The changing goal of higher learning

What is the purpose of a university education?

In contemporary North American society, the answer to that may seem like a no-brainer. It’s to learn a body of specialized information and acquire a set of marketable skills that will lead to a successful career.

But this hasn’t always been the answer, at least not the primary one. From the time universities first appeared in medieval Europe, their chief mandate was to create, develop and preserve knowledge across a variety of disciplines. That mission included training young people by exposing them to new ideas in order to teach them how to problem solve and think critically. Such inquiry could only thrive in an atmosphere of academic freedom that allowed students to explore a diversity of viewpoints, no matter how controversial or unpopular.

These basic tenets remain at the core of the university experience, at least in theory. The reality on modern campuses, however, can be markedly different.

Ideology increasingly trumps intellectual freedom

Barbara Kay is a journalist and cultural critic who used to teach English literature at Concordia University in Montreal. In a guest lecture at McGill University, she addressed this rift between the classic and current goals of higher education. She summarized the problem under the title, “Universities are teaching students what to think, not how to think.”

Citing numerous examples, Kay traced this shift back to the 1960s, pointing out that ideology and political correctness have increasingly trumped intellectual freedom and diversity of thought. She noted the growing trend on campuses of disinviting guest speakers who hold culturally unfashionable views. Even when they’re allowed to attend, such speakers are often shouted down or otherwise intimidated by angry student activists – a practice tolerated by many university administrations.

Kay recalled a debate in which she participated, on the state of free speech at Canadian universities:

My opponent, a York University academic, did not deny freedom of speech was tightly curtailed on our campuses. But his position was that cultural, gender and racial diversity on campus . . . is more important than and – I inferred – even incompatible with intellectual diversity. Which did not dismay him at all.

In other words, the pursuit of truth in today’s academia is all well and fine, but it has to take a back seat to prevailing cultural attitudes. If someone doesn’t like what you’re saying, you need to be silenced.

Examples of free speech being curtailed on campuses

A few current examples suffice to illustrate Kay’s point:

Across Canada, pro-life student groups on several campuses face growing hostility and censorship, both from pro-choice student activists as well as university administrators. Pro-life displays are blocked and disrupted, the clubs banned or forced to pay “security fees,” in effect protection money to avoid harassment. Club members are threatened with academic discipline or even legal action for peacefully expressing their views.

In the United States, academic freedom in science education is constantly under fire. On campuses across the nation, professors who dare teach anything that contradicts or questions Darwinian evolution face the wrath of atheist groups and their own academic government. Attempts to explore alternative theories of origins – intelligent design, for example – can cost science educators their chance at tenure and their jobs.

Back in our own country, Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., has been engaged in a lengthy struggle to receive accreditation for its proposed law school. As a private Christian university, TWU has a code of conduct that requires students, staff and faculty to abstain from sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage. As a result, several provincial law societies refused to accredit the school, making it impossible for prospective TWU graduates to practice law in those provinces.

One of the most ironic commentaries on intellectual freedom came a few years ago at Carleton University in Ottawa. A group called Carleton Students for Liberty erected a “Free Speech Wall,” a bulletin board where students could express whatever opinion they wished. Within hours, the wall was torn down by a gay rights activist because someone had written “traditional marriage is awesome” on it.

“Not every opinion is valid, nor deserving of expression,” the activist wrote on his twitter account. Presumably he views himself as the final arbiter of which opinions are valid and which are not.

Knowledge of God facilitates exploration of the truth

When universities first emerged during the medieval era, there was a guiding academic principle: theology is the queen of the sciences. To modern secular ears, such a concept may sound like the height of religious intolerance, but in fact it was quite the opposite. It recognized that because God had created an ordered universe, the pursuit of knowledge was possible and worthwhile. Since the Sovereign Lord had delegated authority to His human image bearers, scholars were free to seek the truth in all fields of study wherever it might lead, without fear.

It is precisely when the knowledge of God is suppressed that the exploration of truth comes to be seen as dangerous, as something to be censored according to the spirit of the age.

Barbara Kay concluded her McGill lecture with a rousing challenge:

Abraham Lincoln said, “The philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.”  The university is therefore our most important cultural institution, and preserving its credibility and excellence – in this case rescuing it from its present lack of credibility and excellence – our highest civic duty.

Perhaps we may feel that such a sentiment is overstated. Nevertheless, it’s a salutary reminder of the value of higher education to present and future generations – one that is well worth redeeming.

Sources and further reading

Barbara Kay, “Universities are teaching students what to think, not how to think,” National Post, March 11, 2015.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2015 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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