Life requires energy. So do civilizations. And just as natural selection has provided organisms with mechanisms to extract energy from the sun, minerals and air, so too have civilizations developed mechanisms to fuel themselves. Proteins, membranes, genomes and mitochondria are to cells what government, armies, churches and universities are to Western civilization. The first university emerged when students gathered from across Europe in Bologna nearly a thousand years ago. Something similar happened in Paris and Oxford a few years later and subsequently in towns and cities across Europe and America.
Since their founding in Europe and the Americas, universities have nourished western society with ideas, technology, and the energy released when a new generation transforms the experience and learning of past and makes it their own. Since then, the end of summer marks the great migration: when students pack up, leave home, and travel, sometimes great distances, to residential colleges and universities. Even at a small college like New College, with a little over 800 students, the cumulative distance travelled is staggering: well over 400,000 miles, more than the distance to the moon.
At the receiving campuses, the air crackles with excitement and hope. Banners fly, and dorms and classrooms sparkle. The first-year students, accompanied by their families, are the first to arrive. Most have met their roommates electronically, but in the days that follow some will have their first sustained conversations with students from another state or country. A significant number have never spent as much as a week away from home; others have never shared a bedroom.
Exhausted by moving, parents hover anxiously, trying not to embarrass their charges by appearing bereft. The upper-year students return a few days later, eager to re-engage with old friends, and to share the real scoop with first-year students.
Courses start. The hours worked by staff and faculty go from a rather sedate eight hours a day to a frantic twelve or more. The students, it sometimes seems, never sleep. Years hence, nearly all will look back on their four years of college as the most formative times of their lives. Most are changed utterly by the experience.
Critics continue to question the opportunity cost of four years studying. They claim that universities are bubbles or ivory towers far removed from the real world, and that the travel and expense will be replaced by students sitting at home listening to lectures streamed across the internet. They forget that real learning comes from the interplay among students and professors in an environment where everything is contested. Learning difficult material requires not just discipline, but motivation. Students motivate one another, sometimes collaboratively, sometimes competitively, and professors channel that energy, supplying encouragement or criticism as necessary.
But universities do more than prepare students to take their place in society. They renew society. For it is in engaging students in the search for truth, and in the creation and application of knowledge, that we transcend ourselves, and the limitations of place and time. Little wonder, then, that there is no place as exciting, no place as stimulating, no place as joyful, as a college campus when the students return.