Almost everyone knows that one time, in a fit of delusion, Don Quixote tilted at some windmills he had mistaken for giants. I believe this holds the key to the university's purpose.
Quixote's collision with the windmills in chapter eight comprises only two pages of Cervantes' masterpiece, and yet it enjoys a sharply disproportionate hold upon the modern psyche -- it was famously recreated in felt pen by Picasso and by a small dog in Wishbone. The secret to the story's enduring success, I think, is that it touches upon one of the central concerns of every thinking human being: the question of whether what one is doing is what one really should be doing, of whether one is not simply tilting at windmills.
The parable pitches us headlong into a confrontation with reality, a reality necessarily constructed in part for us, and forces us to grapple with the true meaning of, perhaps not our existence, but at least the way we value our works and conduct. Cervantes' story reminds readers, and indeed a far wider range of people exposed to the legend, to consider, carefully, what lies beyond the faÃ§ade of their actions and beliefs.
In the present day, a life spent pursuing no goal but material gain may seem ideal, perhaps even heroic. But it's important to recall that to Don Quixote, mired in his gallantry, the windmills really did appear as giants.
This question, and this constant quest to get behind the appearance of the world to something more substantial, is the root of the university's purpose. A post-secondary education should be, though it certainly is not always, a student's introduction to abstraction: the abstraction of oneself from immediate reality to a place of contemplation. Theoretically, at least, this encourages reflection on how one wants to meaningfully live one's life, and the impetus to carry oneself in that direction.
Unfortunately, I fear that some of this may be becoming obscured. Many universities seem to be moving in the direction of providing primarily practical skills and directing research to marketable products, and many people -- including students -- disdain the apparent idleness of a life of "impractical thought." This misses the point. And should that point be lost, something deeply important will go with it.
As a society, and even more as individuals, the importance of incisive self-reflection can never be overestimated. The constant reassessment of the times and culture we live in, and the decisions we are constantly forced to make, from the big to the small, demand focused and trained attention. It is precisely here, in university, that one may seek out the tool kit for these explanations.
The empty doddling of the navel gazer staring at the sun this is not -- it is the deeply serious task of determining if these are in fact giants, or if they are merely windmills.