The purpose of this research is to examine and assess critically how William James envisioned the mission of the university. The mission of the university, for James, is to educate students to become whole, distinctive, and flourishing persons who contribute to as well as benefit from a pluralistic society. A flourishing person for James is one who has high and distinctive ideals and goals and devotes her greatest efforts to achieving these aims while testing their usefulness in ongoing experience. The most important role for a university, therefore, is to guide students to choose ideals for themselves, provide them with the best means to realize these goals, and help them critically to examine the consequences of attaining these goals.
This argument for the mission of the university is firmly grounded in James’s philosophy. To know something concretely for James is to become familiar with its many relationships, that is, its connections and disconnections. To understand the meaning of concepts or abstractions is to ask how they function, what is their use, how they make a difference that leads to further fruitful action or thought. To begin to understand a person as fully as possible is to seek to know that person in as many dimensions of that person’s experience as possible, which includes an appreciation of the inner complex life comprised of many kinds of emotions, anticipations, memories, desires, interests, and values. James conceives of a “significant” life as a life devoted to lofty ideals, goals, and aims. Worthy goals and aims help individuals to strive toward human excellence and cannot be imposed from the outside but must be truly their own. A worthy ideal (a) compels persons toward new directions; (b) demands their attention and dedication; (c) involves struggle; (d) alters lives in meaningful ways; (e) is valuable according to its consequences in experience; (f) is feasible; and (g) is compatible with others’ pursuits of ideals.
James proposes at least two ways that colleges and universities can help young people pursue their ideals. The first way is to insure that there is meaningful and purposeful interaction between exceptional adult leaders and students in students’ active engagement in learning. The second proposal James presents is the integration of pluralistic biographical, historical, philosophical, and literary components with basic courses in order to emphasize excellence in all human endeavors.
For James, a major threat to the university mission of helping young people to pursue their interests is the increasing layers of bureaucratization as a result of mounting specialization and professionalization that force faculty and administrators to treat subordinates in their organizations, not as persons of value in themselves, but as a means to promote their own interests. Institutional intellectualism (a term coined in this study) is the institutional version of an intellectual outlook in philosophy that is unaware of its failure to take adequate account of the concrete world and its complex interrelations. James’s solution to the problem of the misuse of abstractions is always to appeal directly to human experience and to continue to test practices and policies in the light of worthy goals and aims.