The Groves of Academe

2003-03-21

I have this love-hate relationship with academia. On the one hand I have a tremendous respect for the life of the mind, and pursue my own independent studies in philosophy and related disciplines whenever I can find the time. On the other hand, I shudder at the mere thought of returning to graduate school, and feel that academics are hopelessly disconnected from the real world.

Would I feel differently if academia were differently consituted? Today Diana Hsieh posted some observations on higher education by Clemson University psychology professor Robert Campbell (yes, Diana, he really does need a blog!). Robert notes that American universities are not nearly as ossified as their European and Asian counterparts, although there is definitely room for improvement. He also mentions differential tuition, replacing tenure with job contracts, increasing dependence on tuition (and presumably lessening dependence on research grants), and cleaning up financial reporting as several possible reforms.

Here again as in so many areas, the problems seem to be systemic. For example, many academics (even those of a free-market persuasion) are directly dependent on government for their livelihoods (e.g., by dint of working for public universities or receiving much of their funding in the form of research grants from government agencies). Even though I'm sure many smart people in academe recognize that the tenure system is far from ideal, it is a rare professor indeed who turns down tenure (the only one I know of is Columbia University astronomy professor David Helfand -- see his essay Tenure: Thanks But No Thanks). There is no direct monetary incentive to be a better teacher, since students pay the same amount for every course. And the list goes on.

I've given a fair amount of thought to these issues -- heck, I've even toyed on and off with the idea of working with others to start a college or university. Given that the problems are systemic and institutional, it strikes me that the only way to overcome them is to build alternative institutions (always remaining watchful for the onset of the organizational imperative). What would an alternative university look like? How would it be run? Would its teachers have tenure? What kind of curriculum would it have? Would it even have a set curriculum, or would it be run in accordance with the seemingly anarchic principles of the Sudbury Valley School?

I don't pretend to have answers to all of these questions, since it's not clear to me what conditions reliably lead to true learning. I know from my own experience that much if not most of my learning has taken place independently (from reading and doing) or from interactions and conversations with others (no matter whether those I interacted with knew more, less, or about the same as I did). I feel that much of the formalism of traditional schools is not conducive to learning (in my more cynical moments I have been known to say that the primary purpose of most schools is not learning but what can be desribed charitably as socialization, and uncharitably as brainwashing and control). Tenure seems counter-productive to me (is there any other profession with such a policy?). I've always been fond of the system preferred by Adam Smith, in which students paid the teacher directly in order to attend lectures (as biographer John Rae notes, this was "a principle of academic payment which Smith always considered the best, because it made the lecturer's income largely dependent on his diligence and success in his work"). I'm uncomfortable with the dependence of academics on government research grants (after all, he who pays the piper calls the tune). I think the ensconcement of writers and artists in universities has had a deleterious affect on intellectual and cultural life. I feel that teachers would bring a lot more value to their instruction if they were involved in more practical activities outside the academy (while in college I always sought to balance my academic pursuits with jobs in the real world).

What does all this add up to? I'm not sure, but perhaps it is this: a fully private college (no government funding or grants); part-time instructors and lecturers who are actively involved in non-academic pursuits; direct payments from students to lecturers (perhaps with a small stipend); a minimum of administrative overhead; no departments by which to compartmentalize intellectual pursuits; a curriculum that grows and changes organically based on what lecturers choose to talk about (or students choose to pay for); lots of peer learning; a balance of theoretical and practical activities; a loose, flexible organization that is more chaordic than hierarchical. In other words, a school unlike most anything else in existence today.


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