What Are Universities For?

We have many social institutions, which each serve many social functions. Sometimes people make arguments about how we should judge or see each one based on claims about what each one is “really” for. For example, Agnes Callard on universities:

Let me tell you now what I didn’t have the presence of mind to say [when the college-admissions scandal broke]. I’ll start with what universities are not for. First, they are not for perpetuating the ruling or elite class. Second, they are not for achieving social justice. Doubtless they do perpetuate the ruling class; many institutions do this. And probably they could do more to bring about social justice. But those things are not what they are for.

Third, universities are not for making money—though they do call for careful financial stewardship. Fourth, they are not for producing better citizens. Fifth, they are not for producing happier human beings. If I had to measure the worth of my classes in my students’ subsequent civic virtue or life satisfaction, I couldn’t afford to lose touch with most of them after graduation. I am sometimes saddened when I lose touch with them, but it never causes me to wonder whether their education was worthwhile.

Those five points cover basically all the criticisms levied against the university, which means all the critics who said it was not doing its job had failed to identify what its job was in the first place. But that is step one of the criticism process. You can’t be failing at what you’re not in the business of doing. …

Now I grant that the university is easy to misinterpret, because its innermost parts are hidden from view. What’s visible is who gets in and who is excluded; the fates of its graduates; clashes between townies and gownies; five-year completion rates; public-relations catastrophes; IRS 990 forms. If you go on a campus visit, you see the buildings, but not what happens inside them. …

That doesn’t really get the pundits off the hook, because they tend to be college-educated. The real scandal, if I may, is the fact that so many people who attended one seem to have no idea what it’s for. So let me come out and tell you what a university is for: a university is a place where people help each other access the highest intellectual goods. A university is a place of heterodidacticism. …

This was one of the best classes I’ve ever taught. … That’s what I wish I could’ve communicated to those embroiled in the admissions-scandal brouhaha; I wanted to break down the walls around my classroom, throw a spotlight on it, and tell everyone to stop talking, look and listen: “It is happening right here—this is what universities are for: reading Aristotle together.” All the arguments about elitism and corporatization and donations were as irrelevant as the ivy growing on the walls. I could give you a hundred more examples. …

There are strange people who somehow, through a series of accidents, get and stay keyed onto intellectual goods on their own—the autodidacts I mentioned earlier—but the rest of us need constant help reorienting, because just about every worldly temptation pulls us in the opposite direction. This, in the end, is the explanation of why the innermost parts of the university are hidden from view. (more)

So while Callard has enjoyed some experiences of intellectual interaction at universities, she agrees that these experiences don’t weigh greatly on the minds of most university graduates. Yet even so she still insists that this is what universities “are for”, and seems to suggest that we should structure, fund, and analyze universities primarily in terms of this aspect. Even though she offers no evidence or argument to support this focus, beyond her positive experiences.

I posted two sets of six Twitter polls (ave. 203 responses each), asking, out of eight different social functions, which one “has pressures to achieve it most shaped the details of universities” and which one “do you most want the details of universities to be shaped to achieve it”. Here are function weights that fit their responses, relative to 100 for the most common choice:

As you can see, Callard’s fav function, “get intellectual goods” is 2nd highest out of 8 for what people want to shape universities, but 4th lowest out of 8 for what people think has shaped them. So Agnes, what can it even mean to say that your fav function is what universities “are for”? And what evidence would you offer for that claim?

It seems to me that most complex social institutions just don’t have a single thing they are for; they are for many things. And the functions that most shape our institutions are usually substantially different from the functions we wish would shape them. Just focusing on what we wish would shape them seems to be, well, wishful thinking.

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