The Way Ahead

At our Graduate School Commencement exercises several weeks ago, we were honored to have Vice-Chancellor Richardson deliver an address. She articulated well the criticisms of higher education that I alluded to at the start of my address—that institutions like Oxford and Notre Dame are overpriced, irrelevant to today’s needs and unfairly privilege a few. She rightly called on all of us to engage the communities around us, and strive to “persuade the public of the value of what we do … to our society, and our economy,” and ensure that access to the education we offer is “fair and seen to be fair.”

In my address this evening I have not attempted to grapple with important questions about fairness and access to our universities, nor concerns arising from public skepticism, often fueled by demagogues of various stripes, about the kinds of expertise our institutions instill and offer. Rather, by considering the origin of this great institution, I have tried to remind us of the character and particular power of this university and others like it, a power that led to its survival and thriving across centuries.

In her address at Notre Dame, Vice-Chancellor Richardson described the kind of education offered by universities well: “Our teaching has been designed to produce intellectual self-reliance, to teach people how to learn, how to take charge of their thoughts and how to direct them in an independent, analytical and creative manner.”

"The particular character of Oxford or any great university is that the riches it offers us transcend any time, trend or particular professional career."

Universities have offered this kind of education by preparing students for and inviting them to participate in the communal practices of inquiry that are at their heart. When successful, their graduates can become in their own inquiries in various fields, capable of learning, analyzing, developing their own perspectives and capable of finding creative resolutions to questions and challenges.

Many criticisms of higher education today arise, I believe, from a general anxiety brought about by globalization, technological innovation and the social and economic shifts these developments have wrought. The critical attention that our institutions now receive arises not from a decline in the value of the education they offer, but, on the contrary, from an increase in such value, and from concerns about how it will be delivered in the future and who will have access to it. This increase has led to concerns about access to this kind of education and the influence of these institutions. We must, of course, consider these criticisms, respond to them and make changes that are warranted, yet at the same time ensure that our institutions preserve the characteristics that gave them such enduring value.

It is perhaps natural that, at a time of social, economic and technological change, long-established institutions should be questioned. But we should not allow questions and criticisms arising from anxieties about change, nor the dazzle of the new, lead us to slacken our efforts to preserve and enhance the particular power and value of what universities offer. G.K. Chesterton once said, “To spend one’s last earthly money on the newest hat is to condemn oneself to the old-fashioned.” The particular character of Oxford or any great university is that the riches it offers us transcend any time, trend or particular professional career. Let us be wary of trading something so precious for the passing attraction of the newest hat.


Header photo: Tejvan Pettinger, Creative Commons