The university

It is bracing to reflect from time to time on the utter senselessness of the very real institutions we inhabit. Take the university, for instance. The history of the university, as we now know it, is tangled and complicated (see here for an overview), but one of the central reasons for our universities being structured as they are, with a certain range of departments, sorted into colleges, is that Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) thought it would be cool. He set up the model for the German research university, and soon the U.S. and the rest of the world followed suit.

Think of the consequences. One learned, curious, capable individual draws up a plan and higher education all over the world for the next two centuries follows his lead. It should not be assumed automatically that his idea was ridiculous. But one might well consider whether the structure dreamed up by some long-dead German remains the best structure given the dynamics of the modern world. To be sure, one can find experimental schools departing from the Humboldtian model, as well as start-up University of Phoenixes and so on, and new multidisciplinary programs and departments and so on. But on the whole I am rather surprised that such a powerful institution, with its form so indebted to pretty arbitrary origins, is still as prevalent as it is. Lord knows there have been big changes in the arenas of politics and government. One would think that, with all the wars and all the revolutions in knowledge, universities would have changed in significant ways.

I’m reminded of this whenever I pause in a lecture and watch people scribbling into their notebooks. I think, “This is a funny way of learning things.” Why not just write down the stuff I know and hand it out the first day of class and ask them to call me if they have any questions? Or do classroom moments somehow simulate and encourage the excitement of intellectual discovery? Mightn’t other settings do so more effectively? What exactly are these classes supposed to do anyway? Does an ordered set of university classes build a structure of knowledge into students — like laying bricks? Really? In all fields? What if students were allowed to pursue knowledge with all the effective means currently available? (See this interesting essay, pointed out by Mike, about how this loose, individualized approach payed off in one guy’s high school experience.)

And on and on. Once you begin to pull at a loose thread in the university’s toga, the whole thing starts to unravel, and the sheer arbitrariness of the whole, powerful institution is soon nakedly apparent. I don’t know where I’m going with this, except to say that I’m curious about different shapes higher education might take.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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15 Responses to The university

  1. Kleiner says:

    Very interesting essay that Mike had you link to. But I must say that it seems rather too individualistic to me. While some (perhaps much) of our formal curriculum is arbitrary in origin, it is not all. Students are students for a reason, while they have zeal (the latin root of student means to ‘direct zeal at’) they do not have a good idea of the ‘toward which’ of the zeal. Letting students pursue on ‘their own time’ the things they ‘care about’ and they things they think they will ‘use’ forgets that a large part of becoming educated involves becoming enfolded into a conversation that far exceeds one’s particular likes/dislikes and mere usefulness. In short, you can’t have the lunatics running the asylum.
    All of that said, I am not wanting to simply defend the university in its current form. The over-specialization of the modern academy leads to mundane areas of study, and worse has the effect of fragmenting the student’s approach to himself and the world. A better education would teach the student moral and intellectual discipline and virtue, thus freeing the student to explore his own whole person in a way that integrates various aspects of the human experience.
    Of course, this is what the liberal arts are supposed to do, but most liberal arts programs have long ago abandoned the order that would actually orient the education toward its proper ends. In the name of egalitarianism and other idols, we now have a largely arbitrary hodgepodge of courses and ideas.
    Of course, these might just be the ramblings of a man who wants to ‘stifle’ everyone’s individuality by putting them in educational environments where they can have careful (but also directed) readings of the perennial philosophy.


  2. Mike says:

    I sent that link to some people at work with this caveat: “Perhaps a little extreme but it does highlight some problems with traditional forms of education. It also highlights the beauty in self driven study.”

    My experience with self study has been much more productive than other forms though the tutorial tradition has probably been the most productive for me in the context of philosophy. (i.e. I much prefer reading Nietzsche with Charlie.)

    I have a lot to say about philosophy, the problems with it and how I consider a lot of it just so much wasteful thinking but the stuff I’m into I’m really into and the drive is strong enough that I could work through a lot of meaningless chatter (i.e. standardized curriculum) without as much effort as a side thought. The real problem comes when the standard education comes at the expense of that stronger drive instead of harnessing it.

