I just read an interesting New Yorker article about the history and future of the university education, particularly in America: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2011/06/06/110606crat_atlarge_menand?currentPage=all
What I found most interesting about it were the three theories of education people have. Which one(s) do you prefer?
3. University is for job training.
This is the opinion of most university students, who are always asking about what jobs they can get with this or that major, and who ask questions like "why do I have to learn this?" What is interesting to me is that few people actually have jobs that are directly related to their majors, and people tend to switch jobs every two years. Needless to say, I'm not a fan of theory 3.
2. University is to give you the kind of education and general skills that you a) probably won't learn elsewhere, and b) are good for all people to have.
People vote, interact with other people, decide what products to buy, donate (or don't) to charities they think are valuable (or not), and raise children. To do these things well, they need certain mental capacities, especially of critical thinking, comprehension, and communication. Otherwise, we are unlikely to get the kind of society that we value. The hope is that university helps people with these skills. Whether or not they do is questionable (see the article). And it's certainly true that many students don't want these skills. People who like theory 2 (I'm one of them) think that we need to force students to learn certain things even though they don't want to. Yes, I'm saying that the establishment knows what students need more than students do.*
1. University is there to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Some students are alarmed to hear that some people, professors included, see university as a big mental competence test, designed to weed out the inferior students and reward the competent students with failing, grades, graduation, accolades, etc. According to this theory, university's job is to communicate to the outside world (primarily the workforce) student quality. I would hope that no professor believes only in theory 1, because it implies that it doesn't matter what tasks the students are given, so long as they differentiate the smart from the not smart. If this is the only thing university is for, there are much, much cheaper ways to do it.
Personally, I mostly believe in theory 2 and believe a bit in theory 3. I believe in theory 1 only for certain majors. As a teacher, the goals of 2 and 1 are sometimes in conflict. For example, I am happy to help students with difficult assignments or concepts, but if I'm holding their hand too much, perhaps they don't deserve the grade they get.
Note that this entry is all about the education part of university. The function of the university regarding the education/research balance is completely separate, and just as interesting. Stay tuned.
Pictured: By Microsoikos at it.wikipedia (Transferred from it.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
* Some might counter that the students have a right to the kind of education they want, because they are paying for it. Most students are in public schools, however, and are actually paying only for a fraction of the cost to society to educate them. Thus, even by this reasoning, society has a say in what they are learning.