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.