What They Will Say, If Universities Become Obsolete

December 11, 2012

There were no universities in most of the past eons of human existence.  There may be no universities in most of the future eons as well.  If the era of the university does come to an end, what will people say about it?

No doubt that depends on why universities will have slipped away.  On one hand, it could be that people won’t be able to afford them anymore, and therefore must make do with second best.  On the other hand, it could be that people will have found better ways of doing what universities used to do.

In that latter case, what will people say about universities – what will be the drawbacks that, in their view, led to the demise of the great academies?  One could approach that question through two overlapping perspectives:  the substantive and the procedural.  Substantively, the knowledge that universities provide may come to be perceived as incorrect and/or incomplete.  Procedurally, universities may be perceived as providing that knowledge ineffectively (i.e., not producing the desired outcome) or inefficiently (i.e., producing in a wasteful manner).

What, then, would be the substantive and procedural threats that ended the time of the university?  Ideology would be an example of a substantive threat to relevance.  That is, people might cease to support or believe in universities that seemed to convey beliefs rather than knowledge.  People might think that beliefs belong in realms like politics and religion, and that universities are supposed to provide knowledge that mediates belief.  Procedurally, ineffectiveness could be an issue if universities produce poorly trained graduates, and inefficiency could stem from bloated salaries, excessive bureaucracies, or misdirected investments.

No doubt there has always been some inefficiency, ineffectiveness, ignorance, and irrelevance, even in the best universities.  Such judgments will not take place in a vacuum.  People have always had to consider universities in light of constraints and alternatives.  In terms of constraints, it doesn’t really matter how great a university is if you can’t handle the time, money, effort, or other demands of university attendance.  In this sense, universities could go out of fashion, even if they were consistently great, because they did not manage to be great in ways that people could afford and/or because people found a less onerous way to achieve the desired outcome.  Nowadays, for instance, there is much interest in the extent to which online education can replace the traditional college classroom.

It appears that American universities are not likely to become much more homogeneous than they are now.  In almost any college or university, you can sit in a classroom that looks much like classrooms in countless other such places; study with a professor who could be replaced by a dozen or a hundred others; read a textbook that tends to resemble several others and that is probably in use in scores of classrooms at about that same time; build up a transcript that will be highly similar to the transcript that you would have built up if you had been in one of those other places, with some of those other professors; and graduate with a degree that society and employers will tend to treat as almost identical to the ones awarded to hundreds, thousands, possibly tens of thousands of others who will have had much the same experience as you have had.  In many ways, today’s university belongs to the era of mass industrial production of generic objects.

Since universities cannot become much more homogeneous, and since change does tend to take place, the future is likely to bring universities (or replacements for universities) that are less homogeneous than what we have now.  For example, a battery of nationally standardized exit exams, like the SAT or ACT on the entrance side, would reduce the guesswork:  it would move the focus of standardization to the final outcome, freeing universities and non-university educational providers to vary their approaches.  While some colleges and universities will doubtless continue to cater to traditional tastes for generations, just as the concept of the classical education has lingered, standardized exit exams could quickly relegate many universities without such a clear mission to a diminished role.

Time studies do seem to indicate that the college experience consists of a great deal that is not involved with study.  And that can make good sense, if college is perceived as a kind of finishing school, or as a land of transition to adulthood.  Then again, some parents may be content to send their kids off to a six-month program for such purposes.  When it stretches on for years, people might begin to wonder about efficiency.

Predicting the future is rarely more than an educated guess, if that.  Many people firmly believe that a university education will remain, as it has been for some time, a relatively straight and clear route to a better start in life.  The point of this post is not that they are wrong.  It is that we are in the era of the Indian kid who can go online and demonstrate his/her brilliance without ever having a hope of an Ivy League degree – in the era, I should say, of employers who would be delighted to give that kid a wage above his/her dreams, far below the cost of an Ivy League graduate.  There are pressures favoring the obsolescence of anything, especially when it is as big and potentially lumbering as the university.  It does seem likely that at least some aspects of today’s university education will come to seem outdated in the not-too-distant future, for reasons like those sketched here.

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