tl;dr Universities are always pressed to define why they exist and who they serve. The current American justification is built on a few big ideas: (1) a university education is supposed to provide career skills for the rest of your life. (2) Because university education sets people, in theory, up for good-paying jobs, university leadership has permission to make it expensive, and (3) universities are still mostly for unshaped young people, because young people are the group that is most concerned about moving into a career.
In response, I offer three alternative reasons for the university to exist that threaten some or all of the above three justifications: (1) A university could be about knowledge for its own sake, which would bring about broader participation in university life-not just by young people (2) it could be about civic preparation for democratic self-rule-which makes it vital that it not constrain future choices through excessive expense or other choice-limiting individual constraints, and (3) it could be about the improvement of the human condition, which--if the university wants to see its ideals realized--would give it a greater stake in creating human beings with more than job skills. Rather, the university would need to nurture people with a broad awareness of their own situation and a sense of purpose.
While I was a graduate student working on my Ph.D., I lived the life of the university. Maybe this is an obvious point: "OK, you were a Ph.D. student, of course you were based at a university." Right, elaborating more: a university is a community that is about something. It gets to be intentional, choosing how it goes about its business and why. That is because universities are, strictly speaking, superfluous. You don't need them to get by, even if most countries have them in some form.1
Because they don't have to exist, a university gets to decide why it exists. It decides what to teach and advocate for by the guide of what it thinks is important. These decisions are informed by what its graduates will go on to do, who reads its scholarship, where the university draws its faculty, how the university treats the various communities of which it is a part, etc. So when I say I lived the life of the university, I mean that I, without even realizing it, contributed to this process of creating the university; to be in a university community is to participate in the university's constant reinvention of itself.
Ph.D. students are somewhere between transient students and long-term members of the so-called "university community" (As university administrators are fond of calling it). You are not a permanent member of the university, like faculty or longtime administrative staff, but you are also not just a basic student passing through for a predictable and forgettable number of years. A Ph.D. is an open-ended commitment. Though attempts have been made to formalize the degree, it still doesn't finish by the expiration of a date on a calendar. It's done when you manage to finish it. Ph.D. students are therefore the university's quintessential semi-permanent members: expected to move on someday, but around an indefinably long enough time-and in the right roles- to see behind the scenes. Their liminal status also gives them real opportunity to ruminate on the gap between ideal and reality.2
Like most grad students, I was around to see the university change while I was there. Granted, my degree is in a very strange "field," which means I came in with my own views about graduate school that were perhaps more idealistic than normal.
I don't want to go into anyone's disillusionment with the university. That has been done quite well in other places, like here, here, and here. And if you spend enough time with an institution, some disillusionment is normal, probably even healthy. Instead let me quickly run through a few versions of how the university has thinks and talks about itself, starting with a few assertions about where American universities is today.
1. A university education-even a public one-is getting more expensive.3 When something is cheap, there is less pressure to justify the purchase. But when something gets expensive, people either stop buying it or-if they still feel like they need it-start asking more questions about what it will do for them.
2. College attendance is still widespread. College is a commodity that large numbers of people are still buying, but the questions have gotten pointed enough that universities have had to settle on a "why buy us?" answer. The answer is, more or less, job training.4 I do not blame them for this answer. The job training answer makes all the more sense given that (1) the U.S. appears to have settled on a model that sees four-year college-or some form of college-as a default path for large numbers of 18-24 year-olds.5 If you want to attract a big tent to your show, you have to come up with answers that have a broad and generic appeal across social classes. Lifetime earnings make a good argument. And (2), the cost factor has gotten so out of control-especially among private colleges-that you have to amortize such an exorbitant expense over the entire life-course. Given that anyone's knowledge about the distant future (especially individual prospects) many decades into the future is hazy, it is no surprise that most students become conservative, asking college to provide job skills that will lead to a measurable effect on lifetime earnings.
3. In the U.S., college still tends to be for young people, because its purpose is to prepare you at the beginning of your life for the rest of your life. It is expensive, because it promises to set you up earnings that will offset the expense ("can't make money without spending money"). And it is practical, about learning to do a job, because it draws from a large segment of the population-and most of the population needs a job.
But this doesn't have to be the case; few if any of these things have to be true about college.
Alongside the official lines above, which are what the undergraduates and the parents see, there are other justifications for the university. Some of these are use internally, as justification between faculty and staff to themselves. Others are used when colleges are in a more relaxed or idealistic setting, where they needn't justify themselves to prospective students. And some are rarely mentioned, either because they wouldn't be terribly persuasive to someone who isn't already convinced of the value of the university, or they are just bizarre to contemporary sensibilities. Here are a few:
1. Knowledge and learning for its own sake. This justification is an easier "sell" for the sciences than the rest of the liberal arts. After all, one of the most central premise of modern experimental science is specialization. You specialize as much as necessary to be in a position to ask a new question. Even if this new thing is obscure and useless now, one can never in principle rule out that it might be useful in the future.
But what to make of justifications for activities at the university that never claim to have an ideal beyond preservation, archival storage, and the documentation of a human situation? What does "for its own sake" mean here?
