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Culture / History

Sinking the Modern University

Recently, I have been thinking about the problems of modern universities. We know that universities are supposed to be places that we go to get educated at. We also ‘ know’ that they are supposed to be good places to be taught, that they help us find good jobs and that good research goes on there. We may even believe universities are better in the modern world than they were in the last century. I have begun to doubt all of these claims.

I have nothing to say against a good education. Whether or not a university education is necessary for everyone is a different matter. Construction workers, plumbers and electricians are all trades that are best learned outside of the university. If that is what someone chooses to do, then there is nothing wrong with that decision. Since those jobs do not require a university education, such people do not require one either. When we include the general category of ” business jobs” , this means that a large majority of people want to work in jobs that do not really require degrees of any kind. So there is good reason to doubt that a university education is good for everyone anyway.

Universities actually focus on research rather than education. This means two things. The first one is that professors are chosen on the basis of publications, degrees and prospects for future significant research. The second one is that professors are not taught how to teach nor are they penalized for poor quality teaching. Since I am speaking of the modern university system in general, there are exceptions. What makes this point significant is that exceptions are rare.

Universities are also commercial enterprises. This means two things. The first thing is that undergraduates are there to feed the system by paying for courses, books and other fees. The second thing is that professors are not there to teach students. They are there to maximize the number of paying students so that the system continues to function. This can result in popular courses that are academically worthless such as a course on basket weaving. This can also result in grade inflation, removal of difficult material and loosening of degree requirements. None of these things necessary apply to graduate school.

Finally, universities are political enterprises. Most universities are publicly funded or rely on significant donations from political groups. This means that universities will try to avoid offending their donors. Speech codes may appear that forbid whatever the current political leaders do not like. Unwanted student groups may not receive funding. Black students  (not at the highest ranked universities) are admitted one full grade point average behind other students. Professors may find that research is not enough and irrelevant criteria are used in hiring decisions. These are the worst elements of the political arena, but there is every reason to believe that this occurs frequently.

I have only begun to list some of the problems that I am aware of. I have not even mentioned the effects on research, access to scholarly information, lawsuits or the economy. Universities are much more of a status symbol than an educational institution.

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