On my campus is a handsome domed building with these words inscribed across its facade: ERECTED FOR THE STUDENTS THAT RELIGION AND LEARNING MAY GO HAND IN HAND AND CHARACTER GROW WITH KNOWLEDGE. Built about a hundred years ago, the structure is in reasonably good repair, but the purpose for which it was built (it still houses the office of the university chaplain) is in ruins. I’ve never met a student who knows what’s written above the door.
Religion and learning hand in hand? This is true at only a few sectarian institutions, and if you were to remind just about any university president that his or her own institution arose from this or that denomination—Congregationalism (Harvard and Yale); Presbyterianism (Princeton); Episcopalianism (Columbia)—you’d likely get the response of the proverbial Victorian lady who, upon hearing of Darwin’s claim that men descend from apes, replied that she hoped it wasn’t so, but if it were, that it not become widely known. As for the claim that “character” and knowledge should grow together, if you ask just about any student how college makes that happen, the most you’re likely to get is a raised eyebrow or a puzzled stare.
The truth is that today the domed building is a monument to an endangered idea: the college idea. In fact, that idea was already in trouble when the building went up. Even then the words were more commemorative than descriptive, concerned with reclaiming a threatened purpose (“erected for the students”) and connection (“character grow with knowledge”). The undergraduate college within Columbia University was still at least nominally focused on the task of developing Christian gentlemen, but was slipping into the encroaching shadow of a vast research enterprise that has since surrounded and, some would say, swallowed it.
Most of the new university buildings constructed during the first quarter of the twentieth century were meant for advanced study of a particular discipline such as mathematics or chemistry, or a profession such as law. Over the intervening century, the college survived and developed a post-Christian form of general education—the well-known Columbia Core Curriculum in which undergraduates still read great books from Homer to Dostoyevsky, including parts of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. But that curriculum is subject to continual attack on grounds both ideological (too male and “Eurocentric”) and financial (discussion-sized classes are very expensive). On a campus mainly devoted to research and graduate training, those of us who focus on college teaching sometimes feel like Jonah in the belly of the whale.
This is not a local or peculiar story. Although the relation between college and university may be more disproportionate at Columbiathan at comparable institutions (among the leading universities, Princeton has kept the balance best), it is a representative story. It begins with the fact that colleges and universities, even when they share a campus and a name, embody fundamentally different purposes. A college—whose students, ideally, live on or near campus—is about transmitting to young adults knowledge of the past so they may draw upon it as a living resource in the future. A university is a disparate array of research activities that is about creating new knowledge with the aim of superseding the past.
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