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September 29, 2004
Alice says universities are rubbish

Alice (as "in Texas") has some thoughts about universities:

>But that's the irony: universities probably would still have some kind of place, if they just updated their ideas and got real. The trouble is, they are too insecure to confront that. But unless they come to terms with the fact that knowledge is growing itself outside universities now, and that for all sorts of reasons, people are not going to pay huge sums of money just so an institution can rubber-stamp its learning-location as well as its examination score, they are doomed.

Which is to say, genuinely intelligent people will opt out of them, so their standards will spiral down and down. And the people at the Justin Timberlake conferences won't notice what parodies of themselves they have become, of course.

I don't think I agree. The great thing about going to university is all the other people who go, from among whom you are almost bound to find human gold. You get to drink and **** and talk all night with them, and unless and until the world invents another way for the semi-brainy and brainy-brainy to find one another at That Age, the university idea will still have plenty of life in it. People will curse and rage against these places for being so silly, but other people will still want to go. The Internet may well replace lots of the academics, but lots of other academics, instead of being rolled over by it, will learn how to make the Internet an ally rather than an enemy.

I mean, I'd love to have had someone like this as one of my professors. Reading him every day or two is good, but chatting with him every week or two would be even better.

Dare I suggest that Alice's fulminations are evidence of the geographical fallacy, as I like to think of it, which say: geography (i.e. geographical proximity) doesn't matter any more, because of Modern Communcations.

Also, universities have been through very bad times before. In the nineteenth century, it is my understanding that British universities, instead of, as now, being rotten with third-rate "humanities" bullshit artists who publish far too much, were rotten instead with third-rate theologians who didn't publish anything at all. Science, meanwhile, was being developed in spite of the universities rather than because of them. But eventually Science took over the universities and made a new golden age for them.

But that last bit is somewhat of a guess. Better-than-guess comments, anyone?

Gratuitous university picture:


which I googled my way to via here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:39 PM
Category: Higher education

"unless and until the world invents another way for the semi-brainy and brainy-brainy to find one another at That Age, the university idea will still have plenty of life in it."

Ah yes, I hadn't taken into account that universities offer unique social opportunities for the young, I'd been thinking of them purely in terms of whether the academic education they offer is good value for money.

One could argue exactly the same about good public (ie private) schools versus home-educating. Socialising is important at any age, I think. That's another reason why I think universities will continue to have a role, but I still think they will have to be downsized into user-friendly supermarkets, rather than maintaining the myth of total learning authority that enables them to rip people off (which was my basic argument).

Comment by: Alice on September 29, 2004 11:12 PM

Depends what you study and how you study it. There are some subjects that you can study at university that are a waste of time, and there are others that have academic rigour and from which the education is very valuable indeed. Many (but by no means all) of these subjects are in the sciences.

And universities are places where if you genuinely do wish to learn and learn in depth then you will genuinely be helped and encouraged to do so. This is unlike schools, where you generally can't learn very much even if you want to. (My high school years were a total waste of time. My university years were quite the opposite, and I only which I could have gone to university when I was 14). The vast majority of students don't do so, and the numbers of students who go to university and do not do so has been steadily increasing under government pressure for some time now, which leads to lots of people who go to university, fail to learn anything worthwhile, and conclude that university education is not about learning anything worthwhile.

But it doesn't have to be like this.

Comment by: Michael Jennings on September 30, 2004 12:12 AM
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