Universities fulfill an essential role and responsibility in building up a healthy society, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, said during an October 13 lecture at Wuhan University in China.
In his lecture, which formed part of a two-week visit to China, Williams traced the roots of the university system in the desire to nourish spiritual and moral maturity, as well as intellectual skill. This, he said, provided a model for universities to continue their contribution to the ongoing debates on the moral dimensions of public life both in China and in the West.
"[T]he religious origins of the European university are not irrelevant. The presence of the churches and other recognized religious bodies within society today can often be seen as that of a 'critical friend' – to use a favorite term – witnessing to different standards and expectations about human beings and so opening up a further dimension to human experience," he said. "They are not, of course, the same; and it would be wrong to say that all universities should somehow have a religious basis. But both challenge any idea that conflict is natural. Both speak of a reality around us that is at once ordered and mysterious, that enables both confidence and humility. Both therefore help to create what I have been calling the mature citizen. "
He said that universities needed to avoid becoming prisoners of tradition, and should resist undue external pressure to produce rapid or commercial results from academic research. They also need to move beyond cultural or political expectations if they are to fulfill their potential, he added.
"The fundamental character of this role is not to do with the university's success in meeting the material targets of the society, in the scale and size of its industrial or defense contracts, nor is it to do with the university's unquestioning promotion of a single religious, philosophical or political ideology," he said. "Instead it is about the university's capacity to help create mature citizens, persons who are free from certain sorts of prejudice and fear."
The best product of a university should not simply be technically qualified experts, but citizens of maturity and benevolence:
"[I]t is the person who has acquired the habit and virtue of learning, and who sees the social world as a place not primarily of struggle and conflict over control but as a context where conversation may be pursued with patience. And this is a deeply political matter, in the fullest sense of the much abused word 'political'. It alters what we think we can expect of each other; it challenges any assumption that conflict is the natural position for human beings; when there are clashes of interest, it tells us how to question what we have taken for granted about our own best interests and encourages us to seek for something new that is not just the property of one individual or faction. The university nourishes 'civility' – in the narrow sense of patience and courtesy in dispute, and in the much larger sense of concern for proper and open public life in the civitas, the city, the community of citizens."
Williams' visit to China is at the invitation of the senior leadership of the post-denominational Protestant Churches in China and is being hosted jointly by the Three Self Patriotic Movement/China Christian Council and the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA). He is visiting Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, Xi'an and Beijing, accompanied by his wife, Jane Williams, and Bishop David Urquhart of Birmingham, England.
The full text of Williams' lecture is available here