The purpose of universities

Like many people – perhaps more than the government seems to realise – I’ve become concerned about the way in which the humanities are being sidelined in university education, in favour of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). However, some of my remarks on this subject run the risk of being misinterpreted, so this post is intended to clarify things.

It’s been suggested that to say that universities exist “for the purpose of the humanities” is a narrow and exclusionary statement that denigrates the study of STEM subjects. Some have even asked, albeit with heavily ironic intent, whether pro-humanities advocates intend to police every university lecture theatre and seminar room to make sure that all study relates solely to the humanities.

Not at all. However, I think it is undeniably true that the historic purpose of universities has included, as a core component, the study of the humanities. Yes, there are some universities that devote themselves exclusively to STEM and do not study the humanities, but they have been seen as the exception rather than the rule. Similarly, it is undeniably true that some very fine study of the humanities has occurred – and perhaps occurs today more than ever – outside the confines of the university.

Nevertheless, it has been generally recognised that there is a profound and intimate connection between universities and the humanities. Thus to move towards a conception of the university that sees the humanities as an entirely optional component, something with no inherent connection with universities, runs the risk of causing significant damage to both.

I recognise that some supporters of the humanities do indeed have a bigoted attitude towards STEM, referring to science students as “spods” and so on – reflecting, often, their deep-rooted fears about science. However, I am not one of them, and to suggest that it is impossible to see the humanities as being essential to our understanding of the university without being motivated by a hatred of STEM is, I think, to coarsen public debate in a very regrettable manner.


One thought on “The purpose of universities”

  1. As a great believer in classical learning, but also one well aware of the divide between the humanities and mathematics and the sciences, I would like to suggest that we need to recognize that our educational system is broken from top to bottom. A huge part of this is the result of the control of our colleges and universities by the political left and the effect upon those institutions of the success of the leftist agenda. They view the university system as a means of brain washing the young to help the left maintain political power in the state. That means that the humanities whose purpose, I believe, is to help us to think and face the great questions necessary for the continued success of our civilization – such as it is – have been pushed into a corner because it is impermissible to question the leftist verities.which require that you be taught what to think and not how.

    The purpose of the humanities is to remind us forcefully of what it is to be human, of where we come from and who we have been so that we do not lightly surrender the gains that we have made as humans. You cannot gain that solely from a knowledge of the STEM curriculum. For that you must read the great works of the past, the poets, the playwrights, the historians, but especially the philosophers. And you must think of what you want their world to be for your children and grandchildren. To me, the purpose of education in a free society which intends to remain so, is to so train the mind of every citizen so that they are capable of self government and do not require to be governed by others. And that requires that the humanities remain central to education.

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