Tuesday, February 09, 2010

What is a University?

Britain plans further cuts in spending on higher education. Universities are pressed to provide 'employable'  courses. 

Among the many obscure books in my library there is A Cambridge scrapbook, compiled by Jean Lindsay. The book belonged to my mother-in-law. I found a clipping from the The Times letter's page tucked inside the book. It's Jean Lindsay writing about the purpose of university education. I've never read anything on the subject so clearly put in so few words, even though she writes from a feminist angle. Here is the letter:

It is a pity that the value of a woman's university education should be judged by the extent to which she subsequently uses the specialized knowledge she acquired while reading for her degree. Is the university education of a man who gets a First Class in the Classical Tripos wasted because he subsequently goes into the Treasury of the Foreign Office? The value of a university education is more than the formal instruction in a specialized  branch of learning; it is the training of certain qualities of mind such as objectivity, the ability to sift out essential points from a mass of detail, the capacity to realize when a point has been proved.
"a trained mind and self-confidence are of inestimable value to society"
These qualities persist even after the historical details or the shades of literary criticism have been forgotten. But there is far more to a university education than the reading for a degree, the essay writing, and the discussion in a weekly supervision. As Canon Raven once put it, 'the main purpose of the place is friendship, and the building up of character by intercourse with men of kindred tastes and different training.' If the university exists to promote ' the vast and essential business... of coming to terms with the universe', this is done largely by conversation among contemporaries and this experience is as salutary for a girl as for her brother.
"These qualities persist even after the historical details have been forgotten"
Whatever she may do afterwards, a trained mind and self-confidence based on understanding of herself and of her surroundings are of inestimable value to the girl herself and indirectly to society.

Jean Lindsay, 
Girton College, Cambridge

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