The Knowledge Revolution






Knowledge Rev.

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The Twentieth Century

The twentieth century ushered in an unprecedented explosion of knowledge, especially in the sciences and technology. A large number of new disciplines appeared, many requiring extensive training, and placing a significant burden on colleges and universities. Related to this was a movement to eliminate many of the traditional core requirements, often replaced with an assortment of elective courses: "as required courses were dropped and elective courses of study became even more directly tied to occupational interests, the idea of acquaintance with a fixed body of knowledge, classical or otherwise, as a mark of the educated person began to disappear."[1] As implied in this statement, a casualty of this process was the notion of a common heritage of knowledge, that had helped to define the essence of Western civilization. The growing complexity of professional education and the emphasis on electives made core courses and courses on moral philosophy or ethics increasingly rare at colleges as the century developed. The result of all this was that after being trained in their professions, individuals often knew more facts, but perhaps knew less about the topics that provide values and purpose.

The University and the Common Good

As seen in the previous pages, the values of Christian humanism have been integral to Western civilization through most of its history, and they were taught as part of programs of the major national universities. This was largely lost as part of the secularization process predominant in the twentieth century.[2] But the role of providing values is still emphasized by religiously-affiliated schools:

The mission of Baylor University is to educate men and women for worldwide leadership and service by integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment within a caring community.[3]

Pepperdine is a Christian university committed to the highest standards of academic excellence and Christian values, where students are strengthened for lives of purpose, service, and leadership.[4]

Marquette University is a Catholic, Jesuit university dedicated to serving God by serving our students and contributing to the advancement of knowledge. Our mission, therefore, is the search for truth, the discovery and sharing of knowledge, the fostering of personal and professional excellence, the promotion of a life of faith, and the development of leadership expressed in service to others. [5]

The Catholic University of Louvain aims to actively participate in public and cultural debate and in the advancement of a knowledge-based society. It puts its expertise to the service of society, with particular consideration for its most vulnerable members.[6]

Marquette University
Photo  © Margarita G. Romagosa

The Call to Service in the Professions

The mission statements emphasize the social role of  the professions in the light of Christian values. Christian life is a call to service. This was clearly stated by Jesus "Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant," (Gospel of Mark 10:35-45) but is often forgotten. In  one of the many  commencement addresses that congregational minister and social reformer Washington Gladden gave to students, he expresses the essence of the call to service in the professions:

The man comes to himself only when he is forgetting himself in devotion to some good outside of and beyond himself. Let us assume therefore that each one of the young men and women before me will have found before many months, some calling which connects itself closely with the public welfare, and will be pursuing that calling, not primarily as a means of personal aggrandizement, but as a work which on its own account is worth doing, because it tends to increase the sum of human happiness. I wish to consider with you how such a calling, pursued in such a spirit, becomes a continuous and fruitful educational opportunity.[5]


Economist and educator, Richard Ely was well aware of the importance of detailed socioeconomic knowledge in public service: "We cannot love our fellows effectively unless we give them our mind. We must devote ourselves long and carefully to the study of the science of human happiness, social science." [9]

Ely was a founding member of the American Economic Association, and an important contributor in establishing the study of applied economics in the United States:

A man of knowledge, who habitually fears to take an active part in the work of life, is himself a wretched being and a useless member of society. The importance of knowledge, as a preliminary, should be emphasized, but attention should be called to the importance of letting action follow knowledge. This is a world full of work to be done and knowledge has  its practical purpose. Better economic knowledge should bear its fruit in better citizenship. [10]

Vocations and Professionalism

God calls each individual into a role in the world, into a vocation or profession. Some are called through obvious superior skills or through strong interests, that educator John Donohue, S.J. [7] calls “providential hints,” but others are placed more by circumstances, and skills are developed from necessity, to fulfill some pressing need. All of these are calls to service. When the execution and development of a skill is seen as service, it has the most serious moral dimension. Work provides a service to someone in the world, even though the worker often  neither sees nor knows who benefits from this work. Samuel Florman, a Jewish engineer who has written extensively on the engineering profession, reflects on this dimension: “There are religious implications in technology- a little bit of cathedral in everything we build." [8]

Professional work provides an opportunity to participate in God’s creativity. Human creations, just as God's, have a reality of their own outside of their creator, but the created object carries in it the imprint of its creator as a projection of the mind that created it. The individual puts a part of himself into the result of his work. Like the divine creative act, the human creation always has an inherent element of generosity, since the creation can be used by others for their benefit.   The created object or service would not exist if this effort had not been made, and it provides some usefulness to someone in the world, even though often the creator neither sees nor knows who benefits from it.[9]

