From the archives: There isn’t one single purpose for a university, or for education Julian Baggini The Skeptic

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 21, Issue 1, from 2011.

It is an uncontroversial truth that sex is for procreation. But it is to slip from the obvious to the preposterous to claim that sex is therefore only for procreation.

A similar slip, however, is made by many who set out to answer the question of what universities are for. The question has become more pressing since rapid expansion of higher education has drawn many more people into it, and not everyone can see the benefits this has to the students or society. But there is no single answer, so anyone who attempts to give one is making a big mistake.

The novelist Ben Okri, for example, has written about the need for universities to “teach the art of self-discovery”, lamenting the fact that students “leave universities with skills for the workplace but no knowledge of how to live, or what living is for.” But someone going to university to study food science is not looking for self-discovery, at least not in the lecture theatre or laboratory. Self-discovery is but one desideratum of a university education, and not one that applies equally to all courses.

The question of what universities are for is thus like the question of what a Swiss army knife is for. The knife can be used for many things, cutting being one of the more important and cracking nuts one of the more peripheral. Similarly, universities are for many things, some of which are more important than others without negating the legitimacy of those other uses altogether.

One role universities have is enabling social mobility. As a 2001 Institute for Employment Studies survey concluded:

The main motivating factor, which encourages potential students from lower social class backgrounds to enter HE, is a belief that a higher qualification will bring improved job and career prospects, and also improved earnings and job security.

Universities also play a role in financial advancement. One Mori survey showed that 87% of students believe the money they are spending is a good investment for their future.

Talk of social advancement and improved financial prospects as a purpose for higher education strikes many as irredeemably philistine. But it does not follow from the fact that these are some of the things universities are for that we should therefore make the fulfilment of these functions the universities’ primary goal. At the very least they are like the corkscrew and toothpick on a Swiss army knife: they may not be the tool’s primary functions, but seeing as they are often put to good use, why would anyone want to remove them?

Matters become more contentious when it comes to the main blades. The problem here is that people are too quick to assume that the functions they themselves use most, or would like to use most, are the ones which really do define what universities are primarily for.

For instance, the only real justification for what many of those working in the humanities do must involve the lofty ideas of learning for learning’s sake, with perhaps a nod to the value of a broad, humanistic education in producing well-rounded citizens. Hence they are hostile to any suggestion that universities serve utilitarian functions and are apt to champion the value of pure enquiry.

This general line of argument has been defended by Gordon Graham in What Are Universities For? He argued that universities are essential to maintaining the intellectual vibrancy of our culture and should not serve mere instrumental functions for economic benefit.

But Graham is a philosopher. Were he to stroll across the University of Aberdeen to the medical school at Foresterhill, he might discover that the rationale for study there involves precisely the kind of talk of skills and utility which is anathema to humanities scholars. These faculties are there to produce medics and researchers. Their role is not primarily to push back the boundaries of knowledge for its own sake but to save lives and improve health.

If universities have a range of different functions, you might wonder why they should be combined in the one institution. Why have one multi-purpose tool rather than a variety of more specialised ones?

The short answer is that the functions cannot and should not be so neatly separated. Consider the case of philosophy. Most of the time, the value of philosophy is simply that it helps us to tackle philosophical problems, and since these problems arise inevitably from the human desire to understand the world, it is part of our ongoing quest for greater understanding.

But from time to time we discover that other needs arise and philosophy is in a position to help meet them. Computer scientists start to work on artificial intelligence and philosophers contribute to their understanding of what intelligence is and the ethical implications of AI. Cognitive scientists increase our understanding of how the human mind works, but the problem of consciousness has a philosophical as well as neurological dimension. Biologists work with human DNA and embryos, and bioethicists are required to help clear the moral ground. Educationalists realise that children need help to develop their critical thinking skills, so philosophers and psychologists are enlisted to help meet that need.

All of this is made much easier by the fact that philosophers, educationalists, psychologists, cognitive scientists, computer scientists and biologists are part of the same institution: the university. And this is no happy accident. It reflects a deeper philosophical truth: that all human knowledge is interconnected.

The post From the archives: There isn’t one single purpose for a university, or for education appeared first on The Skeptic.

From the archives in 2011, Julian Baggini looks at the role of a university, and the many different values that come with education
The post From the archives: There isn’t one single purpose for a university, or for education appeared first on The Skeptic.