Friday, May 27, 2011

A brief early-summer break from being too serious....

We in academe like to complain about our students.  We like to grumble that they have no interest and little ability.   They just want to carouse, not to study.  How dreadfully unappreciative of our efforts!

A recent article in the New Yorker about cosmologist David Deutsch says he is basically self-employed because he, though affiliated with Oxford University, doesn't teach--doesn't want to spend effort with a bunch of students who don't want to be there.  In a famous passage, Thomas Huxley, energetic advocate of education for the working class, grumbled about the 'won't learns, don't learns, and can't learns'.  Socrates complained about his students, too....and that was 400 BC!

But the tables can be turned, as well.  Tennyson, Darwin, and Einstein to name but three we can remember off-hand, noted that they went to university but, fortunately, escaped unscathed, or that they couldn't have achieved what they did if they'd been employed by a university.  Too stultifying, bureaucratic, constraining, stuffily self-satisfied.

Well, that's not new either.  The European universities as we know them were founded around 1000 years ago.  They quickly got into international status rankings and competition for students and their tuition.  And by the 1600s they were already very much as we know them today.  A satirical play by Robert Burton, called Philosophasters, written around 1606, portrays the founding of a new University in Spain, whose faculty manifest the same stuffy, self-important, often vacuous pomposity by which academics are often characterized today.  And the students are carousing as they do today, often learning little more than how to posture about their qualifications.

We might be depressed about this: the secret of the nature of academe is out, and hasn't changed for centuries.  Students have always been the same degree-deserving scholars that we find in class (when they actually go to class) today.  Recent surveys have shown how standards and rigor have dropped, along with actual learning.  And the professors?  We're the same all-knowing authority figures, knowing the Truth about everything big and (mainly) trivial, and solving all of society's problems just as we've been in the past.

But let's not be depressed.  First, every human organization or group has its faults, and rarely is even aware of them.  Why should we be an exception?  So let's take cheer (and raise our glasses) because it provides us a living, is harmless in general, and because society has survived our millennia of effort unscathed.  Or rather, thinking about history, at least no more scathed than it would have been otherwise.

It is easy, and fun, to criticize, as long as we know that we ourselves are targets.  It's also perhaps largely useless to criticize, as history shows.  But without at least some critical pressure to do better, things could be a lot worse.  And there are reasons to think that for the health of our country, the quality of our education system might actually matter.

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