Peter Drucker, among others has claimed that the university only has a few more decades left, that it is gasping for its last breath. Of course, as with all such predictions, it is often appended with “as we know it,” which makes for a fairly safe prognosis. Despite the relatively short amount of time I’ve spent in academia, the university does seem to be very vulnerable. It is not clear what function it serves; “education” and “research,” but to what end and whose benefit?
One popular version of this tragic death sees the large state universities crushed from above by Harvard and below by Phoenix. The space between the two seems to be disappearing daily.
What do students learn in school? If the student is aggressive in pursuing their education, there is a great deal that can be learned in terms of the accumulated knowledge in various fields during the four years of an undergraduate degree. But more and more, students who take advantage of this constitute an extreme minority. Most students are happy to surf through four years and come out with a degree and the (seeming) economic advantage it brings.
Traditionally, they at least came out of many of the non-science majors with an ability to communicate and structure an argument, but I know that our own program is failing miserably to provide them with these basic skills, and if the graduate students we attract are any indication, we are not alone in that failure. It seems as if the Indian and Singaporean students in our program actually managed to get an education, as did some of our “non-traditional” (i.e., older) students who attended high school and undergrad many years ago.
If even this is lost, why go to college. The enthusiastic learner can gain knowledge in the setting of the university, but most can do nearly as well on their own. They can benefit from some contact with other smart folks, but we’ll get to that in a second. Universities continue to provide a credentialing service: students who gain the degree manage to work through the bureaucracy of the school system and jump through the low hoops of most courses (or, rather, learn to select courses that are least challenging), skills that are useful in navigating the large bureaucracy of many major corporations. But some of the more interesting places to work actually require you to think and actively pursue solutions. Students who have attended a large university tend not to be trained for this.
What if the ability to chat with smart like-minded people, the ability to develop your knowledge through interaction with an expert, was somehow abstracted from the university. Assuming Cornell doesn’t teach you much (and despite the reputation among the Ivies that Cornell and Princeton have for the quality and rigor of their undergraduate programs, I’ve spoken with alums from both who suggest that this is an exaggeration), why spend the price of a nice sports car each year to attend? Part of this, as noted above, is that it opens doors when placed on a resume, but an important part of it is that students who have entered these schools have demonstrated through tests and experience to be smart and that they have the potential to do great things. And you get to hang out with these people.
If you want to hang out with smart people, couldn’t you just join Mensa? Apologies to any Mensa readers who may feel insulted by this, but I’ve never met a Mensa member I liked. I don’t usually talk about this, but I was a prodigy: blew out the IQ tests, started taking college classes at 12–all that stuff. Eventually, I returned to average intelligence, largely via disciplined television viewing. But for a while, it seemed like it might be fun to hang out with other smart people. The problem with Mensa is that it seems like an organization for people who do well on IQ tests but don’t have enough imagination to go and find something fun to do. I would much rather chat with someone who has too short an attention span to even finish an IQ test, but who spends their time jumping off of tall things, or traveling to interesting places and learning about their culture, or drawing the world in a way that only they can see it. In other words, I want to be a MacArthur Fellow. But until that comes through, I want to roll my own.
Why wait for someone to nominate me for a “genius grant” when I can get someone to invite me to Orkut. I know, I know, the two are nothing alike. But they could be. There is that promise. I don’t like most of these services, because they remind me of what I suspect high school is like; they are not only cliquish, they encourage cliquishness. And, perhaps outside of dating, they lack any killer app. The question is how something like the Well, when combined with blogging and a social networking system of some sort, could yield the kind of intellectual community that has traditionally existed on the campuses of universities and research labs.
One of the ways to get from where we are now to where we want to be is by leveraging the existing communities that are built on campuses to create a more lasting environment of continual intellectual engagement. I think we see the edge of this already, but I don’t think it has been exploited as much as it might be. What would such an environment look like? How much central organization would it require? How would it provide a space for unexpected encounters?
The irony, of course, is that these places exist as intentional communities only in so far as the administrators hope(d) to establish a venue through which accidental communities would emerge. They differ markedly from intentional communities, in which individuals actively pursue community goals. We do hear talk of this on the university campus, of course, but the people who interact in such a way are often fiercely individualistic. Doesn’t it seem as though the variety of social technologies that are being created every day could help to support such accidental communities? How do we foster those spaces?