There Is Only One University

December 6, 2012

There was the time of the Renaissance man, like Leonardo da Vinci, who could be a leading light in multiple fields.  There was the time of the Renaissance man qua polymath, like Goethe, who could at least be knowledgeable and/or skilled in multiple fields.  And there was the time of the Renaissance university, like Harvard, where some polymaths and many specialists could congregate to provide a Renaissance-style ambiance – a place, perhaps like the chambers of da Vinci, where a person of the era could encounter a dazzling array of ideas and perspectives.

Now, as always, there is still the occasional exception, the intellectually spectacular person or place.  Indeed, in a world more accommodating of extraordinary individuals, there are probably more people and places of that kind than ever before.  Yet all of them combined cannot keep up with what’s happening between and beyond them.  Not even a Goethe or a da Vinci could provide a higher education nowadays.  Not even a Harvard student has access to the resources of Harvard; it is more the case that all those professors, in all their departments, belong to separate organizations that have licensed the use of the name.

Indeed, matters have progressed.  It is often the case that not even a university can provide a higher education anymore.  That statement may seem oxymoronic, given that the university is often equated with higher education.  But how else should one phrase it, when elementary school STEM teachers themselves do not have the necessary knowledge for proper teaching, college graduates are deficient in critical thinking skills, and business leaders find college graduates desperately lacking in basic skills necessary to succeed even in entry-level positions?  You can call it a bachelor’s degree, a PhD, or whatever you like; but if its graduates are less literate or numerate, within their worlds, than a high school graduate of 100 years ago was within his/her world, it does seem reasonable to conclude that the university is not keeping up.

Some of that has long been common knowledge.  For generations, people have gone off to college, gotten their degrees in literature or German or whatever, and then emerged into the real world, where they gradually become educated in employment, parenting, and all the other things you don’t learn in school.  The situation is more acute now, though, due to the Internet.  To be in touch with the stunning variety of views and concepts available in today’s world, it is simply essential to be online.

The standard view is that online resources supplement classroom learning – in the university, and also in high school and lower grades.  A better view may be that online resources lead toward a less artificial concept of education.  We may be approaching a turning point, within the next five to ten years, where it is high school and college that come to be seen as supplements.  Existing approaches might be more readily applauded if, along with the book learning, the social and other dimensions of such places were more positive.  Some students – the fraternity and sorority presidents, the varsity athletes, the Rhodes Scholars – can understandably see school as a glorious experience.  But for so many others, it is not.  Many of us are B and C students; many are skinny or obese, or nerdy or shy, with impaired social prospects as a result; many are struggling with addictions and other personal issues.  School – especially but not only at the college level – is a great place to lose vision and direction.

A more organic solution, it seems, would be to expect that kids will learn in their home communities, in connection with the full set of resources there, ranging from the Internet to parents to real-life contact with social and governmental organizations and individuals.  Such an education may not always provide the homogeneous acculturation to middle-class values and academic behaviors now provided in the university.  But it has long since become clear that we cannot silo kids for decades, and then reasonably expect them to be adjusted to other people and to the world around them.

Life is, and always has been, the consummate learning environment.  There are times when it is helpful to abstract away from that – to insulate people for a time, to expose them to experts and theories, and otherwise to do what the university does.  But when ever-increasing numbers of years are being thrown at the problem, resulting in larger and longer periods of student isolation matched by comparable periods in which their communities are deprived of their best and brightest, one might ask whether the alienating detriments of higher education exceed its intellectual benefits.  Life, as the real university — the only one capable of spanning everything that universities now attempt or purport to span — may soon be understood to expect that businesspeople, professionals, politicians, and other community mentors will free up time to pitch in and participate in the training of those who will someday take our place.

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