    But when the subject is not philosophy, when it’s something like computer science which is intended primarily for its specific real world use, it’s an utter failure when the education system fails to accommodate real world needs. I’m still much farther ahead than most of my coworkers with MS and PhDs in CS because I started messing with computers when I was 9 and working with them when I was 18. The real world is not like the theoretical world and no “good” theory will give you the tools to deal with the dirty systems that are in use and the hackers who know how to exploit them (or the crackers who maliciously exploit them). I’ve seen some people with graduate degrees in CS write some really shitty code in relation to internet security. University FAIL (fail meme). I should qualify that a bit though to say also that my favorite coworker so far has been a guy working on his PhD in CS who happened to also be primarily an autodidact.

    There just really isn’t any good replacement for experience. Another reason for humility.


  3. Rob says:

    Charlie, you seem here to be mainly addressing the teaching and learning side of the Humboldtian model, where I think its easier to accept your call for “intelligent and risky experimenting”. I wonder, though, how far you want to extend the shake-up to the research aside. Jon Cogburn made, I think, a strong case for the Humboldtian model as far as research and knowledge production goes (linked below, though you probably read it); but I wonder if the model’s apparent strength on this score isn’t responsible for preventing the big changes and revolutions in teaching and learning.


  4. Mike says:

    An op-ed in the NY Times has a six step plan “to make higher learning more agile, adaptive and imaginative”.


  5. Kleiner says:

    Taylor (the op-ed author in the NYT) bemoans adjuncts making ‘as little as $5,000 per course’? I’d kill for that pay! Around these parts, try only $3,000! In Indiana I had friends teach adjuncts at public universities for as little as $1800 per course. If you’ll forgive the momentary surge to the left, I’ve long thought graduate students should unionize.
    I think the Leiter blog gives a pretty reasonable run-down of the Taylor suggestions. He offers a few interesting ideas, but is borderline ‘lunatic fringe’ postmodern with some of his other suggestions. As sympathetic to aspects of postmodernity as I am, deconstruction is not a particularly good approach for ordering social institutions. I think, in order to rightly order the university, one must be bold and actually make a claim about the proper ends of education (and this ought to be something more than the loosey-goosey interdisciplinary give everyone a voice crap you usually get from the postmodern fringe).


  6. Mike says:

    I should have followed Rob’s link earlier. My link was redundant.

    I’m not on board with much of that guy’s plan either. I don’t think abolishing tenure is a good idea. Among other things, like Leiter, I still have some faith that tenure provides some protection for people to say what needs to be said. Though now that I say that I’m not sure it truly accomplishes that goal. Leiter seems to think it does, does it?

    I like interdisciplinary studies but not at the expense of depth of knowledge. I imagine good interdisciplinary work is done with collaboration and not so much with the jack-of-all-trades mindset.


  7. Kleiner says:

    While I am not advocating the abolishment of tenure, if it was meant to protect and even encourage a wide range of voices in the academy then it has failed miserably at securing that end. The academy seems pretty monolithic to me, and I am sometimes afraid to publicly express certain views that are outside of the ‘right liberal views’ an intelligent person is just expected to hold (the abortion issue comes to mind).
    It also seems that the only real liberty to freely express oneself comes not with tenure, but with promotion to full professor. Up until that point, while you cannot be fired you still have something to lose.
    Huenemann would have a more informed view than mine, though.


  8. Huenemann says:

    Here’s the cool thing about tenure. Before you get it, you need to produce a fair quantity of articles in scholarly journals. Someone conducted a study once which indicated that the average scholarly article is read by 1.7 people, including the author. So, in a way, it’s a total waste of resources, though the peer-review process does give an indication of a candidate’s grasp of the cutting edge issues in the discipline. One worry is that, absent tenure, scholars would have to keep whacking away at this pointless endeavor in order to keep their jobs. But with tenure, scholars can take a breath, gain a broader view, and devote themselves to longer-term and larger-scale issues that might have a broader, interested audience, and might nudge good thinking along. (Or they might simply self-publish weird Nz books.) There is a significant risk that they won’t do another thing ever again. But my guess is that tenure allows academics a freedom from slavish devotion to the professional journal mill, and there is an overall benefit in that.

