"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Soulless University

A review of what looks to be an interesting book lamenting higher education's lack of concern for shaping moral beings. As much as I'm tempted to think that the thesis is right, I suspect that it's perhaps a bit off - universities are in the business of shaping souls, two different kinds of souls, in fact.

On one side, universities are busy trying to create "good citizens," by which they usually mean political progressives. Lots of schools now require as a matter of course "service learning" components, pushing students into "volunteer" work as a way of exposing them to the poorer parts of our society. Speech codes, conferences, orientation sessions, condemnation of "conservative" campus political activity, and so on are all designed to push students to the Left politically. (That such efforts often fail says more about competence than intention).

On the other side, universities are also busy trying to create productive workers. Universities seem almost obsessed these days with having big endowments and the way to get there is to have economically successful graduates. This dovetails nicely with the broadly held conception that college is all about getting "certified" for a lucrative career. (Go to most any website for a humanities department and almost inevitably you'll see a list of things one can "do" with that major). So universities inflate grades, ease requirements, beautify dorms (if you haven't seen renovated dorm life in the modern university, you'd be shocked to see how nicely many students now live), and do dozens of other things as a way of making sure that students "succeed" while they're there and can make it once they leave (and start receiving those solicitations for donations for the next capital campaign).

So the modern university isn't soulless at all - it's organized and oriented toward producing the postmodern man: lightly attached to "progressive" political causes and willing to do his part provided that it doesn't get too much in the way of the accumulation of riches and pleasures.


Evanston said...

Truly, any institution needs to explain its internal rules of civility and where the boundary lies between rude and punishable conduct. That said, I believe universities have no business trying to shape the opinions or conduct of students after they graduate. They SHOULD be trying to produce solid thinkers and communicators (logically proceeding from facts to conclusions) with a strong grounding in the technical facts/methods in their field of study. What we tend to see these days (or what garners most attention) is an opinion-based professoriate that trains its students to regurgitate its conclusions without learning the fine art of argumentation. What we most often witness is education in the art of the one-word putdown (BushChimpHitlerCriminal). I am thankful that in my time at UVA, the economics department generally stayed away from normative economics in favor of Friedman's positive approach. Subsequently my Master's in contract law required a rational, structured approach to communication and argumentation. I believe our society as a whole is sadly lacking in the application of logic, and that universities should be concentrating on producing independent and able thinkers, not hecklers cum laude.

Devang said...

There are a couple of types of universities, academically, there's the science-based university, and then the engineering-based university, that's the transition MIT made in the 60-80's and some universities are still trying to make.

The engineering-based university is what makes productive application-specific engineers, their thinking is restricted to the type of material and the type of transistor to use in bulding what they want to build, and is specifically a less political university (most state schools come to mind, except maybe one, i.e. ASU) I know, because I go to one, and it is distinctly different from a science-based university like MIT, where more interest is put on finding new types of transistors through science. Practicing science inherently requires more independent thought, hence making the university much better.

The arts, sciences, and humanities have similar traits, but there is overlap offcourse, and specific universities become good at specific things. For example, my university received pieces of the space shuttle and the WTC for EMI examination, but even that I would say is more reverse-engineering than real science. This difference isn't emphasized enough as far as I'm concerned, and has profound affects on what environment a student finds on campus. Enough of that, but, suffice it to say, my main point is that of making more and more universities science-based.

First off, It seems to me that since real scientific research is very "inefficient", time-consuming, offers a terrible ROI, and expensive, that the science-based universities have increasingly come to rely on endowments to fund their sciencetific research. Something that they didn't have to worry about nearly as much in the 60's. Secondly, The fact that we're told to give back to the community, minutely, should be a non-factor in any conversation. It's a matter of helping high school students and the like. The fact that someone would demonize it, is more soul-less than anything else. Thirdly, getting "certified" is the only thing that makes a person economically viable, and can hardly be looked down upon. Most students know there is more to life than that, anyway.

Independent thinking and communicating are emphasised enough, and once students get through the existing thought on a subject, the independent thinking can still survive, amazingly... The universities are quite imperfect, in that there isn't more worldly debate on campus about diverse topics of all kinds, but then one can't have everything and eat it too.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Quite probative, Mr. Devang, and thank you. If the university system has eschewed the humanities in favor of practical applications (which was just spoken of with admiration by an immigrant friend of mine), it would be best if they took at least few minutes out of 4 years to instruct on the use of spell check. It ain't perfect, but its a servicable placeholder.

But I am afraid that a significant plurality of graduates of the American university system have spent their time with deconstructionism and revisionism, and not just of the English language. It might be OK if they could find Iraq on a map. Or at least get within 1000 miles or so.

I believe Mr. Simpson's central point is ace: that universities are far more concerned with the what (whether it's technical knowledge or Right Thinking) than the how.

And forget about asking why. We prefer answers to questions.

tbmbuzz said...

There are a couple of types of universities, academically, there's the science-based university, and then the engineering-based university, that's the transition MIT made in the 60-80's and some universities are still trying to make.

I don't quite understand what you're getting at here. MIT didn't make any "transition" during the 60's-80's. It has always been an elite science AND engineering institution, focusing on research and innovation both in pure science and in engineering in the sense of applied science. The academic environment is geared not only to learning lots of "facts" in half the amount of time students get at other universities but also at how to approach problem solving; in other words, how to think, question and explore, which should be the main function of a university education (witness, say, the counterexample of Al Gore, who knows lots of academic facts but is unable to integrate them into a logical coherent whole). It also has some high powered humanities departments and requires all undergraduates to take at least eight terms of humanities courses (at least it did when I attended in the 70's). The political environment at MIT is definitely Left-leaning but is not so activist as at other universities because the students simply have no time to concentrate on these usually superficial activities. Nonetheless it is a very dynamic campus that is very much in touch with the real world, locally as well as nationally and internationally, and students have tons of extracurricular activites to choose from.

I've been out of touch with MIT for 20 years now, so I'm not sure how infected it has been by the useless nouveau liberal arts such as transgender studies, the history of exploitation by white males, the evils of American capitalism, etc (considering its location in ultra-liberal Cambridge, I'm sure some infestation has occurred), but in general, MIT graduates shake off this crap once they enter the real world.

Devang said...

I don't quite understand what you're getting at here. MIT didn't make any "transition" during the 60's-80's.

I heard that from an MIT professor, while I was browsing through their online opencourseware material. MIT is unique in a lot of ways, and I said there are a lot of overlaps between the two-alleged kinds of universities, loads of them I'm sure (as long as they have large endowments, and the continuous flow of money, either that or they get good at something specific until something better comes along).

I'm emphasising extremes to point out the difference I see. i.e. UofChicago has no engineering school, and is a primarily science-based university, compare it with mine (UMR), a primarily engineering-based university, and you start to see the difference. If you have a university offer primarily engineeering-based disciplines (with 8 terms of humanities), the students often don't learn the big picture, or any macro-economics to be specific (seriously, engineers at my school mostly take micro, unless the seats are filled). We are even taught too much problem-solving, instead of "undefined" critical-thinking. This has to do a lot with the university environment, but is caused because of the above reason. You also end up with a 3:1, male:female ratio, but that is another debate.

Granted, the US News rankings put the two, quite far apart, but, for all the engineering disciplines, our curriculum is quite similar to MIT's... so you see the handicap an engineering-only school has. And it does make it soulless (We always battle with GATech for the unhappiest students on campus, which itself is engineering-based).