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What's the University for?
Series of speakers will address the role of higher education in a changing world

By Robert Brickhouse

Is the main purpose of a college education to prepare students to achieve economic success? Is "the life of the mind" increasingly irrelevant? Have some professors so refined their scholarly interests that they can't help solve pressing issues facing American society? Do universities have a moral purpose?

Peggy Harrison
Sunlight casting column shadows on the Lawn's brick walkway gives one pause for reflection.

Some of the country's foremost thinkers on higher education's role today, not all of them likely to be in agreement with each other, will address such questions at U.Va. this spring in an intensive, three-part public conference titled "What's the University For?" Speakers, from a wide range of disciplines and perspectives, include Mark Edmundson, T.J. Jackson Lears, Gerald Graff, Russell Jacoby, Ross Posnock, George Marsden, Julie A. Reuben and Richard Rorty.

The colloquium series, sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, will be held March 2, March 30 and April 13. The conference is intended to shed light on the growing challenges facing higher education in a rapidly changing culture often driven by consumerism, technology and a global socioeconomic scramble. Each session will feature talks, panel discussions and audience participation, followed by a reception.

At the beginning of a new millennium, academia is puzzled at and troubled by its current situation, said Charles Mathewes, assistant professor of religious studies and a conference organizer. The American university "has reached a level of material success, wealth and power that is unrivalled in its history. Yet its very accomplishments feed larger cultural anxieties about the university's place and purposes in society as a whole."

In an era that demands information, entertainment and career preparation, "it is unclear just what an education is meant to do for its recipient," added Jennifer Geddes, an institute fellow and editor of its journal, The Hedgehog Review, which will publish the proceedings of the conference. A key question for many is what the content of a university education should be.

Colloquium 1
" The Culture of the University"
March 2, Rotunda Dome Room
1-6 p.m.
Mark Edmundson, professor of English at U.Va., and Jackson Lears, professor of history at Rutgers University, will look at how changes in the broader culture have affected the culture of the university and what it means that a university education has become more integral to success in our society than ever before.

Edmundson, a contributing editor of Harper's magazine, has written widely on education issues, including a controversial article in which he described university culture as ever more devoted to consumption and entertainment.

Lears has written several books on the changes that have taken place in American culture and intellectual life over the last century, including The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History.

Colloquium 2
" The University and Public Intellectuals"
March 30, Newcomb Hall South Meeting Room
11 a.m.-6 p.m. (with break for lunch)
Gerald Graff, humanities scholar and dean at the University of Illinois-Chicago; Russell Jacoby, professor of history at UCLA; and Ross Posnock, professor of English at the University of Washington, will examine the responsibilities of intellectuals and whether modern university life has become so narrowly bureaucratized and specialized that some scholars are hindered from playing a fuller role in society.

Graff, author of Beyond the Culture Wars, has suggested that the way to move beyond academic stalemates, such as debates over what should be taught, is to "teach the conflicts" themselves and make problems part of their own solutions. Jacoby, author of The Last Intellectuals, will talk about possibilities for creating a true intellectual community in today's university. Posnock, the author of Color and Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual, will examine what can be learned from the model set by African-American writers and intellectuals in making contributions on social issues.

Colloquium 3
" The Moral Purposes of the University"
April 13, Newcomb Hall South Meeting Room
1-6 p.m.
This session will feature George Marsden, professor of history at Notre Dame; Julie A. Reuben, professor of education at Harvard; and Richard Rorty, professor emeritus of U.Va., now at Stanford, who is one of the country's most influential philosophers.

They will lead discussions about the purposes of education and whether the university has or needs a shared moral commitment such as it originally had. Marsden, in such books as The Soul of the American University, has urged universities to remember their original religious, intellectual and moral missions to seek truth through inquiry. Rorty argues against the attempt to return to founding principles. He has laid a careful philosophical groundwork for skepticism about any one ideal's claims over another. Reuben, author of The Making of the Modern University, is an authority on what has led to today's dilemmas.

The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, directed by sociology and religious studies professor James Davison Hunter, was established in 1995, originally called "The Post-Modernity Project." Its purpose is to examine the profound normative changes taking place in contemporary American society and to map their implications for individual and social life.

For information on the conference, call at 924-7705 or visit the institute's web site, http://www.virginia.edu/iasc/


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