September 15, 2012

What is the thing in its essence?

Walter Russell Mead, University of Virginia: Only the Beginning:

...In an ideal world, university professors and other intellectuals would have been thinking about these problems for many years. They would be the pioneers in innovation and experiment. Unfortunately, we don't live in an ideal world. The intellectual establishment is fully on the defensive. It is circling the wagons. It instinctively identifies attacks on the existing model with the worst kind of populist ignorance and bigotry. Nobody is angrier, nastier or more self-righteous than an intellectual whose livelihood is under threat.

The bureaucracy will join the faculty senate in fighting change. All those vice provosts for diversity and assistant deans for various forms of student services are sure that their services are essential -- or at least they are sure that they want to keep their jobs. The stripped down, leaner, New Model U will have much less room for baggage and ballast than the stately, well funded cruise ships of old.

What we see at UVA this month is just a foretaste of the storm that is coming -- a few early raindrops and gusts of wind before the real storm hits. The country needs more education than the current system can affordably supply, and the pressure on the educational system will not abate until this problem is resolved....

Sorry, but I don't think the universities can be saved. There's just too much legacy baggage. Most of the things modern colleges and universities do started in the Industrial Age, and are simply obsolete. Mostly the Industrial Age universities were about the need to put a bunch of things in the same place. Scholars, apprentice scholars, undergrads, buildings, libraries, dorms, journals, labs, conferences, accounting and book-keeping and record-keeping. All concentrated in one exciting place. The defining problem of the Industrial Age was handling information. Putting things in physical proximity was a solution.

So now, in the Information Age, how many of those things need to be heaped-up in one spot to work? Not many. Most of them can happen online, or be dispersed to various locations. Why can't a college have no physical location? No community? Or maybe there won't even be anything like a college, just a universe of online classes to chose from, and some sort of accreditation service that employers can trust.

So, the question is, is there something real and essential to universities that still works? That still provides value? That might be the core of a new sort of university?

I'd love to work on that problem. I'm full of dreamish ideas. As a solver of practical problems I'm pretty much worthless. But as a dreamer I have a big advantage over other people, in that I am perfectly willing to just toss everything currently accepted overboard, and start afresh. That don't bother me at all.

. Posted by John Weidner at September 15, 2012 6:24 PM
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