What Is the Purpose of a "Modern" University?
How (and why) sexual diversity scholars have an important place at universities
Posted Jan 24, 2019
Sexual diversity scholars spend their time researching and teaching about the varied ways people express their sexuality-differences across sexes, genders, orientations, mating strategies, among others. Who we are, who we love, who we find erotic, who we have sex with...it's all part of our sexually-diverse selves. Still, what's the point of this research and teaching on sexuality, where do sexual diversity scholars fit within a "university" setting?
Many sexual diversity scholars work within departments of psychology, psychiatry, biology, anthropology, sociology, or gender studies. Sometimes they work in counseling, education, communication, health, or other departments. Regardless of which particular building sexual scholars find themselves, a key question remains...if universities are about honing the skills of students so they can find well-paying jobs, how do sexual diversity scholars fit in? Why should sexual diversity—how we express ourselves sexually--be a topic on which universities (and governments) spend their limited time and money? What's the point?
The Modern University
In my view, when considering the value of sexual diversity scholarship we should always keep in mind the historical true purpose of a modern university. And (again in my personal opinion) the true purpose of a university starts with a trip back to the 19th century. To wit...
The year was 1810. Wilhelm von Humboldt convinced the King of Prussia, Frederick Wilhelm III, to build a “modern” university in Berlin based on Fichte and Schleiermacher’s liberal ideas (Anderson, 2004). Wilhelm was the older brother of Alexander von Humboldt, the influential scientist-adventurer who Darwin called “one of the greatest men the world has ever produced.”
This new Humboldtian University would be very different from previous schools. Learning was not just about conveying current knowledge (merely what was thought to be known at the time), it was also about generating new knowledge and watching that process of generating new knowledge in action. It was about being a potentially pivotal member of a scholarly community, a group with many diverse members all dedicated purely to new knowledge generation. It was about being part of a modern university.
You see, up until that point, most previous schools were either religious where “truth” had to be godly and divine, or schools had to be focused on trades/crafts meant to produce specially-skilled workers (it may be worth noting religious and trade/craft types of schools are what some people want us all to return to, as part of a general trend of trying to return our civilization back to pre-Enlightenment, Medieval-type living).
For Wilhelm von Humboldt, the goal of this new Humboldtian University form of higher education—the “modern” university—was to engage students with the discovery of knowledge as it happens, and to teach students to “take account of fundamental laws of science in all their thinking” (Ponnusamy & Pandurangan, 2014). The University of Berlin founded in 1810 (later renamed Humboldt University after both Wilhelm and Alexander) set the stage for what is called the "modern" university. It was different. And it changed the world.
This new Humboldt Model of university education was rooted in several basic principles, three of which are particularly important to sexual diversity scholars.
Humboldt Principle 1: The purpose of university education is to teach students to think effectively, not simply to master a particular skill/craft. Crafts/jobs/workforce needs tend to change over time, but the ability to think effectively generalizes. Humboldt felt “effective thinking” occurs when students take the fundamental laws of science into account, use evidence-based reasoning, think rationally, be curious and self-reflective, and not be fixed or rigid in beliefs (i.e., students should move away from established superstition and pursue Enlightenment-based values; see also here).
Students also should be widely exposed to the humanities (become cultured in classics and sociohistorical diversity) so as to become better and more informed citizens (i.e., be life-long learners, be critics of Absolutism and the status quo, be inspired by knowing about the “sweep of history and the spectrum of civilizations” [h/t Steven Pinker], be intelligently informed voters in a democracy, and so forth).1
Humboldt Principle 2: Humboldt strongly argued that research should play a role of central importance at a modern university―and teaching students to be part of a community that knows how to think, be responsible, and communicate effectively should be accomplished through the integration of research and teaching. Students should observe the “act of creation” of new knowledge (Röhrs, 1987). Universities are not just places of great teaching (universities are not JMGS [Just-More-Grade-School]). Modern universities are great scholarly communities, a "Universitas litterarum" that continuously generates new knowledge in students and in scholarship—knowledge for the benefit of public health, basic science, and a more Enlightened society.
This was the deal Wilhelm von Humboldt made with the King of Prussia. This was the deal that led to modern universities (and not just teaching academies). The government supports modern universities as places of great scholarship, and both students and society as a whole will benefit in the long-run. This deal served as a springboard for our modern way of life.
Humboldt Principle 3: The modern university exists for the benefit of both students and society, but it should function as an independent entity, not being in direct service to the immediate needs of the state or the church or any for-profit business motives. Almost all universities are non-profit by nature, designed to serve the public good through educating citizens (who should be informed voters in democracies when relevant) and curiosity-driven (not profit-driven) intellectual inquiries that produce new knowledge.
Professors and students should be free to pursue intellectual inquiry and create new knowledge wherever their curiosity leads them (i.e., have academic freedom!). In the long-term, freedom to pursue answers to important basic (as opposed to applied) questions often leads to more profound knowledge generation.
I think rather than following the lead of for-profit businesses and focusing on college as about making money in the short-term, universities should maintain an emphasis on teaching students to think effectively for a lifetime, generate new discoveries from curiosity-driven research, and maintain independence from the state, the church, and the for-profit business world (with all caveats as to various forms of university in mind).
So, in my view, the value of sexual diversity scholarship, and the reason it has a place in universities around the world, is that it can do all of these things. It helps people think effectively about themselves and other sexualities around the world, it generates new scientifically-supported tools for maximizing sexual health and well-being, and it does so best when not micro-managed by governments, churches, or for-profit business motives.
There are other perspectives on the purpose of universities, I don’t mean to imply the Humboldt model is the only one (indeed, I have presented a rather idealized view of the Humboldt model's principles and their impact). Moreover, many have noted the trend across academia for different universities to have different purposes. Not all universities need to be research-intensive. This is a very important point. Regardless, though, one of my favorite views on the most basic purpose of a university education—one that transcends the Humboldt model—was offered by Steven Pinker:
“It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which people have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.
On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not necessarily stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.”
Now that’s a noble purpose, indeed.
1 When it comes to Humboldt's Principle 1 for university students in psychology (my own discipline), the American Psychological Association lists a series of important goals for developing effective thinking…
- Goal 1: Develop Knowledge Base (know the key concepts, principles, themes, content areas, applied aspects of a major)
- Goal 2: Develop Scientific Inquiry and Critical Thinking (learn how to use scientific reasoning to interpret the world; learn to engage in innovative and integrative thinking and problem solving; learn how to think quantitatively)
- Goal 3: Develop Personal Ethics and Social Responsibility toward Diverse World (know how to behave ethically; build and enhance diverse interpersonal relationships and teamwork skills; cultivate your personal values and engage in leadership that builds community at local, national, and global levels)
- Goal 4: Communication (learn effective writing for different purposes; learn effective presentation skills for different purposes)
- Goal 5: Professional Development (learn how to apply these skills toward career goals; learn how to use self-efficacy and self-regulation to achieve career goals; develop a meaningful professional game plan for life after graduation)
Anderson, R. D. (2004). European Universities from the Enlightenment to 1914. New York, USA: Oxford University Press.
Ponnusamy, R., & Pandurangan, J. (2014). A hand book on university system. New Delhi, India: Allied Publishers.
Röhrs, H. (1987). The classical idea of the university. In Tradition and reform of the university under an international perspective. New York: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers.