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“What are universities for?”

February 8, 2009

An interesting article by scientist David Inman:

In 1852, John Henry Newman, in one of his discourses on “The Idea of a University”, said “a University is, according to the usual designation, an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill”. Thirty years later, Thomas Henry Huxley said “The medieval university looked backwards; it professed to be a storehouse of old knowledge…. The modern university looks forward, and is a factory of new knowledge.” …

But when Huxley urged universities to look forward he meant away into the far distance, to the horizon and beyond; not a few months ahead to the next disclosure of government under-funding, or to the time when a research grant expires. His currency was knowledge, not cash-in-hand. The tunnel-visioned universities of today have certainly fulfilled, nominally, one of Huxley’s ideals. They have become factories; but not, unhappily, in the sense that he hoped for. In doing so, they have also realized Newman’s worst fears by becoming foundries, mints and treadmills for both their students and their faculty.

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