Discover more from Words
Universities and Civilization
Last week I put out an announcement about a new role I am taking on at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. I thought I’d write a few more lines on my higher education involvement.
The purpose is to explain the slightly demented fervor with which I approach that involvement.
The topic is deserving of a book — and since I’m not going to write a book on the topic, best I keep it short.
The bottom line is that I believe great American universities — and there are many of them, so this is not an ode to Penn in particular — are the most important repositories of all that defines, and is good and laudable about, our modern civilization.
They are vessels that contain all our knowledge. They span an extraordinary diversity of intellectual endeavor, as I wrote in my post: “Here is a scholar producing a new translation of Homer; here is a researcher analyzing the chemistry of our atmosphere; here is an investigator working on the data behind electoral politics. “ And that is just a tiny snippet of all that goes on, and I haven’t even touched on the educational aspect of the mission.
The fixation on undergraduate education and the increasing brutality of the culture wars tend to suck all the oxygen out of the discussion when it comes to the position and place of universities. This obscures the central role they have in defining and shaping modern civilization in positive ways.
Universities are far from immune to criticism and gotchas, as you can easily see for yourself by finding your way to a student newspaper web site at any American university.
But if our great universities were to disappear tomorrow, our civilization would collapse. I can’t say that about anything else.
Our universities are what define us as an evolved species. Nothing else comes close.
And why specifically American universities? Here all I will say, because this is also worth a book (and there are several learned books on the subject), is that American universities are constituted very differently from similar institutions elsewhere.
Each one is of course sui generis and a creature of its setting. But they have tremendous similarities that put them in a class of their own, distinct from all other university systems around the globe.
There is an aspect of what I am saying here that suggests the idea of a secular church, and I realize that. But I am trying to look beyond categories and pigeonholes, and that has led me to a deep conviction that it is critical that these institutions thrive and prosper.
If you are an irate recent graduate, you might not see things this way. If you’re a grumpy older graduate, you might also not see things this way. If you’re enmeshed in the culture wars — from either side — you will definitely not see things this way.
But if you believe all that I have written above, then you, too, would be possessed of an equally demented fervor 😀.