What Shall It Profit a Great University if It Shall Win the Rose Bowl and – You Take it From There
I hereby salute John Alexander Murchison, artium baccalaureus in classics from Baylor University – as of, oh, about three weeks ago. Whew! The kid made it. His mother and I knew he would. It was merely a matter of time, among other consequential factors.
Factors such as money? Well, yeah, since you ask. Baylor was extraordinarily generous with tuition support that went a ways toward making up for renunciation of the National Merit Scholarship with which this, our brilliant, high-minded, and personable second son began his academic career, all of 13 years ago.
Details need not detain us. My point is the embedded nature of the aspiration to Knowledge, to understanding, to the opening wide of human possibility – through the specialized, intensive training at which our universities excel. Or should. And, yes, sometimes actually do: until, amid a preposterous welter of post-modern commitments and assignments -- grant-seeking, alumni-massaging, stadium-building, bureaucracy-enlarging, curriculum-diluting, PC-policing -- they lose sight of a mission clear enough to many as recently as half a century ago.
What John wanted when he enrolled at Baylor – where at the time I professed journalism – was the opportunity to learn what was real, and, consequently, what mattered most. Baylor (a mighty fine school, I’d have you know, though I never went there myself), gave him pretty much what he sought. He goes away content. The Greeks, despite a certain shrug-shouldered fatalism in their outlook, can make you that way if you pay attention. While you listen to them, light peeks through chinks, then spreads throughout the entire vicinity. (The Romans – not so much, though I still occasionally mutter in Latin.)
My wife the university valedictorian likes to say, “The question that organizations keep forgetting to ask is, ‘What are trying to do here? What’s our purpose?’” Is it a university’s purpose to rank No. 1 in football? (At ‘Bama it may be.) Is it to rewrite history, putting down the victors, granting restitution to the once-lowly? (You evil colonialists – go away!) What’s a university for? Was Newman right? Is it for “the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things, as far as the finite mind can embrace them…”?
Our post-modern American universities need to ask, then answer, that question with great gravity and intentionality. What are we trying to do here? Why are we? What shall it profit a great university if it shall win the Rose Bowl and – you take it from there.