The Public Interest

The Idea of a University

Andrew Sullivan

Summer 1987

SANCTIMONY and banality seem to be hard to avoid in the great education debate. In his report on the state of higher education, sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation, Ernest Boyer ends with the wish that “students must be inspired by a larger vision, using the knowledge they have acquired to discover patterns, form values, and advance the common good.” The rhetorical world is one where visions are constantly enlarging, complexity is always interdependent, and caring communities can yet embrace the individual. But the overwritten perorations suggest at the same time that there is a growing sense of the seriousness of the issues, if little hope of a way through them. There is a sustained and clumsy grappling for what Cardinal Newman called “the idea” of a university. It rarely amounts to more than a sanctimonious grope into the dark.

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