What Are Universities For?
Arthur, Chris, Contemporary Review
ACCORDING to the bland vocabulary of their mission statements, British universities exist for the advancement of knowledge, the development of academic excellence, the dissemination of understanding; they are supposed to be research-led but student centred, to provide access to learning for all sectors of society, to support economic and cultural growth in partnership with local, national and international communities ... Such things are true enough, but these verbal logos, which attempt to pinpoint what we're about in a way that won't alarm our paymasters, surely undersell us. Their ponderous dullness fails to convey either the excitement of intellectual exploration or its importance. The fact is, our very survival depends on developing and defending the manner in which such exploration is carried out. Mission statements too often resemble advertising's fatuous lexicon of resounding non-phrases, rather than suggesting the ideals that give universities their raison d'etre.
Attempts to summarise or critique works like John Henry Newman's The Idea of a University can provide interesting surveys of what has been said and offer thoughtful analyses of changing ideas about educational aims, but they also tend to mask the passion of inquiry. It is that passion, and the problems that hone it into disciplined forms, on which we need to focus in trying to formulate an answer. And, however fascinating it may be to debate the claims to primacy of Oxford and Bologna (both eclipsed in ancientness, of course, by Al-Ahzar, Nalanda, and Taxila), looking for a point of historical origin tends likewise to obscure the sense of urgency that should attend any statement of a university's role, particularly at a time when--at least in Britain--it is under such threat.
So, eschewing this trinity of emasculating strategies--mission statement, literature review and history--even though they constitute the obvious places to begin, I'd like instead to use two …
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Publication information: Article title: What Are Universities For?. Contributors: Arthur, Chris - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 285. Issue: 1664 Publication date: September 2004. Page number: 146+. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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