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22 ways to think about the University of Michigan

By Deborah Holdship
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Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.

American historians like Terrence McDonald, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of History and director of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library, will tell you those words are excerpted from the Northwest Ordinance, drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1787.

And while many scholars might stop there, McDonald likely will go on to tell you that these words, inscribed above the entrance to Angell Hall, are also the “birth certificate” of the University of Michigan.

“There was a tremendous belief by the founding fathers that education was crucial to democracy,” McDonald says. “And that statement connects the University’s mission, which is finding the frontiers of knowledge and teaching it, to this other very powerful interest, which is a functioning democracy. The founding fathers, even before the Constitution was passed, believed that this connection between education and democracy was absolute.”

The search for truth

Listen in, as the former dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts shares that revelation (and many others) inspired by his course “22 Ways to Think About the University of Michigan.” The class presents the University as a case study of “both the great success of American public higher education and the significant tensions present in that development through time.”


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Pushing boundaries

McDonald developed the course “22 Ways to Think about the University of Michigan” to provoke discussion around such issues as the role of public universities, the need for intellectual freedom, the relevance of research to social goals, the relationship between faculty and students, and more.

“The University is frequently doing things that outrage people, but it’s not just doing it to do that,” McDonald says. “The idea of a university is that it is not simply a mirror of society. In fact, it’s a challenge to society often times. So if we believe universities are places where the motivating impetus is the search for truth, we also have to accept that sometimes those truths are going to be uncomfortable for society. But that’s a really important thing for universities to do.”

What do you think? Tell us in the comments section below.

Deborah Holdship

Deborah Holdship

DEBORAH HOLDSHIP is the editor of Michigan Today. She joined the University in 2007 as editorial manager in the marketing communications department at the Ross School of Business, where she was editor of Dividend magazine for five years. Prior to working at Michigan, Deborah was associate director of publications at the UCLA Anderson School of Management for six years. From 1988-2001, Deborah worked in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, where she was a reporter and editor at Billboard magazine and an associate editor and video producer at LAUNCH media. Follow her on Twitter: @michigantoday.

COMMENTS

  • Chris Campbell - 1972 (Rackham); 1975 (law)

    Prof. McDonald reminded us that the university is an invitational community. Everybody there–faculty, students–has been invited to participate. I had never quite thought about it that way. For those of us who have had the extraordinary good fortune to be invited, it’s moving to think that “They invited me.”

    Reply

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