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History / Sociology

The Problem of Modern Universities

In my last post, I showed just some of the problems of the modern university. I also gave a brief mention of why these problems were so bad that the modern university is not functioning anywhere close to its intended purpose. But before we can offer any solutions to a problem, we must first be aware of the nature and scope of the problem. In order to do that, we must understand what the university is supposed to function like. The university is a social structure best understood by examining how it is used by individuals and corporations.

In order to understand what a university is supposed to be, we have to understand what a university is. A university is a not a building or a collection of buildings. A university is not a collection of people either even if those people include both students and teachers. A university is a social structure. A social structure is just what it sounds like. It organizes people that are a part of it, has procedures to accept and reject members, can change and has a purpose beyond that of individual members. The closest analogy to a social structure is a rock. Just as rocks are composed of individual minerals, so are social structures composed of individual people. The rock confines the actions of individuals, but also gives rise to properties above and beyond those of individual people. The only difference is that social structures are created by individuals, while rocks are not created by minerals.

Like any social structure, universities are artifacts. We cannot say what an artifact is without examining how we understand that artifact. The social structure is unique in that its existence is entirely bound up in our understanding of it. If book was completely ruined, then something would still exist that used to be a book. We might refer to that thing as a ‘ ruined book’ . When social structures vanish, then there is nothing at all left. Artifacts are always created by people for a specific purpose. If we choose to, we can take that artifact and use it for a different purpose. If it fulfills that new purpose, then we have effectively taken one artifact and transformed it into another one simply by using it differently. This is especially relevant to a discussion of social structures because they can easily be transformed.

In order to understand what the modern university is, we must understand what the present purpose (or purposes) of a university is. Although a historical understanding of universities might be helpful, it would not explain the present problems of universities. What it might explain is why and how universities came to have these problems. Universities may have found additional purposes over time, lost their original purpose or fractured in their purpose. These are all possible because of the nature of the university.

In order to find out what the present purposes of the university are, we must ask how the modern university is used by everyone who uses it. This is the only truly objective way of finding that answer. We must consider not only the individuals in the university but also corporations that use the university. But that is for next time.

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