Georgetown professor talks about online courses


Steven McDowell
Contributing Writer

Georgetown Professor Fr. James Schall, S.J., said on Nov. 5 in Gorman Lecture Hall that the true university aims to discuss the most crucial questions of life and that the Great Books provide a good foundation for that conversation.

In the lecture titled “The Obsolescence of the Colleges: On the Paperless and Placeless Institution,” Schall discussed the question of whether the traditional university is obsolete in the current age of online classes and digital libraries.

Schall, a political philosophy professor and author of more than 30 books, said that online classes are more economical and convenient and that the digital library places all the information in the world “at our finger tips,” but that he is “not convinced that these changes are all improvements.”

The real issue, according to Schall, is “whether the college is loyal to the issue of what is the truth, and what the best institution is for its pursuit.”

The university “is the product of truth,” and it exists outside of the “real world” while still being intimately connected to it.

Schall argued that the true university raises questions that are problematic in the public forum, such as the truth of revelation. According to Schall, the main questions that must be asked at the university “are those whose answers change our minds as to how we live.”

As for the methodology behind this “search for truth,” Schall defended the Great Books curriculum as providing a good “starting place” for the intellectual awakening of the student.

“The world is filled with millions of books,” Schall said. “This reminds us of our need for order in our reading and for knowing what is worth our time.”

Above all, Schall stated, “The purpose of the college is not learning, but to wake us up so that we want to know something for its own sake.”

Schall noted, “We need to know how to work with our hands” in a practical way, but added that the “great human question” is “what do we do when all else is done?”

The aim of Schall’s ideal university is not a successful job placement for its students, but a “conversation about the highest things,” both in classes and in everyday interactions between students.

Indeed, according to Schall, “the essence of civilization is two or three men sitting in a room and conversing with one another on the highest things,” an activity that is uniquely possible at the university.

“Colleges are not obsolete, though many are,” Schall said. “We do need places where we can finally converse about what is, and wake up to something that is true.”

On Nov. 16, history professor Dr. Susan Hanssen will conclude the lecture series with a talk titled “Henry Adams on the Sanity or Suicide of the American University.”  Hanssen produced with Schall and other scholars “The Idea of the American University,” a collection of essays on American higher education published in 2010.


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