Thursday, August 22, 2013

The University

I want to discuss something called a “university” and contrast whatever that is with other institutions, whatever they are. This is a virtually impossible task as it seems that what nowadays constitutes a university seems to include more than it should (I think). Let me begin with a definition of a university from my online dictionary:
“an institution of higher learning providing facilities for teaching and research and authorized to grant academic degrees…” So far so good, but the definition goes on to read: “specifically : one made up of an undergraduate division which confers bachelor's degrees and a graduate division which comprises a graduate school and professional schools each of which may confer master's degrees and doctorates.”
I immediately see a problem here with trying to reconcile the term “academic” with “professional schools.” To me, professional schools are not what I would consider academic institutions but, rather professional schools that train one in a specific profession such as medicine, nursing, business, engineering, architecture, and what-have-you, in short they are basically “trade schools,” lacking in what might be considered academics. You may, even probably, not agree. Looking into the definition of academic is little help:
: a member of an institution of learning
: a person who is academic in background, outlook, or methods
plural : academic subjects academics

To me a university is an institution devoted to learning, basically “for its own sake,” with the understanding of complete “academic freedom,” and dedicated to promoting what we understand as “critical thinking.” Professional schools, in my experience and understanding,  do not share these basic goals. Historically universities did not include professional schools.
It is true, of course, that the earliest universities included medicine in their curricula, but that was when learning about medicine was a quest for knowledge in its own right, not a preparation for a professional career as a doctor. I doubt there was such a thing as a business school, a nursing school, and such. Law maybe, but for the study of law in general was part of philosophy and not a profession as such.

What I find of the most interest in the current interest in education, especially so-called “higher education,” is that it is completely considered to be for the purpose of finding a job and realizing a return on the money spent for it. Love of learning, academics, humanism, creativity, critical thinking, even academic freedom appear to have little to do with it. Now we find discussions of which profession will bring the greatest return for the loans required for the degree, the cost of colleges in general, is getting a degree worth it, and so on. President Obama’s recent speech on this issue is part of this basic cost-effective notion of education. Does it cost too much, is it worth it, can we bring the costs down, etc. Universities should exist for the sake of learning, with complete academic feedom, with an emphasis on creative thinking, include the arts and humanities as well as sciences and technology. They should be free for those who are interested, motivated, and qualified to pursue higher education for its own sake. If most others wish to pursue a career in medicine, nursing, law, business, etc., for the sake of getting a job, let them attend the appropriate professional school and pay what the traffic will bear. Professional schools, when included in universities, siphon off most of the money from the arts and humanities, and even from basic scientific research, converting our universities into trade schools with little or no interest in academics, academic freedom, or creative thinking. This is especially true as they are increasingly funded by businesses that want to realize profits, Pharmaceuticals are particularly terrible in this respect when they fund research devoted to finding what it is they want to find. Professorships are being more and more funded by people like the Koch brothers and other wealthy interests who can control what it is professors are allowed to research and so on. The intrusion of business interests into universities has made a mockery of the very idea of a university, as Margeret Halsey so insightly warned us about so long ago, The Pseudo-Ethic: A Speculation on American Politics and Morals (1963).

“Teach the ignorant as much as you can; society is culpable in not providing a free education for all and it must answer for the night which it produces. If the soul is left in darkness sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.” 
Victor Hugo

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