Thursday, May 6, 2010

Finals Week

I've just emerged from somewhat of a media-blackout, surrounding the flurry of academic activity that surrounds the end of a university semester. It is always around this time that I start to reflect on the nature of the American College or University. What would the founders of our great academic institutions think of how things go today? Surely, the founders of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, William & Mary, et al could not have foreseen the changing nature of education. When designing the curriculum of the University of Virginia, Jefferson didn't know that what he knew as "philosophy" or "natural philosophy," at least, would end up splintering into dozens of different fields. Perhaps they could see the day where Latin and Greek would less useful than the modern languages; there is evidence of that.

But in general, I truly wonder what our founders would think about the modern university, where most students don't know who Tully is, let alone can they parse him. And most students would politely decline to decline the Greek paradigms.

Aside from that, how has the purpose of the university changed? I suspect Jefferson or Adams would feel the same way I do when I hear students discussing the mad rush to sell their textbooks after the semester is over: why would you want to sell back a textbook? If the information contained therein is of no interest to you, why did you take the class?

We know the answer to that, of course, but the larger question is still: what is the purpose of the university? I doubt many of our founders went to university simply to go through the motions to get a degree so they could get a job. But perhaps I'm mistaken about this, maybe the university has always been that place you go to make yourself more hire-able--and if you learn something or better yourself in the process, fine.

Perhaps I'm rambling, which is not to be unexpected after a busy time, but I would be interested if anybody has any insight into this. Did any of the founders discuss all-night cram-sessions before an exam? Did any of them complain in their diaries about getting a pittance for their used textbooks? Somebody should write a book about the founders as students.

Do you think students have always been, for the most part, short sighted, not concerned so much about their long term enlightenment and the pleasure of learning, but only concerned about getting the best grade for minimal effort?


King of Ireland said...

I do not know about the Founders but I have heard that what I feared would happen for years is starting to happen. The problems of spoiled students and parents that destroyed the public education system are starting to do the same to Universities. Soon both will become a joke.

Most of all I think federal govt. Intervention in both has caused this. I think most founders would have been against it.

Daniel said...

I think the perspectives of Jefferson or Adams would be very different from those of the Founders of those universities. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, were founded on very conservative principles and their founders would have been horrified within a generation. Harvard's Founders wanted the Greeks taught and rejected Descartes. Yale and Princeton were founded because the existing schools were straying into Lockean thought. No, they would not be pleased.