The Purpose of College in 2011
There exists a familiar crescendo during the holiday season that achieves its apex as the New Year begins. If your family is like mine, it began with great anticipation about gifts, both receiving them and choosing just the right one.
But after the presents were opened and the last bit of leftover turkey devoured, we turned our attention to contemplating the purpose of the holidays and our ambitions for the upcoming New Year. As the president of one of America’s oldest institutions of higher learning, Hampden-Sydney College, I thought it appropriate to offer my comments on the purpose of a college, for higher education is, or should be, central to the ambitions of all our young men and women.
A bit of history is illustrative.
Universities, when they were established more than a thousand years ago, focused on educating clergy and instilling religious piety. Over the years, religious education was supplement and then supplanted by the notion of civic virtue and, eventually, by secular humanism which became the core purpose of institutions of higher learning. The 1800s gave rise to the German university with its graduate students and deliberate focus on research. The American concept of a liberal arts education, which included emphasis on teaching and, usually, the shaping of moral character, was shaken to its core as research universities attracted talented professors, eager students, and government and foundation dollars. But undergraduate students still needed some degree of moral formation or at least some growing up. Colleges and universities still have to address this need — particularly for the Millennials — our wonderfully over-programmed, over-achieving and, at times, over-confident young people born after 1979.