The university idea and our reality

woman wearing blue denim jacket holding book

One of the most compelling  writings on the roles of the university in the society is that of “The idea of a University” (1852) by John Henry Newman, the influential clergyman and scholar of the 19th century. In the lectures, he so well outlined what the university should do and identified its goals such that his ideas had a significant influence on the character of European universities.

Despite the profundity of his ideas and the impact they had in shaping earlier universities, the reality today is that the university is becoming increasingly drifted away from that noble path. The core is now subordinated to the periphery.

According to Newman, the university is a place of teaching universal knowledge, where everyone knows something about everything. Its essence is to teach, diffuse and extend that universal knowledge, the type of understanding that is discoverable and applicable to people at all times. Based on the concept of universality, universities are to connect the diverse branches of knowledge to make a unified and holistic graduate regardless of discipline.

As far as Newman was concerned, the idea of a university is not merely about making graduands doing particular jobs, churning out professionals or producing technical hands. Rather, the university is meant to produce “liberally educated gentlemen (and gentlewomen)” who are endowed with a “cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life.” Just at the Greek construed education as what leads to the production of arête (excellence, a complete man), Newman emphasised that universities are meant to make individuals complete or whole.

Therefore, he submitted that the purpose of the university is to train people to think, “to reason well in all matters” and achieve a comprehensive and holistic development of students. This whole essence revolves around the formation of character, the totality of qualities that make up an individual or the process of culturing nature and nurture.

It is on the basis of the foregoing that universities exist in literature for four reasons. These are to inspire and enable individuals to develop their capabilities to the highest potential levels throughout life, so that they grow intellectually, get well-equipped for work, and contribute effectively to the society to achieve personal fulfillment; to increase knowledge and understanding for their own sake and to foster their application to the benefit of the economy and inclusive society; to serve the needs of an adaptable, sustainable, knowledge-based economy at local, regional and national levels; and to play a major role in shaping a democratic, civilised and inclusive society.

However, it is becoming increasingly evident in our clime that the emphasis of the university idea is changing from the development of reasoning and character to only skills acquisition. The problem with this emphasis is that the sophistication of the soul that university education is supposed to promote is relegated while marketability and economic viability is taken as the essence.

This shift in focus from the cognitive (the head) and the affective (the heart) to the psycho-motor domains (the hands), instead of integrating and unifying all, is evident in our current reality, the paradox of education. Gone were the days when crime was limited to the unschooled and the uneducated.

Graduates are involved in all the ills that plague the society from armed robbery, cultism, kidnapping, prostitution, terrorism, human trafficking and corruption to complete moral atrophy. The society is paying heavily for this self-inflicted misfortune as it continues to breed its own enemies. The social media is a cesspit of depravity and hubris powered by students and graduates.

Universities have to go back to the drawing board to rediscover their purpose of injecting values in students’ systems. The materialistic mindset or the quantitative mentality of just producing graduates has to be changed to moulding citizens that would be broad-minded, tolerant (of opposing identities and opinions) and patriotic.

It is important for academics and administrators to appreciate that universities are supposed to be vanguards of decency, discipline and dignity. They should not settle for less. It is also crucial for governments to wake up to their responsibilities of making the idea of the university thrive so that there would be no disconnect between the society and its universities.

Our governments and other stakeholders cannot afford to be indifferent to the state of many universities in Nigeria because the opposites of love, art, faith and life are not hate, ugliness, heresy and death respectively, the opposite of all is indifference, to paraphrase Elie Wiesel. Many of our universities are hemorrhaging due to underfunding and governments have a responsibility to save them from total paralysis.