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History / Sociology

The Four Purposes of the Modern University

I have briefly examined the various uses that are made of the modern university. As I said earlier, the modern university has a purpose and that purpose is simply what it is being used for right now. Right now the university has four purposes: it is a credentialing institution, a research institution, an educational institution and a culture-forming institution.

A university provides credentials to students. There are students who come there to receive a credential, professors who teach simply to earn money and administrators who accommodate them. This purpose is tied up with the use of credentials in our society. One might think that they indicate competence with a particular science, but this is not necessarily true. A credential may be used for social status or as a means of gaining a job.

A university is also a research institution. Most of the professors come for this reason. Their first priority is their work, and students are only useful insofar as they assist with that work. Research might appear at first glance to be linked to knowledge, but this is not necessarily true. Professors may promote a particular line of research for the notoriety of the claim or out of peer pressure.

A university is also an educational institution. This is the oldest purpose and one that many of the students are told is the purpose of the university. Education is simply the preparation of the student to pursue her good. Since the pursuit of that good does not usually involve becoming a researcher or university professor, this goal tends to conflict with professors who place research first in their list of priorities.

Finally, a university is also a culture-forming institution. Going to university can be a civilizing experience in which the student is exposed to the riches of our culture. Negatively, it can be a place where traditions are mocked and our cultural heritage is ignored in favor of a shallow multiculturalism. Either experience is a kind of culture-forming. In one case, culture is added; in the other case, culture is removed.

These four purposes all coexist in the modern university, but they do not coexist peacefully. One of these purposes does not govern the rest. Instead, each of these four purposes are treated as separate principles. Students interested in credentials do not care about our culture heritage, education or research. But professors interested in research do not care about the other purposes. They do not despise these things, but they have no special regard for them. They are simply not interested in pursuing them.

Next, I will discuss these purposes in order and ask whether or not the university is the best place carry out these sort of purposes. Using a stack of books as a table may work, but it makes a poor table. Perhaps some of these purposes are like that.

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