What is the Purpose of a University?

Welcome class of 2024, we are so glad to have you here! You’ve come from all over the United States and different parts of the world. It’s wonderful to open up again for the fall semester and have students back on campus. You are the reason we are here!

Tonight I want to confirm your decision in choosing Colorado Christian University. I want to affirm your decision to get on with your education this Fall. You made the right choice. It was great to meet many of you and your families as you drove in earlier today. As I looked at your faces today, I saw excitement, anticipation, a little bit of anxiousness and fear of the unknown.

Like Bilbo Baggins in the book, The Hobbit, Gandalf has showed up at your door and has asked you to leave your comfort zone. You accepted the invitation and have now inched over the threshold and stepped into an adventure. The good news is that you are not alone! The Lord is with you. He will give you strength and guide you. Not only that, but you are also entering a great community where you will find new friends and a great fellowship that will yours for the rest of your life!

Before we dedicate ourselves for the season ahead, as students, parents, faculty, and staff, I’d like to talk to you for a few moments about the purpose of a university. What is the purpose of a college or university? Strangely, many people, many students, and even many schools cannot clearly answer that question    .

Why go to college? For some it is simply a rite of passage. It’s something you do after high school. Going to college is assumed to be the next step in growing up. For others, it’s all about a job. Forbes magazine recently had an article saying that university is about preparing people for a job to advance their career and earnings and to thrive in their overall lives. There is a popular poster on display in many college residence halls across the country. On it is the image of an enormous mansion with a five car garage. The large house sits on top of a hill overlooking a body of water, and there are no other homes in sight. On top of the poster, it reads: “Justification for Higher Education.” Is that what college is all about?

Recently I read the book Excellence Without A Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education by Harry Lewis, a former Dean of Harvard College. In the book he writes about “the loss of purpose in America’s great colleges.” Lewis writes,

The great universities, the universities that educate a disproportionate share of the nation’s future industrial, political and judicial leaders, struggle to explain the overall point of the education they offer. Anything resembling moral principles or suggestions of the ultimate values has been isolated within the curriculum, if not removed entirely![1]

This is a sad thing, but the truth of what he said was confirmed to me recently while participating in a conversation with local college and university presidents. We were preparing to speak to elected officials reminding them of why higher education is so important. I listened as they listed reasons for “why we matter.” Here’s what they said: We create economic opportunity, one said. We are essential for our local economies, another chimed in. We prepare people for jobs and build the state’s work force, said another. We are a ladder to the middle class and a gateway to the American Dream another chimed in. Now, I could not disagree with anything they said. All this is true, but that’s as far as the discussion went. At the end of the conversation, I thought to myself, is that it? Is that all there is? I was sad. Yes, we provide specialized training for many different careers, but there is so much more.

And this is what I’d like to describe for you tonight. What is the purpose of a college or university like ours? I believe it has a higher purpose. Let me propose to you that it has at least a five-fold purpose.

Help students discover and love truth

The first purpose of a university is to help students discover and love truth. Universities were based on a belief in truth, that there is such a thing as what we might call “true truth,” and that the truth sets us free. A solid education involves seeking, discovering, waking up to truth, not just tiny truths, but truth about the nature of things and universal truth. Truth brings light into our lives, especially the light of God’s revealed truth—His Word.

Sadly, the secular universities have given up on truth. They have helped create what Time magazine called a “post-truth culture.” The epistemological and moral relativism of the academy has seeped into society at large. There is no truth, capital T. There are only claims of “my truth” and “your truth,” or “my reality,” and “your reality.” We have sunk into a subjectivism where everything is relative and all objective truth claims are questioned. We now find ourselves bewildered and exasperated by the incoherence of our world.

At Colorado Christian University, we are going in a different direction. We not only believe in truth, but want students to seek it and love it. We want them to dedicate themselves to the pursuit of truth. We want them to learn to think and identify bad ideas and the deceits of our age. We want them to come to love the good, the true and the beautiful. We want them to learn that all truth in this world is ultimately God’s truth. And we want them to learn that truth exists apart from us and is ultimately found in a person, who is the way, the truth and the life.

