The history of American higher education might have changed radically if Harvard College had pulled off an incredible feat when looking for its first president. The college's Puritan founders offered the position to the most innovative Christian educator of the time, the amazing Czech John Amos Comenius. He never came.
Comenius's fame derived from his theological and practical advances. He set forth the theo-logical proposal that all people, including women and the poor, should be educated, because all are made in God's image. He created educational techniques that appealed to all the senses—for example, his Latin grammar text Orbis Pictus was the very first illustrated book in print history.
When it came to the purpose of higher education, however, Comenius shunned innovation. His illustrated book hints at what he saw as a primary aim of education. An invitation at the beginning bids the reader, "Come, Boy, learn to be wise." He later described the university as "a permanent assembly of wise men" and "a factory for wisdom." Comenius represented the expectation, now nearly 400 years old, that universities should help students cultivate expertise in the conduct of a good life—a quality the Book of James identifies as the mark of wisdom (3:13).
Today, however, the idea that professors should dispense moral wisdom is passé. Contemporary universities consider themselves sources of technical expertise for professional practices. If their professors dispense advice beyond their discipline, it usually concerns matters of public policy or political life.
Consequently, professors operate with a narrow conception of their vocation. As one professor admitted, "There ...