What’s the purpose of a university?

Home Economics. Wendell Berry.

Home Economics. Wendell Berry.Here’s Wendell Berry’s answer:

Here’s Wendell Berry’s answer:

The thing being made in a university is humanity. Given the current influence of universities, this is merely inevitable. But what universities, at least the public-supported ones, are mandated to make or to help to make is human beings in the fullest sense of those words — not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs and members of human culture. If the proper work of the university is only to equip people to fulfill private ambitions, then how do we justify public support? If it is only to prepare citizens to fulfill public responsibilities, then how do we justify the teaching of arts and sciences? The common denominator has to be larger than either career preparation or preparation for citizenship. Underlying the idea of a university — the bringing together, the combining into one, of all the disciplines — is the idea that good work and good citizenship are the inevitable by-products of the making of a good — that is, a fully developed — human being. This, as I understand it, is the definition of the name university.

From “The Loss of the University,” in Home Economics.

For comparison, here is the mission statement of my alma mater, which also happens to be the university nearest to Berry’s farm:

The University of Louisville shall be a premier, nationally recognized metropolitan research university with a commitment to the liberal arts and sciences and to the intellectual, cultural, and economic development of our diverse communities and citizens through the pursuit of excellence in five interrelated strategic areas: (1) Educational Experience, (2) Research, Creative, and Scholarly Activity, (3) Accessibility, Diversity, Equity, and Communication, (4) Partnerships and Collaborations, and (5) Institutional Effectiveness of Programs and Services.

If it were pared down, the core of this mission is “intellectual, cultural, and economic development of communities and citizens,” which isn’t too bad (except that I’m not sure how one develops the intellect of a community, and many students at UofL are not citizens, but I get their drift). Somehow, though, I find Berry’s “responsible heirs and members of human culture” to be far more missional.

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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13 Comments

  • dwsnoke@comcast.net'
    Dave Snoke commented on February 20, 2009 Reply

    If I were to write a “real” mission statement for any of the top 100 universities, as understood by the faculty and administration, it would be: The purpose of this university is to maximize our prestige and salaries by attracting the maximum possible amount of research funding, state funding and tuition, by attracting high-quality undergrad and grad students, and faculty who are publicly recognized by awards and news stories, and by making alumni proud to come from this school, so that they donate large amounts of money and encourage talented students to come here.” (Sports may be part of the plan of keeping alumni happy and attracting quality students.)

    Cynical? Perhaps. But these are all the measurables used in university rankings– average research dollars, average score of students, average alumni giving, number of awards to faculty, etc. It also corresponds to what I hear talked about by faculty and administration. I almost _never_ hear any discussion about making people “human” or “good” or whatever. I _do_ hear discussion about quality control– a student should not be allowed to graduate without knowing “x”, or at least 2 out of 3 of the set “x”, “y”, and “z”, because it would embarrass our school to have a person go out in the world not knowing that.

    • eltopiafrank@wildblue.net'
      Frank Lockwood Senior commented on March 15, 2013 Reply

      Re: “The purpose of this university is to maximize our prestige and salaries … ”

      Yep, I think Mr. Hickerson is hitting pretty close to home.

      Universities are, in fact, obsolete. I wonder if they will disappear altogether. Probably not, as they promote vested values and monetary interests.

      The “best” universities pride themselves on their “selectivity.” That should tell you something about their purposes. Hint: It is not to spread the wealth, whether that is understood as cultural wealth (artistry, values, highest best humanity etc.) or monetary/military/ownership of power type of wealth.

      The strange thing about universities is that, even though they are set up to intentionally rank people (as failures, below average, average, above average and excellent), they still manage to convince people that they will somehow be the ones with the golden rings at the end of four, five years. But statistically, it just ain’t so. If you thing grades of “A” are an acceptable achievement, then you have roughly a 90 percent chance of failing to make the grade.

      And if graduating as an “average” student doesn’t rock your socks, then you have roughly an 80 percent change of failure. Twenty percent will probably get an average grade of B. Unless the university deliberately skews the curve. Hint: The curve is such an artificial standard.

      And if you think you have go earn at least a C average, well howdy. seventy five percent of you just might make it! And you are paying them to do this to you?

