Our Center for the American University hosted a conference Thursday on New Institutional Forms in Higher Education, which traced the origins of the modern university and forecast its likely future.
John Leo conducted two podcast interviews with participants: take a look here at Charles Murray, author of Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality and Anthony Kronman, author of Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (why not, each is only about ten minutes). As for the conference:
The first panel dissected the historical origins of the modern university, with panelists addressing, respectively, the medieval origins of the concept of the university, the rise of the University of Virginia and the American university, and the importation of the German model of the University in the 1880s. Anthony Kronman of Yale Law, the final speaker, offered an apt closing thought, noting that, while the American university is a “glorious thing”, the “triumphal rise of the modern university has put in doubt, under a cloud of uncertainty, that older educational ideal which is centered upon the development of the soul..”
The history of the institution being by this point mapped out, the following panel took up the question of contemporary challenges to the configuration of the university. All of the speakers stressed the unsuitability of the current model of organization to the needs of our students, our employers, and to society a large. Each arrived at this grim conclusion from a different angle. Frank Macchiarola, the chancellor of St. Francis’ College, welcomed straitened circumstances of the financial crisis, having witnessed both the waste and the lack of utility that the modern model of “sleepaway” colleges had brought. Carol D’Amico, of Conexus Indiana, an organization dedicated to workforce preparation, spoke to the irrelevance of college education to the requirements of most employers, and to potential employees, noting particularly that community colleges, in the pursuit of “junior university” models provide fewer practical skills, and, importantly, fewer graduates. “We cannot use that model to get us where we need to be.”
Charles Murray followed with characteristically blunt words about the American higher educational system, arguing for the perversity of a society that had elevated the BA– a credential all-but-meaningless to employers—into an essential educational attainment, “when I say that the BA is worthless as a credential I actually mean it’s worse than that.” He echoed the calls of other panelists for the structuring of higher education.
David Gelernter of Yale University closed with portends of an electronic future for education, with online courses and lectures becoming de rigeur, and the geography of the classroom and the university upended,”the undergraduate college will surely evaporate into the cybersphere.” Gelernter’s very correct about most things; we shall see.