Skip to main content
Debra Satz
Richard Morgenstein

Fall 2022 H&S E-Newsletter for Faculty and Staff

november 15, 2022

Linking the Past and Future in the University

“Truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.”
Nadine Gordimer

At a time when so much feels so fragile, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that universities are one of humanity’s most enduring social institutions. (The other contenders are religious institutions.) Plato’s Academy can be dated to 387 B.C.; scholars point to the Imperial Central School in China, established sometime in the Zhou dynasty (1046-249 B.C.); Al-Azhar University was founded in Cairo around A.D. 988; and degree-granting universities in Europe started appearing in the 11th century.

Each of these institutions played important roles in preserving, producing, assessing, and transmitting knowledge. Today’s knowledge builds on, responds to, and sometimes breaks from, the thoughts of our ancestors around the globe. In my own field, philosophy, I am often responding to thinkers from the distant past. Other fields draw on their past in different ways, including by superseding and wholly replacing past ideas. Often scholars do a bit of both.

The collective practice of seeking truth and understanding extends over many generations. Because such pursuit is hard, these efforts may be riddled with mistakes or false starts, which future scholars seek to address. But even in the cases of such mistakes, the past provides valuable resources for thinking about our world and our future. And there remains much about our past—our human past and the past of our natural world, including our universe—that we still do not know. Universities preserve and deepen our knowledge of the past and continually shape our own relationship to it.

Universities also look to the future, to produce knowledge that is not only useful, but also enriches our lives and that of our societies and world. Much of the meaning and purpose of our own work comes from the fact that we are not so much “solipsistic scribblers laboring at a private diary,” as philosopher Sam Scheffler puts it, but are engaged in projects that will continue to benefit others after we ourselves have died. (This is at least one reason why it is important that there be a future.)

So, while change and innovation are built into the university’s mission, there are some fundamentals extending across generations that we should not change. Among these, first and foremost,  is the pursuit of knowledge, of truth that contributes to the human condition in its many different aspects. As you read about the work of your colleagues in the H&S e-newsletter, you enter into a conversation that draws out this pursuit across space and time.

Debra Satz
Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences
Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society
Professor of Philosophy and, by courtesy, Political Science