The best purpose of the University

Grace Leake

In the last few decades, the university’s focus has become ever more narrow. Mounting pressures to navigate an unpredictable job market have led students to undertake increasingly specialized tracks of study. However, this type of specialized, career-focused education can come at the expense of the most fundamental aspects of learning. 

A recent report from the World Economic Forum found that recent college graduates pursue career-specific degrees at a much higher rate than that of previous generations. At first blush, this might seem like a useful trend: Isn’t it good that college graduates are becoming more expertized in their fields?

Not necessarily. Not only does recent research suggest that career-specific degrees may be detrimental to success in the long run, but the pursuit of these degrees can cause students to lose something integral to their university experience. Students approaching college as a business investment, only there to secure career credentials, lose sight of the fundamental purpose of college: to grow, to learn, to become a more complete individual. 

Erik Dempsey, assistant director of UT’s discipline-bridging Jefferson Center, addressed this problem of over-specialization. “The problem with specialization arises when it’s pursued at the expense of what’s important,” Dempsey said. “The best purpose of the university is to train human beings. The kind of human beings we want are those who have thought seriously about who they are, a kind of thought not present enough in specialized fields.”

This loss of reflection is perhaps most visible in STEM fields, which are arguably the most specialized fields in the university. Avery Williams, a graduate student in government and an alumnus of UT’s Jefferson Scholars program, said, “I have very close friends in STEM fields who share the problem of knowing that they’re missing something, but not knowing how to pursue it … there’s a real value in access to an appreciation of the good and beautiful things in human life, resulting from liberal education, that students won’t get from other educations.”

Over-specialization, while most glaring in STEM-related fields, rears its head in other places as well. Austin Gleeson, a physics professor who teaches in Plan II — an interdisciplinary liberal arts program at UT — pointed to the lack of STEM-related skills in liberal arts degrees. He argued that the university should provide, “an education for life, a civic education. You need a good amount of STEM to understand politics and the world. What we need is not more people in STEM, but more STEM in people.” 

A varied education, drawing from many fields and intellectual disciplines, is the best way to form whole, thoughtful college graduates. In the pursuit of career-specific skills or potential marketability, students must not lose sight of this most basic purpose of the university. How do students pursue this type of discipline-bridging, soul-forming education? They have to get outside of their comfort zone. “Sign up for programs, go to lectures. Learn how other people view the world,” Dempsey said.

As Gleeson put it, “Life is too short to not try a lot of things.”

Leake is a Plan II and business freshman from Austin.