The Conversation of a University
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This chapter argues that the essential task of a university is not teaching students to be experts in some field of endeavor but educating them, so they might learn how to act in accord with the basic moral constraints governing any endeavor. With the help of ideas from Plato, Aristotle, and Michael Oakeshott, this argument is developed by distinguishing actions from practices (what we do from how we do it) and prudential from moral practices (how best to achieve a purpose from how we ought to go about whatever purpose we might pursue). Our moral practices, which comprise our character, cannot be taught, but they can be learned—through conversations and similar educational contexts in which possible actions are imaginatively explored and critiqued in an open-ended manner, with the focus not on what we think or do but how. The difficulty for universities, amid so many practical pressures to do otherwise, to keep this essential educational task as their primary concern is acknowledged. Nevertheless it is the right thing for them to do.