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“When a person’s virtue is not equal to his position, all will suffer.” When education fails to foster virtue in professional and especially business schools the world is in peril. This essay addresses some of the significant challenges in educating practically wise business professionals. Universities need to recover a Thomistic view of practical wisdom that provides a three-fold embedded function: seeing the alignment between liberal and professional education, practical wisdom (phronesis/prudentia) is embedded within speculative wisdom (sophia); judging with clarity the good business does by defining the goods of business and institutions embedded within the common good; and acting within a university where the university principle (the education of the mind) is embedded within the collegiate principle (formation of the will and heart). A special thanks to Karen Laird and Lizzie Michalak for their helpful editing. I am especially grateful to Elisabeth Kincaid who gathered scholars for a seminar on practical wisdom at Loyola University New Orleans. Their critical insights of my paper were helpful in nuancing several items.

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
“The Rock,” T. S. Eliot

The Problem: The Disordered Relationship between Liberal and Professional Education

Of all the virtues that we hope to find in a university-educated person, wisdom should stand out as pre-eminent: that noble quality whereby knowledge and information are ordered to the good of the whole. Yet we know all too well that this virtue often fails to find a home in the university and an educated mind. Walker Percy once quipped that “it is possible to get an A in everything and flunk life.”1 Alasdair MacIntyre put the same point in a more cutting way: “We always need to remind ourselves of something that experience on university committees irritatingly often confirms, that it is possible to have become a highly distinguished historian, say, or physicist and yet remain a fool.”2 The point is that being smart is one thing, and being wise is another.

The virtue of wisdom is particularly pressing in professional education in general and business education in particular. St. John Henry Newman noted that a person trained narrowly in only one field was not competent even in that chosen area.3 If a person studied business but was isolated from political science, or history, or law, or philosophy, or theology, the results of that study will not be merely incomplete, but fundamentally disordered.4 As is often noted, people may know the price of everything but the value of nothing. Such narrow training results in businesspeople without principle and professionals without spirit. It brings about not wisdom, but dangerous and often undetected vices described in terms of various “isms”: careerism, utilitarianism, proceduralism, legalism, consumerism, materialism, and others.

When universities began in the Middle Ages, they sought to bring knowledge into a larger whole. Universities developed out of a remarkable confidence that the human person was made to know the whole of reality. Yet, there are two particular facts that modern people are surprised to learn about the beginnings of the university. The first fact is that the university in the West was born in Bologna in 1088, which essentially started as a law school by students not faculty. Professional schools within universities are not a recent addition. Law was examined not as a specialty unrelated to inquiries of a liberal education, but as a discipline that related to the nature of the human person and society, to virtue and in particular justice, to the meaning of civil and ecclesial authority, to the social nature and private ownership of land and property, and others. When Newman started his university in Ireland in the 1850s, he had schools of law and medicine in the belief that the genuinely integrating vision of the world articulated by a liberal education could and should situate all kinds of work within the deepest soils of discernment and meaning.

The second fact is that universities were born out of the heart of the Church, ex corde ecclesia, developing from monasteries and cathedral schools more specifically. The Church’s role in developing universities was not accidental. It never saw itself as simply building seminaries or Bible schools, but educational institutions where math, science, literature, art, history, philosophy, theology, as well as law, medicine, and business, could be studied, fostering both a unity of knowledge and the complementarity of faith and reason.

These two surprising facts shape why professional education should never merely be a training in the “how” of things, but an education into the deep “why” they are done, never merely about the mind, but a forming of the will and heart. It is this intersection and integration of the how and why that the virtue of practical wisdom lies. Traditionally in the West, professional schools such as law, medicine, business, and engineering were seen as best situated within a liberal education. The integrity of these professions depended upon university education that could situate the power of these professions within a larger whole that could define more clearly their social, moral, and spiritual meaning. Without this larger context, professional schools within universities would lose their education of the whole and result in a technical training of the parts.5 Yet, technical education is never just technical because it is people who perform the action. Techniques and skills always have an intrinsic moral or immoral quality when people are involved. While the skills provide the matter of business and professional preparation, they do not provide the soul of its professionalism. If professional education becomes severed from an authentic liberal education within the university context, its inclination will focus on the particular and instrumental at the expense of the universal and moral, and as a result would undermine a broader unity that is the function of the university.

