Saturday, January 06, 2007

Independent Collegian Column: A University's Purpose

A university's purpose

Patrick Beeman

Posted: 11/6/06

It would have been too lengthy, but I really wanted to entitle this piece "What is a University: Reflections from someone who has been in one for too long." Granted, being in medical school is not the equivalent of being a sixth-year undergraduate senior; nevertheless, the question of "why I am here" pops into my mind at least twice a minute during my med school classes. Yet, it would seem that answering this question is intimately tied to the question of a university's purpose.

The word "university" comes from two Latin words meaning "turned toward unity." A university, then, is a "whole" - a place where many elements are gathered into one thing. This should be pretty obvious considering the recent merger. On a superficial level at least, one can see the many different colleges here (Medicine, Law, Arts and Science) are part of one grand place we all know and love, the University of Toledo. Now the mediaevals, being a backward people and all, took the concept of a "university" a lot more seriously than we. They believed that the "one" into which the sundry elements were gathered was truth. For them, a university was a place where many different elements were at the service of discovering and knowing the truth.

In this connection, James V. Schall, a professor at Georgetown University, identifies three classical purposes of a university: 1. to preserve the scientific, literary and artistic achievements of humankind's past; 2. to "separate the true from the false; yet to know the false, to record it, to keep it, but to know that is false;" and 3. to ensure that knowledge is preserved, increased, and passed on to the coming generation. No doubt these lofty ideals seem so unreal when we are sitting in yet another lecture on "Cultural Competence," or some inane subject or useless requirement.

Nonetheless, much of our education is not at the service of Schall's lofty ideals; in our present context, as members of the UT community, we must ask ourselves if these and the ultimate purpose of pursuing the truth will be preserved in the institutions and goals of our university.

Recently, the so-called "White Paper" (isn't most paper white?) was released which, according to these pages, "describes how UT should narrow its focus to fields of science and technology." I love science and technology; and if the next test goes well, I just might become a doctor (let's hope this is a good thing for my future patients). However, I cannot imagine how impoverished my life would be without the study of Latin or my acquaintance with great minds like Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas or my being forced to take a class in British Literature in which I was able to read (it seems for the last time now that I am in medical school) Shakespeare and Chaucer.

One of my med school friends commented that it might be okay to focus more on science and technology because UT is best in these areas (the humanities not being one of our strengths). Some might add the idea that we should just phase out the humanities if we cannot be good in them. However, I would retort by pointing out G.K. Chesterton's immortal quip that "anything worth doing is worth doing badly." That is, some things are so important that they ought to be done for themselves whether they are done the way Einstein could do physics or Shakespeare could write sonnets.

Don't get me wrong, science is great. It's just that a university is a place where many things should be included in the pursuit of knowledge and truth. And science just cannot provide a coherent worldview or frame in which to live one's life. You simply need the humanities to learn to deal intelligently with the "ultimate questions."

My plea to the administration is this: please don't forget the humanities; they might not bring in much money, but as Schall observes, a university in which Plato or Augustine are not read is simply not worthy of the name.
© Copyright 2007 Independent Collegian

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