What are universities for?

Not too long ago I noted two essays that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, one by Martha Nussbaum and the other by Keith Thomas, on the topic of the humanities and the university.  In his piece, “What are universities for?”, Thomas regretted the loss of the art of teaching within the context of an academic culture that put a premium on research and publishing.

In a recent interview, Wendell Berry expressed similar concerns:

I think [the University of Kentucky] has gone astray first with its long emphasis on research instead of teaching. If you promote research, which can be quantified, and make it the paramount issue with promotion and tenure and salary raises, then you diminish the standing and importance of teaching necessarily, which can’t be quantified. … Administrators have to find a way to reward professors for teaching.

Berry’s comments came in the wake of his decision to remove his papers from the University of Kentucky’s archives  in protest against the university’s recent emphasis on becoming a Top 20 “research university” and their acceptance of a sizable donation from a major coal company. Later in the interview Berry makes the following reasonable assumption:

And so the University of Kentucky has for some time had a program to become a top-20 research institution. Every sizable university in the country has that program, as if the present top 20 is going to stand back while the others pass them. I don’t think that’s going to happen for most of them. Well, let me not speculate.

In his essay, Keith Thomas observed that

Only a minority of academics can hope to achieve any real advance in their discipline, but all have the possibility of making an enduring “impact” on the minds of their pupils.

Combining Berry and Thomas yields the following formulation: only a minority of universities can hope to become Top 20 research institutions, but all have the “possibility of making an enduring ‘impact’ on the minds of their pupils.”  But this can happen only if they make teaching and “scholarship,” to borrow Thomas’ term, a priority.

You can read more about Berry’s decision at University Diaries and the Lexington Herald-Leader.

2 thoughts on “What are universities for?

  1. I am thinking, Mike, that some of the best teachers, then, are found at what used to be known as ‘community colleges’. There, they can teach without the pressure to publish or produce.

  2. I suspect there is something to that … maybe even in our high schools. But it is unfortunate that teaching seems to be disincentivized in our best and largest schools through which the majority of undergraduates will pass.

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