Ryan  Burns, phd
February 12, 2011

why the university?

One of the privileges I’ve had at University of Washington is to take highly interdisciplinary classes. The Certificate in Public Scholarship program, especially, has brought me and a couple other geographers together with landscape architects, english graduate students, and anthropology graduate students. While it’s been great to see how other departments operate and to be able to find a common language across these different approaches to knowledge production, I’ve been a little disheartened by what I sense to be a very instrumental approach to knowledge coming from some disciplines.

The other day one of my professors held a pedagogical workshop. The goal of this workshop was to help us grad students learn how to create an active, dynamic classroom in our teaching. He said that on the first day of class it’s important to confront the students with a deceptively simple question: “Why are we here?”. This question has been notably asked and addressed by Kahn here . While you, the reader, contemplate the question of why people attend college, let me dig in a little.

I’m sensitive to the fact that there are multiple ways of approaching a single problem, and that in some disciplines the goal of education is to learn techniques/methodologies/empiricism. That’s fine. But it’s my perspective that the social sciences are/should be about more than this; the goal is/should be to confront complex problems and draw connections between ideas. It is about critical thinking: elucidating the limits of particular assumptions or explanations, thinking about the historical and spatial contexts of ideas and knowledge production approaches, and uncovering the politics and power relations of social assemblages. This is how we explain what we see - or don’t see - in the world. The social sciences (and education more broadly, if I may argue so) are also about synthesizing ideas and clearly conveying them (despite my own lack of clarity!). On these points I’m intentionally remaining vague enough to encompass multiple approaches to thinking and theoretical bases.

The above paragraph was obviously written by a white male studying geography at a particular institution, having come from a very specific spatial and socioeconomic background. So it is a different engagement than one we’d see coming from a professor at a community college, or a minority, or a different discipline. But it is a political goal: it is saying that people should not become geography students to learn how to use GIS; or that a critique of representation should not hold value only if it helps build a better-designed website for instance. It is saying that knowledge and critique have their own intrinsic value that stands outside of its utility for methodology.

It is a direct contradiction to some discussions I’ve had recently regarding the goal of knowledge production. When a Gates Foundation spokesperson responded to a fellow grad student’s skepticism that “if you have any ideas about how to do it better, I’m all ears,” they were taking the exact opposite position. Knowledge meets their interpretation of “useful” only if it simultaneously meets their definition of “making things better”. This stance immediately forecloses particular critiques: for instance, 1) that things might be seen as “better” if the Gates Foundation never got involved in some contexts, that 2) the very reason for the grad student’s skepticism might be that capitalism - the force that pushed Bill Gates’s net worth through the roof - necessarily produces inequality, or that 3) the grad student’s critique inevitably gets to the heart of how the Gates Foundation produces poverty knowledge. A similar approach to knowledge can be heard in the “Now Urbanism” class in which I’m currently enrolled. At least once a class you can hear someone say “but how does this help us do it better?”.

The importance of this issue I’ve raised stems from how it speaks to the purpose of the university. Is the university an instrumentalist institution that imparts a click-through type of knowledge, or one that enables students to deeply engage complexity and to 1)analyze, 2)synthesize, 3)communicate, and 4)reflect? And when we say that the university should give skills, what do we mean by “skills”? And what notions of “skill” does such a definition exclude? This suite of questions is becoming increasingly important as the neoliberalization of the university becomes more deeply entrenched. One of my many goals in life is to communicate the intrinsic value of the abilities I described above. The question posed by undergraduates should not be “what can I do with this degree?” but “how can I apply the skill set I acquire here not only to my occupation but also my everyday life?” and “what is the skill set I will acquire with this degree?”.

It’s high time we rearticulate the purpose of the university. Many of my colleagues and I are trying to do just that.

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