What Is the Role of a University Today?


David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote a wonderful editorial in today’s paper reflecting on the current state of today’s colleges and universities.

Brooks notes that “Many American universities were founded as religious institutions, explicitly designed to cultivate their students’ spiritual and moral natures.”

But unfortunately over time, “Academic research and teaching replaced character formation at the core of the university’s mission.”

According to Brooks, as colleges became more focused on career training, the humanities became less important. Students are taught how to do things, but not why they should do them or to reflect on what their purpose in life is.

Brooks believes colleges should focus on four tasks:

  • insist that students become familiar with different moral ecologies, such as the Greek, the Jewish,, the Christian, and the Scientific traditions
  • foster transcendent experiences through regular and concentrated contact with beauty
  • investigate current loves and teach new things to love; doing so may help reveal your fundamental self as well as help lead a full future life
  • apply the humanities to real life, perhaps by focusing on concrete challenges students will face in the first decade after graduation

Brooks notes that while it may be difficult for a 20-year old to absorb philosophical instruction, college can be a place where such seeds are planted.

He closes with the following thought, “Universities could more intentionally provide those enchanted goods that the marketplace doesn’t offer.

I certainly can’t say it any better than Brooks does, and I couldn’t agree more.

While I might be viewed as part of the problem since I teach in the business school of a major university, I try to constantly remind my students of the importance of the humanities in a variety of ways.

I encourage my students not to double major in two business disciplines, but instead to consider something outside of the business school.

In my Intro to Business class I have my students read two books beyond their textbook. Once they finish the books, they are required to write a brief review of those books as well as offer their analysis and opinion of the book. I have a suggested reading list of over 100 books, and while many  are business related, there are a significant number of books that are more about personal growth such as The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin (which is the best book I have probably read since In Search of Excellence), The Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, A Toltec Wisdom Book by Don Miguel Ruiz, and Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl.

I recently wrote about how my students prepare and present their personal vision board, which forces them to do some reflection on what their interests are and what kind of future they want. This type of project would seem to satisfy Brooks’ desire to have students reflect on what their purpose in life is.

I think the ideal college experience is one that offer students a humanities-focused education, along with some career preparation.

That is why I am such a big fan of Villanova’s Summer Business Institute. This is an intensive nine-week program that enables non-business students to pick up a business minor in one summer. The program offers me the opportunity to teach engineers, nurses, and liberal arts and sciences majors. We have had several students from SBI take full time positions with well known businesses, proving that you did not have to major in business to have such opportunities.

So yes, college can be a good place to learn some career-oriented skills, but an even better place to learn some life skills.

2 thoughts on “What Is the Role of a University Today?

  1. Even as an adult, I need help figuring out my place in the world sometimes. I sure would have welcomed a program (or an environment) that nudged me to ponder my future while I was in college (besides “what news organization do you want to work for once you have your journalism degree?”).

    Great food for thought, as usual, Jim.

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