, it will be of no use if we cannot use this knowledge to better the community around us. When a community is formed in the University, everyone is in it together. Each individual learns and invests time in enlivening themselves in order for those around them to do so too. The University that Newman describes gives rise a group of individuals who see the context of how they will help each other: the writer learns who they can impact and even transform with their books and lawyer sees the world he can improve. Learning in a community gives us the ability to make our own knowledge meaningful in society. In discussions of the University, one reoccurring issue has been how one ought to learn. On one hand, modern society places emphasize on the individuals obtainment of knowledge. Phaedrus is an unquestionable example of this style of learning. On the other hand, Newman argues a University is a place for collaboration and learning with each other. Moreover, the best way to learn is to learn with others. My own view is an extension of Newman’s. I believe that Newman’s University is important because it gives context to who we are learning for, making our own knowledge meaningful. When a community is built, each individual no longer learns only for the betterment for themselves, but the betterment of everyone. Though my own time at a University has been short, I have already seen this in my own experience. Those who I am learning with push me to congruently learn more broadly and more deeply. I want to see them achieve greatness as much as I want to achieve my own. Although learning with others might seem like a small facet of a University, it has the greatest worth. It is the driving force to keep myself, and those around me learning, growing, achieving, prospering and most importantly it allows us to begin to understand how we can better the world around us.