Universities for the Cultural Mandate

As part of our series on the idea of a Christian university - and in these tense times of academic "industrial action" - I want to share a review of "What are Universities For?" by Stefan Collini (Penguin, 2012). 

The appearance of a Penguin paperback about the purpose of universities indicates considerable public interest in academic scholarship. Indeed this book's second part comprises a series of polemical newspaper pieces produced in response to various initiatives of recent UK governments to modernize the university sector.  But it is in the first half of the book that Stefan Collini's main argument is developed: an argument against the modern obsession with finding economic utility in universities. I find in it important echoes of a biblical view of culture.

In a brief opening survey of the status quo provocatively headed “The global multiversity?”, we find Collini's central theme: the perennial debate between those who ask how universities are practically useful and those who ascribe them intrinsic value. The central thesis then comes in Chapter 3, which engages with John Henry Newman’s classic work The Idea of the University. Collini’s treatment is critical – and not just because he does not share Newman’s religion. He suggests that this work has attained its classic status as a defence of the university against political and economic demands for utility not only by its literary accomplishment but also by its lack of specific content as regards the actual subject matter of university study. This defence shows a breathtaking lack of proportion in suggesting that, as Collini puts it, “three years spent in some particular course of study in one’s late teens” can produce such glorious social and personal fruits as “cultivating the public mind”, “purifying the national taste”, “facilitating the exercise of political power”; and then personal eloquence, perspicacity, force of argument, perfection of judgment, adaptability, empathy, camaraderie, tact, and so on. Collini suggests that such grandeur is typical of those who advocate universities for their own sake, as if hyperbole is in the very nature of their argument! 

I find it fascinating how expansionary spatial metaphors abound here: “enlarging” the mind to avoid “one-sidedness” and take in “wider perspectives” from “fields” within a broad “framework”. It seems as if the university stands as the gateway to exploration of an unlimited conceptual cosmos. Perhaps, indeed, the overweening vision of some advocates actually represents an innate tendency of academic work itself to expand indefinitely, ranging and drifting as one question elicits another. This is partly why the arguments over the usefulness of universities recur in each generation, and governments may sometimes succeed in reigning in academic work to what is more obviously useful. But what strikes me here is the idea that universities should stand as gateways and pointers – however incipiently and inadequately – to an infinite universe of discovery. And this reminds me of the tenor of Genesis 2, where the river running out of Eden leads to vast scope for discovery and civilisation.

Collini’s idea of a university and its raison d’être turns out to be a purist one. Humans have an innate desire for understanding, and universities are an important expression of this – rather as are galleries and museums, each in their own way. Universities “provide a home for attempts to extend and deepen human understanding in ways that are simultaneously disciplined and illimitable”.

While teaching does not at first glance seem central to this vision, Collini actually questions the distinction between teaching and research in a crucial way. He argues that the modern concept of research does not do justice to endeavours in such disciplines as history, literature and classics, especially when divorced from teaching. Scholars in the humanities are always addressing an audience, and in so doing they may cultivate new understanding no matter how naive that audience is, while simultaneously being engaged in education, no matter how learned the audience. Indeed, a reformational philosopher might observe that teaching and research are both forms of innovative formation engaging human freedom and creativity – the formation of students together with the formation of culture. This suggests another characterisation of the university: a community of endless cultural formation.

Universities, then, are a basic cultural institution to be justified by their contribution to human understanding. Clearly the public funding they should be allocated and the ways in which they serve other needs such as the training of professionals remain important questions. But, Collini argues, the university must continue to transcend utilitarian demands from governments, religious institutions and businesses – to name some of the historically most demanding – even while it helps shape each society’s understandings of religion, politics, economics, science, engineering and whatever other aspects of reality may be uncovered. In a reformational Christian perspective, universities exist as part of humans' response to God's calling to create and build wise understanding of the created order. As each student develops their own understanding, the cumulative heritage of human understanding is developed and displayed in new ways, to the glory of God. This is the sense in which universities are for everyone, and point beyond themselves to Christ the coming king.

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