Comment: What's a university for?

Perhaps this is a distinctly unfashionable question, particularly when so many new universities are being built all over the world and more people than ever before are going to the university. However, unless one belongs to that rare group of people who think that the government - governments, in this case - knows better, this is a question worth asking, as public money is being poured in, either to build greenfield universities or to pay for students attending private, profit-making, ones. 

The university leaders usually treat the purpose of universities as self-evident truth and exempt, conveniently, their own institutions from the critical examination they claim every aspect of life should be subject to. However, given the importance of universities in the contemporary cultural life - they are deemed to be the creators of individual worth as well as its judge - some questions are worth asking. To do so, it's important to start at the very beginning, and ask - what are these institutions for?

One answer to the question above is that it is a wholly inappropriate question. Universities are, as some would want to say, places outside time, islands where knowledge for its own sake could be pursued. It is easy to start believing this: History-making of the western universities have stretched back to Plato's academy, almost 2500 years ago, and the Eastern ones, in India and China, reach back to similar periods. But more mundanely, most universities claim a medieval heritage, with distinctly medieval robes and rituals at convocations, Latin motto, architecture invoking its timelessness and language and lectures built around the monastic ideal. If an institution survived as long, it is part of human society itself and may not need an explicit purpose beyond nourishing the civilization.

It is best to acknowledge the limitations of the above answer - that universities are not really timeless but rather a fairly modern creation in its current form. We may have expropriated the iconography but the modern universities are not much older than railways, if that. In this version of the answer, the universities are everything. They are an institutional form that serve the society by creating and capable professionals, whichever profession may be needed at a given stage of society's development. It is not above the society and its concerns of a particular time, but rather an indispensable institutional form to make social development possible. Going to the university is not going outside the time in a search of knowing oneself, but rather connecting with real life and improving personal prospects.

This vocational/ professional argument is indeed at its strongest, as the private investment pours into the universities of today. But this is in conflict with another claim that it is as old as the university itself - that it creates knowledge. The knowledge creation ideal stems from the reclaimed heritage of Plato's academy, from a time when Gods did not have the final word as they competed between themselves, though it was somewhat muted in the Middle ages when there was nothing much, other than interpreting the God's words, to know. But the platonic ideal was all over in the new incarnation of the universities, particularly the German and American research universities, and they were built around skepticism, research and production of new knowledge as their ideal. The trouble is that this is in direct conflict with the professional preparation function, as the latter assumes the specificity of knowledge and particular time frames to attain this.

The other answer, predictably therefore, is that the university is for everything. It prepares for vocational/professional life, but it also creates new knowledge. This is the omnibus answer, one that is usually offered when no one has really thought what the answer should be. Creeping behind this answer is the university in its current form, large modern corporations which grants degrees, defining what expertise is and certifying individual expertise. From this vantage point, universities are part of a vast global network - and with common norms, language and practices, they are more connected than  they appear - focused on organizing and certifying knowledge, gate-keepers of what is worth or not worth knowing.

This 'curating' function of the university makes it sound like an encyclopedia or a museum or a library, with degree-granting being the chief functional distinction. However, the modern university's origins are more recent than any of those three. In fact, it has arisen as a reaction to the print culture and dissemination of popular knowledge, which encyclopedia or the libraries may have represented. Luther may have been an university professor when he unleashed his thesis, but it is his later symbolic role in the reformation - that of order against the chaos of peasant revolt - that signify the role the university plays in the spread of popular enlightenment. It is the state's attempt to create structures of knowledge and define the agenda of development of it, a function it has done remarkably well since the mid-Nineteenth century. 

My academic research is increasingly focused on this curating function of the university. I study Indian universities, which were somewhat untouched by German / American ideals of knowledge creation, impossible as that ideal would have been within the confines of colonialism, and was fully focused on organizing knowledge and granting degrees. Their history, therefore, did not elicit much interest as it did not fit the narratives of universal knowledge or the research university ideal. But they were among the first institutions dedicated to curation, subservient to the British state, a model that may throw much analytical insight into the current corporatised form of the universities. And, that is relevant as the universities themselves try to adjust to the world of private knowledge, where corporations privatise knowledge creation functions and recast the curating role of the universities away from public interest to private purpose. This makes universities more relevant, as they represent spaces of negotiation about how the new technologies would actually be developed and new norms would be shaped, and I intend to explore this with a global view of the development and transformation  of the universities a hundred years ago.



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