The Role of the University in Post-Industrial Societies

During its origin in the Middle Ages the University was an institution for elite education, but in post-industrial North American and European societies over the past century the University has become a vehicle for mass education and practical research. As universities have began to occupy this role the justification of their funding, place in society and existence has had to change. No longer can universities justify their place by saying that they pursue knowledge for knowledge sake, or for providing students with a liberal education that uniquely enables elites to be effective leaders. Instead, the university is typically justified on four bases within post-industrial societies.

The first and most dominant justification suggests that universities are required educate citizens so they are able to get good jobs and achieve economic success. University education is then an investment in the young, that will allow them be economically successful.

The second dominant justification of the university is that it produces research and knowledge that will be able to help solve social problems, and ensure our society is innovative and thus is able to succeed in a competitive, economically driven world.

Thirdly, universities are sometimes justified on the basis that they allow people to pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake and thus they don’t just help society solve problems, but also allow us to pursue the intrinsically worthy good of trying to better understand the universe.

Fourthly, universities are also often justified on the grounds that the education received, particularly in the liberal arts, will help students develop critical thinking skills, which will enhance democracy. On this view universities are seen to provide students with a well-rounded education that improves their character and capacities such that they are better citizens and individuals.

These justifications deeply differ and might even be supposed to conflict and thus the question I want to ask if it is plausible for the university in a post – industrial society to be able to fulfill all of the goals laid out by each of these four justifications. It seems to me that while it is conceivable that a university could do this in a particular kind of society, in post – industrial societies it seems that these justification are at cross-purposes, and thus the pursuit of one of the justifications will tend to negate some of the others. Hence the university, in its current form does not seem to be able to fulfill all of these goals effectively.

One quite glaring contemporary example of this conflict between the various justifications of universities is made evident by the failure of the bachelor’s degree to ensure economic success for those who pursue it. This problem arises because bachelor degrees, excluding nursing, education, engineering and possibly commerce, do not prepare students for any particular career or vocation. Thus while they may give graduates some skills it is not evident how these skills prepare them for economic success. For example, those who have a degree in the humanities typically learn how to construct an argument, read difficult texts, and write papers, but it is not obvious how these skills translate into any particular vocation, outside of the academy. But the reason why the bachelor’s degree in most forms fail to assure economic success for those who possess it is not because it is poorly designed, but because the degree is structured not simply as a prelude to a particular career, but as an introduction into a scholarly discipline, related disciplines, and to ensure people receive a well-rounded education that improves their capabilities. For example, the need for breadth requirements as part of a bachelor’s degree cannot be justified from the perspective education as a prerequisite for economic success. This is made evident because if I want to be a lawyer, why should I need to have an understanding of fields like the fine arts that have no clear relation to my field? But breadth requirements make sense if we think about the fact that different disciplines probably provide different critical thinking skills, and capabilities. Thus, to be a more well-rounded person, and citizen, you should have familiarity with a wider field of disciplines, rather than just with the discipline that you want to pursue a career in. Consequently, the very fact that the bachelor’s degree is structured, not as a simple preliminary to a vocation, but as a means to achieve a well-rounded education in some way harms its ability to justify itself as a means for citizens to ensure they have economic success. Pursuing an education that introduces you to a scholarly discipline and gives you a well-rounded appreciation of the world is a far less effective education for a career than a vocationally driven one. So, we have a case where one goal that a university is pursuing (well-rounded education) and another (education for a career) are in conflict.

We can also see this issue when we think of the research aspect of universities. The research that society is most interested in funding is often research with clear practical applications, rather than research that would best help us understand the world as a whole. So the university must try to reconcile two conflicting goals, as part of the mission of the university is towards serving as a haven for scholarship to help us better understand the world, and yet the state tends to see the university as a source of useful research that can solve its problems. While in some cases these goals may overlap, there is no reason for them to necessarily coincide.

The fact that universities are given the task of pursuing all of these unique, and conflicting goals puts them in an awkward place, and I cannot see universities being able to be successful at effectively pursuing all of these goals. Quite simply, when an institution tries to pursue multiple conflicting goals it tends to fail to deliver on any of them effectively. For example, the artist who tries to both be commercially successful and to produce something unique and interesting is not going to be able to deliver on either goal. He may try to produce something unique and interesting and end up creating something commercially successful, and vice versa. But as soon as he tries to simultaneously pursue both ends he will struggle as these goals do not always coincide and may conflict.

