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What is the significance of study at the research university?

by Kurt Xyst, M.Ed., Ph.C.

The University of Washington is many things: a collection of colleges, the inhabitant of a famously beautiful campus, the largest employer in Seattle, to name a few. The UW is also a research university. For students considering study here this fact is particularly salient. Attending a research university is not like attending a “great books” liberal arts school or a community college. The research university has a different feel, a different orientation, than other institutions of higher education. Without a working recognition of the ethos of the research university many of the things that happen here, and many of the things are expected of undergraduate students, can seem strange or arbitrary. What then does undergraduate study at a research university signify? For many the term “research” conjures images of lab coats, beakers, and microscopes, or perhaps reams of paper spilling across a room of crowded desks. Or, in the case of UW, a wind tunnel. All these images are correctly associated with the trappings of research, but only with particular kinds of research. Not every student encounters these exact things and yet it is perhaps possible to say that every UW student experiences an education at a research university. I think there is good reason to argue that the point of a research university is not to train undergraduates in the expert use of the equipment of the arts and the sciences (the beakers, the statistical software, the wind tunnel.) Instead the fundamental task of a research university lies closer to the development of what 20th century German philosopher Gadamer calls a “research consciousness.” The calling card of someone with a research consciousness is the strong habit of doubt, of opening up what seems obvious to others, of liquefying what has been cast in stone. It is the tendency to question. The consciousness of the researcher, the "product" of undergraduate study at UW, perceives unsettledness where others may only see tradition or procedure or orthodoxy. 

How can this be the case, how can questioning possibly be a more important aspect of undergraduate education when the UW Mission and Vision Statement emphasizes creating knowledge? Doesn’t knowledge signify that a question has been answered, that an issue has been settled? The short answer is no, not for research consciousness. Every attempt to respond to a problem or to provide an expression or an explanation for a given question creates new kinds of "unsettledness." Something unrealized before now pops into view. New puzzles appear and new questions can be formulated. As John Dewey describes it, a new “invasion of the unknown” begins. Research consciousness, therefore, actively returns questioning to the top of the agenda. Research consciousness prefers questions to answers. Knowledge is "merely" a by-product of questioning.

Let me now try to say something about why this sort of education, and education based on questioning, may be valuable. To be sure an education at a research university is not primarily about preparing future scientists and scholars in a formal sense. The expectation is not that everyone who graduates from UW will take up a job as a faculty member somewhere. The benefits of an education at a research university are at least as useful, perhaps even more useful, for the vast majority who will go on to perform other roles in public life, especially democratic life. Here are two explanations why. Undergraduate education based on the development of research consciousness fosters an increased appreciation of, and comfort with, complexity. Research universities, especially UW, are the most varied and experientially rich environments in our culture. Collisions between different ideas, customs, expectations, and methods are cultivated and encouraged. Marinating in this environment research consciousness come to see that there’s always more going on underneath the surface – in or out of the classroom – than meets the eye. It is always possible to ask yet another question, a different kind of question. Final answers, therefore, are impossible. There’s always more to think about and talk about, there’s always more to understand! Now, in the abstract the idea that there is never a final answer is a bit overwhelming. There is a practical payoff, though. If all things are contingent all things are available to be influenced and changed. Nothing is destined to remain the way it is now. New approaches can be developed, new methods can be adopted, and new interpretations can be brought to bear in the light of perceived need. The world of contemporary medicine, for example, has come about from questioning traditional knowledge about the formulation of disease and illness, disability and wellness. The painting of Goya presents to research consciousness not only an aesthetic object or a visual field of color and technique. It also opens the world of Spanish history and politics, perhaps even trade and science. These worlds lie dormant until activated and inhabited by research consciousness. 

Sustained exposure to complexity, coupled with recognition of the power of questioning seems to create a second educational benefit: intellectual humility. Truly grasping the idea that no issue is every fully settled or ever fully understood entails accepting the reality that even the best ideas are partial and far from perfect. Research consciousness accepts limitations of its capacities because it is rooted in the unavoidable limitations of what it means to be human. It is impossible to inhabit every perspective at once, to pose every question simultaneously. Intellectual humility provides relief from the illogical (though often emotionally powerful) expectation that one person can ever get it “right.” This is where authentic appreciation and real desire for collaboration comes from. There are more questions to ask than any one individual can possibly get to and more ways of understanding than any one individual can embody.

There is much more to think about regarding this question of the significance of study at a place like UW, but I will close for now with this. Those who have spent time at research university undoubtedly agree that it is a unique community. That uniqueness seems to come from the fact that no other place in our culture is dedicated to an ongoing project of inspiring its members to question everything. In the end it is not the tools and techniques of researchers that, by themselves, give rise to the spirit of the place. It is instead a larger dedication to the idea that research consciousness is a powerful force for change and understanding in the world at large.