Saturday, November 13, 2004

A thought experiment about the contemporary university

One of the minor daydreams that I have from time is to imagine what it would be like to travel backwards in time, assemble a group of scientists (or what have you), and listen to their reaction upon hearing about some great advance in 20th/21st century knowledge. In a way, this is something of a minor thought experiment: how exactly would an educated person of some past era react to such a situation?

For example, suppose you could go back in time to the 19th century and sit in on an academic debate about the merits of the particle theory of light versus the wave theory of light. How would the scholars positioned in support of one side or the other react if you told them that light is both a particle and a wave? The obvious answer is that they would probably laugh in your face before continuing to argue over the same points as before, but I find myself thinking that this might be underestimating them. Isn't it possible that particle/wave duality could have been just as quickly accepted by 19th century scientists as it was by 20th century scientists if only they had the advantage of some 19th century genius hitting onto that key leap of insight?

A more depressing thought experiment is imagining how a scientist of some past age would react to being told about the state of the contemporary university. A 19th century univeristy scientist would probably be deeply shocked to discover that his august institution was fated to become, in essence, a widely successful sports franchise, a hotel for undergraduate students, and a small contingent of professors who are largely useful for capturing federal appropriations as far as the university is concerned.

As Mark Edmundsen mentions in his essay On the Uses of a Liberal Education:
Perhaps it would be a good idea to try firing the counselors and sending half the deans back into their classrooms, dismantling the football team and making the stadium into a playground for local kids, emptying the fraternities, and boarding up the student-activities office. Such measures would convey the message that American colleges are not northern outposts of Club Med. A willingness on the part of the faculty to defy student conviction and affront them occasionally -- to be usefully offensive -- also might not be a bad thing. We professors talk a lot about subversion, which generally means subverting the views of the people who never hear us talk or read our work. But to subvert the views of our students, our customers, that would be something else again.
As an alumnus of a university with a 50,000 seat stadium that recently experienced a classroom shortage, I couldn't agree more.

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