So the first purpose of a university is to help students come to discover and love the truth. As you begin your college years, would you ask God to give you a mind for truth and a love for truth while you are here? 

Transmit wisdom and knowledge

A second purpose of a university is to transmit wisdom and knowledge. In the ancient academies, philosophers taught students wisdom. In the early Hebrew schools, students were taught, according to Proverbs, to “get wisdom for it is supreme.” In the medieval Christian schools, students were taught prudence or wisdom as one of the seven virtues. Today, by contrast, modern schools teach subjects. In the words of The Atlantic, there is a “wisdom deficit” in our schools.[2]  Secular U, has no place for wisdom. Harry Lewis frankly admits, “Harvard teaches students but does not make them wise!”[3] There is no wisdom, only factoids, and we don’t know how to put them together. Because we are post-wisdom, when we present knowledge to students, it is fragmented, just like the curriculum. There is nothing that unifies it, as in an order of creation or a moral order. Also, because we are post-wisdom the past is not important. Why transmit the best of the past when we cannot even agree on what is best, and when we are preoccupied with the present and the future?

The early vision of the Western university held that an education involved a sacred transmission and passing on wisdom. The fear and acknowledgement of the Lord was understood to be the beginning of wisdom. Teaching wisdom involved, among other things, teaching that there was a natural and a moral order to the world God has made. There was also a belief that all knowledge, under God, could be integrated. There was a conviction that the lessons of the past were important as well. A good education involved a transmission of the best of our cultural heritage, its highest achievements, its best thoughts, etc.  As T. S. Eliot said in his Notes on Education and Culture, “the purpose of education is to transmit culture.”[4] Russell Kirk said higher education has a responsibility “to pass on to generations yet unborn our common patrimony of culture…breathing the soul of one generation into the next.”[5]

CCU is committed to the transmission of wisdom and knowledge. At a time when knowledge is doubling every twelve months, and there is too much knowledge for any one person to know, we prize wisdom. With Proverbs, we believe that learning begins with an understanding of and a reverence for God. This brings a coherence to the world, which is precisely why there can be such a thing as a uni-versity and knowledge integration. We teach to a rising generation what it is to be a true human being, living within the moral order of God’s designed world. We also require the study of history and want to see a transmission of the lessons and achievements of the past.

So a second purpose of a university is to transmit wisdom and knowledge. As you begin your college years, why not ask God to make you wise, to make you a lover of wisdom?

Form habits of character and learning

A third purpose of a university education is to form habits of character and learning. There is a moral and intellectual shaping that goes on. Habits of the heart and mind begin to set. Historically, this has been an essential part of higher education. Early American educators often spoke about how the order of the Republic depended on the order of the soul. And the order of the soul was developed through moral formation and the development of “right reason.” Modern educrats laugh at this. Secular U is post-virtue. The heart is not important. There is no soul. Life has no purpose and character does not matter.  And then many wonder why students’ lives are a mess!

Again, Harry Lewis writes that there is no consensus on what counts as good character in the elite Ivy League schools. Professors are not hired for their character. He says, rarely will you hear about personal integrity, kindness, cooperation, compassion, and how to leave the world a better place than you found it.[6] And we wonder why parents are questioning the cost benefits of higher education!

We believe that a university is precisely the place to form habits of character and learning. We are committed to providing moral guidance to men and women. Yes, we believe in that too—men and women! But we want to see them become good men and women, developing habits of the heart—a love of goodness, beauty and truth. We want them to take on habits of the mind that will last a lifetime—critical thinking, the love of learning, etc. We want to inspire our students to prepare for a lifetime of service. Now of course we cannot control every outcome. Students can still make unwise choices about friends and the path they take. As the old saying goes, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink.” But as an institution, we lead them to the water! We pray that they will drink. Character formation matters to us.

So, new students, as you begin this journey of learning, ask God to shape you while you are here—to make you into a man or woman of integrity.

