The value of the university

A university is a place where truth is valued so much that dearly held beliefs considered self-evident or irrefutable are opened up to being questioned. Universities in NZ have an officially recognised role as the “critic and conscience of society”; this requires us to be morally aware, well-informed, and active in speaking out, but these requirements seem to have taken a back-seat to pragmatism and people-pleasing in recent years; if indeed they were ever uppermost. Imagine if we helped to regain them; if we dared to step back and glimpse the big picture and act in light of it.

A university is not just a factory producing skilled workers to grow the economy. Yes, long-term gains in living standards require more than that approach, but what the university is really about has intrinsic value and does not require further justification. It’s not just a place where students file in to be indoctrinated with the intellectual fads or propaganda techniques of the day, but rather an institution where careful thought and argument are prized, and disagreement is engaged in charitably, even across the wide social, cultural, and ideological barriers that divide us. The real value of the university lies in its role in fleshing out the values of our society and subjecting them to critique.

What are the questions that our generation needs to be asking; and how are we to answer them? If you’ve never considered these things, you’re in the right place – a university exists for such a purpose. Market forces, mass media, globalization and many other things may conspire against us, but we need to take learning and thought seriously for its own sake. Charles Malik, who helped to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, comments “change the university and you can change the world!” For the sake of the world, I hope to see positive change in our university.

In our confused and messy world, here are some things I think we should probably consider as a society and as individuals. Firstly, what is truly valuable? What is it that is worth making sacrifices for and that we want to see more of in our world? Following on from this, are we truly autonomous as individuals, or are we beholden to something greater than ourselves? Secondly, how is this value (whatever it may be) grounded? How did it get here, and what makes it important? Is it just a matter of our choice? Is value foreign to the real nature of the universe, a projection upon it, or is it in some way foundational? Thirdly, given that that which we deem valuable is so often defaced, what are the underlying problems causing this situation? Is it selfishness, technology, superstition, politics, commerce, religion, or something else to blame? Fourthly, are these problems addressable, and if so, how? And finally, a twist on the first question – what is our goal anyway? Setting aside what will for most of us just be a handful or less years at university, what are we aiming to achieve in life as a whole?

I don’t have space here to give my own answers to these questions, but the club I help to lead is very interested in these things. The Evangelical Union is our university’s longest-running faith-based student organization and in line with my proposal that we all reconsider the big questions, we offer the university an event – Rutherford medallist Dr Jeff Tallon, FRSNZ, speaks on “Who made God? And other questions on the borders of physics and faith”. Tues 24th July, Eng 3403, 12-1. I hope to see you there.

[photo from Wikipedia]


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