The purpose of the university, ripped from the headlines

The COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. has surpassed that of the pandemic of a hundred years ago. The world has vaccines and superior technology and communications, but it is evident that science and technology cannot help people who lack a sense of living together or any feeling of responsibility for others’ well-being. The pandemic of the wilfully unvaccinated is upon us.

Current events such as the pandemic can help us grasp the purpose of today’s university. It is far from obvious. I hope I am not being grandiose if I suggest a few principles that might lead to defining a purpose. These four principles interrelate and can lead to varying statements of purpose, different for each institution.

The first principle addresses the question, “What can we trust?” This first principle relates to truth.

The purpose of education is not “critical thinking,” if by that we mean merely questioning and challenging. Every anti-vaxxer (or climate-change skeptic) is a critical thinker, weighing “evidence” to support their conviction that the truth is being hidden from us by powerful forces.

The university can’t let students go with the idea that everything must be doubted, without also instilling the idea that there are truths in which we can trust. Critical thinking is not just about what we reject; it has to be about what we embrace.

That does not mean indoctrinating students in what we take to be true. It is about setting up and protecting the space within each student to do the inner work of deciding what is deserving of trust.

This suggests the second principle, which addresses the question, “What truths from others’ experience can we embrace?” This second principle relates to justice.

In connection with the pandemic, I am thinking of Indigenous people and people of colour who have their own reasons for mistrust and hesitancy. They are not in the same class as anti-vaxxers who are lost in a cloud of ignorance and fake news.

So when we talk about “truth,” we have to ask, “whose truth?” I’m not saying all things are equal; I’m saying that truth often has an inside and an outside. What I see on the outside may look different from what you see on the inside. Representation in lecture hall seats is good; representation in front of the class is even better.

Related to trust, truth, and justice is the third principle, which addresses the question, “What is our responsibility to others?” This third principle concerns a public purpose.

In the days following the insurrection by the mob at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, viewers were shown many disturbing videos. I was struck not only by the anger, stupidity, and violence but by the resemblance of many the insurrectionists to normal-looking folks who could be my neighbours – except that they all seemed so lost. They were angry and mistrustful, with nothing to hold onto: No help to expect from anyone, no help to give to anyone, and no real common cause.

My neighbours and I are fortunate to live in a region that has mostly had very low COVID case counts, and health services have not been severely impacted. Geography, good leadership, and luck are factors, but I prefer to think it’s because we all wore masks, stayed home, and got vaccinated – to protect each other, not just ourselves. To some that makes us sheep, but we’re more like a forest: When the hard winds blow, the trees in a healthy forest lean on each other and all survive.

A public purpose recognizes that there is such a thing as the common good. If, as the cliché has it, the university develops the leaders of tomorrow, then this principle suggests leadership is defined as a role devoted to service.

The fourth principle addresses the question, “How can truth, justice, and the common good endure?” The fourth principle is conservation.

In some places, something as simple as wearing a mask or getting vaccinated is a political statement, so one can imagine that embracing “truth, justice, and common good” will invite controversy and opposition. The university isn’t going to carry the day on its own, or anytime soon.

Fortunately, the university is in it for the long haul. These principles might seem liberal in nature, but they endure and are advanced in the embrace of an institution that is essentially conservative, in the best sense of that word.

Higher education addresses itself to all aspects of the individual human in society, but the “universe” in “university” does not suggest we should be all things. As the university expands to include more and more, we risk losing sight of what’s at the core. The conservative, enduring, focused institution is the opposite of the jittery, twitching institution enamoured with the example of big tech or the world of disruption, start-ups, or what-have-you.

If sculpting a statue is, as they say, chipping away all the marble that is not the statue, then the pandemic might help us chip away at everything around the university that isn’t the university.

Credentialing leading to employment, driving the regional economy, developing commercial application for research – these all have their place in the case for the existence of a university, but I have to wonder if these can be delivered in other ways, more directly and more cheaply. Not that they don’t belong in the university, but an institution that limits itself to these functions will slowly wither in a world that craves more.

What the world craves is an antidote to hate, ignorance, isolationism, nationalism, racism – a vaccine you might say, a positive formulation of purpose for an institution with the power to inspire the purpose of a life – many lives.

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