The purposes of a university are
So in addition to its second duty to discover and disseminate truth, a university has an obligation to provide the best possible education to its students.
It has an obligation to provide its students with an education which will
Universities do these things by conveying to their students certain knowledge, skills, and attributes.
But which knowledge, skills, and attributes will most effectively improve the quality of students’ lives and enable them to contribute maximally to society—to become effective citizens?
Let us start with the knowledge, skills, and attributes which will enable students to contribute maximally to our society—and those most difficult to convey:
Society needs citizens with the attributes of excellent character: the non-intellectual virtues: ethics, good values (commitment to the welfare of others), wisdom (good judgment), work ethic.
Though most difficult to build and convey, universities can, in fact, facilitate the development of these virtues. Its faculty, staff, and administration can model these things. They can speak favourably of them. They can expose their students to literature, other forms of art, as well as empirical research, displaying the desirability of these traits. And as a matter of fact, to complete their education students must demonstrate a certain amount of work ethic. Universities can exemplify, and can expose their students to excellent exemplars of, wisdom.
A university can also help its students develop the skills which will help them contribute maximally to society. Of course these will include skills which enable them to be employable and economically productive—to contribute to the culture’s economy. Universities can do better here than they have been doing. But we would be making poorer citizens were we to convey to them that the quality of their lives and their contribution to society was entirely or even primarily economic. The “economic model” of the value of human personhood, life, and society is morally corrupt. Still, universities should convey, as they can, economically beneficial skills, and general skills which will enable their students to contribute economically and otherwise.
But what sorts of skills are these? Apart from the skills specific to particular professions, universities help their students learn to think and critically evaluate claims—develop their abilities to discriminate truth, and reason well. These skills are enormously beneficial economically, as well as enabling people to participate in the wise governance of our society. Universities can help students learn how to learn—to adapt as the world changes rapidly. They can help students learn to be able to understand complex material. And they can enable their students to maximize their communication skills—communicating information, and what they know and believe, as effectively as possible. In other words, universities can effectively develop the general skills universities have traditionally developed. (We neglect these goals in favour of others at our society’s peril.) Universities can be explicit in how they will develop these general skills in their students. And they can offer more specific skills needed to pursue specific careers of their students’ choosing.
But what knowledge will best enable students to contribute maximally to society?
In general terms, surely a broad knowledge of people and the world. The knowledge necessary for a particular employment and economic productivity is important. But to be effective citizens—to participate beneficially in the directing of our society—this is the understanding needed. But what knowledge and understanding of people and the world, specifically? We will come back to this shortly.
What knowledge, skills, and attributes can universities convey to their students, which can help maximize the quality of their own individual lives?
Actually, the same general knowledge, skills, and attributes that enable them to contribute maximally to society.
As Aristotle pointed out long ago, one cannot have an excellent life without being an excellent person. The greater the quality of one’s character—the more excellent person one is—the greater the likelihood of having an excellent life, as well as the more likely one is to have a positive impact on society. The wiser a person is—the better judgment one has—the more likely one will be able to make good decisions. And the better one’s work ethic, and the more one is committed to the welfare of others, the more likely one will have a good life oneself. (We are social creatures, after all.)
Likewise, the same skills that enable one to contribute maximally to society also enable one to have an excellent life oneself. And the knowledge which enables one to contribute to society also enables one to live in such a way—to be employed and to make good decisions in light of the realities of the world—so as to maximize the quality of one’s own life. This knowledge would include knowledge of those things which are most fulfilling in life.
But what, more specifically, is the knowledge which would be most beneficial for students’ own sakes and for society? Surely, in addition to specific knowledge which may be useful for specific careers, what students need most is, again, a broad understanding of people and the world.
