16 June 2016

What is the purpose of the university?

Back in the '90's when I was drawing to the end of my time as a TA teaching Shakespeare, I noticed something in the year end reviews the students filled out.  Again and again, the students ranked the class on the basis of whether or not they got their money's worth out of it.  It was foreign to me, but they seemed to think of the university as a kind of intellectual fast food restaurant.  Yes, I'd like a degree. In English.  With some Shakespeare, some moderns, a little of the Romantics and a side order of history.  How was this possible? Did they not understand that what they were getting for their money was an opportunity to enrich their minds?  Would they walk into a gym, lay out their money and demand the muscles be delivered post haste, and complain that they did not get their money's worth when they did not do the exercises and developed no muscles?

Apparently they would.

But that was then. Now it is, in my opinion, far, far worse.

Higher education used to be rooted in the Liberal Arts, the arts of a free man, a citizen.  It's purpose was to have students encounter new ideas, increase both their own knowledge and ultimately that of mankind.  The unexamined life was not worth living, said Socrates.  University was to teach men the life that was.

But different ideas crept in.  University, it was later thought, was to prepare students for a career.  Never mind that the majority of university programs lead to no career at all.  Within living memory, it was important to graduate from high school, because graduating from high school was rare.  Doing so marked you out as smart, as someone who had a good head on their shoulders, someone who could learn.  But, by about the late fifties to early seventies, practically everyone was graduating from high school.  Having a diploma no longer marked one out as special, it marked you out as average.  If you wanted to stand out, you needed a university degree. 

But even that has changed.  More and more people are getting more and more degrees, and most of them are junk.  Students are, increasingly, downloading papers off the internet and handing them in as their own.  The university does nothing about it because the problem is too widespread.  To enforce the policy on academic dishonesty, my university would have to expel between one third and one half of its students, and in so doing lose hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.  Better to turn a blind eye.

How  useless are these degrees? let me tell you about my own field.  Where once we studied the classic authors, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Romantics, we now study children's books (Cat in the Hat is now a university text,  So is Goodnight Moon) and comic books (I speak as someone who loves comic books and has enjoyed many a pleasant hour flipping through them- they do not reward intense study) and very little that was not written in the last fifty years.  They are not encountering the old ideas.  They aren't even encountering new ideas.  They are only encountering what is current, without gaining a context of how this came about, or what makes this age different from others. 

Students aren't being challenged.  They are only learning what they already knew. They are being confirmed in their opinions, not challenged,. It is not learning: it is narcissism. TS Eliot once wrote "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." But the students aren't arriving at the place where they started so they may finally know it, because they are never leaving it in the first place. 

And they are paying through the nose to do so.  They are going heavily, heavily into debt.  University isn't merely taking all their money; it is taking all their current money plus years of future money, just so they may be even with the pack.

It is possible, I think, to debate about the purpose of the university, whether it I a place to seek the life of the mind, or a place to prepare for a future career.  What I don't think can be debated is that it is failing to achieve both purposes.

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