This "for its own sake" ideal flies in the face of the principle of scarcity, the control and management of time, and responsiveness to necessity. If anything that human beings have done and said is, in principle, worthy of study and reflection, then how can we ever know we're done? Where is progress in this model? "For its own sake" activity is inherently open-ended and anti-hierarchical. It just as open, in principle, to one cultural activity as to another. Further, if learning is undertaken for its own sake, then the activity only appeals to those with a reflective, self-conscious bent. When study is undertaken for its own pleasure, practical outcomes are always possible; but ambition often sets itself up with goals whose likely rewards it already understands. And learning for its own sake can be inexpensive, at least in dollars' but what it eschews in costs, it trades for a person's time and attention. And when it is expensive, it can appeal wasteful and frivolous-how can that be justified? Finally, when it comes to the age of the participant, learning for its own sake is, if anything, more attractive to the old (or at least the older) than the young.
For all these reasons, a university oriented around "learning for its own sake" would likely appear very different than the one we have today.
2. Citizenship and education for participation in a democracy. Democracy is self-rule, and participation in government is hard and complicated. Therefore you need a forum that trains young people to deliberate about their own values, ideals, and objections-and communicate them to others. The present American moment is justification enough for why we need people capable of digging through the surface-level reality presented to them, to judge truth and what is fact for themselves.
Under the democratic model, the well-rounded liberal arts-especially the qualitative, interpretive disciplines like philosophy-are where one acquires the ability to participate effectively in democracy.
It is possible to argue that "training for citizenship" justification of the university is a companion to job training. The same skills that make you a more flexible and conceptually nimble worker also make you a more intelligent and sophisticated citizen in a democracy.
But there are several important differences.
One big difference: it has become increasingly apparent that 90% of democracy (perhaps more than 90%) is about "showing up." That is, about doing the boring work of looking into an issue, asking even one or two basic questions about a political claim, and most importantly, actually showing up to the various outlets for democratic self-government: from local politics to communal events, to civic rituals, to election day. None of these activities requires great sophistication. You may be a more sophisticated democratic participant if you are better educated, but the whole point of democracy is that it is supposed to allow for a variety of participants.
The main reason that American democracy is in trouble is because people are not participating, and because the avenues and opportunities for participation have dwindled. Even the basic sophistication available through a college education (e.g., knowing the branches of government) is of limited value if you can't or won't get in the door to participate.
Furthermore, it's unclear why significant expense and debt should be a prerequisite for democratic participation. Democracy presumes some degree of freedom and self-determination by its citizens, but debt imposes the opposite.
3. Improvement of the human condition. Universities, so the argument goes, are where "progress" is made. I mean progress in the largest sense. For example, in a university, people can come to know things that we did not know before. Scientific discovery is the prototypical example. Or people can "uncover" something that was once known, but lost to the present, as in an archaeological find, or uncovered documents an archive, or a new argument about the past. Or-this is also a big one today-one can invent something in a university, creating a new tool which has a practical value to anyone. Universities also provide services, like when they heal people at their hospitals.6 Finally, universities can serve as extensions of human memory and culture, housing archives and records which would be of no significant interest to the rest of society, focused as it is on the clear-and-present value of goods and services.
All of these things are laudable goals for the university, and there are many places where they are carried on today. They speak to the permanent and long-term goals of universities, and why those on the outside should value the university's contributions to society at large. But what, then, is the value of bringing in temporary members of the community like undergraduates, to study for a few years? What is the value of their training, if they are expected to leave the university after a few years and assimilate elsewhere?
These groups (undergraduates, graduate students) are the most direct bridge between the values of the university, and the rest of the world. The university gets to give these students something that they value (right now, as we discussed above, that is job training), in exchange for the chance to indoctrinate them a bit with its own values.
Perhaps, as job training becomes more of an explicit mission of the university, the difference between the university's ideals and everyone else's has lessened. The university cannot improve the human condition without cooperation from the rest of the world. Inventions, scientific discoveries and medical procedures will be swept away if they are not supported outside the university. This is one problem with a too-complete identification of "improvement" with scientific advancement. If science is the model, it becomes easier for the university to understand itself in terms of discrete products and knowledge that it hands out to the rest of the world.
This model of a university actually seems to be functioning OK. But an improvement in the human condition is also a product of institutions (like the police), customs (like military service, voluntary donations), and norms (like laws) that the university is both dependent on and in a position to influence, albeit in a less obvious way than through inventions or scientific "breakthroughs." It is in these more subtle patterns of life that the American university and the rest of the world appear to be diverging. What worries me the most about university life today is not that universities are falling behind on scientific innovation, but that they are losing the ability to speak to the failure of American institutions, and a failure of American civic life more broadly. Even as the best universities are still (relatively) healthy miniature worlds-unto-themselves, but how long can this go on while the rest of the world becomes increasingly indifferent, skeptical, and/or hostile to the project of the university?
- Maybe this semi-permanent, precarious status helps account for why they are so unhappy)
- Let's stick with in-state public tuition, since that is the cheapest gateway to any college eduction. One source, educationdata.org, claims that real-dollar tuition increased from $1,730 in 1989 to $10,440 in 2019-20
- There are both high-minded and brass-tacks versions of job-training. The brass-tacks version draws on favored stats like the dollar-value of a college-graduates lifetime earnings versus a high school graduate, etc. The high-minded version talks about the mental agility and flexibility of the college graduate, and the supposed ability to learn and adapt to changing work requirements
- This data source for 2016 puts the number of 18-24 year olds enrolled at two and four-year colleges at 31% and 10%.
- Hospitals are attached to universities because medicine is a topic of research, but the ethical imperative-to improve human life-also explains the connection