What Are Universities For?

By Arthur, Chris | Contemporary Review, September 2004 | Go to article overview

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 comments to promote a more robust answer to the question 'What are universities for?'.

'Human history', H. G. Wells once remarked, 'has become more and more a race between education and catastrophe'. That suggests part of the answer I want to propose. Universities are for ensuring that education wins. The second comment comes from Huston Smith in The Purposes of Higher Education:

   If there are things that ought to be believed, this being the whole
   meaning of truth, there are also sides that ought to be espoused:
   this is the burden of goodness. To remain neutral in the face of
   these, or to be over-hesitant in deciding where they lie, is not
   wisdom but its opposite.

Universities are for inquiring into what ought to be believed, for establishing ways of finding out the truth so that we can identify and uplift the burden of goodness. They are for the inculcation of wisdom. Ultimately, they are for taking sides.

This may make them sound partisan and given to proselytising, unless it is stressed that they are concerned with promoting a method of choosing allegiances, not with urging loyalty to any particular point of view. It is very evident that the burden of goodness facing us today is not some single, simplistic either/or choice. Rather, we have to negotiate an ongoing series of often highly complex and difficult decisions. The side universities should be in the business of taking--and helping to win--can't be identified by a crude test of faith. Universities are (or should be) tolerant of a wide range of viewpoints, and welcoming of that diversity of thought which generates new ideas. Where their tolerance evaporates and their welcome turns to opposition, is when faced with the cast of mind that insists on unquestioning acceptance, that refuses to subject its views to rigorous scrutiny in public debate, that seeks to spread ideas by imposition rather than inquiry, that rules by the assertion of authority rather than by assent arrived at through the independent operation of informed intelligence.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

What Are Universities For?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.