Thursday, July 27, 2017

Universities Have Not "Drifted from their Historic Mission"

What is a university for? As soon as you start to try to answer that question you get buried in an avalanche of ordure. Perhaps nothing provokes a tsunami of blather like the question of the role of the university.

Here's one lament that moans about universities drifting from their historic mission. Or this young academic that has suddenly discovered the monster of bureaucracy, and is off to Germany, the birthplace of bureaucracy.

Is the mission of the university to prepare well-born youngsters for political leadership? Is it to teach the canon? Is it to advance the frontiers of knowledge? Is it to provide robust venues for argument and debate? Is it to protect the rights of minorities? Is it to indoctrinate the youth in ruling-class ideology? Is it to develop big bombs for the military?

Well, you tell me. The answer is that all kinds of actors are interested in the minds of the young, and are willing to spend money and time on that project.

And the thing about universities is that they are "non-profit"organizations. Which means that... it makes it much harder to figure out who is profiting from the university. Is it the students getting an education? Is it the professors that get to reorder young heads full of mush? Is it the donors who get to push the university towards their vision of the universe? Is it the politicians that fund its research? Or is it the senior administrators that get to use the university as an ATM?

What, indeed is the "historic mission"of the university?

Strictly speaking, a university is a gathering of scholars and teachers that offer to teach youngsters that gather together in residential colleges to receive instruction from the masters. Yes, back in the day the students ran  the residential colleges: imagine! But it was never that simple, because the powerful took an interest in the universities. Thus, for many years, the great universities like Oxford and Cambridge in England were primarily involved in training up the second sons of the nobility for the church. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the universities trained young men for the Church of England, the established state church. Even as late as 1832 we get the bourgeois mayor of Middlemarch sending his son Fred off to Cambridge to raise the status of the Vincy family. Only Fred didn't really want to become a priest.

The Germans had another agenda. Deep in the humiliation of the Napoleonic era they founded the University of Berlin as a vehicle of state power. They would educate a new generation of Germans to take it to the French, and invented the research university as one of the means to that end.

In the US, it was the various churches that built universities. Harvard was  founded in 1634 by the Puritans to train up clergy for the new commonwealth. But by 1800 more liberal religious ideas were in the ascendant, and Harvard became Unitarian. Yale was founded by clergy in 1701 to educate Congregationalist ministers. The first Catholic university in the US was Georgetown, founded in 1789. The first university after the German model was Johns Hopkins, founded by Daniel Colt Gilman in 1876. Notice that the university was funded by Johns Hopkins, entrepreneur, investor, abolitionist, and philanthropist. He was not a church.

So you can see that everyone that got into the university game had an agenda. They weren't interested in discovering what parents and children wanted in an education; they already knew what was good for them.

It is not surprising that as progressives/liberals/leftists rose to power and prominence that they would seek to remake the university into an institution that would raise up good little progressives and leftist activists. They did not want universities to be seminaries that churned out ministers to send out to the wilderness, or priests that would preach to the embattled Catholic faithful,  or founts of science and state power. They wanted to create secular seminaries that would produce social activists that would go forth and preach the gospel of equality, or rights, or, as now, "intersectionality." Of course they did.

But we, whoever we are, have a different agenda, and the university as secular seminary is a direct attack on everything we hold dear. No wonder, of course, that in today's university, "conservatives need not apply." You don't want no stinkin' heretics in your school of secular orthodoxy.

But what do we do about it? My guess is nothing. The revolution in learning that issues from the internet means that you can learn anything anywhere. You do not have to go to an approved school to get the credentials to make you a safe hire.

I suspect that the modern bureaucratic system of education is a one-off, not to be repeated, the attempt of today's ruling class to ape the structure of the big corporation and big government, which seemed to be the wave of the future a century ago.

But we know that the world doesn't work like that. Big institutions are mature institutions, and the only way for them to go is down. Moreover, I would argue, non-profit ownership is itself a problem, because it fails to establish who is in charge and who is to take the profits and absorb the losses.

We know, with the advent of artificial intelligence, that the world is going to change more than we can possibly imagine. If there is one thing we should have learned from the successive economic revolutions of the Great Enrichment over the past 200 years, it is that the only thing to do is to change as well  as you can when  the new economic era dawns. The  worst thing to do is to resist economic change and erect non-profit institutions and government programs to create a walled garden that keeps the outside world from challenging the status quo. For now.

So the current conservative rage against the PC university misses the point. The current disappointment that universities have "drifted from their historic mission" is beside the point. Everything is going to change and the folks that imagine they are protected from the future by ivied walls or by government favor are living a fantasy.

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