Essay prize winner

The mission of the University 

By Miquel Forteza Moll


Once more there is a yearning for perspective, a will to climb atop some vantage point and, from it, survey the future of our societies. This desire is not unique to individuals. “What should I do? What may I hope?” turned out to be also inquiries that societies ask themselves: “What should we do?” and “What may we hope?”. Conjectures have been launched as answers to these questions, but also serious reports providing us with predictions and goals. All of them address important challenges such as poverty, hunger, climate change, war, inequality, and of course education. But what all of these solutions have in common is that they all identify the university as the place where any significant change in society ought to start from.  That means that the future of our society, the future of science, of our architecture of work, of our system of democracy, and many others is dependent on the future of the university. That brings me to believe that the university must be the protagonist of those Kantian inquiries.

I think that is why I am asked to discuss the value of universities, why we want them and how we want them. I think I am also asked to discuss what some people maintain are the two biggest challenges for universities: the impact of the global economy, which created pressure to build sophisticated universities capable of global competition; and the tremendous massification that changes their organization, funding and teaching. I am asked to talk about their pathologies, like nepotism or the ‘publish-or-perish’ motto, but also about their health, in a sense which cannot be understood only as the absence of pathologies. Health is living a joyful, balanced, fair life in harmony both with one’s self and with others. So when talking about the university I am asked to show how this ancient institution is founded on the grounds of some ideal, and is kept joyful, balanced and fair thanks to this ideal, while also creating the same feeling in our society.

Sometimes we forget that university is a community of people and people have motivations and desires. So if we dehumanize the way we think about the problems of the university, like massification, internationalization, funding, and so on, then we do not really understand the essential human dimension of a university. Therefore, if we do not take people into account, we cannot provide a complete answer to the problems facing university, to the most important questions that our society has, “What should we do? What may we hope?”.

So I think I am asked to discuss what I consider to be the reason that has drawn me to university and, if it will happen, the reason that will guide me further on the same path. You can say that maybe with this approach I will be showing only one face of the problem, and I will not be describing the whole picture. However, in these lines I am talking about ideas and values that have circulated through the minds of particular individuals and that are the basis for the existence of university. So I believe that this humanization, the conscious expression of my individuality at university, is also the hidden heart of this institution.

I do not know if I speak naively, if I write words that sound like they are straight out of a commencement or a graduation speech at a university. So if I do not convince you about the essence and importance of university, you can always take a look at the speeches of Steve Jobs or David Foster Wallace. They will probably be more successful in finding the words to persuade you. In any case I try to speak honestly and to tell how my ideas about this institution have genuinely been formed.

I cannot establish a clear distinction between the university, my way of life and friends. With this I am simply saying that university is my life and that I love to live together with friends with whom I share the academic life. This is also why I will maybe blur the distinction between the challenges that university faces and my experience in it, but I will present what I feel and believe about the environment in which I live, in which I have chosen to live and in which I hope I will continue my days.

I was born with a very limited world, I guess like everyone. What I felt when I crushed with university was a sort of calling to the challenge of my limits, to the breaking of those limits. To me the university meant a promise. The promise at issue was something like “you will be able to know everything”; the promise of a knowledge without limits. To me university became the promise “we must know, that we will know”. During those days what changed my life were the thoughts that no knowledge is so alien as to be inscrutable and that the entire field of knowledge is or should be opened to us. This promise of enlightenment is contained in the concept of university.

Naturally the years passed and I cannot say of course, because it will be absolutely false and it will be pure fantasy, that university led me to reach this objective. This promise is unattainable for one individual but it represents a calling or a guiding light. However, when I started to walk along the path traced by this promise, I began to discern the possibility that we have of thinking using new concepts and new tools. Concepts, tools and theories that represent an unlimited world of possibilities. In that sense university made me free of my poverty of views and fed my hunger of knowing, my curiosity. There is nothing more academic than curiosity. The academic is almost by definition curious, and this curiosity is the will to think in a different way.

Curiosity and love remain in the heart of university and they are the motors of freedom. Without knowledge there is no freedom. There is nothing that sets us free as much as knowing the truth. So, the biggest exclusion in our society is the exclusion from knowledge because it means to exclude someone from the possibility of deciding their own fate. Therefore, this place, the university, which is a place of knowledge, is also a place of freedom and equality. However, there was a time in which university could not fulfil this mission. Once university was an elite university. Only few had the privilege of dedicating their time to study. That meant that the majority of society was not free, in the deepest sense of free, they were excluded from the truth. But nowadays, university is a university of masses. People of all kinds, from all classes and places are entering the academic community. This non-exclusivity is contained in the very concept of university.