    I really don’t have any alternative models in mind. More in a bit.


  9. Mike says:


    I recently mentioned to a Christian friend that since only 21 percent of Americans now self-identify as Republican yet the percentage of people who oppose abortion isn’t so drastically decreasing, it may be time for a more legitimately pro-life party: against abortion, the death penalty, war, and torture.

    I’m not sure if when life begins is the best question but the more I think about it the more I like a Vonnegutian style answer: It’s bizarre to have an (arguably) non-existent entity with a questionable track record defining life. It’s equally bizarre to have an (arguably) existing entity –man– with a terrible track record defining life.


  10. Huenemann says:

    Here’s an alternative model: the wiki-university. Don’t laugh just yet. I recently heard a colleague lecture about the need for researchers to find one another. He’s a physicist, and he’s recently discovered a colleague in biology, and another in computer science, who are working on projects that connect with his in surprising ways. But he found them by accident, and who knows how many others he’s missing out on. I wonder whether there is a way to use the hyper-connectivity of the internet to start solving this problem. What I’m envisioning is a university structured around “questions of interest,” being approached with different methodologies. There still needs to be deep training in those methodologies — you need basic methods courses in physics, math, history, psych, etc. But perhaps the compartmentalization of methodologies can be separated from the compartmentalization of research territories. Anybody who wants to can contribute and edit in the problem space — as in Wikipedia. But you need the training in one or more fields to gain the credentials to contribute.

    Hazy and vague, I know.


    • Diane says:

      I don’t know if there are any wiki-universities out there, but there are internet-enabled ways for researchers to find one another. Check out I don’t know how long this has existed, but it’s pretty interesting. The site is a bit of a hybrid, in a way: its structure makes you identify yourself and your interests within a traditional departmental framework, but it has Twitter-like features as well–note you can see who is “following” your work.


  11. Rob says:

    But perhaps the compartmentalization of methodologies can be separated from the compartmentalization of research territories. Anybody who wants to can contribute and edit in the problem space — as in Wikipedia. But you need the training in one or more fields to gain the credentials to contribute.

    This is a fabulous idea, one akin, I think, to what Nietzsche proposes in the Note at end of GM1, and perhaps exemplified by Experimental Philosophy… William Ian Miller (Anatomy of Disgust, Eye For an Eye, Faking It, Mystery of Courage) would be a great contemporary exemplar of someone solidly grounded in disciplinary expertise (in law and Saga Iceland) fruitfully roaming across disciplinary boundaries (psychology, philosophy, history, anthropology, etymology).


  12. Mike says:


    I plan on writing a post on that particular topic soon and I think the model is wikipedia like but as wikipedia is centralized it mimics more a centralized version control system and I think the model that will win is based on a decentralized version control system. This is basically how the Linux kernel has changed its development methods over time. So we’d call this a “many trees” model with nearly seamless inter connectivity between trees and it correlates with what I described to you about the dks idea. This may help explain what DVCS is though you have to extrapolate to collaboration about other problem domains.

    Also, I recently came across Mendeley which you may find interesting. I would also like to read this book about scientific collaboration on the internet when I get a chance.

    My main thought is that scientists were the first on the internet and computer scientists are the most intricately involved with it so how knowledge is shared and grows on the net in programming circles and especially open source communities will forecast how (especially) practical scientific knowledge will progress in the future. The “many minds” phenomena that you mentioned as valuable in a recent comment is basically what I’m betting on. And yes, this is an attempt to explain “our successes and not our errors”.


  13. Rob says:

    Maybe Citizendium, created by a disenchanted founder of Wikipedia (with, of course, a background in philosophy!), is more accurate a model than Wikipedia:


  14. Huenemann says:

    An interesting sidenote about the physicist colleague I described: he found the chief difficulty they faced was that they had trouble communicating their ideas across disciplines — different vocabularies, etc. My head went Boing! That’s where philosophers come in: finding the formal and structural similarities often masked by language.


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