The central purpose of college
Andrew Sveda | Monday, March 8, 2021
In my previous column, I asked, “What is the main thing, the purpose of college that takes precedence over all other factors and shapes what a meaningful college experience looks like?” I examined three common answers — credential earning, job training and “learning things” — and discovered that each college model suffered from some serious deficiency, and thus should not be considered the fundamental purpose of college. So now we must consider other potential answers to the question at hand: What is (or rather should be) the driving purpose, mission and heart of the university?
One popular vision of college revolves around something called the “life of the mind.” It’s about, we are told, cultivating curiosity and inquisitiveness in students in preparation for a lifetime of learning. The end result is the formation of a critical thinker, an intellectual who is able to grasp and grapple with the toughest and most central problems that humanity faces.
This idea clearly has its strong points. We should want a university to teach students how to think deeply and critically about things. We should want them to care about discovering what is true and seeking to find it. We should want them to ask not just what and how, but why. In this way, the life of the mind seems intrinsically intertwined with the work of philosophy.
But is that what college is most deeply: the making of philosophers and intellectuals? I think most of us want to say no, and not without good reason. Knowledge, logic and correct thinking are indispensable, but aren’t we missing out on much when we make this the heart of a college education? Shouldn’t we want men and women who not only seek truth, but who find it also? But there’s an even deeper problem: Academics are but a small part of life. Indeed, a person solely dedicated to merely academic pursuits and intellectual exercises, despite all their lectures at conferences and accolades, cannot help but feel terribly empty inside. In their library, they may have book after book and volume after volume, and in their head, there may be an ocean of wisdom, but how little it amounts to in the end. It is not a story to be envied. To the one who treats mere knowledge and sophistication as an end, Paul’s words are all too true: “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1).
So, some of you are thinking, maybe the central purpose of college is to be a force for good, a place for moral formation. But how do you intend to go about this? By merely telling students what’s right and what’s wrong? No doubt we need to do that, but I thought we just got done concluding that mere knowledge alone will not and cannot do the trick. Those who take a good look at their own lives will realize this is true. Outward actions can be suppressed, but the reason there was an issue to begin with was because the real problem always dwelt deeper than actions or even thoughts. We do what is wrong because we like what is wrong and because our hearts are evil. That is the only logical explanation, and that is what Christianity uniquely asserts.
We naturally loathe this idea. It seems so strange to us, so wrong. We desperately want to think of ourselves as good (maybe that kid over there’s bad, but we sure aren’t!). We don’t even like to consider it. But since when were we the objective reference point for what is good? We never were. God is. He is good. He commands us to do things, to think rightly, to have a pure heart, and we scream “No! Never!” We want to do things our way. We don’t want to be commanded by anyone, not even God. We are rebels at heart. Teaching a rebel what is right or trying to persuade them to do right won’t make them any less a rebel. If they’re truly a rebel, you can’t change them by superficial means. It’s a heart issue, and therefore must be solved at the heart level. That is, they must completely change. They must change at the most fundamental level possible. See now why Jesus said, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. … You must be born again” (John 3:6-7)?
To truly know God — to have a relationship with Him, to walk with Him and serve Him for His glory — that is the purpose and meaning of life. Anything that operates outside of this purpose, our purpose, will be a waste of time in the end. And when we try to discover what the purpose of something should be, we must have this truth at the forefront of our minds. This includes college. Attempts to do otherwise will only end in even more confusion and misguided conclusions.
Does that mean, I can hear someone saying, that we must all be seminarians? Of course not. People are called to do different things. People have different gifts for a reason. This is one of the things (among others) that the Bible seems to be getting at when it talks of the body of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 12). There is a diversity of gifts, but there is a unity of purpose: their devotion and service to Jesus Christ, which should shape and direct all they do. To disregard this guiding and objective purpose of all our lives, to attempt to create your own subjective meaning apart from Jesus, is a terrible and tragic undertaking. The Bible says Jesus is the power and wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24) and the eternal Logos (John 1). If we are to be genuinely wise and experience true life, we’d do well to conform to it. We are fools in doing otherwise.
Andrew Sveda is a sophomore at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh, Pa. majoring in political science. In his free time, he enjoys writing (obviously), reading, and playing the piano. He can be reached at [email protected] or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.