With the euphoria that still walks with me, university meant to me the meeting with my first loves. Of course, they were different loves from the romantic kind; maybe I can call them intellectual loves. Nevertheless, over the years, to me they still preserve the charm of that first love that any of us had. To me that first love was logic. After talking with some of my friends whom, by the way, I should thank for the ideas I am writing here, I learned that here everyone falls in love with a concept or a theory or a discipline, and after that their life completely changes. Maybe it will seem strange to you, but some people told me that their first love was Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, Cantor’s diagonalization argument or the notion of compositionality in language.

There is something I believe I should add: the work started at university will perhaps not conclude in something spectacular, but I can say that I preserve intact something that I discovered here, namely, the joy of investigating, or, saying in a way that is difficult to transmit but that anyone who has experimented this will recognise: the beauty of learning. There is a moment when something that seemed to be obscure, something that we did not understand, suddenly came to be clear and distinct. This experience leads us to an intensification of life that I believe walks constantly with the academic in their journey.

Once you have experienced this joy, it also produces a feeling that awards you lucidity. This entails liberation. It makes you wise. But the most important part of the process is that this kind of excitement has been experienced by groups of friends, people linked by a common passion. At university I have found those communities of friends that chase this understanding together, brought together a sort of willingness to understand more. So I want to believe that university is after all a community of friends joined by curiosity.

Maybe because of these experiences I cannot talk about university and its challenges from a technical point of view. To me internationalization of university has a completely different meaning than the one that it has for a politician. To me it means the discussions I had with an Irish guy about the ends of science, the walks I had with an Italian guy while talking about foundations of mathematics, or finding paradoxes in a theory with an Italian girl. It meant a French guy helping me to understand ordinal arithmetic or an Indonesian with whom I learned that a programming language can also express some kind of beauty. It meant the joy of working together with a German girl to formally model a trait of autism. If you had the luck of experiencing this, then you will have discovered that one of the motors of university is solidarity.

At university I found a place that I do not want to leave because it is a place where I am learning to practice freedom of thought, freedom of speech and where curiosity, solidarity and friendship are the most precious values.

I admit that I inherited a quite romantic picture of university that makes me see here a place for freedom, creativity, discussion and solidarity. Perhaps time will tell me a completely different tale and it will make me see that university pursues something more primeval than what I had in mind – the survival of knowledge and providing to the society of professionals. It could be that prior to this curiosity, in which my ideal of university is rooted, there is in university an instinct for survival, for the accumulation of knowledge and for the growth of the working market. And maybe it is important to keep this in mind because, if we do not put pressure on it, maybe university will return to this instinct.

But what kind of university would be the one that stores knowledge as canned food? What kind of university would be the one that only serves the promotion of its own members? What kind of university would be the one that takes as a mission to grow knowledge, but a knowledge done only for academia? Well, if we accept a change to the logic behind the romantic university and we change it for the one of a world interested only in benefit and continuance of a social position, I believe we will be talking about another institution but not about university anymore.

In that way, to the extent that university is being interfered with more and more by what we call the market, the relations between curiosity, solidarity, friendship and between investigation (now sadly called production of knowledge) and teaching (diffusion of knowledge) has turned to be more complex and it is not always clear that we have chosen ways where they both can be compatible. Sometimes it seems that a student becomes a client, the teacher a salesperson, and a peer a competitor. But university is an institution that is born as the fruit of the desire of professors and students to share knowledge. University is built as a community of friends, not of customers and competitors. So it inherits both, curiosity, solidarity, friendship and investigation and teaching, and it needs them for equal. If one of them fails, we will be talking about another institution but not about university anymore.

For this reason I believe that this ideal romantic university that some of us have in our dreams can be the visceral topic of any discussion about the challenges of university. This romantic university makes us grow, it takes out the best of ourselves and it makes us responsible for our own beliefs. Maybe this romantic university is a utopia. But then the utopia is thinking that what I have experienced could be institutionalized. This utopia is useful for not falling for the most immediate technical problems, for climbing atop some vantage point, and understanding why we want those institutions. Someone could say that I am not being realistic. This is not an essay denying the reality of university, but affirming the human face of university.

Moreover, I claim that if we do not protect this romantic ideal, then the death omens of universities will become reality. Some people see universities as ivory towers isolated from the problems that devastate our societies, so they look at industry for practical solutions. But this is far from the truth. The university I know is an institution that cultivates societal values. I strongly believe that there is no serious solution to mankind’s problems and there will be none which did not originate from this community of friends that is university. Only university guarantees the full exercise of a democratic, responsible, free and critical citizenship, which is decisive for a fair and equal society.

As a society, we have one enemy and this enemy is poverty. Poverty in all its senses: material poverty of course, but also poverty of views, poverty of horizons, poverty of speeches. I believe that knowledge must battle poverty directly. I believe that this romantic ideal of university will defeat the misery and ignorance of the world.



For encouraging responses, useful english corrections, and critical insights, my warm thanks to the following people: Anna Laura Suárez, David O’Connell, Dean McHugh, Jonathan Pesetsky, Matteo Nizzardo and Morwenna Hoeks.