Newman’s concern is echoed in the ancient Chinese text, the Guanzi, where it states: “When a person’s virtue is not equal to his position, all will suffer.”6 When professionals are not wise, just, courageous, and temperate the world is in peril. MacIntyre has noted that many of the crises of the last fifty years have arisen from the faulty and disordered judgments of professionals from the most prestigious universities of the West. One thinks of the 2008–09 financial crisis in which some of the brightest technicians and finance specialists engineered the world economy to a near disaster. The same is true of political scientists and foreign policy experts who have failed to take seriously an understanding of religion to evaluate developments in the Middle East or in Africa, a failure with enormous and continuing consequences for a right understanding of cultural and political realities in those regions of the world.7 And more recently, universities increasingly speak about the importance of social justice as well as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), but little about wisdom. Many have created in the last five to ten years their own DEI departments, which are increasingly being criticized for their ideological coercion in relation to metrics, training programs, hiring, and promotion statements.8 These failures are products of the misjudgments that lacked not specialized training but a larger habit of mind which would allow them to interpret complex and converging realities.

All of this is not to say that the university and its professional schools are not concerned about the virtues or ethics. The level of moral discourse coming out of universities, especially in the last couple of years, has never been higher. But unfortunately, their virtues are unhinged from wisdom. Universities are subject to what G. K. Chesterton calls modernity’s temptation of “wild and wasted virtues”:

The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. . . . The virtues have gone mad, because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.9

For Chesterton and the Greco/Roman and Christian traditions, there is a unity to the virtues, and our temptation is that we isolate certain virtues where they become unhinged from other virtues and a larger understanding of the human person. This is why this tradition speaks of the “cardinal virtues” (practical wisdom, justice, courage, temperance). The Latin root of the word cardinal (cardo) means hinged. The cardinal virtues are hinged, connected to something larger that enables us on which to operate as we ought. A door, for example, if it is to function, needs to be “hinged” to its frame that allows it to operate as it was designed. The cardinal virtues connect us to our “internal powers,” the intellect, will, and desires that give us the ability to achieve the good in the world. They serve less as an instruction and more as a reminder of our best selves who are just, courageous, moderate, and practically wise. They have an explanatory power that points to those habits that free us to human excellence.

In this tradition of the cardinal virtues, practical wisdom or prudence is its “mother,” especially for business and professional leadership. It is the habit of recognizing good ends and choosing effective means to achieve those ends in changing and unique circumstances. Apart from practical wisdom, business and professional work fails to contribute to our fulfillment and our desires, for these ends remain mere enthusiasms. But with practical wisdom, work can be properly humanized such that it contributes to the flourishing of persons and communities.

Universities, in their role of educating business leaders and professionals, need an understanding of the virtues that has practical wisdom at its center. This entails a tradition of wisdom, a tradition that is contemplative, that fosters wonder and awe, that is premised on a created order, that is received. These qualities for the modern university are almost a non-starter. I say “almost” because it really has no other option that will be successful. The retrieval of the Greco/Roman and Christian traditions of the virtues is key to universities and their professional schools, but it faces serious challenges within the university. Ironically, the humanities may be the most difficult place to retrieve wisdom with the largely modern and post-modern ideologies of pragmaticism, activism, and social constructionism. Yet, liberal education, starting in the Greek Classical period, is 2,500 years in the making and hopefully a couple of generations of bad philosophy will not be able to kill it.

Business and professional schools have their own problems of careerism and instrumental rationality, which is why they need an understanding of practical wisdom that can order effective means toward good ends in changing and uncertain circumstances, between how to do something and why it is done. Practical wisdom plays an important role for business leaders and professionals in discerning how actions can be reasonable, avoiding the ditches of excess and deficiency. In the next section, I lay out what practical wisdom looks like in universities and their business and professional schools and what are the challenges in educating students in practical wisdom.

Solution: The Embedded Relationship of Professional Education within Liberal Education and the Leavening of Prudence

To explore the notion of practical wisdom, or prudence, for professional and business university education, I draw upon the age-old method of practical wisdom of “see, judge, act.” Josef Pieper, drawing upon Thomas Aquinas, explains this method in the following way:

  • Seeing of reality clearly and accurately. “The pre-eminence of prudence means that realization of the good presupposes knowledge of reality. He alone can do good who knows what things are like and what their situation is.”10
  • Judgment of the good: prudential decisions are fed from two sources. “It is necessary for the prudent man to know both the universal principle of Reason and the singulars with which ethical action is concerned.”11
  • Decision to Act: Pieper explains that “[t]he special nature of prudence is its concern with the realm of ‘ways and means’ and down to earth realities,” like the work of professions and business.12 Prudence is not just a quality of mind, but involves action exercised by the will.

