Spring 2013

The Universality of the University

Jean-Luc Marion

"The desire to know already presupposes the love of the still unknown truth."

It does not go without saying that it is necessary to study, or to advise a young mind to study at a university. Why not give preference to a grande école,1 a professional institute, or another alternative formation? Or why pursue any other training upon completing secondary school, more than on-the-job training, in the field, “in production,” as they used to say in the post-war years? These questions would not arise if we did not very readily, very naturally compare such institutions to the university; but this inclination to make comparisons results from the fact that we no longer have a clear idea of the university in its most distinctive essence. Besides, in French we speak more often about “higher education” than about “the university,” a form of instruction that in fact nowadays constitutes only one aspect thereof: the grandes écoles, which are often national and obviously claim to be establishments of higher learning—these clusters of institutes that have been reorganized to compete with major American institutions, etc., recover [recouvrent], in all the senses of the word (i.e. “retrieve, recuperate” from the verb recouvrer; but also “cover up, mask” from recouvrir), the very term “university.” There is an excuse for this confusion. It results in fact from a long development that was definitively sanctioned from the French Revolution onward: the trend of replacing the universities with professional schools, and then the transformation of the university itself into a professional school. This French example has made disciples [a fait école], so to speak, throughout the world. But professionalization obviously presupposes specialization, which leads to the renunciation of universality—at least understood as the knowledge de omni re scibili [of everything knowable]. Should we therefore renounce the very idea of the university, if we must renounce the ambition to attain universality? And, if we do renounce it, and if we must be satisfied with specialized higher education, then what truly higher substance will remain in that education?


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1. An institution of higher learning outside the framework of the French university system.—Translator