Sunday, April 14, 2019

What is the University?

Or, I guess, why is the university? That's what I'm really thinking about here.

Is it to provide a ticket to a job? That's how it's often sold, as if the university is some sort of elaborate vending machine. Get this degree, get a well-paying job.

To be clear, I'm not opposed to people getting good jobs with decent pay. And certainly one reason I've encouraged my kid to get a degree is that he'll be more employable with one than without one.

But is that why we educate people? So that they can have jobs? Is that why universities exist?

Because if that is what a university is for, then the MAGA Americans and Evangelical parents who send their kids to my school are right. They don't need to study silly subjects like literature and humanities and Spanish. We shouldn't even be a university. We should be a trade school. You should send your kid to school to learn nursing, or welding, or automotive repair, or how to repair motherboards, or accounting -- whatever skillset their future job will require -- stamp their certificate, and put them in the workplace.

Let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with schools like that.

My father went to a school like that. He got an excellent job as a chemical engineer, worked for NASA on the moon landings and the shuttle program, and then later became a vice president for an oil company. He did very well financially.

Are schools like that universities?

They really aren't. Do we want all of our schools to be those schools?

That's something we need to decide. And I'm not talking about losing skillsets. If we just need, for instance, to teach people geology, or how to speak Spanish, there are much better ways to teach that than in a university.

I'm talking about the liberal arts education, which is why we built the university, back in 1100 AD (a bit earlier in some places, a bit later in others). Liberal was the key word then, and in order to make someone liberal -- able to be a free man -- we taught him the seven arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, math, geometry, music, and astronomy.

Over the time, we've changed the arts part of the liberal arts; but we still have this idea. We still have a notion that there is a certain curriculum (a course, a route) people need to take if they are to be able to think and reason like free human beings.

What is that curriculum, that route?

(1) You've got to learn to reason -- that is, you've got to know how to build an argument based on logic, without fallacies; you've got to know the difference between a good source and a bad source, and how to select evidence to support your argument accordingly. You've got to be willing to make decisions based on what this evidence shows you.

(2) You've got to learn how science works -- what constitutes proof, what a theory is, how we "know" something as opposed to how we simply think we know something, what the scientific method is, what data is and isn't, how science reacts when the evidence changes. You've got to be able to read and understand scientific papers. You've got to be able to make decisions based on what scientific evidence says.

(3) You've got to know how to read literature and how to look at art and how to listen to music. You have to know what literature, art, and music are. You have to understand why this matter.

(4) You must know math, enough to be scientifically and economically literate.

(5) You must be able to communicate, both in speech and in writing, lucidly and effectively, about all of these things. You must be able to persuade, with logic and evidence, but also with pathos.

(6) You must know history -- what has happened, why it happened. Also, you must know philosophy, psychology, and economics. Without these, history cannot possibly be understood.

(7) You must know at least two languages other than your own well enough to read and speak fluently.

That's a liberal arts education, and that's the basics. 

And that's what is being steadily stripped away from our universities, in a quest to make them "competitive."

Competitive with what? Well, with the trade-school type universities, for one; but mostly here 'competitive' means 'affordable.'

It's no secret that a university education has become unaffordable for all but the obscenely wealthy. My kid's education is costing, with room and board, just under $20,000 a year. He has a small scholarship, and because he went to an in-state school, we get a tuition rebate. He doesn't have a car, he lives on grits and apples, and he has a roommate. That is simply how much it costs.

In our case, the kid's grandparents started a college fund, which is paying most of the cost. (I buy groceries sometimes, and I bought the kid's laptop.) But many, many students end up working full-time, as well as taking out massive loans.

Image result for universities cartoon

So you can see why there's a big push to pare down the curriculum -- to make it easier for students to complete it more quickly and more easily.

More quickly, so as to need fewer semesters in college and thus fewer loans.

More easily, because someone working full-time has no time to study.

This is all understandable.

What do we lose, though, when we turn the university into a trade school? When we pare away three hours of required history here, six hours of required humanities there, the political science requirement, the upper-level science requirement...

We graduate engineers who can build a bridge -- which is good! We need bridges! -- but who can't tell a good source from a bad source when they click on an internet link.

We graduate dental hygienists who are lovely people and wonderful at cleaning teeth, which again is a skill we need, but who will vote against a bill to put fluoride in our drinking water because they can't reading a scientific paper and evaluate its claims, so they listen to what their friends on FB say about it.

We graduate marketing majors who never took a history or a political science class, much less a philosophy class, so when a politician tells them immigrants are 'animals,' why, they see nothing alarming in such speech.

We create a country filled with people watching Fox News and reading absolutely nonsense (see Rod Dreher) who honestly can't tell that what they're reading is propaganda -- who can't tell facts from bullshit, and don't even want to try.

When my kid was little, his teachers asked him what church we went to. (This is a standard question in the South, as all y'all from the South know.) He came home and asked me. Amusing myself, I told him to tell his teacher we go to the church of books.

"Oh," the teacher said when the kid repeated this. "Are y'all Mormons?"

Oh my God.

But my point was, I do go to the church of books. My faith is this: I believe that education is our only hope. It's the only thing that has ever done any good, the only thing made this world any better. 

Not always. Not every time.

But it's the one thing that does work.

Only if we do it right, though. And here in the USA, especially lately, we're doing every damn thing we can to make sure we do it exactly wrong.

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