Our University and Social Purpose

I had occasion recently to reflect on the social purpose of a university. Actually, this reflection took place as I held my grandson and thought a bit about this little fellow’s future. My life’s work is the university, so my thoughts turned to what kind of university he might attend.

If I was a farmer I might have thought about how agriculture would change in the next generation, what would mechanization do that it had not already done? Would weather change or its control, or would genetic engineering have an impact on production and yields? Would farmers, as a lot, still pray a great deal for the complexities and difficulties that they face everyday? Would they still lose sleep about the many things over which they have almost no control? You have it tough? Try scratching at the ground to feed a family and pay the bills.

What would the world have in store for this grandson when he graduated from high school if he wanted to attend a university? Even as a proponent of the benefits of higher education, I know there are many opportunities in life absent a university education. I hope that never changes. The power of a craftsman at work is a joy to watch, and from personal experience, provides an uncommon variety of satisfaction.

Fright describes my emotional response ,though, as to what universities might be like. I see many changes now that are powerful and important in higher education, and some that weaken its foundation. So I reflected on the social purpose of the organizations that I have been a part of for nearly all of my life.

If the purpose of a university is to develop human potential so that people can improve their lot in life by their intellect and resourcefulness, bring insight and wisdom to bear on complex problems so as to be employable in a job that compensates for those skills, I have no concern about the future. On the other hand, if it is seen as nothing more than a trade school, I am frightened.

If the purpose of a university is to be an environment where students have to prove themselves and work hard to be successful in their studies, if it is like molten gold to cook out dross, or a furnace where annealing takes place, I have no concern about the future. On the other hand, if it is seen as a property right, where you pay and you get, like buying soap or going for a physical examination, I am frightened.

If the purpose of the university is to help students become people with ideas who take different views of the world, or if it tries to engender in a person a world view that values good ideas that are individual actions of a free and disciplined mind, then I am not concerned. However, if its function is to create a club that requires like-mindedness, or social status tied to credentials, I am fearful of the future.

John Henry Newman in “The Idea of a University”, says that with a university education, “a habit of mind is formed which lasts through life.”

This is the social purpose of a university, it should be the purpose of our university, and it gives me some comfort for my grandson because I know this to be the case.

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