Sunday, January 29, 2012

Universal Education and the University

The idea of a university is the logical outgrowth of the idea of the collegium. This is the idea that people should get together to engage in educational discourse, edifying each other and those who are in attendance but not otherwise engaged. A university is just a collegium with a larger ambit; or as formulated in the USA, a college with the 'will teach postgrad courses and grant postgrad degrees' role tacked on.

The graduates of such a collegium or university could then become professors, that is, people who had thrashed out their ideas, threshed out the chaff from their ideas, and trashed the bad ideas, so as to be able to profess something worth professing. The whole idea was to go through the process first and then go out into the world to make it a better place (or not).

This was why most universities of old grew up as relatively cloistered environments akin to monasteries. The word 'edifice' from Latin aedificium (what they called libraries, mostly) reflects that. Sadly, many modern buildings are edifices that do not edify (much as many sacrifices these days do not make sacred).

In the early days only people who valued education went into such institutions. This changed when education was seen as imparting economic value to graduates. Then getting the degree became more important to the majority of the world than actually going to a college or university. And, as with watches, clothing and the luxury versions of all such consumer goods, labels also became worth something.

However, there are many simple tests of educational quality. Some come with counter-tests.

For example, ask a student whether there is such a thing as absolute truth. If that student replies in the negative, then ask whether this negative is absolutely true. On the other hand, an educated mind can juggle n+1 contradictory ideas in n sections of the brain while working out how to verify and hold on to n-1 of them for further analysis.

A good institution will have made students who, formerly unable to survive a battery of these simple tests, can do so by the time they graduate. For students who could already survive such a battery, the institution will have made them able to design and deploy such tests themselves.

All this, of course, leads to a society where ideas are thrashed, threshed and trashed more accurately and usefully. Or in theory, that's what should happen. Universally.

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Blogger HATH said...

I was skimming through the pages of Allan Bloom's the closing of the american mind when I saw this. I wonder if you have tried it and if so would you underline some of your insights to me? :D

Sunday, January 29, 2012 10:41:00 pm  
Blogger Trebuchet said...

HATH: Hi there! The problem for me is that when I first read the book, I was in the military (yes, I know) and Bloom was alive. That was 25 years ago! As far as I can remember, it was a political rant. Sure, he did point out the universities were full of crap, but he also overstated his case somewhat.

You see, like most Aristotelians, I do believe that there are core values and that they are balanced against each other. A better word for 'core value' would be 'virtue' — not what humans impose on others, but what ought to come out of the state of being human. (Here's one of my old posts on virtues.)

Very few universities seek to directly inculcate virtues. It's considered somewhat old-fashioned. But the old-fashioned virtues are justice and mercy, fortitude and prudence. You can think of them as 'doing what is right', 'not doing what is wrong', 'pushing yourself hard' and 'not over-pressing'. Above them is wisdom, which is the virtue of being able to decide which virtue is most appropriate for a situation.

We need to apply this to human education. Inculcate virtues first, and then use reason. The other way doesn't work because ontology always beats epistemology. :)

Monday, January 30, 2012 6:13:00 am  

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