For the last couple of years I’ve read several essays by my friend Chad Wellmon about the state of the American university, and the place of the humanities in that university, and while I have found each of those essays enormously thought-provoking, I have also struggled to discern an overall account of the university in Chad’s writings. He seems to do a lot of “on the one hand, on the other hand” stuff. But today, listening to this talk, I think I see some pieces of the puzzle fall into place. I now discern three interrelated themes in Chad’s recent writing on these subjects.

Utopian promises lead to dystopian responses. The more dramatic the claims that university leaders make on behalf of their institutions — We create great citizens! We’ll make you rich! We have the best sports teams, and they will fill your leisure hours with delight! We’ll be a home for you better than your actual home! We are the sole source of Knowledge! — the more certainly they create a backlash that portrays universities as cynical, corrupt exploiters of its students, sold out completely to the neoliberal order or to every leftist trend — depending on your politics. (My politics are such that I suspect selling out on both sides, but that’s a story for another day.)

Proximate goods are not ultimate, but they’re still goods. The purpose of the university is not to reveal to you The Meaning of Life, or to Save the World — though some university presidents might hint at such powers — but at the university you can learn to think better, to evaluate evidence, to test hypotheses, to formulate arguments, and to do all this in daily relation with others who are developing the same skills — though perhaps not always in quite the ways, or with the results, that you’d prefer. But this too, this negotiating with imperfect partners, is a discipline and a skill.

Institutions, even deeply flawed institutions, are where the formation of persons happens. And in a society that is rapidly disempowering or dismantling so many institutions, from the family on up, do we really want to destroy one that, however inconsistently and imperfectly, does the pedagogical work described above? If there were no university, then where, in our society, would those disciplines and skills be pursued? Twitter? Facebook groups? (Clay Shirky used to think so. Not so much anymore.) Or do you expect individuals to do the necessary work themselves, asocially and non-institutionally?

In brief: If you pay attention to what universities actually do — again, however inconsistently and imperfectly — as opposed to what their PR-driven leaders promise — you might be better positioned to understand their value, and our society’s complete inability to build other institutions that might provide similar value.

Chad thinks he’s a liberal, but this sure looks like a conservative argument to me — an old-fashioned case for the wisdom of limiting one’s ambitions and expectations alike — a Chesterton’s fence kind of argument. I like it. (Assuming, that is, that I have understood Chad properly.)