By Ryan Hanning, PhD

What is the purpose of higher education? The multitude of universities and colleges competing for a finite number of students answer this question in various ways. Slogans and high-gloss materials abound, but few offer compelling answers. Historically, a university education was meant to impart universal knowledge, to give students a vision of the world that brought together ideas from various disciplines into a unity; one that converged into a meaningful whole capable of answering the fundamental questions of life.

It was in this setting that the productive sciences (mathematics, engineering etc.) that produce the technological goods and advance the capabilities of society, and the practical sciences (medicine, law, etc.) that apply theory and standards to the benefit of human flourishing and social order, were built upon the foundation of the contemplative sciences (philosophy and theology) that answered the essential questions of our identity, purpose, destiny and what ultimately matters in a culture for the properly ordered growth and development of a people.

The Enlightenment marked a significant move away from the above model. No longer did university learning emphasize the convergence of all knowledge and the interconnectedness of various disciplines but rather on the independence and autonomy of intellectual fields and disciplines. In other words, the exploration of the mechanics of the natural world was no longer connected to the exploration of the meaning of the natural world. Unity divided. The productive and practical sciences became more turned in on themselves and one dimensional. Eventually the questions of what and how divorced themselves from the questions of why.


A university should not merely equip students with skills required for their professional career. Our work is to help our students—whether they are 18 or 42—to live fully, to live well, so that they are not just existing, but really living; not just surviving, but thriving. And that is a whole different thing, it’s an endeavor which is very distinct from what most colleges in our day set out to do.We offer an education for the whole of life, and that’s the difference.

Monsignor James Shea

President, University of Mary

In modernity, a further shift equates the question of a university’s purpose solely to career preparation and the economic value of a given degree. The historical questions How do I want to live? and What kind of person should I be? are supplanted by the economic questions What will I do for a living? and What career should I pursue? Both sets of questions merit thoughtful reflection; however, the second set—those of economics and livelihood—should be subordinate to those questions fundamental to purpose, moral convictions, and character. On their own, questions of potential future economic gain and the value of a degree in the marketplace, while important, cannot offer a meaningful answer to the purpose of a university.

At a Catholic university, these questions should never be at odds with one another. Rather they are allowed to be answered alongside of each other. Answering the fundamental questions of life do not stand in conflict with the technical knowledge necessary to make a person an excellent engineer, social worker, accountant etc., and a meaningful engagement of the particulars of one’s degree field and academic discipline can actually help prepare a student to be a better father, mother, citizen etc.

As a Catholic university with Benedictine roots and values, the University of Mary finds hope in the conviction that the very best university can assist in forming leaders excellent not only in their field of study, but also in being a human fully alive. Alive not only with new knowledge necessary for a career but also with the knowledge of how they want to live, and what type of person they are called to be.

To learn more about what makes the University of Mary different visit