      Time for a reality check. Go to a community college and you may get your money’s worth, maybe. If you want values, ethics and human sublimity, join a religion or start a philosophical society and stop throwing your money at the wealthy universities.

      Why do we keep supporting these monstrous institutions? They rob from the poor to give to the wealthy. Want evidence? Go find out how much time a full professor gives to first year students. Go check out how much of the budget goes for research and graduate programs. The less expensive, undergraduate programs, in my opinion, are helping to finance the cutting edge research advanced degree programs. It’s a rip for the undergraduate student.

      If you want to get your money’s worth, go to a community college for two years, then to a state college to complete your four year or five year degree, then go a name brand University for your MS/MA. Yes, both, if you want a real education, as W.B. pointed out.

  • bsaontheloose@yahoo.com'
    sergey commented on March 11, 2009 Reply

    The mission statement of University of Louisville: “The University of Louisville shall be a premier, nationally recognized metropolitan research university with a commitment to the liberal arts and sciences and to the intellectual, cultural, and economic development of our diverse communities and citizens through the pursuit of excellence in five interrelated strategic areas: (1) Educational Experience, (2) Research, Creative, and Scholarly Activity, (3) Accessibility, Diversity, Equity, and Communication, (4) Partnerships and Collaborations, and (5) Institutional Effectiveness of Programs and Services.”

    According to UL, they desire to be a premier University in order to achieve recognition as a school for education of the future. My question to them is how? How do you plan to achieve premier status when most universities sufficate the mind of truth? If you premier, then I am safe to assume that this school values the truth.

    The university states as well that they adore liberal education so they can enhance their understand of the world with an expanded knowledge of the fundementals of the human being. If you so seek to be liberal and want to understand the human better then I am assuming you do not deprive students of thinking. After all, thinking is our freedom to investigate the truth and follow it. If you truly liberal then your approaches do not sufficate the human mind to certain ideals such as no truth or open-mindedness. You encourage students to seek out the truth in their studies. After all, Liberal education desires to have students learn, and learning means to seek out truth. If you desire knowledge then you encourage students to apply truth to their communities.

    Like most schools, you want intellectual students. You desire comptetent students for their love for knowledge and desire to apply their knowledge in the acedmemia world. If you love knowledge then you love truth. Correct? After all, one gets excited when they find that answer to that big question they struggled with. knowledge allows us to live freeing lives so we an give back to future students.

    In conclusion, the University states in their mission that knowledge is the ideal componant to understanding the world. Knowledge is key becuase it leads us to the truth. Thus you encourage students and faculty to develop in the intellectual aspect of the truth. They wants students who desire to know the truth and spreads it to their students or children.

    If this unversity does this, then they don’t value opinion and they seek out answers from greater minds then our own who know the answers, and this university does not sufficate students who know the truth. They encourage those students to be leaders of their student body.

    If they do the following practices then I beleive their University is premier and can achieve premier status.

    • eltopiafrank@wildblue.net'
      Frank Lockwood Senior commented on March 15, 2013 Reply

      “The University of Louisville shall be a premier (blaa blaa blaa)”

      Sure sounds like platitudes to me, but it will be nice if they can pull it off.

  • Tom Grosh commented on March 11, 2009 Reply

    Excerpted from a draft on “The University as a ‘Community of Scholars,'” more posted at http://www.u-connectpgh.org/uconnect/files/1084.pdf … and some of this material has informed and becom incorporated into the draft ESN Curriculum. Let us know if you’re interested in the Curriculum. I’ll also dig more into this material in future posts.

    According to C. Anderson in “Prescribing the Life of the Mind,” the University is expected to enculturate (i.e., pass on a tradition), citizen-ize (i.e., make students Americans, introduce living, working, moving in society), prepare (for career, social mobility, “place” in economy/society, character-ize (i.e., instill “Qualities of soul”). According to Robert Maynard Hutchins in “The Higher Learning of America,” the mission of the university is primarily dedicated to scholarship, professional education, the training of the mind (7) . . . single-minded pursuit of the intellectual virtues. As scholarship it is the single-minded devotion to the advancement of knowledge (32) and the pursuit of truth (33). The aim of education is to connect man with man, to connect the present with the past, and to advance the thinking of the race (71). Now this is focused on the undergraduate student population. The challenge is to shape young people for our culture and society. InterVarsity, alongside an engaged community of Christian Scholars and local congregations rooted in the historic faith, desires to be part of the developing college students and their perspective on the creation and their role in it.

