University: A Family of Faith

Rt Rev Dr Alastair Redfern, Bishop of Derby

Universities are traditionally seen as places of learning, where people go to receive an education before venturing into the world of work. But they can be so much more than this. Has the time now come to embrace a new role for universities at the heart of community life?

One of the most distinguished sociologists of our time, Robert Putnam, is famous for his book Bowling Alone, in which he charted the decline of ten-pin bowling in America as a social activity organised through teams and leagues. He noted how bowling was now often seen as an individual leisure time pursuit and this, he argued, exposed the shift from corporate to individual identity and lifestyle in western civilisation. More recently, Putnam pointed to the disintegration of the family as a major cause of stress, poverty and economic and social instability among particular groups in society. In a world struggling with many of the issues Putnam highlights, the reaction cannot simply be a restoration of the family, desirable though that might be. Amidst contemporary complexities we need to discover new sites for belonging and nourishment.

A university might become one such site. Not just a 'uni' – a place where knowledge and truth are brought together – but a place where teachers, students and alumni come together. Building upon the experience of halls of residence, societies and community service, a university might become a site of social networks of more committed and intimate belonging.

It's interesting to note the word 'alumnus', which these days we use to refer to a former student, originally meant 'foster child'. In the ancient world, with its enormous uncertainty about personal health and social stability, many people lived in danger of abandonment and loneliness. So the notion of alumnus – fostering a child – was a generous one and implied commitment and intimacy on both sides.

"Commitment such as this fuels exciting possibilities, but requires us to place our faith in each other as family."

Here then we have the seeds of a university becoming more self-consciously a place for foster children to extend their experience of 'family' in living, playing and working together under the structures of an Alma Mater – a nourishing mother. It is here we can continue to offer and develop an ongoing, dynamic space of connection, commitment and belonging. This is one antidote to 'Bowling Alone'.

Commitment such as this fuels exciting possibilities, but requires us to place our faith in each other as family. Could a university become a more self-conscious 'Family of Faith'? And what would this look like as 'foster children' go out into the wider world to build upon their experience of encouragement to design and inhabit spaces for mutual commitment to a richer future for all?

We face many of the social problems described by Putnam here in the United Kingdom. Universities are well-placed to respond by fostering a Family of Faith where there is support and encouragement. In doing so, our universities will become centres of the community – not just scholarship – and our society would be stronger for it.

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