Why do we talk about the purpose of universities?

There are seven and a half billion of us on a rock hurtling through the vastness of space. We are collections of atoms with the capacity for conscious experience. Many of us live in vast, densely-populated cities. Others live in towns, villages, caravans, savannahs, forests, tribes and nomadic circles.

Seven and a half billion of us, all thinking. We all think about ourselves and the minutiae of our lives, but we are also drawn to thinking in particular ways, about particular things. Maybe we like to think about numbers, maybe words. We might be intrigued by the things that there don’t seem to be words for. We have sensation; we touch, we see, we taste, we hear. We like to experience these sensations and we like to create things that can be sensed. The process of creation is a sensation in itself; the scratch of pencil on paper, the creaking piano stool, the crunch of the needle into silk, the melting of fat into flour.

We know that pleasure is good, and goodness is pleasing. At its emotional foundation, human life is simple. But our ability to reason – while not exclusive (evidence of human-like causal reasoning having been observed in chimpanzees, crows and bullfinches, among others), introduces layers of complexity to the human condition.

It may not be possible for us to understand the world from anything other than a human perspective. The arguments for panpsychism or universal consciousness are compelling, but there appears to be something very particular about humans that sets us apart from other entities, and that is our awareness and preoccupation with ourselves as a species. Our thinking has been directed towards developing technologies of automation and connection. It would seem that what we want is to work less and communicate more.

We have in most cases freed ourselves from the sweat and dirt of physical labour, but our physical inactivity is making us ill. We are paid to write emails, design advertisements, call people on the phone, approach strangers in the street. A great deal of this communication is unwelcome. Regardless, we plug in and plug away, convinced that automation and connection will satisfy and save us.

In some ways, it has done. In his seminal talk, ‘Don’t Panic’, Hans Rosling uses data visualisation to demonstrate how quality of human life is improving across the globe. The University has been crucial to these developments, not only as a site for scientific discovery but also as a nexus of technology and humanity; a place where different strands of thought come together and challenge one another.

Concerns that we have gone too far with our technological development, or that we are going in the wrong direction, are not new. These are our instincts talking; our emotional baseline that knows that pleasure is good and goodness is pleasing. In The Conflict of The Faculties (1798), Immanuel Kant describes the philosophy faculty of the University as a moderating force on the ‘higher’ faculties of medicine, law and theology, ensuring the disciplines do not stray too far from questions of ethics and purpose; of how human beings should live, and to what ends.

The claim that such an approach is no longer relevant, that we now live in a supercomplex world of infinite connections and relative morals, is invalid. Not because this is not an accurate picture of the world, but because it has always been this way. In romanticising the past we disempower and dispossess our present selves.

The numbers attending university continue to increase, not just in absolute terms but also as a proportion of the still-rising population. At the same time, the expansion and democratisation of access to information means that many more consider themselves to be well-informed. Fluidity and uncertainty in the labour market erodes our sense of ‘station’ or calling. We no longer have a ‘lot’ in life to be content with. We no longer wish to be ruled.

The role of the University in society needs to continue to be considered – as it always has – in light of the changes it has wrought on it.

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One Response to Why do we talk about the purpose of universities?

  1. Some notes from a friend:

    1. ‘we know that pleasure is good’ – except if we’re talking about the 7 1/2 billion then that’s not true. Ascetics are against pleasure (many pleasures anyway), anti-hedonists too. vast numbers of the billions are in organised religions who think some pleasures are sinful, against God etc.. Others ban certain pleasures on moral grounds. Others on grounds of taste. Others because of bias, cultural and otherwise. Oh my – pleasure is not universally considered good.

    2. ‘goodness is pleasing’ – but it can also be a weight that crushes the spirit etc etc – see above!

    3. Not sure we want more communication, and not sure development of automation is for that purpose either.

    4. And then you take off and make a lot of sense.

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