The Purpose of a University Revisited

I mentioned this series when it started, but I missed the second posting, which is a review of Karl Jaspers’ The Idea of the University. One idea in it, echoing in some ways the educational philosophy of Morehouse and DuBois’ idea of the Talented Tenth:

Jaspers identifies three types of university students: True geniuses, the mediocre ones who make up the largest proportion of the student population, and a small group of talented youngsters. The geniuses require no instruction because in the university setting, they will take care of their own education. Teaching the large majority, however, is a waste of time, Jaspers says. All attention should, thus, focus on those few who are gifted but can develop their potential only when instructed by experienced professors.

Such guidance, though, will have to be gentle. The talented student develops best when inspiration replaces rigid formation. “Artificial guides such as the syllabi, curricular and other technical devices which convert the university into a high school, are in conflict with the ideal of the university,” Jaspers writes. “They have resulted from adapting the university to the needs of the average student.”

Ever have the feeling that most of your efforts are wasted and most of your seed is sown on inhospitable soil? We probably all have–luckily it passes and we all get a surprise or two. Still, the syllabus analysis is interesting, no?

The third one, on John Henry Cardinal Newman, is here. What does he think?

The other major concern for Newman is the kind of education that “trains the intellect in its own function.” Because the university must provide professional education, while also producing “good members of society” and transmitting the “art of social life,” it must devote part of its efforts to liberal education. “A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life,” he writes, “of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what in a former Discourse I have ventured to call a philosophical habit.”

In fact, more so than educating the engineer or the economist, “a University training … aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life.”

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