Friday, December 16, 2011

University Education

A young relative, himself a graduate of one of the world's most prestigious universities, opines that the institution is obsolete. At the risk of mangling his argument a bit, I think it goes a bit like this: Universities are places where a bunch of people who have spent their lives having rather specialized knowledge poured into their own heads spend their time trying to pour a bit of it into the heads of a bunch of students, usually by talking to a blackboard, which, after they are finished, usually contains an abbreviated and mangled version of the same material found in books. The whole process is absurdly inefficient, as are creatures which take a decade or two to absorb a few megabytes worth of material.

Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at at Notre Dame, writing in a NYT blog, says that the students are there mostly for set decoration. The real purpose of the university is its role as a community of scholars.

First of all, they are not simply for the education of students. This is an essential function, but the raison d’être of a college is to nourish a world of intellectual culture; that is, a world of ideas, dedicated to what we can know scientifically, understand humanistically, or express artistically. In our society, this world is mainly populated by members of college faculties: scientists, humanists, social scientists (who straddle the humanities and the sciences properly speaking), and those who study the fine arts. Law, medicine and engineering are included to the extent that they are still understood as “learned professions,” deploying practical skills that are nonetheless deeply rooted in scientific knowledge or humanistic understanding. When, as is often the case in business education and teacher training, practical skills far outweigh theoretical understanding, we are moving beyond the intellectual culture that defines higher education.

Our support for higher education makes sense only if we regard this intellectual culture as essential to our society. Otherwise, we could provide job-training and basic social and moral formation for young adults far more efficiently and cheaply, through, say, a combination of professional and trade schools, and public service programs. There would be no need to support, at great expense, the highly specialized interests of, for example, physicists, philosophers, anthropologists and art historians. Colleges and universities have no point if we do not value the knowledge and understanding to which their faculties are dedicated.

Hmmm? He might be agreeing with our first protagonist.

I'm sort of sympathetic to his professor's eye argument, but I think he might have a hard time selling it to either taxpayers or boards of governors.