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Creating ideal college experiences

WHAT AM I doing here? What are my reasons for being here, what am I here to do, and why?

This is not something I think about every day, but it is something that deserves being thought about from time to time.

The University's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture (IASC) thinks now is a good time. Through a colloquium series that starts next week, the Institute is attempting to refresh the discussion over the proper role of higher education.

The colloquium, called "What's a University For?" will involve three one-day conferences, each with lectures, panel discussions and audience participation. The March 2 session, which includes University English professor Mark Edmundson, will explore "The Culture of the University." The next installment will be "The University and Public Intellectuals" on March 30. The final session, to be held April 13, will discuss "The Moral Purposes of the University."

Related Links
  • Inside UVa online article on colloquium
  • The Moral Purposes of the University

    Hopefully, the series of speakers and discussions will prompt students to examine why they're at the University. This is a useful task for everyone, regardless of whether they think they know already.

    College is largely about making decisions. These decisions - choosing classes, deciding about involvement in extracurricular activities, arranging summer jobs and internships, even choices about friends and social life - all shape a student's experience.

    Students make such decisions based on their goals. A clear conception of why they are here is crucial to formulating priorities. If students don't understand their purpose for being in college, they are essentially making decisions without any substantive criteria to base those decisions on. These students essentially are flying blind.

    Self-examination is a good thing. Even if students have a clear purpose in mind, reassessing that purpose once in a while keeps them focused and helps ensure they're headed in the direction they intend.

    For students, there are a number of reasons to be here. Some come to college to become equipped for a specific profession. The University's programs in business, finance, marketing, law, medicine, nursing, engineering and architecture all teach fairly narrow professional skills, as opposed to broad ideas. Others may value a college education for its ability to cultivate general intellectual ability, not because it teaches practical skills.

    Neither of these extremes is necessarily better than the other. People with professional skills are crucial to our service-based world of specified jobs. But liberally educated people - who provide the context in which practical skills are applied - are just as indispensable.

    More importantly, society needs people who fill the hundreds of shades of gray in between these two extremes. Professional aspirations and a liberal arts education complement one another quite well. Students with this kind of hybrid education become well-rounded, capable contributors to society.

    There's no right answer to the question, "What's a University For?" In fact, this is precisely the point. We can't arrive at a single definition of what education should be for everyone. It's a question that has to be answered by individuals. But individual answers to these questions should shape the character of this University and the education it offers to its students.

    The IASC's colloquium will pose questions that are crucial to this evaluation: In an age where specific skills are prized, to what degree should colleges educate students broadly and liberally? Do students need to be taught to think or just to perform tasks? Is college still important in an increasingly pop-culture society? What should an intellectual be in the 21st century?

    These are good questions, and the IASC should be commended for putting them out on the table. But that's as far as any group or speaker can go. Each of us has to take the next step. We need to go to these conferences, listen to what the lecturers have to say, and talk with them. We must pick the questions up off the table, think critically about them, and engage in a dialogue on them.

    Man has been asking himself this basic question - "Why are we here?" - in a variety of contexts for thousands of years. The upcoming speakers and discussions will attempt to address the question in terms of higher education.

    How would you answer? What do you think a University is for? Why are you here?

    (Bryan Maxwell is a Cavalier Daily associate editor.)