My Commenters Is Smarter Than Me: The Purpose of Education

I’ve always thought insight is best defined as noting something obvious that everyone else overlooked. In the comments of this post about an article by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus which argued that universities need to return to their core mission of education, ecologist notes a key point:

Education is not, and should not be, the core mission of the university.

The core mission of the university is scholarship. The university is a place in which the creation, transmission, criticism, and development of knowledge is the paramount good. Part of that mission is the transmission of knowledge. Transmission is done by writing (in all the multitude of forms to which that has been generalized by technology), by speaking, by performing, and by educating. So, yes, education is a (important) part of the mission of scholarship, but it is only a part.

We live in a culture in which “scholarship” gets little respect. “Education” sounds so much more useful, although we have all seen what happens when utility becomes linked to education as the core mission of the university. But scholarship is important.

So, do not EVER let someone tell you that education is the core mission of the university, and all this pesky research and writing and scholarship is just a distraction. The true relation between education and the rest of the core mission of the university is much more complex and subtle than that.


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18 Responses to My Commenters Is Smarter Than Me: The Purpose of Education

  1. BobTerrace
    NewEnglandBob says:

    Obvious or profound. Maybe both.

  2. Lorax
    Lorax says:

    I disagree. I agree with the sentiment and I expect Hacker and Dreifus do too. What I have seen is a movement away from the education part of the mission. As faculty are not replaced, classes are lost, yet tuition continues to increase. This amounts to the undergraduate students subsidizing the non-education aspects of the university. No one that I have heard has said that research writing and scholarship is a distraction, so I suggest this is a strawman argument. However, I have seen movement away from the education mission of the university in order to focus on research writing and scholarship or the real potential money making aspects of the business university.

  3. sciliz – 5 things: *Grad student in molecular medicine *love science *snarky sense of humor *passionate about politics *obsessed with lizards
    becca says:

    Arguably, also the maintenance of knowledge. Remember, at many universities “librarian” ranks above associate professor.
    And there is a corresponding function for “making knowledge more accessible” that I think goes beyond ‘transmission’.

  4. Lyle says:

    But then we need a far smaller academic industry. If you want to be sponsored research move to a government/industrial lab model which solves the slave labor (grad student) and over population model (to many phd’s for jobs available). Humanities and the arts might be supported at a few places in the US then, as without teaching most of the research is of little to no practical use.

  5. david says:

    I don’t see studies cited here, only impressions and anecdotes, and according to D. C. Sessions’ convincing analysis valid studies are impossible because of the fungibility of money and the keen competition for funds. And “purpose” is a personal thing, right, where facts can be the same for two persons but each has his own “purpose.” So the U has a purpose that only you and a select few know of? Not likely. More likely, many purposes, many universities.
    This topic in its broader meanings was covered thoroughly many years ago by Mr. T. H. Huxley, Mr. Matthew Arnold, and Cardinal John Henry Newman and published in the public forum of their writings.
    But, to hell with that, right? Old hat. A little education from them, however, shows that you lot are shooting from the hip with opinions that ignore other views. Not that you are rude by ignoring, but that you are ignorant. You lack education. If you decide to some year take a peek, the most accessible of their writings is probably Mr. Newman’s The Idea of a University. The most pertinent to this lot is probably Mr. Huxley’s Science and Education. And the broadest Mr. Arnold’s Democratic Education. You will find there all the basic ideas and divergences of “purpose.”
    I say as snarkily as you can get it, try this education stuff. You might like it. But if you can’t take a course in it, you don’t know nothing about it, right? And you’ve had no course nor know where to find one. When you get time away from superior pronouncements, you might try this education stuff.

  6. Pen
    Pen says:

    Ummm… I think this calls for a definition of education, if it does not mean transmission of knowledge.
    I would agree that the creation and criticism of knowledge is also an important part of the university’s role.

