During my university student life here in Brazil, I've heard and read different opinions about the goals of modern university, from "provide social justice" to "form an intellectual elite". That's why I'm looking for books or articles about the goals of present universities and the relation between those goals and the history of universities.

That's even more relevant now that I am a professor, because students commonly complain about having to study things that they consider irrelevant to themselves. I've been teaching "Physics for Agrarian Sciences", and that problem is bigger there because some students think they will not use that much Physics during their professional lives.

I tend to answer that some may not use it but others will, and that university is supposed to provide more knowledge than that directly applicable, due to its "high education" character. Otherwise, they could get some non-university technician degrees available at technical schools.

On the other hand, I'm not sure that my view of what a university is or should be is consistent with its origins and evolution.

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    I think that is not goal of modern universities, I spent my life ( student and academic) in EU and Asia, and never encounter or read in any statute of university that they have mission to provide social justice or to form "intellectual elite" rather to create and help job market positions and to form research based or research capable individuals. So to educate people for future jobs positions or to expand human knowledge. try wikipedia or International Journal of Educational Research
    – SSimon
    Dec 31, 2015 at 12:34
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    The stated goals of the university system may well depend on the country, or some umbrella organization (i.e, the Catholic Church for Pontifical Universities).
    – vonbrand
    Jan 3, 2016 at 23:26
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    dont get me wrong, I am strongly against that universities should serve job market, @LeonardoCastro, I am disgusted by ideas that PhD should be more "professionalized" and doing job outside of research based career for me is missing entire point of higher education
    – SSimon
    Jan 4, 2016 at 15:16
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    "The Metaphysical Club" by Louis Menand answers some of these questions at least from the point of view of the US, and there have been writings by Charles Sanders Pierce and others on the role universities should play in American life. But even so, I have to agree that there is no one answer. A for-profit school in California will certainly have a different view on the role of the university than a state school in New York, for instance.
    – Raydot
    Jan 8, 2016 at 18:49
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    And also your own university has a charter and most likely also a mission statement. I've never taught in a school that even offers a course in physics (or anything else) for agrarian sciences so nowhere I've been can share your university's vision.
    – Raydot
    Jan 8, 2016 at 18:51

1 Answer 1


Germany has had the model of the Humboldt ideals. Unfortunately, it has now become slowly eroded through the Bologna process of educational reform and unification in Europe. If you want details, these topics are important and influential and you should look up the terms Humboldt ideal and Bologna on the web.

However, in a nutshell, the Humboldt ideal is about educating enlightened citizens, both in terms of expanding one's personal horizon as well as contributing to society. It is a highly influential and (in my opinion) beneficial way of looking at university education.

Developing the personality of the students is the foremost goal of this way of thinking; for which, of course, the development of a skill set is an important, but not the only or ultimate component. Responsibility for the society at large is part of it, as well. Enlightenment means here that, of course, the individual can and should identify as an individual how to balance the different components.

The "elite" may be implied here, but should not be understood as a privilege rather than a responsibility and duty. Ultimately, the ideal would be that every single member of the society would belong to this elite in their individual responsibility for the world around them. Of course, this is illusory in reality, but it is clear that this is the goal to aspire to.

In short, being educated in the Humboldtian sense means that you understand the world around you, and you can meaningfully interact on things outside your immediate reach.

For people who are not interested in anything but their immediate agenda, my question would be why they are considering themselves at all "students" at "university". After all, "student" means "the zealous"; and "university" is not by chance related to "universal".

  • Very nice answer about the education side of what universities are for. Here (still Germany) universities are also to perform basic research. I point this out because I think it a bearing for the "Physics for Agrarian Sciences" question: the education therefore needs to be on the level that after finishing the studies, the former students can take a job (e.g. PhD research) at the level of performing basic research. And not only in their specific subject, we've routinely had people from "neighbour" subjects as well. (Also, our educational system has more applied/practical alternatives) Apr 8, 2018 at 18:51
  • @cbeleites add it as an answer.
    – SSimon
    Apr 12, 2018 at 4:54

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