The Function of the University in Our Time

Recently, a German newspaper reported a student protest at a university in California. The curriculum, they argued, was old-fashioned and irrelevant and did not take care of their real needs.

The paper’s comment: In the students’ view, the function of the university was not to provide an opportunity for learning but for psychotherapy.

And watch out: what is happening in California today will happen in Germany tomorrow.

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4 responses to “The Function of the University in Our Time

  1. Josef Eisinger

    Should read, of course, “not for learning, . . . “

  2. Then we should get to work on the correct curriculum.

    “The Imaginary Invalid” by Molière would be compulsory as would all Sigmund Freud works (in the original German). Clearly, no hard sciences as they inflict a sense of inadequacy in the more delicate or dim. Higher learning will include lotus eating, causing the students to sleep in peaceful apathy.

  3. David Schatzky

    A psychotherapist would recommend that the university’s health service provide psychotherapy for students who need it. There are many who do. But, there is a condition attached to this. Psychotherapy services and the academic program must be entirely separate. Higher education is there to enable students to succeed academically and excel in their studies, not to solve all life’s problems for them nor to make understanding and mastering the self the sole focus of academic studies. That would lead to ignorance, incompetence and infantilization. Parenting, childhood and adolescence is for developing a mature relationship with the world. University should seize on that, not prolong adolescent dependence.

  4. My undergraduate years included a course in French literature in which we read some Montaigne, and passing reference was made to the idea of “learning how to live”. At the time, the phrase struck me as jarring, even bizarre. (Was living something we need to learn to do? Aren’t we already doing it?) Of course, with maturity comes the realization that learning how to live is indeed something we need to learn,–maybe the thing we need to learn.
    In Chapter IV of his book Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton argues that universities have failed their responsibility to impart wisdom along with knowledge, and proposes some remedies. Here are some sentences from de Botton’s book that indicate the gist of his argument:
    “There are few things that secular society believes in as fervently as education…. [mostly directed] to equip undergraduates with practical skills, the sort required for successful careers…. But the grander claims for education… imply that colleges and universities … have a… higher task to fulfill: they may turn us into better, wiser and happier people….
    What unites such ambitious and beguiling claims is their passion—and their vagueness…. Whatever rhetoric may be rehearsed in its prospectuses, the modern university appears to have precious little interest in teaching its students any emotional or ethical life skills, much less how to love their neighbours and leave the world happier than they found it….
    We have implicitly charged our higher-education system with a dual and possibly contradictory mission: to teach us how to make a living and to teach us how to live. And we have left the second of these two aims recklessly vague and unattended….
    Who cares?…. The reasons start to become clear when we consider the relationship between the decline in the teaching of scripture and the rise in the teaching of culture…. Claims that culture could stand in for scripture—that Middlemarch could take up the responsibilities previously handled by the Psalms, or the essays of Schopenhauer satisfy needs once catered for by St Augustine’s City of God—still have a way of sounding eccentric or insane in their combination of impiety and ambition…. Nevertheless….[t]he very qualities that the religious locate in their holy texts can often just as well be discovered in works of culture….
    Why, then, does the notion of replacing religion with culture, of living according to the lessons of literature and art as believers will according to the lessons of faith, continue to sound so peculiar to us?…. We are by no means lacking in material which we might call into service to replace the holy texts; we are simply treating that material in the wrong way….
    [W]e might begin to overhaul our universities by doing away with fields like history and literature, ultimately superficial categories which, even if they cover valuable material, do not in themselves track the themes that most torment and attract our souls. …
    The redesigned universities of the future would draw upon the same rich catalogue of culture treated by their traditional counterparts, likewise promoting the study of novels, histories, plays and paintings, but they would teach this material with a view to illuminating students’ lives rather than merely prodding at academic goals…. [thus, for example] the recommendations of Epicurus and Seneca would appear in the syllabus for a course on dying rather than in a survey of Hellenistic philosophy….
    A university alive to the true responsibilities of cultural artefacts within a secular age would establish a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying and a Centre for Self-Knowledge.”