Identifying the purpose of public institutions and organisations in society is usually a straightforward task: hospitals serve people’s health, schools raise and educate children, prisons rehabilitate criminals, the police maintain order and security. (Whether they succeed in doing these things is another question – the point is, this is what they’re supposed to do.) For universities, things are less straightforward. Sure, they offer higher education and are the sites of research in all sorts of academic disciplines. But our expectations of what universities ‘could be’ often reaches higher and is often stated in more abstract terms. The Germans, especially, like to use lofty language when they describe the university; for example, for Karl Jaspers it is the place where ‘the clearest consciousness of our time should become reality’ (Jaspers 1946: 9; my translation) or for Wilhelm von Humboldt it is ‘the apex where everything relevant for the moral culture of the nation comes together’ (Humboldt 1810: 193; my translation).
Universities have been around for a millennium in Europe, since their beginnings in the Italian city states, as well as Oxford and Cambridge. The idea of the university has understandably changed over the centuries as a result of internal and external pressures. Universities have freed themselves from religious dogma, have made themselves integral parts of their local and national economies and have transformed in the light of enlightenment ideas and political change. Today, society is faced with a range of challenges, most notably the task to make human life compatible with environmental boundaries. How should we think about the institutional purpose of universities in the 21st century? What should universities do about now?
On the one hand, instrumentalist views about the university have always tried to understand the role of universities as contributing to some societal goal. After the Second World War, the US instituted the first coordinated science policy and equipped universities with funding in the hope that doing so would contribute to national welfare and public security. Towards the end of the 20th century, the idea of the ‘entrepreneurial university’ saw universities as economic actors themselves, identifying economic and industrial needs and commercialising their research and technology accordingly. Understandably, many have started to worry about the advent of ‘academic capitalism’, where the dominant rationale at universities is subverted by market logic. Today’s call for aligning technology and innovation with grand societal challenges might be seen as yet another way of instrumentalizing universities — this time for political goals, as opposed to economic ones. Such instrumentalist views address a legitimate question: why should society spend resources (be it in the form of public funding, land grants or favourable regulation) on something that seems to many (at best) abstract and leisurely and (at worst) elitist and simply useless?
On the other hand, a tradition of idealist views about the university has resisted this picture, arguing for the unique — somehow intrinsically valuable — nature of university activity. Two names stand out: first, the English cardinal Henry Newman delivered lectures in the middle of the 19th century where he advocated that universities must focus on transmitting ‘liberal knowledge’: knowledge ‘impregnated by reason’. Accordingly, a university education ‘aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age’ etc. (Newman 1852: ch. 7). Newman’s educational vision has been understood as a bulwark against attempts to reduce education to its utility ‘to some particular or narrow end’.
The second towering figure was the Prussian scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt, who played a crucial role in the establishment of the University of Berlin in 1810. For Humboldt, the university is the place where Wissenschaft (science/higher learning) is promoted ‘in the deepest and widest sense of that word’. Education is a kind of apprenticeship for research; universities should never merely transmit existing knowledge. This focus on Wissenschaft and Bildung (higher education) imposes difficult demands on the state, which has to provide for the external conditions (i.e. cash), but must not interfere with this internal academic logic. The state, so Humboldt, must not use the university as a ‘technical deputation’ or anything else that serves ‘primarily the state’s own end’ (Humboldt 1810: 197; my translation). What makes such idealist views of universities attractive is that they acknowledge that universities are places where not only a different kind of human activity, but also a different form of motivation is possible. In the spirit of social pluralism, we can appreciate that some human pursuits do not obviously lend themselves to the logic of the market or of politics, but carry (societal) value nonetheless. The university is the ‘protected space’ where some of these activities can be pursued.
If we return to our earlier question — how should universities contribute to societal challenges such as climate change? — we can see more clearly now the tensions that universities must overcome. It will be increasingly important for universities to collaborate with other organisations and agents to work on solutions and introduce them to society and the economy. At the same time, whilst engaging in these worldly affairs, universities will have to preserve their unique institutional logic, with its commitment to higher learning and education. Humboldt must have had this point in mind when he wrote that the state
‘must nurture the inner conviction that if universities achieve their purpose, they will also achieve the state’s ends and indeed from a much higher standpoint from which much more may be contained and much greater forces and leverage may be applied than the state may adduce by itself’ (Humboldt 1810: 197; my translation).
In other words, we should trust that by doing their own thing, universities will contribute to society to a much greater extent, and in ways that may not be foreseeable. For example, it has long been recognized that ‘basic research’ in areas like chemistry can often be utilized only with a great delay and in innovations that were not predicted when the research was conducted. By giving universities the ability to tackle problems independently and ‘from a much higher standpoint’, namely through higher learning, society may use one of the greatest forces at its disposal.
Humboldt, W. von (1810). Über die innere und äußere Organisation der höheren wissenschaftlichen Anstalten in Berlin. Reprint in: Weischedel, W. (ed.) (1960) Idee und Wirklichkeit einer Universität (pp. 193-202). De Gruyter.
Newman, J. H. (1852). Idea of a university. Reprint, 1947, London: Longmans, Green & Co.
Jaspers, K. (1946). Die Idee der Universität. Springer, Berlin.