There will, of course, be great disagreements among academics about what are the most important specific things their students should know. And academic freedom is the cornerstone of the academy’s ability to seek and convey truth. There is, nevertheless, an extraordinarily simple way to effectively accomplish this goal which also respects academic freedom and the wonderful diversity characteristic of the modern university. That way is to simply capitalize upon the existing differentiation of the academy into its various major disciplines:
Think about these various primary disciplines, remembering the goal of a good broad understanding of people and the world.
Start with the social sciences.
Sociology is the study of societies. Surely some basic understanding of how societies function is crucial to a broad understanding of people and the world. And it is hard to see how a person could be truly well educated without having taken a single course in Sociology—learning some of its most important insights and methodologies.
Psychology is the study of individual human behavior, thought processes and emotion. What could be more important for the broad understanding we seek? And again, can anyone seriously claim to be well-educated without having had at least one course in Psychology—its most important insights, and methodologies?
And what of History? We cannot understand ourselves, or others, or our or others’ culture, without some understanding of History. Surely our students need a basic understanding of History, including how we discover historical truth.
And what about Economics and Political Science? Can our students understand the world, and effectively exercise their duties as citizens, without some basic understanding of these things?
And then there are the Natural Sciences. Can anyone be well-educated without knowing the basics of Biology, and Chemistry, and Physics? People as individuals, and corporately, pay a very substantial price for ignorance of these things. We are, literally, swindled, individually and corporately—we make very poor practical decisions—when not understanding the basics of how biological life works, something of the chemistry underlying the substances all around us, and how the physical world operates.
And then there’s Mathematics. How intellectually impoverished people are for not understanding what mathematics really is, and the amazing things it accomplishes for us.
And then there are the Humanities:
Is a person not plainly impoverished by ignorance of the world’s greatest literature, and how we can get the most out of it?
And surely a basic exposure and understanding of the Fine Arts is essential to a well-educated person and maximally-fulfilling life.
And, obviously, without some understanding of Religion, how can people understand themselves, others, and what is going on in the world—at all?!
And surely we cheat our students if we do not help them effectively confront the philosophical issues we are all confronted with as human beings, and a basic knowledge of the great philosophers who made our culture, and intellectual world, what it is.
And surely, to understand others, students deserve the opportunity to be able to understand them in their own languages, and to expand their thinking through the alternative conceptual schemes encoded in other languages.
And then there is Management/Business:
Nearly all of us end up working in some organization. We all interact with these things. Surely being well-prepared for life would involve learning something about how such things function, how to work within them, and how to help them function well. And this sort of knowledge may, in fact, be more “short-term-marketable” than the longer-term “transferable” skills of effective communication and critical reasoning. Arts or Science students with some such education are clearly better off.
So how can we effectively provide our students with the best possible broad understanding of people and the world? Simply require them to take one course in each basic discipline—a course specifically designed to teach them the most important things they should know even if they never take another course in that discipline again. The course content would include the most important insights that discipline has delivered (in the judgment of that professor/department), and the fundamentals of the methodology of that discipline.
Well, it may not be possible for students to take such a basic course in every primary discipline, but students may be required to take a course each in most basic disciplines, with some choice permitted.
So what would this look like?
Students engaged in such a program could take at least one course in each of these disciplines:
Of course one might be inclined to require more than one course in some of these disciplinary areas. But notice that a typical 4-year university degree consists in 40 one-semester courses. A program of studies which included a course in nearly all of these subjects would require less than a third of the total program. It would make up about half of a 3-year bachelor’s degree program.
To enable greater specialization in one’s other studies, one could settle for less, of course. Such a program could consist of 10 courses, taking one year, involving the students in choosing between some of these fundamental disciplines—but still taking most. In this case, a sensible program would require a sensible distribution of courses—at least some courses in each of the major general areas of studies: Humanities, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, and Management, for example.
You get the idea. Such a program would ensure that students learned the most important things they should know to acquire a broad understanding of people and the world—and an understanding of the different methods available for discerning truth in all the world’s varied aspects.
Now that’s an education. That’s what we owe our students and society.