I utilize this method of practical wisdom within a university context to re- cover its mission in forming future professionals in practical wisdom. The key point here is that a university must witness practical wisdom in the way that it educates, which will serve as a contributing condition to businesses acting with practical wisdom. Utilizing the three-fold expression of practical wisdom, university business education has a three-fold embedded function:

  • Seeing the alignment between liberal and professional education, practical wisdom (phronesis/prudentia) is embedded within speculative wisdom (sophia).
  • Judging with clarity the good business does by defining the goods of business and institutions embedded within the common good.
  • Acting within a university where the university principle (the education of the mind) is embedded within the collegiate principle (formation of the will and heart).

This embedded function of practical wisdom within the university arises out of the foundational conviction of the Classical and Christian West of the embedded and integral relationship of the active and contemplative life, which informs the relationship of liberal and business or professional education. This relationship is profoundly expressed by Hans Urs von Balthasar where “the power of contemplation increases, so does that of action. . . . Action occurs not . . .to the detriment of contemplation, but as its fulfillment.”13

The contemplative life makes the active life fruitful as yeast makes dough nourishing. This is what liberal education does for professional studies, it creates a contemplative outlook that fosters a receptivity that receives the reality of the world. It gives the power of the soul to listen to the being of things, a power that moves us to an imagination, not of make believe, but a way of seeing that within the physical order of business and the professions there operates a spiritual and moral order that expands, purifies, repairs, and heals our actions and relationships. Without such a contemplative outlook the result is not only a loss of wisdom, but a loss of our humanity.

Seeing: The Embedded Relationship of Professional Education (phronesis/prudentia) in Liberal Education (sophia)

My colleague John Boyle speaks of the wise person as “one who has contact with reality.”14 Any education worthy of the name is a process that sensitizes us to see reality as it is overcoming our bias, prejudice, ignorance, and disordered passions. Key to this contact with reality is the question “why.” Wisdom, as has been said by many, begins in wonder, in that natural fascination of the question “why.” The “why” puts us in contact with things: What is it? What’s in it? Where did it come from? How does it work? And why? Aquinas describes wisdom as a passion of the rational soul when there is a desire to know the hidden cause of an effect seen.15

Our contact with reality provokes something in us, a desire to know that thing more and better because we don’t know it fully. This desire to know, qua desire, has an intrinsic relationship with love. The more we know something such as nature, spouses, children, work, and disciplines, the more we love them. And the more we love something or someone, the more we want to know them. It is in this dynamism of love and knowledge where wisdom grows.

This relationship between love and knowledge fosters within students a “love for learning,” a love for their disciplines. The ancient Greeks called this education paideia, and the Romans called it the humanities. It developed in the Middle Ages under the name of the liberal arts, which has served as a bedrock for the West’s self-understanding of education. This kind of education moved beyond the passing on of military skills to train the warrior to protect the tribe or race as found among the Spartans and other ancient cultures.16 The hope today is that liberal education can move us beyond the careerism that is simply another form of militant self-protectionism.

The development of Western education was ultimately not grounded in a particular race, ethnicity, or gender.17 Instead, the Greeks and those who followed them, sought an education that explored, developed, and participated in “what made a person human rather than bestial, and civilized rather than barbaric.”18 Because the person is made to know, this kind of education raised to great importance philosophy, math, literature, music, theology, science, art— ways of seeing reality that revealed universal patterns about the person, nature, and God. The human person has this great capacity to reason (logos), to see things—to tap into the way the world functions and to participate in a harmony that is discovered through patterns of intelligibility that the mind can unlock. Of course, this education has never fully lived up to ideas, but it does have expressions of greatness throughout its history.

