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What’s The University For?: Provocative Speakers Will Discuss Major Challenges Confronting Higher Education

February 9, 2000 -- 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?

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 the University of Virginia 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, George Marsden, Julie A. Reuben and Richard Rorty.

The colloquium series, sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, on March 2, March 30 and April 13, 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, the American university is puzzled at and troubled by its current situation, said Charles Mathewes, assistant professor of religious studies and a conference organizer. "It 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.

In Colloquium One, "The Culture of the University," March 2 in the Dome Room of the Rotunda, 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 Two, "The University and Public Intellectuals," March 30 in Newcomb Hall’s South Meeting Room, will be led by Gerald Graff, humanities scholar and dean at the University of Illinois-Chicago and Russell Jacoby, professor of history at UCLA, They 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.

Colloquium Three, "The Moral Purposes of the University," April 13 in Newcomb Hall’s South Meeting Room, will feature George Marsden, professor of history at Notre Dame; Julie A. Reuben, professor of education at Harvard, and Richard Rorty, professor emeritus at 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. Reuben, author of "The Making of the Modern University," is an authority on what has led to today’s dilemmas.

The conference is part of an annual colloquium series on a key issue sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, directed by sociology and religion professor James Davison Hunter. Papers from conference participants will be published in the Fall issue of The Hedgehog Review. (For more information on the journal visit its website:

For additional information contact the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at (804) 924-7705.

Reporters: Charles Mathewes may be reached at (804) 924-6708 and Jennifer Geddes may be reached at (804) 924-7705.

Contact: Bob Brickhouse, (804) 924-6856


Colloquium 2000

What's the University For?


The Culture of the University March 2, 2000

Location: Dome Room, The Rotunda 1-6 p.m.

Mark Edmundson (English, U.Va.)

T.J. Jackson Lears (History, Rutgers)


University & Public Intellectuals March 30, 2000

Location: South Meeting Room, Newcomb Hall 1:15 -6 p.m.

Gerald Graff (Dean, U. of Illinois at Chicago)

Russell Jacoby (History, UCLA)


The Moral Purposes of the University April 13, 2000

Location: South Meeting Room, Newcomb Hall 1-6 p.m.

George Marsden (History, Notre Dame)

Julie A. Reuben (Education, Harvard)

Richard Rorty (Comparative Literature, Stanford)

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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