Saturday, December 28, 2013

What Is the Purpose of the University?

In my last post I was criticizing the institution of tenure but pulled my punches at the end by saying that you cannot determine whether or not tenure serves the purpose of the university until you determine exactly what the purpose of the university actually is  So, what is the purpose  of the university? One would think that the answer to this question would be clear. Yet, it is anything but clear.

Here are some possibilities. Is the purpose of the university to provide education? Is its purpose to do research? Is the purpose to socialize young people? It the real goal to provide a coming of age ritual? Perhaps the purpose is to provide marketable job skills to support the economy. Is it all of these things.or some subset? Well, the answer is that we don't know and different people have very different perspectives on this.

If we go back to the beginning of the university concept back in the 12th century, we see the the first universities were created on the guild model. In one of the original universities, the faculty were the guild and their product was education. In the other major university of the time, the students formed a guild and selected faculty to provide them with education. The later did not survive. So, we can think of the origins of the university as an education guild whose purpose was to provide a product (education) and limit entry into the guild by granting degrees.

As time progressed the product became increasingly more popular and education became the mark of the upper class educated person much like clothing, jewelry or servants. This model of education continued through the founding of the United States where it was believed that education should not be limited to aristocrats. After all, if you were going to let everyone vote, they should be educated enough to vote wisely.

But, even this noble sentiment did not hold for long. By the end of the 19th century, American Universities were under going a major shift away from what we refer to today as Medieval Scholasticism to a curriculum based on math and science. This scandalized many who felt that the University was being pulled away from its lofty responsibilities and restructured to provide job skills for the masses.

It wasn't until the very end of the 19th century that anyone considered having faculty do research. Again, many were scandalized by the thought of pulling faculty away teaching and having them do research instead. Today we see research as a major part of the university but even this comes into question. For example, in Isaac Newton's day, nearly all of what we would consider scientific research today was being done outside of the university. Today, most research in technological fields is done outside the university as well. Although there are certainly examples of good research being done in universities, it is probably also true that the vast majority of university research has more to do with tenure and promotion than it does with advancing knowledge.

So, what have we left to consider? Oh yes, socialization. An argument can be made that the college experience is just a modern example of a coming of age ritual. Given the number of people who go to college and leave with more debt than education, one has to wonder what they are getting if it is not education. Maybe they are getting socialized into the tribe (some would say the tribe of humanism, but I am not going to go there). 

I apologize for having gone on this long, and still not clarified the purpose of the university. But, the point is that you cannot. And until we can, any prospects for evaluating the tenure system or improving our education system look bleak. After all, if you don't know what you are trying to do, it is very difficult to get better at it.

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