What should a university offer?

My Dad sampled quite a few universities and colleges before settling on Amherst College–among them the University of Wisconsin and St. Johns College in Annapolis. By the time he had finished his training he had added Harvard and McGill to the list. And then after that he was at UCLA, Michigan and Caltech. So quite a smorgasbord.

I’ve also been around the block including some of the same schools. For my Dad, the question of what higher education should offer was a constant question with evolving answers. As I look out at the waterfront of places these days, it seems to me that the question still is out there–as central as ever to our collective work–and still evolving, albeit not in the directions that I might have hoped several decades ago when the Internet was new and full of promise.

This week, we hear of a new place in Austin that is attempting to reframe both the question and the answer. Several folks I know are associated with the effort. I wish them good luck. We used to answer the sub-question of “what is liberal arts” with the pithy: it’s learning how to learn. But of course, learning is one of the shared experiences for many human beings from the earliest age. We mostly all know how to learn.

So I can’t even answer the sub-question on liberal arts–although (like the duck), I know it when I see it. But I do think that the big question is still important. Increasingly the job of the college president is to manage crises. So there’s less time for the big question and maybe it should be more of a focus on high.