Archive Civic Polity Peter Escalante Philosophy

The Beginning of the University

The history of both Eastern and Western Christendom has been bound up with the academy, but in the West this has especially been the case. From the rise of the university system of the feudal period to the development of the great evangelical renewal of learning in Germany and England, to both of which the American systems are heir, the university has been a central institution of civil society in the West and the great support of the State.

But the latter half of the 20th century saw the university burgeon beyond all proportionate bounds, as undergraduate education (making up for an increasingly defective grade school pedagogy) became practically mandatory for any financial success, and also as research, once the German university’s great virtue and still anchored in the liberal arts and human learning, became increasingly commandeered by a titanic military-industrial complex.

This state of affairs has become increasingly precarious and perpetuated largely by greed and hubris, and its financial and social impossibility would bring it down soon enough in any case. But the massive changes associated with the electronic revolution may be significantly speeding its demise. The American Interest posts this article regarding the likelihood of the system’s imminent collapse and immediate replacement by a decentralized and mediate system of study. The author is far from alone is his observations and predictions.

The success of the Khan Academy, Coursera, and online extension programs of major universities are already showing what the future of education must in part look like.

Mr Harden notes that, of course,

Anyone with an internet connection can go online and watch some of the same lectures I attended as a Yale undergrad. But that person won’t get the social life, the long chats in the dinning hall, the feeling of collegiality, the trips around Long Island sound with the sailing team, the concerts, the iron-sharpens-iron debates around the seminar table, the rare book library, or the famous guest lecturers (although some of those events are streamed online, too).

The residential college at its best is a forum not only of learning in the sense which can be put to paper, but also of personal formation. Although some more idiosyncratic souls have famously felt themselves oppressed by stultifying collegiate institutions, many scholars and statesmen, many citizens in general, look back on their college days as the seminary of their adult character and, without any irony, their “alma mater”. Even many of those who haven’t had such a formation feel that is a great good, and would look on its passing with great regret. But Mr Harden is right:

We may lose the gothic arches, the bespectacled lecturers, dusty books lining the walls of labyrinthine libraries – wonderful images from higher education’s past. But nostalgia won’t stop the unsentimental beast of progress from wreaking havoc on old ways of doing things.

Part of the appeal of Ms Rowling’s juvenile fiction is precisely this: the twinge of national conscience as it measures modern reality against admittedly roseate memory. But Mr Harden notes quite rightly that, aside perhaps from a few relic institutions and a very few new ones, the colleges of what Dr Lewis called the “Old West” have already been effectively destroyed by the managerial revolution.

For nearly a thousand years the university system has looked just about the same: professors, classrooms, students in chairs. The lecture and the library have been at the center of it all. At its best, traditional classroom education offers the chance for intelligent and enthusiastic students to engage a professor and one another in debate and dialogue. But typical American college education rarely lives up to this ideal. Deep engagement with texts and passionate learning aren’t the prevailing characteristics of most college classrooms today anyway. More common are grade inflation, poor student discipline, and apathetic teachers rubber-stamping students just to keep them paying tuition for one more term.

Mr Harden foresees a “golden age” for students in the new decentralized market of instructional modules. In part his prognostications are true; but there is, as he himself notes, a vast difference between information and knowledge. If this great shift occurs – and there is every reason to think it will – new centers of collegiate study in the old style, small, rigorous, and built on the classical liberal arts but making full use of the modern electronic archive, will become increasingly important as centers of knowledge, just as will the free laboratories of empirical research which Mr Harden foresees arising. New forms of accreditation, relying on not much more regulation than reputation itself provides, will be profoundly important, and perhaps even associated with the the new colleges in which the best of the old is renewed. If the end of the modern university is upon us, this means the beginning of the new is too, and we must pay great attention to shaping it while it is still green. As Dr Berman showed in his magisterial work, the history of Western Christendom is a history of sudden revolutions in development of deeper continuities, and so we can look to prior models for direction in the art of negotiating novelty to great success.

The bureaucratic leviathan university will not go down without a fight, but its fate is sealed. But either we take charge of what replaces it, or others will for whom nothing is of worth unless it is for sale. It is up to us to ensure that what replaces the present information factory has the orderly pursuit of wisdom and learning at its heart, or else the new media of study will be little more than a hall of mirrors in which ignorance beholds its own infinitely diversified image, and cannot ever know it for such.

By Peter Escalante

Peter Escalante is a founder and editor of The Calvinist International. He holds a MA in Philosophy.

One reply on “The Beginning of the University”

Comments are closed.