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Institutional Neutrality Undermines the Purpose of Higher Education

Institutional neutrality, according to the University of Chicago's 1967 Kalven Report, rests on the premise that the university cannot reach a collective position without silencing those who might dissent, insisting that it [the university] "cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy."

I don't see it this way, nor would our philosophical forebears, among them Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Their classical traditions of critical thinking, rational inquiry, and the Socratic method are foundational to intellectual discourse and helped shape Western universities. Most significantly, however, the Athenian legacy underscores the importance of distinguishing process from purpose.

Debate, inquiry, and the acquisition and creation of knowledge were not ends unto themselves but critical to the pursuit of truth. For Plato, true knowledge, or wisdom, acknowledges the Idea (abstract) behind the ideals (forms). Whereas people's understanding of reality and the construction of an ideal can differ according to their perception, character, and intellectual aptitude, Plato insisted that an eternal Truth existed behind the many varied ideals or truths. 

Universities can (and must) help encourage society's search for truth. They are not necessarily the lone voice of reason but should share this grave responsibility.

The pursuit of knowledge, therefore, entails a journey that combines contemplation and dialectic reasoning in service to an understanding of the self, development of the means to human flourishing, and a nearer approximation to reality or what I call the Great Good: the Will and Purpose of what Einstein termed that "Stupendous Reason" or what many religions call God.

People did not seek out Greek philosophers merely to engage in intellectual sparring but in search of wisdom to help them navigate the world, answer the riddles of the universe, and discover their place within it.

Education divorced from truth-seeking undermines its central and unparalleled capacity to reveal what is Good, True, and Beautiful — to reveal the Purpose of Life and our own purpose as part of this unfolding wonder.

The more market forces have commodified a university education, the less we value it as a public good. Rather than attending college to develop one's capacities to better serve the good of the whole, young people are taught to master or game the system to ensure their place at the most selective university they can get into as a pathway to wealth, esteem, and power.

When universities reassert the common good as their raison d'etre, structuring the purpose of the university to recruit, train, and develop the people whose ideals can be relied upon to help us create the policies and practices — social, economic, and political — by which we govern ourselves, they can repair the social contract. 

In time, individuals seeking a university education will do so not to fulfill personal ambitions of power and wealth but to develop the best within them to fit themselves to serve a shared purpose that uplifts the whole. The nature of the university, prioritizing the common good over personal gain, diminishes the reactionary reflex of taking a side with the three practices taught by the Buddha as the Path of Enlightenment: detachment, discrimination, and dispassion. 

Detachment turns attention inwards, emphasizing causes rather than effects or what Plato called the eternal Idea that precipitates various ideals or effects through human minds. Dispassion begins to liberate us from the emotional back-and-forth of taking one side or another, orienting us increasingly to recognize that everything that exists is simply a diverse expression of the one true Reality. Together, detachment and dispassion eventuate in a mental poise that permits our minds to carve a pathway (Discrimination) between dueling oppositions to select the good, the beautiful, and the true. 

When sanely practiced, these three modes help individuals achieve unity within themselves and between them and the larger world. We become organized and effective personalities (indicating both awareness and mastery of self and environment), increasingly capable and willing to contribute the best of who we are in service to the common Good. 

A proper education liberates us from our conditioning and helps us increase our service to the whole. To "Know thyself," as intimated by the Delphic injunction, makes the revelation of our essential unity expressing in the diversity of interdependent and cooperative selves possible.

Institutional neutrality, therefore, cannot be the aim of universities dedicated to the common good. 

Instead, places of higher learning must strive to be bastions of wisdom, cultivating in their students, alums, staff, and supporters love for humanity, an immovable dedication to the good of the whole, and increasing skill in action to bring about that which ought to be, which is the common Good.


To learn more about how the will-to-Good can help restore faith in our institutions and pave the way for a more interconnected and harmonious world, check out Unleashing the Good: How We Learn to Prioritize the Common Good Over Personal Gain.

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