I was drafting this post before Freddie deBoer’s recent post on the subject, so this isn’t really a response to Freddie. But what the heck, call it a response to Freddie.

I want to respond by changing the terms of the conversation: Instead of asking “What is the university for?” I’d like for us to ask, “What is this university for?” — “this” university being whatever university I happen to be associated with or to care about.

For instance, I teach in the Honors Program at Baylor University, an intentionally Christian research university — one of the few in the world — that happens to sit in the middle of an exceptionally poor city. So I and my colleagues need to ask:

  • What is the role of the Honors Program within the framework of the university as a whole, whose students are not, by and large, as academically accomplished?
  • What should Baylor be doing to become, more and more fully and truly, a *Christian* university — to be deeply serious about its faith commitments and its academic ambitions?
  • What can Baylor do to be a good institutional citizen within its local community — to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless and train the jobless — since, after all, these would seem to be mandatory concerns for Christians of all descriptions?

I really believe that this is how we should be thinking about our universities: not deductively, by reasoning from what “the university” should be to how we might instantiate that ideal locally, but rather inductively: from what this particular institution is called to be, and is capable of being, to larger generalizations. I truly believe that if we could suspend the general conversation about “the university” for a decade, a decade during which every American institution of higher learning focused on understanding and realizing its own particular mission, and then reconvened with one another to compare notes — then we just might get somewhere.

And I further believe that by attending to its own home turf — its own students, its own faculty, its own surrounding community — any given university will be better able to serve the larger world of academia and society. The old slogan “Think globally, act locally” gets it precisely backwards, I believe: it is only by thinking and acting locally that we can make the right kind of difference globally.

UPDATE: Roberto Greco reminded me of what Wendell Berry says about this:

I don’t think “global thinking” is futile, I think it is impossible. You can’t think about what you don’t know and nobody knows this planet. Some people know a little about a few small parts of it … The people who think globally do so by abstractly and statistically reducing the globe to quantities. Political tyrants and industrial exploiters have done this most successfully. Their concepts and their greed are abstract and their abstractions lead with terrifying directness and simplicity to acts that are invariably destructive. If you want to do good and preserving acts you must think and act locally. The effort to do good acts gives the global game away. You can’t do a good act that is global … a good act, to be good must be acceptable to what Alexander Pope called “the genius of the place”. This calls for local knowledge, local skills, and local love that virtually none of us has, and that none of us can get by thinking globally. We can get it only by a local fidelity that we would have to maintain through several lifetimes … I don’t wish to be loved by people who don’t know me; if I were a planet I would feel exactly the same way.


  1. Interesting. I like the deductive vs. inductive framework. I've applied it myself to definitions of science literacy. That is, instead of starting with an abstract model of what SL is or should be, look at actual human beings as they move through their lives.

    Regarding universities and what they are "for", I'd like to broaden the discussion beyond just honors vs. non-honors. How do you think Baylor should account for students who enrolled to help them get a better job vs. those who want to learn and explore?

    I'm not the first to note this…but I think there is a real tension between these two views of college. I wonder if the corporatization of the academy (which you've complained about) is driven by the genuine desire to connect students with the world they *want* to enter. If helping corporate America find skilled employees is even a small part of the university mission, it could be that we need more corporate influence.

    Consider an allegedly 'practical' field like electrical engineering. Even in this major, the professors are overwhelmingly academics who focus on research. At least at Penn State, I'd guess ~90% of the students didn't care one bit about research or academia. They just wanted a job. Course-work, on the other hand, was often very theoretical. Some of my friends wanted project-based learning where they could team up with local companies. So in this scenario, more corporatization *may* help advance the university's mission.


  2. "The way we best show our love to the whole world is… to love with a particular passion some little part of it."

    –William C. Placher

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