A liberal education is the relationship between knowledge and love enlarging and expanding the minds of students. It softens the ground for the imagination to a world of vitality and meaning. Liberal education enables us to see both deeply, that behind the visible object is an invisible reality, and broadly, that one thing is related to other things. At its best, it is an education that resists beating reality into intellectual submission to some system whether its pragmaticism, post-modernism, capitalism, socialism, materialism, scientism, or fundamentalism. Such isms and ideologies disconnect us from reality. Liberal education is contact with the whole of reality that is inexhaustible, which is why within liberal education the Socratic method, the art of questioning, has a preeminence to good pedagogy. It is why the lecture is never given simply for assent but as a prelude to disputation. Eva Braun, a tutor from St. John’s College, made the distinction between asking a question for a problem to be solved and then move on, and a question to be asked concerning a love to be explored, which then moves us to deeper levels of understanding that opens us up to more questions. Both questions are appropriate, but the second kind is more interesting and leads to a deep wisdom the Greeks called sophia. What stands behind this wisdom, this continuing quest in the question, is a cosmos, not a chaos, a comprehendible, but never exhaustible created order that points to a final and ultimate cause we call God. Einstein captures this well with his pithy phrase: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”19

If a liberal education is the process of exploring questions that bring us to wisdom, to wonder, to a cosmos that has order but that is never exhaustible, professional or business education within the university, in order to be consistent with liberal education as wisdom, is a process in “practical wisdom” (phronesis in Greek) or prudence (prudentia in Latin). Whereas wisdom, sophia, places us on the “largest conceptual map,” practical wisdom, (phronesis in Greek or prudential in Latin), moves us to particular actions consistent with the larger vision.

Business and professional education, situated within liberal education, is a way of seeing that engages both the ends worth pursuing in the profession (ends that bring into being real human goods) and the means most likely to achieve those goals (i.e., what means most efficiently and effectively achieve the goals without harming other goods along the way). Like liberal education, business and professional education is a way to bring us into contact with reality. For example, as a form of having contact with reality, business education has an accepted body of knowledge that is necessary to practice business. Managing organizations takes a great deal of skill and technique. Business education, just like any other profession, must teach skills that are proper to itself: reading a balance sheet, calculating cost of capital, providing statistical analysis, targeting and segmenting markets, managing group dynamics, generating creative thinking, initiating problem-solving techniques, mediating conflicts, articulating strategies, and so forth. Such skills provide the matter of professional competence that has an important role in business education. Without such knowledge and skills in finance, marketing, accounting, economics, and so forth, students would not only be unprepared for their respective job markets, but they would be unprepared as moral agents to live so that others can live better.20 A university curriculum cannot promote a more just world without introducing students to the actual skills and knowledge necessary to function in their respective disciplines. Yet, such knowledge and skills need to be ordered by good ends which are key to judgment.

Judging: The Embedded Relationship of the Goods of Business in the Common Good for Business Education

Business leaders and professionals not only need to see reality as it is, but they are called upon to make “judgments” about particular goods in the institutions they lead and manage. Of course, the way they see reality or don’t see reality is the difference between “good judgments” and “crude judgments.”21 And the key to good judgments are the ends or goods that are sought within the institutions they lead.

What is the good business seeks? A way of framing this question within an institutional context is to speak of three goods of business or any productive institution: good goods, good work, and good wealth. These three goods not only have to be achieved, but they also must be ordered properly, which gets to the importance of practical wisdom.

  • Good goods are about producing goods that are truly good and services that truly serve. What often attracts people to a profession or form of work is the product or service they produce. Doctors want to heal people, lawyers seek order and justice, and businesspeople want to create quality products and services that are good for their customers and society. While there are plenty of people who will produce products and services that are self-serving and debilitating, many people don’t. They want to build products and services that are worthy of their time and life. They want their children, parents, spouses, and others to be proud of what they do. Underpinning this good is the larger principle of the “universal destination of material goods.” We get access to the world’s goods by businesses who provide them.
  • Good work is organizing work so that people develop their gifts and talents. The two defining characteristics of good work are gift recognition and gift coordination. Leaders of institutions need to recognize the diversity of gifts, talents, abilities, skills, contributions, ways of knowing, experiences, and perspectives of their employees; and second, having once recognized those gifts, leaders need to coordinate the diversity of gifts to achieve the mission of the institution. Underpinning this good is the dignity of work and the principle of subsidiarity.
  • Good wealth creates sustainable revenue and income so that it can be distributed justly. Wealth cannot be distributed if it has not been created—nor should wealth be created without a just distribution of it to those responsible for its creation. These two dimensions of good wealth, creation, and distribution cannot be understood apart from each other. They are like two sides of a coin. When a business generates more than what has been given to it, we call the result profit or margin, a surplus of retained earnings over expenses. Yet, profit is like food. We need it if we are to be healthy and sustained in life, but we ought not to live for it. It is a means, not an end; a reward, not a motive. Profit makes a good servant, but a lousy master. Underpinning this good is the importance of economic freedom and the social nature of property.

