In a very smart column in this morning’s Daily Northwestern, Jake Wertz calls into question the phenomenon of “Engagement” at Northwestern and other college campuses. In recent years, the word engagement has been used to underpin everything from study abroad to community service to Hillel. In a sense it has become a placeholder and shorthand mission statement for the extra-curriculum. Thus Jake’s argument:

I have no beef with community. But the Northwestern community is in no need of redefinition. We have for more than 150 years been a community united solely in a common pursuit of knowledge. We are not, as oNe Northwestern has it, a community united in reminiscing about the stir fry in Hinman or kvetching about Henry Bienen not showing up to your improv show. Nor are we, as NUEC has it, a community defined by our service to others. Community service is certainly honorable, but the purpose of college it is not.

Before I comment on Jake’s point, I first want to emphasize how thrilling it is to see the words “the purpose of college” printed on the pages of the campus paper. It’s something we don’t talk about nearly enough, and so first and foremost I’m thankful that Jake, a thoughtful student and excellent writer, has raised the issue.

I agree with Jake, but I also agree with the “engagement people” (and many on this campus would probably count me as one of them). And I don’t think these are mutually exclusive views. In The Emergence of the American University, an outstanding piece of intellectual scholarship, Lawrence Veysey contends that the post-Civil War era saw three major models of universities promulgated in the United States. One was the “traditional” liberal arts college (i.e. Yale); one was the research university (Johns Hopkins); and one was a college to train public servants (Cornell). Each of these models had some overlap, but in the late nineteenth century they were able to maintain relatively distinct identities. Within a generation, of course, the models often collapsed on each other–thus Yale maintained (and maintains) both an undergraduate liberal arts college, and the apparatus of a major research university. Johns Hopkins, which had been focused on graduate students and “pure research”, opened an undergraduate program. Columbia, which had once been on the bucolic outskirts of the island of Manhattan, gradually became an urban university, enabling the kind of “engagement” or “public service” mentality that Jake takes to task to blossom in what was once–and in many senses still is–a liberal arts college.

Northwestern, like all of these examples, contains all three elements: a huge research piece, a liberal arts college, and a public service orientation. There are convergences and divergences, and the tensions between the various missions are what make life at the university both interesting and frustrating.

That’s all well and good, and Jake would likely say, “Very useful, RJ. But my point still stands.” Indeed, Jake is asking an important question: What place should each of these various agendas hold at the university? Is one of them primary? Does everyone need to be engaged in community work, and have a research experience, and study all the classics of the Western tradition? And if not, are there particular elements of these various agendas we would insist are minimally required? Should there be a community service requirement? A research project requirement? A core curriculum?

I don’t yet want to advocate a particular agenda, because I think this conversation is so rich. So I’ll give it a few days, maybe a week, and see what responses come along. But in the meantime, many thanks to Jake for starting an essential conversation.

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