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Obligations, Great Universities, and Cultural Values

On Cultural Values: Perspective August 11, 2003

Printable Version

Historically, the ancient friction between the church and science has never been fully bridged. Although St. Thomas Aquinas synthesized to a great degree the concepts of the science of Aristotle and Christian teachings, the academic freedom of ideas and the University have always had a heightened sensitivity to not only religion, but also the teaching of values with the question always being asked whose values unless the institution was established for a certain purpose. In the modern day these distinctions are often not quite as obvious, but while they are more sublime, they are increasingly important as civilization struggles to maintain its fabric of social structure.

The goal of great universities is to have a worldwide recognition that today is primarily driven by its expansion of knowledge through research and the peer ratings that it carries among other universities. Increasingly the focus of the ratings is on the quality of students and upon the quality of faculty. The faculty reacts to the pressure of its peers nationally and internationally primarily by devoting time to research and to writings that are respected in the field. While money is certainly a resource deemed important, the true currency of such scholars is their recognition by others and their advancement in their fields. This has increasingly made research funding and research strategies a dominant part of great universities. In many cases they achieved to create an Isaac Newton who was a true genius in mathematics and physics, but may not have been necessarily a person most dedicated to the advancement of mankind since he perceived others often to be a threat, and his focus was almost entirely upon his work.

There is thus a necessity for each university, that wishes to be a great university, to have a position of involvement, or as it is called, “a seat at the table” with its peers. There is thus a natural momentum to begin to define great universities in the terms of their research and their faculty, as well as their students, that becomes increasingly predominant in the ratings of major magazines and services. Those rating criteria become more the focus of what the university tries to achieve as it is perceived to be measured by outsiders and the publicity effecting its reputation internally and within its region. Students and parents look to these ratings as well, but perhaps we should step back and look at the consequences. Comparisons of private endowed to public ones are deceptive. Class size, a critical component of ratings will always favor private institutions since public ones must work to access political involvement. Comparisons of public universities that tiered such as California where students’ abilities place them at different levels of universities and community colleges are different from more general admission public universities such as those in Texas. The question is what purpose should a university serve for its constituents support. Excellence should always be a goal, but the question is excellence in what, and that requires looking not just presently but to the future.

Another audience, the people in the form of the state or government, which often supports public universities, as well as the parents who entrust their children to the university for a finishing enlightenment for life, may have very different interests than necessarily those of the “peers at the table.” They may be much more interested in concepts of leadership and ethics and advancement of civilization. To them the issue may not necessarily be whether the university is the greatest research university; but whether it fulfills a value, rather than an ideological purpose, of advancing civilization through the promotion of wisdom as well as knowledge. Wisdom is the necessary component that tells us how to use the knowledge that we find. Knowledge can grow exponentially very easily in these modern times just like a penny can double from one cent to two cents to four cents to eight cents to sixteen to thirty-two to sixty-four to one hundred twenty-eight very quickly. What was known in the age of Copernicus of the heavens as a startling fact is known to everyone now in grade school that studies science. The more important thing is do we have the wisdom by which we can use that knowledge. In a globalized world filled with cultural conflicts this becomes extremely important. We may not today have the wisdom of Solomon. The person whom we might want to shift universities to study is not so much Newton, but an equally great physicist in Neils Bohr who in his Copenhagen Observation observed much beyond physics in that every man’s mind is but a model of the world and only by bringing in the experiences of others and their knowledge can you have a more realistic model of the world that will not fail. Equally, I think he understood the concept that it is not what you do or even how well you do it, but why you do it that ultimately matters. Scientists need ethics as much as anyone or tests are suspect and the convenience drawn by fame creates the culture.

But this focuses upon the point of obligation of a university, particularly a public one, to advance civilization by having man have concern for other men. The issue is one of the nature of man and how it needs to be refined. Machiavelli and The Science of the Thick and the Black of Asia all tended to look more upon man as being inherently evil because of the nature of their times. If man is found to be inherently evil then you appeal to his weaknesses and particularly his nature of convenience by which he cares only for himself. This is how you succeed to manipulate him. If that becomes the cultural environment of the times, then it adopts a life all its own because to not use convenience as the dominant strategy puts you at a disadvantage. The opposite would be the teachings of Aristotle, Christ and Confucius. They looked at man as being inherently redeemable if he could be enlightened where his chief goal was to be concerned with others beyond himself. This only occurs when man is rallied to a concept of principles, values, and ideals that have them not look to themselves or even in a sense to others, but to a higher calling in a better world. This sense of the battle between teaching conscience versus convenience is in the essence the advancement of civilization. If a university is not to enlighten, if it is not to teach students the concern they should have by others on a more organized value based approach at the lower levels of the common good, the Golden Rule, and the importance that culture has in creating and maintaining that value based system, then what ultimate purpose does a university have?

The support for funds for great universities constantly is a battle between the concepts of equity and excellence. Should you have ten books in one great library that has excellence, or should funds be expended for the same one book in ten different libraries that gives a breadth of knowledge at a lower level? This battle is usually decided at different times in different ways by the political perspectives of the times. However, the best solution is one by which you have a balance, and that requires a sacrifice on behalf of excellence; and people sacrifice only for those reasons that they deem to be truly of value to them. Therefore, if universities are going to look at their criteria for judgement of greatness in this century, I hope that it will go beyond just the peer pressures of the advancement of knowledge and go to the advancement of wisdom by looking into how they can coordinate their efforts to again address the problems that we face globally of having people learn that civilization is truly the effort to understand each other and the principle of the Golden Rule. This will require structured changes in universities that are built like individual silos through departments focusing intently on research and publication. There must be more university coordination that has to be supported by the administration.

To accomplish this, we need to do more than promote ethics on a broad based effort, which is increasingly done in a very minimal shotgun pellet style fashion; and we must realize why the classics were so important in the evolution of society. The Greeks built their temples and theaters on mountaintops such that the wind provided the acoustics in blowing back the words. They gave us the great tragedies that became the arts. However, the cultural values of the society were what those tragedies taught, that if you committed adultery you lost your wife, if you lied to your friend you lost your friend, and that life’s happiness rested on many things beyond just the acquisition of wealth. We now promote with great fanfare the cultural arts, we have, however, lost the depth to conceive the importance of the cultural values. Until we as a people show what we value by asking our universities to at least address at a basic level the concepts of conscience versus convenience or more enlightened conservatism that ties technology to cultural values in a way that it creates an environment that itself promotes those values, then we will increasingly see civilization tend to unravel. Parents understand that it is not just what they teach their children, but it is the environment in which they will work that matters. If you have an environment that they must enter that is controlled by corruption, then the values that they teach their children are lost because they are either corrupted by the system or unsuccessful within it because their integrity becomes a detriment. It is the creation of this environment that the university, as the highest level of learning, has an obligation to address. Most importantly the great universities of the twenty-first century may not necessarily be the ones that have the highest scores in mathematics or science, but may be the ones that build the great systems of ethical values. For the ultimate seal of a university ought not to be just that it has great scholars; but also, that the handshake of a person from that university has the meaning of integrity. Greatness is a concept usually associated with the taking of risk. Great universities are going to have to define themselves in ways beyond their peers so that they do not follow after others, but lead the curve, and the ultimate issue of the twenty-first century will be the teaching of wisdom through the building of civilization through advancement of a culture of ethics, as well as advancing scientific knowledge. Balance is required.


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