When businesses provide these three goods, they serve as the economic engine of a society and play an indispensable role in contributing to the common good. When they fail to achieve these goods, they frustrate the building up of the community. The key to these three goods is how they are ordered. Practical wisdom with business and institutional life is the ordering of these three goods toward the common good. Aquinas writes that those who are wise “put things in their right order and control them well.”22 He explains that “man’s will is not right in willing a particular good, unless he refer it to the common as an end.”23 What Aquinas means by “common” has two important dimensions in terms of the three institutional goods that are sought: allocation of goods when shared are diminished and the participation in goods when shared are not diminished. This distinction is key to giving the common good some form in institutional life.

Allocation: What becomes evident quickly in institutional life is that these three goods are often in tension with each other. Seeking lower prices for consumers (good goods) usually has negative implications in paying workers fairly (good wealth). In a world of scarcity, the just allocation of resources is a central task of wise leaders. Resources are limited, and when they are distributed, one group will get more and another less. When a business makes a profit from the prices they charge to the consumer, there is a limited amount they can distribute to bonuses, dividends, capital investment, future wage increases, training and development for employees, charitable contributions to the civic community, and so forth. This allocation is increasingly complex through the shifts and uncertainties in globalization, expanding technologies, financial pressures, labor markets, and cultural changes. Yet, this distribution of wealth, however, is never a value-neutral activity. The practically wise leader must justly allocate such resources in a way that generates profit.

Participation: Yet, when a business prudently distributes its resources justly, it participates in justice, a quality that does not diminish when shared. When people are treated with justice, they are more prone to respond with justice, and when two people treat each other justly, they trust each other more with each succeeding decision. They have less need for onerous contracts that specify obligations in great detail. They spend less time checking up on each other, and they are more willing to make sacrifices for the good of the other. Employees are more likely to stay at their company despite challenges and tensions, reducing turnover. All of these qualities contribute to the organizational culture and morale of the business. They make business more meaningful, usually more enjoyable, and in most cases more effective. The sharing in of participative goods, those goods shared without diminishment, is a central task of wise leadership.24

Unfortunately, this common good view of business in the modern academy is not well-known in business education. The two dominant visions found in business scholarship and curriculum that articulate the good and purpose of business are the shareholder and stakeholder models of the firm. As modern constructs of business, they have much to contribute to understanding business, but their principal focus on the interests of particular entities rather than the goods of the institutions has significant limitations. They are rooted in an economic system of interests rather than a moral system of goods, which makes them unable to move to practical wisdom that serves as an integrative force to order institutions to the common good. Both shareholder wealth-maximization and stakeholder interest-balancing are too weak to connect the good of a business to the common good.25 The shareholder and stakeholder models constrain the thinking about business because they focus on allocative goods, that diminish when shared, and they ignore or discount participative goods that do not diminish when shared.

Articulating the real goods of business and how such goods are ordered toward human flourishing is of critical importance to any business school. For no business school stands on the moral sidelines. The three models of the common good, stakeholder, and shareholder view of business are ultimately three rival versions of understanding such goods and their order. Universities that want to create the conditions to nurture wise judgments among wise business leaders need to educate students to see what is at stake in such goods and their prudent ordering.

Acting: The Embedded Relationship of the University Principle in the Collegiate Principle

What does a university do to foster practical wisdom in its business and professional students? One of the great organizing principles the medieval university gave to education is found in what St. John Henry Newman called the “university principle” and the “collegiate principle.” These two principles are key to the renewal of university life today. They are essential to a strong and vibrant university culture that enlarges the mind and forms the will and heart that enables practical wisdom to begin to take root in the student.

The university principle expresses the essence of education. It concerns the acquisition of knowledge in the classroom, the lab, and the library where the mind is cultivated, sharpened, disciplined, and made more precise, active, and penetrating. While such discipline will entail various forms of specialization, at the center of the university principle is the aim of developing a habit of mind that sees things in relation to each other, resulting in a comprehensive vision that fosters wise and accurate judgments about the world.

