How to build a better university

In 2015, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah opposed two conceptions of higher education, Utility U, which emphasizes career preparation and return on investment, and Utopian U, which seeks to prepare students for a life well lived. The latter is centered on ideas, ideals, values ​​and intellectual life, and its aim is to promote human development and build the soul of a student.

No doubt about the side favored by Appiah.

Around the same time, Gary Gutting, a fellow philosopher, wrote that the conflict between the utilitarian and the utopian was a struggle between capitalist and non-capitalist values. In a capitalist society in which a college degree has become a requirement for employment, it is not surprising that college is seen as a commodity, students treated as consumers to be pampered and entertained, and education viewed as a commodity. instrumental and transactional rather than critical, transformative and developmental.

Spoiler alert: Utility U triumphed over Utopian U.

But what if Appiah and Gutting are wrong to pit Utility U and Utopian U against each other?

Should we not aspire to a higher education which combines utopia and utility?

The history of higher education is punctuated by repeated attempts to create educational utopias – institutions with radically innovative organizational structures, programs and pedagogies, often accompanied by innovative architectural designs.

These utopian experiences tend to resemble each other, eliminating departments, rejecting grades, and disdaining a subspecialty program, all while aspiring to create closer interactions between students and faculty.

The proposed University of Austin is only the most recent example of this utopian impulse, following in recent footsteps of Minerva and Quest University of Canada, but also of older utopian experiments at Black Mountain, Evergreen. State, Eugene Lang, Goddard, Green Mountain, Hampshire. , New College of Florida and Prescott.

At no time has the utopian impulse in higher education been stronger than in the 1960s, when some 300 new “experimental” campuses were established, not only in the United States at UC Santa Cruz and the United States. SUNY’s College of Old Westbury, but worldwide, in Nanterre in France; Bielefeld, Bochum and Constance in West Germany; East Anglia, Essex, Keele and Sussex in Great Britain; and Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

In a few cases, these new campuses have introduced truly new and enduring approaches to the curriculum, such as Women’s Studies in Old Westbury and the “New” Social History in Warwick. More importantly, the story of educational utopias is the story of utopias in general: a rather depressing story of misplaced hopes, broken promises and failed dreams.

As a recent collection of essays, Utopian universities: a global history of the new campuses of the 1960s, edited by Miles Taylor and Jill Pellew, makes it clear that radical visions of higher education have repeatedly failed on the same benches. These included students who sought a more traditional (and less demanding) college experience, professors who prioritized research over teaching and mentoring, and legislatures who wanted scale and scope. profitability.

It is a classic example of the well-worn principle of regression to the mean, driven by the twin forces of conformism and professionalism.

But there are other reasons why these utopian visions tend to blur, well described by Stefan Collini of the University of Cambridge.

  • Too often, these experiences reflect academics’ visions of an ideal college education rather than responding to the actual needs, interests and desires of students.
    It’s no surprise that leading academics, who often attend highly selective liberal arts colleges and elite research universities, try to recap the aspects of these experiences that matter most to them – their intensity. intellectual and student-mentor intimacy – while shedding the elements they despised. , like Greek life and intercollegiate athletics.
  • Despite all their utopian aspirations, these institutions tend to adhere to a series of assumptions that dominate US higher education among the elite.
    As Collini points out, many of these institutions quickly rejected any form of education that reeked of practice or applied. Even more than traditional institutions, they prioritized the arts and humanities, often downplaying not only career-oriented fields, but science and math as well. Not only did these educational utopians quickly embrace the amenities of traditional colleges and universities – crests, seals, currencies, and elaborate graduation ceremonies – but they emphasized the selectivity of their institutions.

In other words, these educational utopias, just like the political and economic utopias described by Plato, Thomas More, Samuel Butler, and Edward Bellamy, insert elements of existing society (such as slavery in More Utopia) in their seemingly radical alternatives.

If higher education is to thrive, it needs inspiring utopian visions and real alternatives to the status quo. After all, all of us who are not oblivious are well aware of the shortcomings of our current system. Not only are the stratification of resources, low completion rates, prolonged delay to graduation, uncertain learning and employment outcomes, and inexcusably high levels of student debt, but, worse yet, the number of disengaged students whose school experience largely consists of alcohol and drug-fueled socialization, hours of video games and hours of paid work, interrupted periodically by cram sessions and sleepless nights.

Alongside today’s neoliberal, instrumental and technocratic universities, we need institutions dedicated to empowerment, transformation and equitable outcomes. But that doesn’t require reinventing the wheel or starting from scratch.

There are ways, I stress, to do this cost effectively.

  1. Empower faculty to create cohort programs or learning communities within large institutions. An existing honors college, usually organized around an excellent books program, is not sufficient, and not just because these programs are by design exclusive and generally academically restricted. While providing a model for how to combine comprehensive interdisciplinary courses addressing important and enduring issues with rich extracurricular programs, specialty colleges fail to meet the full range of student interests in, for example, the arts, computing, health care, public policy, scientific research or technology, among other fields.
  2. Expand opportunities for experiential learning. With the high costs of poor hiring decisions, today’s employers are looking for candidates with practical work experience. As Ryan Craig has convincingly argued, it is increasingly possible to integrate work-related learning into many curricula. In addition to tapping into emerging online markets for work-related project opportunities (which can be incorporated into existing courses), a growing number of institutions are partnering with major employers (such as North Florida’s collaboration with Optimum Healthcare) or use companies like Riipen to identify projects to match with undergraduates.
  3. Supplement the course-centered, discipline-specific curriculum with other types of learning experiences. There is no particular reason why the lecture and the seminar dominate the program. There is a wide range of other educational models, including internships, clinical courses, hands-on learning, large-scale undergraduate research, studio lessons, and creative opportunities, which many students consider to be. richer, more powerful and more engaging learning experiences.
  4. Create certificate programs to prepare students for the ongoing economic transformation. In a recent article by harvard business reviewCraig lists a range of skills in high demand that colleges and universities could teach, including Pardot, Marketo, and Google Adwords for marketing; ZenDesk Plus for customer service; NetSuite and Financial Force for finance; Working day for HR; Salesforce for customer relationship management; and Epic for healthcare administration, not to mention Access or Excel.

The word “utopia” comes from the Greek for “no place”, and it is too easy to dismiss utopian thinking as unrealistic, unrealistic and unsustainable. But we need utopian visions as sources of inspiration and incentive for innovation.

Without utopias to defy convention, society is doomed to complacency and stagnation.

For three decades, the fall of Eastern European communism undermined utopian thinking in politics, stifling efforts to create a fairer and more equitable society with costs that we are only now beginning to take into account.

Within higher education, it took the threats posed by for-profit universities, MOOCs and certificate-granting boot camps, as well as declining undergraduate enrollment, to awaken more traditional campuses to that they begin to fill in their gaps, but often in a way that does little to radically improve the actual academic experience.

We have the power to bridge the gap between utility U and utopia U. Do not allow inertia, inaction or a mistaken belief that utopia is unachievable, unachievable and unattainable to take action. realistic which can, in fact, bring the educational utopia closer together.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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