April 2013 President's Letter: What's A University For?

In The New York Times on April 5, David Brooks asks a fundamental question: “What is a university for?” (“The Practical University”, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/05/opinion/Brooks-The-Practical-University.html?ref=davidbrooks&_r=0).  In answering, he distinguishes between “two sorts of knowledge, what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott called technical knowledge and practical knowledge”.  Basically, “technical knowledge” is “the sort of knowledge you need to understand a task”, “like the recipes in a cookbook”, whereas “practical knowledge” is a kind of “practical moral wisdom”, absorbed rather than memorized, acquired and sustained through practice.  According to Brooks, the online revolution in education will have its main effect in the domain of “technical knowledge”, and the real “future of the universities is in practical knowledge”. 

This is certainly an interesting way of thinking about what universities do, but it stops short of addressing the initial question, “What is a university for?”  In a more Socratic vein, we need to go deeper and to ask what the purpose of a university is, what its goals ought to be, in order to answer that question.  One can imagine Socrates interrogating David Brooks along these lines, trying to get him to isolate what the real thing is that universities ought to be aiming at, what their goal, their telos, is.  Brooks would begin by offering his two kinds of knowledge as the answer, and Socrates would pick away at them for a while in his usual way, showing that they are surface features of what happens in universities, rather than the actual thing that universities are for.  By the end of their conversation, we would reach the familiar impasse—Socrates: “So then, we still do not know what the telos of the university really is”; Brooks: “It appears so, Socrates.”  Rather than enact that hypothetical dialog, however, let me refer you to a genuinely Socratic approach to the problem, as given by Richard Gombrich, in a lecture which to my mind offers the best one-word answer to this hard question.  

In 2000, towards the end of his tenure as the Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University (1976—2004), Gombrich gave a lecture at Tokyo University entitled "British Higher Education Policy in the last Twenty Years: The Murder of a Profession" (http://indology.info/papers/gombrich/).  In the course of his argument he speaks of how “institutions work best if they have clear goals and are designed to achieve those goals”.  Socrates would put it a bit differently, asking, for example, “What is the goal of the art of medicine?  It is to cure the sick, is it not?  And of navigation?  To guide a ship safely?”  But this is in effect what Gombrich is saying of the institutions which embody the various “arts”, with his declaration that “hospitals are for care of the sick, orchestras for playing music, and they should be used for those goals”.  Analogously, then, says Gombrich, “universities are for truth”.  And he expands his definition of this goal: “to promote its pursuit (curiosity) and encourage its use under all circumstances”.

This will sound wildly utopian to many, and you don’t have to be a paid-up poststructuralist to acknowledge that there are different ways of defining truth.  But in history and in the contemporary world there are many examples to hand of what happens when a society has no sector dedicated to Gombrich’s kind of truth—to free and disinterested enquiry, and to communicating the fruits of that enquiry.  It is not a human activity we should take for granted, and it is always and everywhere under threat.  Modern universities are under all kinds of pressures to put other goals first, but it is not only faculty and students who are at risk if members of the universities abandon this species of curiosity and if we stop insisting that in our domain the criteria of truth trump other criteria. 

Certainly, the acquisition of technical and practical knowledge is compatible with Gombrich’s definition of what the telos of the university really is: in fact, the better universities are at keeping their eye on their real goal, the better they will succeed at making the acquisition of such knowledge possible.  But they need to keep their eye on that goal, on that Socratic telos, if they are to do anything worthwhile.

Denis Feeney
President

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