A professional can do a mediocre job or he or she can do it to the fullest extent of his or her ability. To the extent that his work is perfect, the individual has made the fullest creation, has added the most to the collective human reality. This perfection is a measure of his or her love for others and his or her care. Philosopher Gerard Smith, S.J. reflects on the value of the dedicated work done by a researcher: “If he succeeds, he may advance the cure of cancer. Isn’t God interested in that, in building a better world? If He isn’t interested in that, the quality of the job you do, what in heaven’s name is He interested in? In saving your soul? But this is our salvation: to do as best we can whatever we think good to do." [10] Quoting Samuel Florman again: “The quest for excellence is a virtuous enterprise that needs no rationalizing." [11]

Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. (1881-1955), the Jesuit scientist and theologian, has written extensively on the relation between work and the Christian vocation. Writing to a friend that was trying to find moral value in his professional work, Teilhard answers: “Because your undertaking - which I take to be perfectly legitimate - is going well, a little more health is being spread in the human mass, and in consequence a little more liberty to act, to think and to love.” [12] And referring specifically to the scientist: "The Christian scientist seems to everyone the best situated and the best prepared to develop in himself and foster around him the new human type seemingly awaited at present for the further advancement of the earth: the seeker who devotes himself, ultimately through love, to the labors of discovery." But the arts cannot be neglected: "A feeling may be vivid, but it still lacks something, or cannot be communicated to others, unless it is expressed in a significant act, in a dance, a song, a cry. It is art that provides this song or cry for the anxieties, the hopes, and the enthusiasms of man."[13]

Jesus went through his life helping and healing others, and he called for the building of a new world where we take care of each other. It is now our role to continue his work, and for most of us, the primary way in which we exercise our love for others is through our work. Teilhard relates his call for involvement in the world to the love of neighbor:

The charity of the gospels has long been identified with that of the good Samaritan, who picks up the victim, bandages him, and gives him such solace as he can. Surely there must some way of giving this great virtue an even more generous and active form?...   in some passionate attachment to the collective work of the universe. We have not only to ease but to develop; not only to repair but to build.[14

Here is a summary of the call to Christian love in the professions:

  • Our profession is a calling from God.
  • Our professional work participates in God’s creativity.
  • Our professional work is a major way to love our neighbor.
  • The quality of our work is a measure of our love.

The Thinking Earth

The end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty first century have seen a significantly new phase in the knowledge heritage of mankind. Much of the knowledge that was preserved in the documents of civilization is now encoded into the different types of memories of electronic computers, and it is now available almost instantly throughout the world's Internet. This is better in potential capability than Hartlib's Office of Addresse, but not necessarily in its current  purpose or functioning, since it is fairly chaotic and often used to support very negative activities as well as good ones. Teilhard foresaw a new era of increased cooperation and shared knowledge. He used the term Noosphere (the thinking earth) to refer to this development (apparently philosopher Edouard Leroy was the first to use the term, but Teilhard and Vladimir Vernadsky independently developed the concept):

Let us rather accept the fact: Mankind, as we find it in its present state and its present functioning, is organically inseparable from that which has been slowly added to it, and which is propagated through education. This 'additive zone', gradually created and transmitted by collective experience, is for each of us a sort of matrix, as real in its own way as our mother’s womb. It is a true racial memory, upon which our individual memories draw and through which they complete themselves.[15]

In fields embracing every aspect of physical matter, life and thought, the research-workers are to be numbered in hundreds of thousands, and they no longer work in isolation but in teams endowed with penetrative power that it seems nothing can withstand... The Noosphere, in short, is a stupendous thinking machine.[16]

But Teilhard hoped that humanity would act in concert in what he called (above) "the collective work of the universe." The challenge, as indicated at the beginning of this page, has been the loss of the sense of purpose that Christian principles gave to Western civilization, which highligths the importance of Christian himanism in centering human life:  "Because we love, and in order that we may love even more, we find ourselves happily and especially compelled to participate in all the endeavors, all the anxieties, all the aspirations and all the affections of the earth...[17]

[1] Christopher J. Lucas, American Higher Education: A History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 176.

[2] George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[3] Baylor University Website

[4] Pepperdine University Website

[5] Marquette University Website

[6] University of Louvain Website

[7] John Donohue, S.J., Work and Education,  (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1959),  190.

[8] Samuel C. Florman, The Civilized Engineer (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987), 20.

[9] John W. Donohue, S.J., Work and Education, 150.

[10] Gerard Smith, S.J., “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam” in A Trio of Talks (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1971), 5.

[11] Samuel C. Florman, The Civilized Engineer, 70.

[12] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Letters From a Traveler (New York: Harper and Row, 1962),  164.

[13] Teilhard the Chardin, "The Function of Art as an Expression of Human Energy" in Toward the Future, 89-90.

[14] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “The Sense Of Man” in Toward the Future (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), 33.

[15] Pierre Teilhard the Chardin, "Social Heredity and Progress" in The Future of Man (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), 32.

[16] Pierre Teilhard the Chardin, "The Formation of the Noosphere" in The Future of Man, 179-180.

[17] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, "The New Spirit," in The Future of Man (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), 99.