What are Universities for?
What are universities really for? Well, the main thing is to teach people how to make a living. Educating the young to be engineers, biochemists or economists. But there is another, stranger, bigger ambition, lurking away there somewhere in the background. And it sometimes comes out during Commencement addresses, or at the lyrical moments of graduation ceremonies. And that’s the idea, that universities might teach us how to live. That is, that these might be places to go and study in order to work out what really matters Who we are, where our societies should be headed, and how we can be happier and more fulfilled Not coincidentally, a great many universities were founded in the mid 19th century. At exactly the time when belief in religion was undergoing a severe, and in the eyes of many, alarming decline. At that time, a lot of questions were asked about where people were going to go and find meaning, consolation, wisdom and a sense of community All the things they once found in a church. And to certain educationalists there was one answer above all others. What people had once found in churches, they would now be able to discover in things like the dialogues of Plato, the plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Jane Austen, The paintings of Botticelli or Titian. In other words, in a secularizing age, culture would replace scripture. That’s a beautiful, moving idea. And it’s been responsible, for the construction of so many universities, as well as museums, concert halls and libraries. But there is a problem. Picture up at any actual university, more or less anywhere in the world, and start asking big questions, like, where should I go with my life? Where is meaning to be found? How can we change things in this troubled world? And the stunned teaching staff will either call for the police or an insane asylum. It’s just not what you’re allowed to ask. The really big questions, and inner dramas that people used to take to religion seem strangely out of place in the average university setting. Where the mood is far cooler, more abstract and oddly removed from anything too practical or urgent. Big questions that many students in the humanities have, like how can I learn about relationships? What should I do with my life? How can I reconcile my demand for money with my requirement for meaning? How does power work out there in the world? Such questions aren’t necessarily very well addressed or answered. Currently, universities have departments named after big academic disciplines, like history, or literature, or philosophy. But such titles really just reflect pretty arcane priorities rather than accurately picking up on issues that actually trouble people in their lives. In the ideal university of the future, that original dream, that culture could replace scripture, would be taking so seriously that departments would be reorganized to reflect the actual prioritiesof our lives. So, for example, there might be a department for relationships, and another for death. A center for anxiety and an academy for career self-knowledge. You wouldn’t study 18th century history or the picaresque novel. You’d study how to be less anxious, or how to be more compassionate. Complaining about how many universities are today isn’t a way of giving up on them, it’s an attempt to get them to live up to their original promise, which is, in a busy world, where most of us are just scrabbling around full-time trying to make a living, to act as centers which can generate those ideas that we’ll truly help us to live and to die well.