Whereas the university principle represents the essence of higher education, it does not have the capacity to provide for its integrity.26 The life of a student is never confined simply to the classroom, lab, and library. Students live in dorms and apartments, they play sports, they worship and pray, they participate in clubs and internships, and above all they create friendships, not only among themselves but with staff, faculty, and practitioners. They are called not only to gain an intellectual habit of seeing things whole, but also to fashion lives of integrity that have the capacity to integrate the life of the mind and the life of the heart and soul. For Newman, a well-ordered collegiate experience is a necessary moral and spiritual complement to the university principle, without which the minds of fallen humans would tend to the excesses of pride and be influenced by the passions and therefore go astray in the pursuit of truth. In addition to developing intellectual virtues, students also need to grow in moral and theological virtues, such as justice, temperance and courage, and faith, hope, and charity. What is key to these virtues is that each student is called to a particular work, and that college years are a crucial time to be attuned to this call. I utilize these two principles for a plan of action below.

University Principle: Curriculum Guide of Discovery, Application, and Integration

What does practical wisdom look like in the curriculum of a university with professional schools? I find Ernest Boyer’s categorization for research a helpful way to understand the curriculum of a university, and in particular business and professional education. Courses at a university can fit within three broad categories: discovery, application, and integration.27 What enables practical wisdom to begin to take root in the student is when these three broad categories connect to each other in an interdisciplinary synthesis grounded in the conviction of the unity of knowledge. When these three categories are related to each other, informed by each other, speak to the limit of each other, correct each other and are complemented by each other, they foster practical wisdom in the student.

Discovery: Liberal Education and Sophia

As I noted above, of all the areas of curriculum reform, liberal education and especially the humanities may be the most difficult to renew in light of the situation in which we find ourselves. While there are multiple challenges, the influence of post-modernism in particular, once avant-garde, has now become dominant, especially in the humanities, reducing all inquiry to power and victim/oppressor dynamics. When disciplines in the humanities unhinge themselves from any metaphysical truth claims, they land in political places, which ironically undermine their purpose, making their discipline irrelevant to the life of the university. Other disciplines in the social sciences can do far better work in relation to political and economic change than an English, history, philosophy, or theology department.

While difficult, what is needed, and what is happening in various pockets of education, is a renewal of liberal education cultivating the capacity (both natural and grace-given) of students to wonder and understand themselves as people who are free and intelligent subjects with the capacity to know the true, the good, and the beautiful. Glimpses of renewal are found in various universities, mostly small, who have reclaimed their classical and liberal heritage, as well as various classical humanities and Catholic Studies programs within larger universities. There is also a growing classical and liberal education movement occurring in primary and secondary schools (Chesterton Schools, Great Hearts Academy, Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, homeschooling, and many others), which one hopes will influence higher education. These renewal movements provide literature courses that move away from modern ideologies and tap into the spiritual and moral imagination of great stories found in writers such as Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Austin, Dostoevsky, Undset, O’Connor, and others. Their philosophy courses uncover the metaphysical realities of human existence and ground the virtues in a compelling understanding of human nature through writers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Anscombe, MacIntyre, and others. Their history courses reveal not merely just a series of interesting facts and episodes in the past, but an understanding of traditions and cultures in which the facts of different peoples, events, and times come alive again for us. This kind of liberal education serves as the soil in which professional education can be planted and where wisdom grows.

Applied: Business Courses

Practical wisdom is not just about ends but means that have the ability to put things in right order. To do this, professionals need to know “how things work” and the principles of behavior for such a profession. Practical wisdom is concerned not only with what is right, but also that it is done rightly; not only with what is good, but that it is done well. The primary focus of business and professional courses, unlike liberal education courses, will be on the practical and technical matters of a particular field of study; yet it is precisely in the study of the practice of business that opportunities to explore the ethical and spiritual implications of business will open to faculty and students. While business faculty will rarely see themselves as experts in philosophical and theological matters, they can address the three goods in business (good goods, good work, good wealth) and the tensions of achieving these goods in the practical day-to-day lives of businesspeople.

