Headlines > Notre Dame professor: institution of universities of 'enduring value'

13 June 2018 | by Carina Murphy

Notre Dame professor: institution of universities of 'enduring value'

Notre Dame professor: institution of universities of 'enduring value'

John Jenkins
Photo: Ruth Gledhill

'I believe in the physical proximity and actual an essential part of learning and passing on skills'

Professor John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame in the US, has defended the "institution of universities" saying they are of enduring value at a talk given at Oxford University.  

Fr Jenkins told The Tablet he wanted “to recognise the enduring value of the institution of universities, second only to the Catholic church, which comes from the ability to provide graduates with tools, not just for one specific career but for a range of jobs or disciplines to which they can apply those intellectual skills learned.”

He started off the lecture, entitled “The Idea of a University Today”, by saying that he would not try to compete with John Henry Newman’s classic work, The Idea of a University, but would “try to grapple a bit with… universities in relation to certain pressures in the current landscape.”

Fr Jenkins acknowledged that: “We hear regularly that universities are ‘ripe for disruption’, that they are overpriced and less relevant, that governments or families are unwilling to bear the costs, and that universities merely serve to guard the privileges of the privileged.” However, he said rather than attempting to answer this and other questions, he would “try to shed some light on some current questions about universities by considering the origin of this institution, the world’s second oldest university”.

He pinpointed three components as critical in the emergence of Oxford as a great university and template for other universities: “A concentration of superior scholars and students who, in reality and reputation, were pre-eminent; the establishment of offices and structures for the self-governance of the institution as distinct from the city, Church and Crown; and the development of accepted practices of common inquiry at the highest level.”

Fr Jenkins also cited the need for highly trained, literate men to serve Church and King, in commerce and in estates as a critical factor in the rise of universities in the 13th century.

Today, he said, although “We often hear that education at universities is not particularly relevant to this or that profession or that what someone needs to know for a particular profession could be delivered more efficiently than it is at universities,” “training in the practices of inquiry at the highest level… is an investment that has proven to be sound over many years”.

As regards the future of universities, he said it is becoming common “to hear that universities like Oxford and Notre Dame are soon to be disrupted by digital technology that … will create more efficient, less expensive and more creative institutions of learning”. Fr Jenkins warned: “It would be a mistake, I think, for those of us in traditional universities to smugly dismiss this suggestion.” 

He said: “Could universities be replaced by online communities in which instruction is exclusively delivered digitally, tests are taken and papers submitted on line, assessment at a distance … Why do we need the expense of physical proximity of a university community when we can do it all less expensively and at perhaps a larger scale online?”

He confessed himself “a sceptic about these prophecies of radical disruption”. He told the audience: “So much of learning is simply being in proximity to those who do the activity at a very high level, observing acutely and incorporating those observations into one’s practice.” He echoed these sentiments to The Tablet, saying: “I believe in the physical proximity and actual community, the give and take of conversation, engaging in the chance conversations and the accidental conversations as an essential part of learning and passing on skills.”

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