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The uselessness of a university

Founded in 1134. Received its university charter from Pope Alexander IV in 1255.

“Everyone knows the usefulness of what is useful, but few know the usefulness of what is useless.”

As strange as it may sound, the title of this post is not intended as a critique of university education and academic learning. It is, actually, intended as a statement of fact, an objective and unapologetic description of the very nature of a university. Because universities are not a natural, but a man-made reality, and because (allegedly) man makes (or creates) things to fulfill a function, people have been tempted to ask about the “function” or the “social role” of a university, but a university fulfills no purpose other than being a place where scholars shamelessly seek truth and pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Like the State, the Church or any other large institution, a university is not a tool, something created to fulfill a single, premeditated purpose and, because of that, is not useful in any ordinary sense. On the contrary, to teach and transmit the skills required to succeed in the seeking of truth and the pursue of knowledge is not a single purpose. Until these facts are not fully grasped, all discussions, not only about the “function” or the “social role” of a university, but also about how to improve higher education or how to adjust it to new times and currents, will remain, I am afraid, unfruitful.

Don’t get me wrong. Having a good system of higher education is of the greatest benefit for a society; there are all sorts of indexes and graphics showing the correlation between a good university system, on one hand, and economic development and political stability, on the other. And more traditionally a link has been noted between academic learning, the cultivation of character and moral illumination. Erasmus, at one point, wrote Homo fit, non nascitur—one is not born a man, one can only become a man—and further developing this very thought, Simon Leys wrote: “A university … is a place where a chance is given to men to become what they truly are.” But becoming human is no ordinary purpose. There are no recipes to be learned, nor rules to be memorized on this important matter. Perhaps, some of the conceptual difficulties we face over this have to do with the fact that becoming human does not seem to be a goal in itself, but only an aftereffect, a consequence of a certain manner of living. While the scholar is fully engaged in his research—reading all the books, debating with colleagues, writing his thoughts on his notebooks—he is not conscious of getting closer to being human, but his absorption in this enterprise is so intense and complete that he sometimes loses himself in his activity and this effacing oneself into an activity is of the greatest importance in the endeavor of becoming human.

There is something inherently misguided and self-defeating and hopeless about any deliberate campaign to make universities more “useful.” The greatest role a university can play in a society is to remain faithful to its primary function. At this point, I feel I can just end with an illuminating quote from Zhuangzi:

“Everyone knows the usefulness of what is useful, but few know the usefulness of what is useless.”

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