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In my opinion

Rediscovering the truth-seeking mission of universities

The notion that universities exist, first and foremost, to discover and impart knowledge is no longer in vogue. That’s a tragedy.

BY BRIAN BIRD | OCT 29 2020

From day one, COVID-19 has posed enormous challenges for universities. Almost overnight, postsecondary institutions around the world had no choice but to radically adapt to the realities of the pandemic. Distance education became the norm, rather than the exception.

Much has been said on what this shift means for quality of instruction and student experience. These matters are important, but we should go deeper. We should reflect on why we care about these matters. We should rediscover the purpose of the university. A recent article in University Affairs put it this way: “In a world where students can attend any university from their living rooms, universities need a compelling answer to the question: ‘Why are you going there?’”

Today, most of us grasp the purpose of universities through the lens of career and credentials. This perception is not new – it has long prevailed. We see universities firstly as a means to an end: to get a degree that will get you a job. This vision comes to the surface amid the pressure to study at top universities in order to increase the chance of obtaining prestigious and lucrative employment after graduation.

In large measure, there is nothing wrong with this vision. The pursuit of employment to support ourselves, our families and our societies is laudable. If we consider ourselves called to a specific career, we will experience meaning and fulfillment in answering this call. But to the extent that the university is seen as more than anything else a factory that issues credentials and catapults graduates into jobs, we have lost sight of the primary purpose of these institutions.

Universities, first and foremost, exist to discover and impart knowledge. It is no accident, for example, that the motto of Harvard University is “Truth.” Universities nourish the innate longing of humans to obtain knowledge and to reshape our ways of living and thinking according to the knowledge we obtain. We intuitively recognize knowledge as an intrinsic good that cultivates the flourishing of individuals and, in turn, the betterment of societies in which they live. It is awe-inspiring to consider the countless achievements for humanity that stem from research and study at universities.

If universities are at heart truth-seeking institutions, they must be committed to open inquiry and debate. Academic freedom – the freedom to investigate, test and challenge conventional wisdom – is the lifeblood of truth-seeking. If a university dictates what faculty and students must think or believe, we are dealing with something closer to a think tank or a political advocacy group. Groupthink is, simply put, unbecoming of a university.

If universities are serious about the pursuit of knowledge, academic freedom must be robust. There must be ample room for disagreement and dissent, even on the most controversial matters. This approach permits scholars and students to make claims and advance theories that are, in the opinion of others, unsettling and even offensive or dangerous. There is no way around it: this state of affairs is a feature of academia. If we encounter ideas that we deem to be incorrect, we should – in the service of knowledge and truth – explain why that is so. We should discredit bad ideas by way of intellect rather than intimidation.

Academic freedom should be robust, but it should also have limits. Scholars and students exercise this freedom with the tools of the trade for academia: evidence, reason, logic and argument. If these tools are not used, the freedom is not available. Academic freedom enables vigorous contestation and criticism of ideas, but this freedom should always be exercised with civility and tact. We can disagree with each other, even on the thorniest of issues, and remain collegial – even friendly. We stand a far better chance of doing so if we see each other as fellow searchers for truth – as being in pursuit of the same fundamental objective – instead of adversaries to be defeated and embarrassed.

The notion that universities are primarily in the business of truth-seeking is not in vogue today. It has gathered dust as the careerist vision has gained traction. Hostility to the truth-seeking vision, a more recent trend, is also a factor. The growing number of instances in which viewpoints have been labeled anathema and supporters of those viewpoints deemed unwelcome on campus reflects a fading awareness of the mission of universities. As this awareness fades, politicization often follows. This a tragedy for the university, whether it is accomplished by the right or the left.

Over my 12 years of university study, I confess that I did not perceive universities in the way that I describe them here. I, like most students, saw the university as a pathway to socioeconomic stability and professional success – as, above all, a steppingstone rather than an opportune venue for the formation of character, intellect and critical thinking.

I first encountered the claim that I make here in October 2019, during a postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton University, at a talk entitled “The Spirit of Truth-Seeking.” The speakers were Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton, and Cornel West, a professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University. George and West disagree on much in the realm of politics and philosophy, but they firmly agree that universities are, at their core, truth-seeking institutions. Their remarks develop the points I have made here in greater detail and with far greater eloquence. I commend this talk to readers.

Universities face major problems today. But arguably the worst of these problems – confusion over their raison d’être – has little to do with COVID-19, and largely predates the pandemic. In this season of reflection and recalibration for universities, may we not only rediscover their truth-seeking mission but also recommit ourselves to it.

Brian Bird is an assistant professor in the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia. In 2019-2020, Dr. Bird was a John and Daria Barry Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.

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  1. lorna marsfen / November 4, 2020 at 14:05

    Excellent piece.