    The German Research Model pursues “creating” new knowledge, uncovering new ideas and ways to understand them. There is a desire not to corrupt research by making it practical and vocational, although the American version has sought a high degree of profitability and professional application. Elements of this include: wissenschaaft, love of learning as an end in itself; lehrfrehert, pursuit of the truth wherever it might lead unencumbered; economic facilitation for business, industry, manufacturing, Agriculture, etc.; security, defense and weaponry; medical, cures for disease; and research parks on campus with relationships between business and the university. Now this is focused on the graduate and faculty population, particularly at research schools. The challenge is to produce results to “save and advance the world.” InterVarsity, alongside an engaged community of Christian Scholars and local congregations rooted in the historic faith, desires to speak into and inside this milieu so that the Christian voice and way of life is not relegated to the margins or pushed out entirely.

    Jaroslav Pelikan in “The Idea of the University: A Re-examination” proposes four, maybe five,legs of the university table: advancement of knowledge through research, the transmission of knowledge through teaching, the preservation of knowledge through scholarly collections (the embalming of dead genius), the diffusion of knowledge through publishing (p.16); p.76 training that involves both knowledge and professional skill in the university [i.e., the field of education: capacity to bring revolutionize (radically change the way things currently are, change the system – whole chapter dedicated to this topic)]. The university at its best should have all of these legs in play, all are vitally important to have the proper impact. InterVarsity, alongside an engaged community of Christian Scholars and local congregations rooted in the historic faith, has much to contribute in these areas.

  • eltopiafrank@wildblue.net'
    Frank Lockwood Senior commented on September 19, 2012 Reply

    I like and respect Wendell and I think he is a man of integrity, however, I must disagree with his analysis: Universities exist for two reasons, and neither is particularly about learning or “making a human being.”

    Purpose #1: Self preservation and self advancement. Universities exist primarily to ensure their own continuation.

    Purpose #2: Universities exist to screen out the masses of people and prevent them from joining the elite. When universities begin to stray too far from this role, an abundance of critics will join in to decry the supposed “watering down” of content.

    From a pragmatic point of view, universities are usually corporations or state institutions with an eye to self-preservation. Currently, the trend is to serve a small group of powerful, corporate, industrialists. Universities that don’t fall in line, I suspect will be punished.

    Question: If the purpose is to make human beings, why should there be entrance tests at all, and why shouldn’t education be free for all who wish to engage in educational activities? Are we interested only in making “human beings” of those who have deep pockets? Currently, only those with the $$ bucks can afford to go to a university with some exceptions for exceptionally bright high school seniors.

  • razmik89@gmail.com'
    Rashmika Nawaratne commented on March 14, 2013 Reply

    I like to comment on the purpose of the University Education. It is not merely about making well qualified professionals/employees for a specific industry or service. As I believe there are 2 main purposes. (As guided by my Lecturer)

    1. Generate Knowledge (This means conducting researches and generate NEW knowledge.)
    2. Distribution of knowledge (Distribute the new knowledge gained by researches)

    • eltopiafrank@wildblue.net'
      Frank Lockwood Senior commented on March 15, 2013 Reply

      Barrry Wendel. Well, at least he will “stand by his words.” But the words are false, nonetheless. Or so it seems to me.

      But are Wendel’s words, your words too? If so, I hold a different opinion.

      Is anybody asking how a university gets its legitimacy?

      Powerful people, or people who are approved by powerful people, determine the agenda. Always. so In universities.

      Sometimes those universities are funded by religious organizations, so the purpose is to promote a particular religious viewpoint.

      Pure research is great, but is there any such thing?

      State colleges and universities are controlled by whoever controls government, so the purpose, from a practical viewpoint, is to promote the powerful. The purpose of universities is to generate more wealth for the wealthy, more power for the powerful, an more control for those who presently are in control.