Integration: Bridge Courses

Most universities struggle with what can be called an “alongside approach,” where liberal education and business professional programs have created, to an extent, two kinds of education rather than one. Integrating courses are by their nature interdisciplinary, fostering a kind of middle-level thinking, forging explicit linkages between theory and practice, contemplation and practice, and faith and work by synthesizing literary, historical, philosophical, and theological insights with business theory and practice. In the past, universities sought a unity within the curriculum in a senior class, sometimes taught by the president, to bring together the various themes of a student’s education. While this is seemingly impractical today in light of the external commitments of a president, the dean of a business or engineering school could teach such a course, especially if they would team teach with someone from theology, philosophy, or Catholic Studies. Such a course would focus on the whole education by relating their liberal education to their business or professional major. It can serve as a sending off for students into the world with a deeper sense of vocation that helps them situate the meaning of business within a larger moral and spiritual reality.

Collegiate Principle

One must be careful, however, to get more out of a classroom than a classroom can give. This is not to endorse the condescending slogan that “all real learning happens outside the classroom.” Rather, it is to recognize the fact that the formation that occurs outside of the classroom is of significant importance to the education that happens inside the classroom. To foster wisdom in universities it is not simply enough to only focus on the academic program and the life of the mind. Needed are formation activities and programs that invite students into bonds of communion where deep friendships might emerge with faculty, staff, and other students. Without personal relationships, especially between professors and students, wisdom will be either an abstraction or simply lost.

At the heart of the collegiate principle is helping students discern their vocation in light of the gifts they have been given and the needs of the world. When students ignore these deeper convictions about their lives in college, they make poor decisions not only with their major, but in whom they date, how they spend their free time, who they think their friends are. I highlight four areas of activities and programs that can foster such friendship and wisdom in vocational discernment: residential life, mentoring, immersion experiences, and spiritual life.

Residential Life

Residential life at the university has a significant influence on students. When students experience a lack of community as well as decadent behaviors of drugs, drinking, video games, and hook ups, their minds and souls become dull. They lose wonder and wisdom. One of the more recent responses to these challenges has been what Residence Life offices have developed called “living learning communities,” intentional communities around a particular commitment such as academics, sustainability, a major, faith, and so forth. When students are not intentional about their living arrangements many descend to the lowest common denominator of the culture, which today is increasingly found on their screens in the forms of video games, social media, movies, sports, pornography, and other forms of entertainment. Without such intentionality, dormitory experiences make it difficult to foster friendships in an increasing technocratic culture. Creating intentional communities, as well as connecting these communities to academic life, is of critical importance to fostering wisdom. One creative way has been to have students in the intentional community take the same two courses in the general requirements, such as theology and philosophy, and organize outside classroom activities such as a play, a talk, or an evening of discussion at the one of the faculty’s homes. Such events create contact outside of the classroom that fosters academic conversations within the residences.


The increasing demands of faculty in relation to research, teaching, and service can leave little time or desire to connect with students outside of the classroom. Yet, students need role models and mentors, those faculty, staff, practitioners, and older students who connect with students on a wide variety of issues and decisions they are encountering and making. St. Pope Paul VI put it well when he said, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”28 Such witnessing for faculty is taking the time to listen, advise, and counsel students about future professional opportunities as well as personal decisions related to friendship, dating, family, as well as writing recommendations, and making introductions to practitioners and businesses.

Immersion Experiences

College is an ideal time for immersion experiences such as retreats, service trips, and especially study abroad. These experiences can develop the interior life, service to the poor, and cultural encounters, all of which are necessary components of wisdom since they foster deeper levels of integration. These immersive experiences also serve as powerful opportunities for deeper friendships and self-discovery. Study abroad, if structured rightly, has the possibility to provide an integrative experience of both the university and collegiate principles, where the integration of study, friendship, mentoring, and worship could come together in a concrete and organic experience of life.

Spiritual Life

As students discern their majors and assess their gifts and talents, each is looking toward a future profession. Alongside this call of work is the call of marriage or religious life. In discerning these multiple dimensions of their vocation, students have the opportunity to develop a deeper interior life that helps them to better know themselves, others around them, and God’s will in their lives. This discernment would find its deepest expression in the soil of the liturgy and sacraments, prayer, spiritual direction, and as well as in one-on-one conversations with faculty and staff. It is why the Church, through campus ministry, plays a central role in the collegiate principle. This is why Newman explains that practically speaking, the university cannot fulfil its essence without “the Church’s assistance.”29


The loss of wisdom in universities has been the result of reordering convictions, creating what C. S. Lewis called “men without chests.”30 We have moved away from education with a contemplative orientation to one of calculation and measurement. We have jettisoned a language of wonder for one of progress. We have abandoned a created order for social construction. All of this is a very dangerous place to be in light of the increasing significant power of technology and how businesses and professions use it. To recover wisdom within the university, we need the embedded relationships described above that provide for us a proper “ordering” of reality. What is desperately needed in higher education is a profound integration best captured in the words of Newman on the relationship of the good and useful which captures an important element of practical wisdom: “though the useful is not always good, the good is always useful.”31 Liberal education for Newman is a contemplative act, which has the capacity to inform professional and, in particular, business education in such a way that its usefulness can be directed to the good. Liberal education, as contemplation, has the resources to help businesspeople integrate their work and the deepest truths of their humanity. This is practical wisdom.