Deepen your faith

A fourth purpose of the university is to deepen and ground you in your faith. This too is very counter-cultural. Secular U says faith in God is irrelevant and should have no part of a university education. It wants to take any remnant of Christ out of higher education. It is clearly post-Christian. It promotes the secular proposition that this world is all there is. The Covid pandemic has shown how flimsy and fearful that worldview is.

But the Western university was built on a different foundation than this. Early on the Biblical faith had everything to do with higher education. Oxford University chose as its motto the first verse of Psalm 27—The Lord is my Light, as in, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” Early on this was not window-dressing, but a conviction of a Church of England school.

Consider Harvard’s original mission statement from 1636: “Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well the end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ, which is eternal life, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.”[7] Suffice it to say that Harvard has changed greatly as well. CCU and its heritage schools were also founded on this same vision which we still hold to today. We still have a School of Theology. We require students to take courses studying the Bible, which we think is the most important book in the world. At the foundation of it all is our belief in the lordship of Jesus Christ—the light of the world, the righteous Son of God, the one who is “before all things and in him all things hold together,” including the university! (Colossians 1:17)

We desire to be a school where students deepen and own their faith, where they come to know what they believe and why. We want it to be a place where they integrate faith and learning. Students, as you begin your studies here, make it your prayer that God would deepen your faith, that you would grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Prepare for your future callings

A fifth purpose of the university is to prepare students for their future callings in the real world. At Secular U you will not hear much talk about a vocation or a calling, but just a job or career. For many work has lost its higher purpose.

But at CCU, we still believe God calls people. We want this to be a place where you can discern your callings. We want students to try different things to better learn how God has wired them. We want them to learn critical life skills while they are here. We want them to be ready for their future callings, in fact, multiple callings and assignments.

Students, you were made for a purpose. God put you on this planet for a reason.

We want CCU to be a place where you can discern your giftedness and begin serving him now. We have pathways to help you get work experience and build a resume while you are here. He may be calling you to business, education, law, medicine, health care, the arts, the sciences, vocational ministry, home education, engineering, nursing, or any number of fields. It will be our joy to help you get ready for those vocations.

Right now however, your new calling is clear. You are called now, for these next few years at CCU to be a student and to learn. We believe God will use this great preparation for his glory and purposes all over the world.

So today. Begin praying not only that God would clarify his calling for you while you are at CCU, but that he would help you become a great student learner. Beginning next Monday!

These then are the purposes of a university. They should be the purpose of every university, but they no longer are. However, they are the purposes that drive us here. Let me put it together for you. The university may do many other things. It may be a gateway to the middle class or a bridge to the American dream, but even before that, the university is a place to help you discover and love the truth, to transmit wisdom and knowledge, to form habits of character and learning, to deepen your faith, and to prepare you for your future callings.

This is the kind of university CCU aspires to be. We want to put the “higher” back in “higher education.” And, if you take advantage of it, if you make these years count…it will not only help you become a better human being, but it will also prepare you for a lifetime of service. I pray that even in this year of Covid, with its new routines and protocols, that this will be for you an extraordinary year of achievement and growth, for the glory of God, and the blessing of others. Now let’s dedicate ourselves to this task.

[1] Harry Lewis, Excellence Without A Soul: How A Great University Forgot Education. (New York: Perseus Books Group, 2006), 71.

[2] Atlantic Magazine, Jan 22, 2015, “The Wisdom Deficit in Schools”

[3] Lewis, Excellence Without a Soul, 255.

[4] T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture: The Idea of a Christian Society and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, (Harcourt, 1949), 172.

[5] Russell Kirk essay, “The Conservative Purpose of a Liberal Arts Education,” https://www.monticellocollege.org/FileAssets/liberal-arts/the-conservative-purpose-of-a-liberal-education.pdf

[6]  Lewis, Excellence Without a Soul, xii.

[7] Harvard University was founded in 1636 with the intention of establishing a school to train Christian ministers. This statement is from Harvard’s “Rules and Precepts,” adopted in 1646. http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/~gsascf/shield-and-veritas-history/

Categories: CCU, Education