  7. Lorax
    Lorax says:

    David, Do you have any specific issues with what someone said or just a bunch of hand waving bullshit to make yourself feel good? In 4 paragraphs you make exactly 0 informative statements other than no one here has any education unlike you who has a vastly superior intellect (Im deducing that this is your position from the vacuous writing you did).
    TH Huxley died 1895
    Matthew Arnold died 1888
    JH Newman died 1890
    Think things might have changed a little bit in the last 100 years or so?

  8. sethkahn – I'm a Professor of English (composition/rhetoric) at West Chester U of PA. Born and raised in Hotlanta, BA in History/Philosophy from Wake Forest U, MA in English (Comp/Rhet) from Florida State, PhD in Composition and Cultural Rhetoric from Syracuse U. Proud union thug. Played in a punk band called Three Chicks and a Jew.
    Seth says:

    To talk about universities as if they had only one purpose misses the point of what a university is (witness the “univers” part of “university,” right?). Research and teaching aren’t mutually exclusive, even if the same faculty aren’t doing a whole lot of (or high quality) both.
    Ohio State recently announced, for example, that it’s beginning to rethink its tenure/promotion criteria in order to acknowledge high quality teaching, even if applicants aren’t especially productive researchers. I think that’s good news.
    I work in a public university system that’s largely a teaching system, but there’s pressure from our upper-level administrators to increase our research requirements. That’s bad news, especially if they up those requirements without offering any additional support (reassign time, grad assistants, etc).
    Short version–proclaiming *the* mission of institutions as big and complex as universities is myopic at best.

  9. Paul Orwin says:

    I continue to get annoyed about the oversimplification of “university”. There are at least 6 types of college/university I can think of off the top of my head. They do not have the same missions or goals, or structures, or students.
    1) Elite Private Research University (Harvard, Stanford)
    2) Public Research University
    These two come closest to what your commenter is talking about, although even here I think that the comment, while comfortingly cynical, is wrong. I did my grad school and post-docs at these (PRU for grad school, post-doc at EPRU). Some universities (especially those with high profile medical and professional schools) may treat undergrad education as a secondary goal, but (focusing on science) the opportunity to participate in research as an undergrad has value (yes, even as a dishwasher/helper). I knew people from my postdoc who published major papers as undergrads – don’t tell me that is not an educational experience! Of course, YMMV.
    3) Selective Regional Private University
    This one I don’t have experience with (I’m thinking of places like University of Redlands in my local area – sorry I don’t have examples from the rest of the country), so I’m not sure what they offer, but they are successful as a group, so I expect there is something of value there.
    4) Regional Public Comprehensive University
    This is the type of place where I now teach. Here I think research has a vital, if smaller role. It accomplishes several important things. A) It keeps the faculty connected and sane. Don’t underestimate this! If I stopped doing research for 20 years, and just taught micro/immuno, I would be so out of touch with the mainstream of my field that I would have no real value to add over the book (insert joke here). B) It exposes students to new possibilities for their future. Nearly every Biology major comes in thinking that the only possible success for them is an MD – but only few of them are going to end up there. We get a few people who really want to be pharmacists or PAs or PTs, too. Most of them have no conception of what science actually is, and standing up in a classroom and talking about hypothesis testing just adds one more vocab term to memorize. So getting them into a lab, assaying for some chemical or phenotype, looking through a microscope and seeing something no one else has, makes a huge difference. And bear in mind some large percentage of these people (they are not all kids!) are the first in their family to go to college, so they frequently don’t have parents or friends who will expose them to the idea of science. Sometimes they get really excited about it – that’s the payoff!
    5) Small Liberal Arts College
    This is where I went to school as an undergrad – if you can afford it (and I’m still paying) it is worth it for many people.
    6) For Profit University (I wish this one didn’t count, but it does, I think)

  10. david says:

    I’ve got specific issues cited which you ignore and people I agree with. You are the irrelevant one, thinking when these persons died settles things. You have never read them have you? You might try that you ignorant peewee.
    Yes, I feel a lot better, thank you.

