Tuesday, October 16, 2007

University: A definition

... The essence of a university is that it is uniquely accountable to the past and to the future – not simply or even primarily to the present. A university is not about results in the next quarter; it is not even about who a student has become by graduation. It is about learning that molds a lifetime, learning that transmits the heritage of millennia; learning that shapes the future. A university looks both backwards and forwards in ways that must – that even ought to – conflict with a public’s immediate concerns or demands. Universities make commitments to the timeless, and these investments have yields we cannot predict and often cannot measure. Universities are stewards of living tradition – in Widener and Houghton and our 88 other libraries, in the Fogg and the Peabody, in our departments of classics, of history and of literature. We are uncomfortable with efforts to justify these endeavors by defining them as instrumental, as measurably useful to particular contemporary needs. Instead we pursue them in part “for their own sake,” because they define what has over centuries made us human, not because they can enhance our global competitiveness.

We pursue them because they offer us as individuals and as societies a depth and breadth of vision we cannot find in the inevitably myopic present. We pursue them too because just as we need food and shelter to survive, just as we need jobs and seek education to better our lot, so too we as human beings search for meaning. We strive to understand who we are, where we came from, where we are going and why. For many people, the four years of undergraduate life offer the only interlude permitted for unfettered exploration of such fundamental questions. But the search for meaning is a never-ending quest that is always interpreting, always interrupting and redefining the status quo, always looking, never content with what is found. An answer simply yields the next question. This is in fact true of all learning, of the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities, and thus of the very core of what universities are about.

From the speech by Drew Gilpin Faust at the (formal) inauguration of her presidency of Harvard University. The NYTimes report on the event has this quote from W.E.B. DuBois:

Education is not to make men carpenters so much as to make carpenters men.


  1. Karthik said...

    an inspiring thought!