Sunday, September 11, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter XVIII

Chapter XVIII (pages 301-313), “The University”

Everyone except the occasional Mozart-like genius should have the sort of education in character and knowledge outlined earlier, but not everyone can profit from a university education. “Certainly the idle rich who at present infest the older universities very often derive no benefit from them, but merely contract habits of dissipation [p. 301].” Students who can benefit from university should not be precluded from attending by economic considerations, however.

British universities thankfully are escaping their past of providing first a clerical, and later a gentlemanly, education, while becoming professional schools. Lawyers, doctors, engineers, high-ranking civil service workers: all of these professions now are dominated by university men. Russell is sorry to witness the demise of learning for its own sake, but the plutocrats who fund the schools do not tolerate an impractical approach. Disinterested education can be salvaged, however, if a democracy of educated people devotes public money to the cause. Learned educators who rely on state funding are more likely to be uncorrupted than those who depend on the benefactions of wealthy businessmen. At any rate, universities should both offer professional training, and pursue research that lacks immediate utility.

People should be allocated to professions and jobs by talent, but economic realities imply that the choices of young people are constrained by heredity, by their parents’ wherewithal. Many people who would make for the best doctors cannot afford the training, and many people who are well suited to farm effectively lack the capital to procure land: most farmers are sons of farmers. Efficient agriculture is so important that we could require anyone undertaking substantial farming to hold a degree in “scientific agriculture [p. 307].” The general notion for all significant professions is that only people with appropriate skills should be allowed to take part; further, any person of ability, irrespective of means, should have the opportunity to acquire the appropriate skills.

So universities should be open to all who are qualified, with public support for students without sufficient means, and continued enrollment should be contingent on academic progress. “The idea of the university as a place of leisure where rich young men loaf for three or four years is dying, but, like Charles II, it is an unconscionable time about it [p. 308].”

The evidence that students are applying themselves should not be their attendance at (often useless) lectures. The Montessori focus on individualized work is particularly appropriate for bright students of college age. But the business minds that fund university schooling need verifiable signs of progress, so too much attention is given to trivial matters such as lecture attendance. Teachers should start the term by assigning required and recommended texts, and setting paper topics. (Students could, with approval, set their own topics, provided they are equally challenging.) Individual meetings with students should take place after the papers are prepared, and their papers are the measure of their effective effort. Once a week or so, a teacher should be available for less formal discussions.

“Every university teacher should be himself engaged in research, and should have sufficient leisure and energy to know what is being done in his subject in all countries [p. 309].” Unlike teachers of younger children, college teachers don’t have to be skillful pedagogues; they do have to be knowledgeable in and committed to their discipline. Every seventh year should bring a sabbatical to study abroad or to otherwise acquire knowledge of global advances in the relevant field. Britain has been slow to adopt these measures. Russell notes that his own training in mathematics came from teachers who had fallen woefully behind the progress made in previous decades on the Continent. The tension that exists at universities between research and teaching largely is artificial, stoked by the presence of students who shouldn’t be in college and a mindset that college, like grade school, should provide a sort of moral education. “The only morality which can be profitably exacted is that of work; the rest belongs to earlier years [p. 311].”

In terms of the function of universities, research is central. Human progress, in the long-term, requires new knowledge, and this, in turn, requires a research investment independent of any tangible return. A creator needs to be motivated by something beyond immediate, practical rewards. “He should be occupied, rather, in the pursuit of a vision, in capturing and giving permanence to something which he has first seen dimly for a moment, which he has loved with such ardour that the joys of this world have grown pale by comparison [p. 312].” The greatness of humanity depends on nourishing such ardour.

No comments: