What do we learn in the university?

‘Dream, plan, achieve’… That is my university’s motto. I must admit that I cringe a little whenever I see it on our website or on headed paper. Of course we all have dreams and plans, but having those things does not guarantee achievement. The motto seems to tap into the belief that you can do anything as long as you dream big and plan for it. As such, it sits comfortably with a subtle shift that has been taking place over the last few decades: the university is no longer the place where you learn to think, but the place where you obtain the skills that will allow you to get a high-paying job.

What are universities for? Not many postgraduates and postdoctoral researchers will place teaching at the top of their priority list, and many lecturers and professors moan about their teaching loads (often rightly so). However, teaching has always been at the heart of the university. Some of the first universities were created by students demanding quality teaching from professors so that they would be well prepared for the job market in law or medicine. Indeed, the idea of the university combining teaching with research is a relatively new one, pioneered by the 19th-century German scientist Alexander von Humboldt. And although most postgraduates do not teach (if you get the chance: take it!), they are learning and being trained.

Maybe we should therefore reframe our topic from teaching to learning. What exactly do we learn in a university? Of course there is the subject matter of our chosen course. Alongside gaining knowledge of our chosen subject, we are also trained in a range of skills: logical and critical thinking, abstraction and theory formation, laboratory or interviewing skills, statistics. However, this all takes place within a larger context. Studying for a degree, whether undergraduate or postgraduate, is a highly formative experience. Our minds, our worldviews, our behaviour and practices are formed by the things we learn in our studies, by the ways of thinking we are surrounded by, and by our experience of the university environment, from the classroom to the student accommodation and from the pub to the library.

As Christians, we are called to have the mind of Christ (2 Cor. 2:14). So how should we approach this process of formation? ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord’ (Col. 3:23). We are to pursue our work wholeheartedly. And yet we need to be aware of those aspects of university life that will form us in a way that is not according to God’s will. That includes not just God-less theories, but also selfish ambition and drunkenness. What is forming you in your studies? Are you being formed into the likeness of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3)?

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Comments

A very helpful perspective on the university, Eline!
Achievement doesn’t just follow when we dream and plan. For some, a motto like that can herald major disillusion when we come to face our own inadequacies. It’s all the more interesting when we hear of significant discoveries that come “accidentally”. In such cases, it’s wisdom that allows us to lay aside the expectations that accrue from dreams and plans and grasp what is “given”. How to get that wisdom is what has largely vanished from the recognised functions of the university.

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