  11. david says:

    And Lorax,
    You can see my other post on this at Drug Monkey. Read them twice, as your comprehension is not good.
    And further you are another in a long line of bootlickers that appear in blog comments to fawn over whatever the blogger says and call any comments you do not agree with non-informative or unsubstantial. Bullshit is your realm so you try to put it on others.
    You need a hat. Get a beanie with two propellers on top that you can get going in opposite directions by flipping your lips with your finger, if your head is like wooden, which it is.
    Enjoyed talking to you, you narrow-minded, anti-intellectual cretin with boot marked tongue.

  12. drjohn – Atlanta – I watch football. Lots of football. Sadly, because of NFL rules, it is the Falcons more than anyone should be forced to watch the Falcons.
    JohnV says:

    I don’t think you’re trying hard enough, david.

  13. Lorax
    Lorax says:

    Will not feed troll further.

  14. Min says:

    “Education is not, and should not be, the core mission of the university.
    The core mission of the university is scholarship.”
    Historical note: It has not always been thus. In the past, universities were student centered and run. The watershed year was 1848. Now most undergraduates are minors, with limited rights.
    The concept of the university is not set in stone.

  15. david says:

    Ha, I laughed and well said. What impelled me was I looked at Lorax’s website link-blog which he has written in corporate speak, and where he has posed himself in noodle wrist. I read the site carefully and found it disgusting, by its naivety and bullshit writing by a supposed professor. If I offended others please just blow it off. Visit his site and decide for yourself.
    Lorax’s website is called the Interface of Science and Education. And where are these entities and what happened to Science Education in U’s? He has as much as admitted he has not read Thomas Henry Huxley’s Science and Education. That would be like an evolutionary biologist having never read the Origin. Lorax is ignorant as alleged, so to get out of some worthy work he wants to posit that because it’s old the issues discussed long ago are moot. He does not know what was said. I’ve referred everyone to specific works. Forget’em if you like, nothing to me.
    His post was to the man, my replies same then.

  16. Lorax
    Lorax says:

    David aka troll (and I apologize for feeding it),
    You are of course entitled to your (anonymous and unsupported) opinions and I will not waste any time trying to discuss anything else with you.
    But for the others here that don’t obey your requests to check out my blog (and thanks for any traffic you send my way), I just want to say david is either a fucking liar, a moron, or possibly both. My webiste is not called the Interface of Science and Education, it’s called Angry by Choice (you can find that out by putting your mouse over my screen name without even clicking the link). Even the short description says “Discussions on the interface between Science and Society, Politics, Religion, Life, and whatever else I decide to write about.”
    I may be ignorant, but I will bask in the glory of not being an illiterate puke.

  17. Katharine says:

    I’d reframe that to say that education is A core mission of the university, in addition to the creation and criticism of knowledge.
    Surely you are aware that without education, the university would die out in a handful of generations because we’re all carbon-based.

  18. raymond says:

    “The core mission of the university is scholarship” ,bunk , The university mission is in theory to advance consensus knowledge. While in actuality it is the accepted method to defer participating in the rigor of life’s realities by delving into their theoretical aspects. Those who can, do and those with a propensity for indolence and/or avoidance, ride the gravy train of higher education, paraphrasing Kant Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere pretend intellect. Imitation like biological cloning creates a declining impetus where the maladies of age come sooner than later, a copy of a copy of a copy. Now this situation is ok if your intent is to create replacement parts, but not if the goal is to ameliorate knowledge.
    The criterion for graduated degrees in higher education are a higher then average ability to read, write and obsequiously parrot the preconceived. This combination of attributes are not conducive to creative thinking, quite the contrary, as Kant so aptly put it “I had therefore to remove knowledge, in order to make room for belief ” . This is why the university mission to further consensus knowledge is intertwined with academia. The antagonistic perspectives and obvious questions of youth also serve as pathways to insight, while research lends credence to the sellable public illusion that academia has the ability to create superior intellect.

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