08/25/2012 06:49 pm ET Updated Oct 25, 2012

Universities Must Teach Students Their Real Mission

Last Spring semester at the university I teach at, an incident occurred in my cross-cultural psychology class related to my discussion of religious bigotry in society. The incident prompted me to send an email to my students later that evening that ended up "going viral" and initially was posted on Reddit and more recently (August 16) was posted on the Huffington Post. My message to students in that email addressed various issues -- issues that I will be blogging on in the upcoming weeks. For now, I want to comment on the issue that was addressed pertaining to the purpose of a university because so many professors nationwide have emailed me indicating that they plan on reading my email to their students on the first day of classes in order to orient them to the role of a university and their roles as students.

I had explained in that email that "Some students erroneously believe a university is just an extension of high school, where students are spoon-fed 'soft' topics and dilemmas to confront, regurgitate the 'right' answers on exams (right answers as deemed by the instructor or a textbook), and then move on to the next course." I listed what I believe are the primary purposes of a university (e.g., to provide students opportunities to struggle intellectually with some of life's difficult questions, to engage in open discussion in order to critically examine beliefs and behaviors, and to help students begin learning how to think independently and apply a critical analysis to ideas and beliefs). I reminded students that critical thinkers must be open to having their cherished beliefs challenged, and must learn how to defend their views based on evidence or logic, rather than merely proclaiming that their views are valid. Finally, I encouraged students not to shut themselves off from ideas they find threatening and to exercise the freedom we have to express ourselves.

I am convinced, based on my own experience at the university I teach at and from the countless messages I have received from professors expressing the need to educate college students about the role of higher education, that universities may be failing to provide students with this information during student orientations they offer prior to the commencement of college attendance. It appears that during student orientations, universities are too busy (and eager) to point out to students their latest gymnasium on campus for students to work out in, the new restaurants that have opened, how Wi-Fi is accessible in the buildings, and so on. Somewhat ironically, universities apparently neglect to orient students on orientation days to the history and role of a university in civilization. During student orientation, universities ought to emphasize to students how essential knowledge and critical thinking are for advancing society by helping to solve conflicts, promote human rights, and by enhancing our overall quality of life.

I invite universities across the country to seriously re-examine their goals in offering student orientations to incoming students. In addition to highlighting the niceties their campuses have to offer, universities ought to engage incoming students in discussions about the mission(s) of a university. A more substantive orientation would benefit students greatly by helping them to maximize their educational experiences within their respective courses and the university community.