What is a university for?
David Henry | Thursday, August 26, 2021
As we return to Notre Dame this fall, or perhaps arrive there for the first time, we return to a campus ready to make up for lost time. And yet, while we’re focused on all the football and tailgating, it can be easy to lose sight of the reason we go to a university like Notre Dame. It’s moments like these, in the midst of great excitement, that we should take a minute to reflect on what we’re trying to accomplish here before we get distracted by how much fun we’re having.
The two most prominent functions of a university today are to produce knowledge and educate students. The act of obtaining knowledge might also be understood as asking questions — new knowledge is the result of answering a question whose answer we did not know before. Thus, the functions of the university are to ask questions and educate students. Other institutions — think tanks, corporate research and development and government research labs — ask questions and produce knowledge; while schools, jobs training programs and the military educate students. But, it is only in a university that both functions can coexist.
Given these two goals, the true spirit of the university is encapsulated by the best questioner and educator of all history: Socrates. Living around 500 B.C.E., Socrates was known for questioning anyone that might have been wiser than he was in the city of Athens. After examining the best men of the city — the politicians, the poets and the craftsmen — he found that none were wiser than him because they claimed to know something and did not know anything, whereas Socrates did not claim to know anything while he also knew nothing. Throughout the course of his questioning, many young men in the city began to follow Socrates and imitate him, going out into the city to question those who claimed to be wise. Socrates was so committed to this lifestyle that he abandoned all material goods, and eventually his life, in its pursuit.
Socrates lost his life because the city of Athens condemned him to death on the charges of doubting the gods of the city and corrupting the youth. In other words, he was condemned to death for asking questions and educating students — the essential functions of a university.
I propose that the reason the university today has not been executed like Socrates is that it has abandoned its primary tasks of questioning the gods of the city and corrupting the youth like Socrates once did. And as much as I’d like to put the modern university on trial for blind faith to the “gods of the city,” I’ll content myself to just trying it for the crime of purifying the youth, since that will tell us more about how we as students should live.
When I say that the modern university, Notre Dame included, is guilty of purifying the youth, what I mean is that the modern university is guilty of purging its students of the creativity and energy of their youth. The first piece of evidence against the university is the admissions process. Admissions to top-ranking schools like Notre Dame are high-stress and force students to subject themselves to every variety of extracurricular activity, volunteer experience and job that will make them look good on a college application. After gaining acceptance to a school like Notre Dame, we are constantly bombarded with the idea that we need to do research, have internships and get involved in different career-related clubs all in the name of getting a good job after graduation.
Perhaps the most potent purifier of all, students are fed the idea that they must take certain classes or have certain majors in order to get a job after graduation. Even the critical thinking skills these majors and classes claim to offer are still only advertised in the service of being a marketable skill. This process of careerism, of only seeing our education as the means to an end of getting a job, is the crime of universities like Notre Dame acting in cahoots with society at large. Careerism turns us into obedient rule-followers, willing to jump through any hoop just for the opportunity to be another cog in the machine, utterly and thoroughly uncorrupted.
So, what is to be done? I’m not urging students to not do an internship, to not get involved in research on campus or to not take a class they think will teach them practical skills. The chances that the expectations of society and universities will change any time soon are slim. The reality is that internships and learning hard skills are important for being a competitive applicant to many jobs. What I am saying is to only do those things if you actually want to, not because you believe you’re supposed to. We will have plenty of time later in our lives to focus on careers, but we won’t have as much time to pursue our intellectual interests with fellow learners like we can here at Notre Dame. Even if Notre Dame has failed to corrupt us, we can still corrupt ourselves.
David Henry is a sophomore majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies, with a supplementary major in ACMS and a minor in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Originally from Minnesota, David lives in Baumer Hall on campus. He can be reached at [email protected] via email.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.