Does this mean the university should be abandoned? Certainly not, but it means that we need to stop being surprised that universities are unable to effectively pursue all of the goals they are tasked with. In addition we need to begin to think of how the university and mass education can be reformed so that the system of education, learning and research in our society can effectively provide vocational education, well-rounded scholarly education, produce practical research, and provide a haven for the pursuit of scholarship and science for its own sake. This may mean that the university needs to be supplemented with other institutions that can be tasked with some of the goals that the university is less adept to deal with. The existing vision of the university as a space for pure scholarship, practical research, education for economic success, and well-rounded education is well intentioned, but typically when one institution tries to pursue many disparate goals it will fail to deliver on any of them well.

Advertisements

The Scientific Spirit and Modern Society

The scientist inquires into nature to discover what relationships exist between things. By his nature the scientist is one who does not think that he possess the entire truth, as he continues to grasp at it. His quest is to possess this truth and he devotes his life to creating experiments to test hypotheses and theories expressed in propositional knowledge.

The scientist can take many paths as he meanders through the abyss of existing knowledge and ideas looking for new ways test his hypothesis, but two paths are particularly worth highlighting. The first path and the one that is most common within modern societies in that which might be known as that of the builder. This path takes the scientist in the direction of proving theories and developing knowledge that can benefit mankind. The builder sees the great power of scientific knowledge to assist us, and consequently while he is committed to knowing the truth, he must necessarily become more possessed by a spirit of beneficence than a passion for grasping the truth. Over the course of his quest he has gone from experiencing a wide eyed awe towards nature that reaches out to meet it, to an attitude that wishes to merely experiment on nature in order to benefit mankind. While he started as primarily a thinker, he is now primarily an actor or doer.

The path of the builder is the most dominant path for the scientist in modern society as the scientist must justify his worth in terms that the society he inhabits understands. Given that most modern societies are fundamentally oriented around growth, economic concerns and improving material conditions for people the scientist must justify his worth as someone whose work benefits mankind, rather than simply someone who is enamored with the quest for truth. While Socrates was enamored with the spirit of science in that he devoted his life to questioning the nature of reality and knowledge, he would not be funded as a scientist because he refused to produce any tangible artifact that might benefit mankind.

Not always, but typically, the builder becomes a specialist. As a specialist he focuses in one narrow field of study to see what useful knowledge can be grasped within that narrow field for a particular set of practical problems, rather than a builder who wants to grasp the whole. That the builder typically becomes a specialist is not at all surprising as in order to fully experiment on one narrow aspect of nature in depth a scientist needs to devote much time, and study and there are very few scientists who are able to conquer more than one narrow region because of the simple demands of time that are required to fully understand this region.

In addition, the structure of scientific inquiry as it is constituted institutionally in modern society exhibits a structure of divisions in which one must primarily be a botanist, psychologist, physicist or member of another discipline, such that the demands of conformity to a professional discipline confine the scientist to working in a particular field. Of course the professional scientist can examine other fields outside of their work, but this must always be something separate from his professional work, and this pursuit must always compete with other pursuits such as friendship, love, family and other leisurely activities.

The second path for the scientist is far more difficult to pursue in modern society and somewhat ironically it tends to be at cross purposes with the professional scientific discipline. In this path we have those whose fundamental concern is to understand the whole. These individuals typically make unreliable researchers as their task cannot be confined to simply figuring out some particular sphere such as understanding the impact of the consumption of sucralose on appetite. These people are creative seekers who jump from one area of interest to another driven by their desire to synthesize their insights into some coherent understanding of the whole, rather than obedient workers who will be sure to accomplish the task to which they are assigned or have agreed to. Some of them may be able to make a career through scientific inquiry because of their genius and novel insights, but this will always be in tension with the spirit by which they are animated, as those who are driven by this spirit are not necessarily interested in producing treatises but in simply grasping the whole. This last point is one that has been made by many including Arendt, but I think it is worth reiterating because it points to the separation between building intellectual systems for the benefit of mankind or for glory, and to the pure quest for understanding.

This is all to say that the professional discipline of science is not simply a constitution of the spirit that continually pursues an understanding of the whole. Rather, the professional discipline of science is a historical manifestation of many factors, and those of who are captured by the aforementioned spirit may be marginalized and degraded, rather than supported by the institutions of science as they exist in modern societies. Consequently, the institutionalization of science may be as much of a threat to the spirit of continuous inquiry directed at understanding the whole as those who decry science in favour of unreflective forms of faith and tradition.