      Which brings us to the issue of “legitimacy.” What makes a university legitimate? Is a university legitimate to the extent I like what it stands for?

      Who are the paying customers? The students? If so, they are not usually treated like customers. When I take a class, and pay money for the privilege, I expect to walk away with something. Will I get what I paid for? Maybe university education is a good deal for me. Maybe it is not.

      Mr. Wendel’s suggestions notwithstanding, I suspect that most people will measure the value of their education in terms of hard cash.

      Will the degree earn me more money?” The answer to that question varies.

      Our purposes in taking classes may sometimes be at odds with the actual purposes of the institutions that we attend. I suspect that is often the case.

      And then, there are the dropouts, the failures, those who, try as they may, will get only average marks. Who in his right mind would pay to be rated as a “failure” or as “average”? That’s just plain dumb! But many universities apply pressure to ensure that a certain percentage of their students do, in fact, fail. And they pay them to do that!

      If you disagree, show me why I am wrong.

      • mikehickerson@gmail.com'
        Micheal Hickerson commented on March 15, 2013 Reply

        Frank, I appreciate your comments and think you’re on to something. However, I also think you and Berry are talking about two different things. As I understand Berry, he’s talking about the ideal purpose of the university (“what ought to be”), while it sounds like you’re talking about the actual purposes of universities (“what really is”). I’ve heard Berry speak on this topic, and he would be the first one to agree with you that universities – as they are in real life – are controlled and dominated by powerful concerns that don’t have the best interests of students and communities in mind.

        • eltopiafrank@wildblue.net'
          Frank Lockwood Sr. commented on March 15, 2013 Reply

          Micheal:

          Thanks. I am glad to know that Barry Wendel and I are on the same side. I realized that too late after I published the letter. I read a book by him decades ago, title was something like “Standing by Words,” and I believe he is a man of integrity.

          However, the idea of what a university is “supposed” to be, that seems like a purely academic question. And, it is only a matter of opinion. It seems that Wendel holds a minority opinion indeed.

          Anyone can have an opinion about what a university should be, but unless they have the $$ to anti up, I doubt their voices are going to make much difference.

          To make matters worse, not only of the universities, but of the government itself, is up for sale to powerful, moneyed interests. The courts keep ruling on the side of allowing the wealthy to have absurdly more voice in government than the rest of us have, and to influence government beneath a cloak of obscurity. Nobody knows who gives, or how much they give, to the political coffers.

          Money buys elections. And money determines party platforms.

          At the rate things have been going, only very rich people, and very large corporations, are going to be able to stay in this high stakes poker game, to see who rakes in all the chips and wins control of almost everything that matters.

          Goodbye democracy. We, the rest of us, are rapidly losing ground.

          Frank

        • eltopiafrank@wildblue.net'
          Frank Lockwood Sr. commented on March 15, 2013 Reply

          Re ” If the proper work of the university is only to equip people to fulfill private ambitions, then how do we justify public support?”

          Well, I believe that there are those who would just as soon see the government out of the education business altogether. There seems to be a movement in favor of privatizing anything and everything. They keep chipping away. So I would not be surprised if the government portion of state schools budgets were greatly reduced in the future.

          Ironically, those who stand to benefit the most from free and low cost education, health care, elderly care and housing, are often the very ones who oppose government expenditures on those things. Go figure. How do we get the word out?

  • jamesistheman74@gmail.com'
    yolo commented on April 9, 2013 Reply

    wow

    • eltopiafrank@wildblue.net'
      Frank Sr. commented on April 9, 2013 Reply

      I agree, WOW!

      I received an email from a conservative friend this morning that stated, “the government should not do things, it should oversee them.” Or words to that effect. Popular notion is to get the government out of anything that can be done by private enterprise. What does that leave for government to do? Very little, depending upon who is interpreting it. In some countries, well-off citizens hire private cops to guard their neighborhoods, for example. Schools? Many conservatives prefer private to public, and I think the support for voucher systems probably goes hand in hand with the trend toward “charter schools,” which are schools, often private schools, that don’t have to meet all the state requirements.

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