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. …

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