Cite this article
Michael Naughton, “The Loss of Wisdom in the University and the Perils of Business Education: Recovering Practical Wisdom Through the Integration of Liberal and Professional Education”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 53:3 , 23-39


  1. Walker Percy, The Second Coming (London, UK: Macmillan, 1980), 89.
  2. Alasdair MacIntyre, “Catholic Universities: Dangers, Hopes, Choices,” in Higher Learning and Catholic Traditions, ed. Robert E. Sullivan (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 3.
  3. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987), 131.
  4. See R. Jared Staudt, ed., The University and the Church: Don J. Briel’s Essays on Education (Providence, RI: Cluny Media, 2019).
  5. See Josef Pieper on his distinction between education and training in Leisure the Basis of Culture (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 1998), 23–24.
  6. Quoted by Peter Senge’s Foreword of William J. O’Brien, Character at Work: Building Prosperity through the Practice of Virtue (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 2008), vi.
  7. Alasdair MacIntyre, “The Very Idea of a University: Aristotle, Newman and Us,” New Blackfriars 91, no. 1031 (2010): 4–19, first published in The British Journal of Educational Studies 57, no. 4 (December 2009): 347–362. See also MacIntyre, “Catholic Universities.”
  8. See Emery Koenig and Michael Naughton, “Putting first things first: Ordering DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) in light of subsidiarity,” Business and Society Review, May 2023,; Emery Koenig and Michael J. Naughton, “What Catholic institutions should take (and leave) from the D.E.I. movement,” America: The Jesuit Review, August 30, 2023, https://www.americamagazine. org/politics-society/2023/08/30/diversity-equity-inclusion-catholic-institutions-245916.
  9. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1908), 35.
  10. Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues (Notre Dame, IN.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966), 10.
  11. Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues, 10.
  12. Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues, 11.
  13. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology, vol. I, The Word Made Flesh (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1989), 234.
  14. Many of the insights from this section come from my colleague John Boyle in a talk he gave on wisdom at the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education (Pittsburgh, PA, July 2023).
  15. St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John Chapters 1–5 (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press of America, 2010), 69 (Sup. Io. 1.14, lect. 7, n. 168). This reference was pointed out to me by John Boyle.
  16. H. I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1956), 36–38.
  17. Habiger Institute for Catholic Leadership, The Heart of Culture: A Brief History of Western Education (Providence, RI: Cluny Media, 2020), 4, 21.
  18. Habiger Institute for Catholic Leadership, The Heart of Culture, 22.
  19. Albert Einstein, “Physics and Reality,” Journal of the Franklin Institute 221, no. 3 (March 1936): 349–382.
  20. Charles Handy, “What’s a Business For?” Harvard Business Review, December 2002,
  21. Mary Midgley, “Trying Out One’s New Sword,” in Mary Midgley, Heart and Mind: The Varieties of Moral Experience (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1981), 159–165, accessed at
  22. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 1, Chapter 1.
  23. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Q.19, Art.10, ad.
  24. For further discussion on the common good and business see Michael J. Naughton, Getting Working Right: Labor and Leisure in a Fragmented World (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road, 2018), chapter 4.
  25. See Kenneth Goodpaster and Michael Naughton, “The Institutional Insight Underlying Shareholder/Stakeholder Approaches to Business Ethics” in Business Ethics and Catholic Social Thought, ed. Daniel F. Finn (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2021), 117–139.
  26. See also John Henry Newman, Historical Sketches Vol. III, “Rise and Progress of Universities” (London, UK: Longman’s Green, 1924), 180ff.
  27. See E. L. Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1990).
  28. Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41.
  29. Newman, The Idea of a University, ix.
  30. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1947).
  31. Newman, The Idea of a University, 164.

Michael Naughton

Michael Naughton is the director of the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.