The Purpose of University Education

Source: Umagazine

In an age when news of higher education is dominated by headlines of institutional rankings, it is perhaps a good time to pose the question: what is the purpose of university education?

Paradoxically, as technology ushers in a brave yet formidable new world, we see a new relevance in our old values, as educators face the challenge of preparing our students for an unpredictable future. Asian countries have an abiding faith in education, investing heavily in building ‘world-class’ universities. In doing so, they are chasing different models for academic excellence.

Cloning Presents Its Own Challenges

In many Asian countries, some have chosen to ‘clone’ the world’s leading universities. There is nothing wrong with copying the best. But borrowing wholesale presents its own challenges. Stanford University’s world-famous startup culture, for example, thrives because of its proximity to a venture capital community ready to bankroll innovative ideas. 

Harvard’s legendary president Charles Eliot was correct in saying that any great university is great in its own ways, and that any good university should grow from ‘seed’, and ‘not be a copy of foreign institutions’.

In mainland China’s case, its top universities are charged with the burden of revitalising its economy, as the age of low-tech export yields to the age of innovation. But is economic innovation just a matter of training technologically-savvy graduates? Economic miracles, you might have noticed, are o en performed by those with the courage for risk-taking. 

Rethink the Purpose of the Modern University

In the West, failure doesn’t stigmatise. Winston Churchill’s statement that ‘Success is stumbling from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm’ typifies this attitude. In thin-skinned Asia, we have a cultural fear of failure. Surprisingly, China is defying this tradition; its edge over its neighbours is in the ranks of self-believing risk-takers who power its economic great leap forward.

One such self-knowing risk-taker is Jack Ma. Mr Ma is no technology wizard. But what he lacks in technological knowledge, he more than makes up for in being able to sniff out opportunities and betting on his hunches. If he represents anything, he represents the success of serial failures: failing his College Entrance Examinations twice, being turned down for jobs multiple times, his business ventures succeeding only on the third try. He had the dubious distinction of being rejected by Harvard as many as ten times. 

Many in the West dismiss the Chinese as shameless copycats. But they fail to see that unique Chinese genius: the nose for opportunities, and the stomach for taking risks. They are bold, resilient leapfrog artists of the first order. 

At a time when the universities global rankings leaderboard is on the lips of the public, we decided to rethink the purpose of the modern university—by heeding the words of our sages.

Self-knowledge and Self-belief

We decided to aim at helping students to acquire self-knowledge and self-belief, realising that it is the fountainhead of creativity o en overlooked by modern universities. Helping people to acquire self-knowledge is not new. What is new, in our case, is building an ecosystem that realises the ideal, including an extensive residential college system that is friendly to the development of the self. Aristotle exhorted us to ‘Know thyself’. Laotzu, China’s o -quoted sage, reminded us that ‘Knowing others is wisdom. Knowing oneself is enlightenment.’ As a people-centred place, the university’s special mission is to bring out the best in students. But this attainment presupposes self-knowledge and self-belief.

At first blush, the age of innovation is incompatible with the ancient pursuit of self-knowledge. But we soon realise that while knowledge itself may become obsolete, self-knowledge is an ever-flowing stream of innovativeness. That is the renewed relevance of ancient wisdom.

In a world torn apart by conflict, ‘knowing thyself’ is also a moral imperative. The hallmark of the educated is tolerance—a willingness to embrace diversity and differences, whether in the Mid-East or closer to home. Those who know themselves are less prone to intolerance and needless conflict.

Help Students Know Themselves

As educators, we have a duty to see that students rst get to know themselves before they rush to change the world or judge others. The university’s domain is the future. Smart machines may threaten to displace humans from many occupations. But there is one area in which machines can never replace humans---the nurturing of individual talent. That is why creating conditions that promote creative talent through self-knowledge is a paramount concern. 

The ideal 21st century graduate has both broad and deep knowledge, with discipline-specific education, general education, research and internship education, and community and peer education. The first two are conventional learning, the last two are learning by doing. It is in doing that we discover our true worth in a competitive century. Universities, unlike businesses, cater to individuality, not to the standardisation of product the way MacDonald’s handles its hamburgers. The best way to future-proof the university is to future-proof our students by bracing them for risk-taking, shoving them out of the safety of the familiar.

As Shakespeare long ago realised, character is destiny. We are in the business of character-building, putting students in touch with themselves, embracing the wider world, while keeping them hungry for learning and risks. The age of technology should develop a new romance with ancient wisdom. It thrives on it, not in spite of it.