University of Nowhere

I was doing some research on schools when I came across this school motto.

“The mission of ***** University is to provide students with a dynamic education based on excellence and flexibility that creates lasting value and relevance for evolving careers.”

This mission statement seems innocent enough, but anyone whose studied advertising, logic, or worldview theory should be smelling something fishy.

First, why the buzzwords? By using attractive and overused terms as “dynamic,” “excellence,” “flexibility,” “value,” “relevance,” and “evolving” the framers of this statement achieve a sentence that almost slides down the mental gullet without any critical analysis necessary. Observers should beware when language is coated with buzz words, rhetorical flourish, and ambiguous phrasing that could mean any number of things. There’s nothing wrong with choosing a buzz word, if that’s the best word to communicate the idea. But there is a problem with buzz words when they obscure, distract, or reduce words to propaganda. Here, the effect of these buzz words is a word picture of relevant movement, like a rushing water that’s enjoyed, but when tested, such motto’s can easily evaporate into epistemelogical relativism.

Second, why the emphasis on change? We may grant that education is evolving and new technology and changing cultural dynamics affect demands on education. But the emphasis on change implicitly deemphasizes anything timeless, absolute, or unchanging about education–such as cultivating seasoned souls, engendering wisdom, or liberating people to live fruitful beatific lives. These efforts have always been the rightful aims of education, and it would be a tragedy to evolve out of these aims and into something like, “Successful students,” or “Productive workers,” or “profitable employees.” Those things aren’t wrong in partnership with human nature, but if these are gained without dignifying such timeless unchanging values as human nature, the good life, or the meaning of life, then “excellence” could mean nothing more than a hobo making an excellent gutter decoration, a rich man making an excellent grave-hole filler, or a divorcee making an excellent example of bad marriage, or a woman making an excellent crook. The terms need a frame of reference that’s objective lest they fail to mean anything objective.

Third, why the relativism? Mission statements are supposed to offer a touchstone, a reference point, for future generations at that school to refer back to for guidance. Mission statements should filter out misguided plans, distilling only the rightful aims and ambitions. Schools have big decisions to make that will affect what kind of school they’ll be–Do they allow both genders? Do they allow athletics? Will they accept financial aid? Will they be religious? How religious? What kind of denomination will they follow? What departments should they have? Etc. etc. Whatever great heritage that school might have, without an established reference point for the future members to refer back to, there is no demand for that school to preserve or protect any heritage it may have. Mission statements should help guide schools through the tough decisions. But a relativistic statement is like a compass telling you any direction is the right direction. Such a compass is useless. It’s a mindless sycophant that tells you every new idea is a good idea.

Fourth, what might they offer as a standard bearer? The fact remains that religious education has been the hallmark of most great universities. Mission Statements like this illustrate why. Without a robust sense of what human nature is, what moral goodness is, what virtue means, or eudaimonia, it matters little whether we call a ruined life of excess “success” or “failure.” Without a standard transcendent enough to be (trans-)culturally objective, without a moral reference point free of genetic determinism or biological determinism, without a sense of meaning big enough to lend purpose to human existence, we cannot teach the difference between a life well lived and a wasted life. Good schools must teach the difference, lest they ail to dignify the humanity of their students.

A school built upon sand must find a deeper bedrock or be washed away in the changing tides.

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