The telos of the State University?

Why do we have Universities? That was a question that popped into my mind again recently as I was watching the President's state of the Union address. At times it sounds as though he would like 100% of the population to attend college. But whether that is necessary or good begs the question of why we attend college at all, what is the University for? What is its end or purpose?

I am currently serving as a campus minister at The University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the Board of Regents (which has already taken away our philosophy degree) is now considering eliminating some 25 more programs so as to make the University "more efficient" in "training people for the work force." Is the purpose of a University only to train individuals for the workforce?

In his excellent little book The Decline of the Secular University, C. John Sommerville warned that our colleges and Universities are in danger of becoming little more than "credential factories." They have lost their original mission of seeking knowledge for the betterment of mankind, of exploring the deep questions of our existence, and preparing and sending into the world creative, inovative, and deep-thinking people. The job of the University is not only, he argues, to strengthen the economy, but also to help people ask the deeper questions about what "wealth" or "doing well" really means? What is money even for?

It may well be that we have too many programs, and indeed too many colleges, in Louisiana. But I strongly believe that if the Board of Regents, or the President, or the culture at large judges Universities soley by their contribution to economic output or gross GDP then we have strayed quite wide of the mark. That is not why the medieval University came into existence to begin with. That is not even the way that they were thought of or spoken of only a century ago.

If what we really want is not so much a University but a Vocational Schools or Technical College, then we should organize our public education priorities accordingly. I believe, however, that the University has a critical role to play in any society that wants to be cultured, creative, and civilized. There is more to "high standards of living" than just economics. There are the intangibles as well, the things that make us well-rounded human beings and not machines (which are capable of bolstering our economic output without ever going to college).

Coming soon: What is the purpose of a Church-Related or Christian University?



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