The Idea of a University

Friday, November 5, 2010 -- 5:00 PM
John Perry

I’m really happy universities exist, and that they support philosophy departments, and seem to think I do something useful.  But the longer I have spent in universities, the more I've become familiar with the vast differences in schools and departments, the complexity of funding, how different things are done in other universities, particularly those in other lands… and, frankly, the less I have a feel for what universities are really supposed to be.  Here are four issues around which my doubts and confusions cluster.

Research versus teaching.  At Stanford we charge the undergraduates a lot of money.  We draw the best students in the world --- or at least as good any others.  But at Stanford, and Harvard, and the University of California, and all the other elite universities, we all know that research is the main criteria for hiring and promotion.  So what is a university?  A teaching institution?  Or a big research lab with some students around the edges?

Academy or Laboratory?  I tend to see the university on the model of the philosophy and other humanities departments.  After all, our heritage goes back to Plato’s academy, perhaps the first university-like thing in the Western tradition.  We think about hard intellectual problems and teach students to think.  But when you’ve been around a university as long as I have, and chaired the department as both Ken and I have, and sat through countless committee meetings with colleagues from all over the insititution, you have to adopt a larger perspective.  The place is  a sprawling megalith, and the paradigm model is not thinkers in a library or seminar but scientists in a lab, funded by government or industry, competing with others for the next round of grants and prizes.

Who owns the university?  Whose university is it, anyway?  To whom do we answer?  Officially, we are a corporation, so the Trustees are in charge.  But as a non-profit corporation, do we answer to a higher authority?  If so, what is it?  The needs of the world?  Of the nation?  Of something more abstract, like Knowledge or Truth?  And who are the final arbiters of how we conduct our mission?  The faculty?  The alumni?  The students?  And what is the administration’s job?  To convey the deep wisdom of the faculty to the Trustees?  The Trustees for the most part are practical people in touch with the wider world.  Maybe our mission should be to translate the Trustees vision to the university’s work force --- like you and me.

Finally the future of universities like Stanford and Berkeley and all of the ones we're familiar with for that matter leaves me mystified.  Traditionally, universities whatever else they are, are a place.  They provide a place where books and faculty and labs and students can all be together, and reap the benefits of being together.  Will that continue to be important with the changes wrought by the internet?  There are already internet universities.  Are they the wave of the future?  Will Stanford and Berkeley and UCLA and Cal State San Francisco become dinosaurs in a great new world of distributed universities, whose libraries and classrooms are just U-R-L's on the internet?

So, we’ll have lots to talk about with our guest, the Stanford provost, the philosophy department’s very own John Etchemendy.  We’ll start by asking him just how he sees the university --- a school with researchers around the edge, or a big lab with students around the edge.

Comments (17)


Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, November 5, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Your questions, ruminations and mystifications are

Your questions, ruminations and mystifications are all pointed and well-founded. I wonder if some of my comments have contributed to their formulation? If yes, fine, if no, no matter. In any case, I have asked the same sorts of questions, as have some of my close friends and associates. One facet/chapter of a book I have been writing approaches the problem. The titled segment is: Education and the Sword of Damocles. In brief, it asks certain questions about education: Who is it for really? Who profits most, short term and long? What happens to those who fail to make the grade?
And who decides (and how)what monies are allocated to what kinds of research?
Your post has intrigued me. Mostly because I have not seen educators ask these questions before. Partly because of some of the comments I have made and/or seen on your blog. I am pleasantly reminded of a soliloquy recorded by a group called the Moody Blues, way back there in the 1970s, on their Threshold of a Dream release (I believe, so, anyway):"...There you go friend, keep as cool as you can---face piles of trials with smiles. It riles them to believe that you perceive the web they weave. Keep on thinking free." Sorry if this was a bit long. Thanks for your patience. If you are so disposed or curious, see also the 15 minute philosopher blog (Comrade Ade) and/or Morning Buzz, by a guy named Lee. We think, therefore, we think. (I think) Really like your blog and those mentioned.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, November 5, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

As we get older, one of two things happen: either

As we get older, one of two things happen: either we ask more questions, or, we die miserably because we did not. I'll take door #1, thank you.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, November 6, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I wrote this piece sometime ago about the lesson

I wrote this piece sometime ago about the lessons we teach our children. Perhaps you will see it fit to publish here.
Thanks You,
=
MJA
YAHOO
Whilst searching for the truth of everything I found something to share. I came across two references to Jonathan Swift?s story ?Gulliver?s Travels? and like any good true searcher found the movie, rented and watched it. I gave it a critic rating of ?G? for great. The story is a satire meaning that it negatively abuses the fundamental institutions of humanity. The story is about a person named Gulliver who goes on a trip, finds unbelievable truth, and comes back to share his discovery. Unfortunately for him he was measured to be crazy and locked up. The history of other great discoverers have met with similar discomforts, house arrests, torture and even death. Gulliver tells a story of the irony of man, the flaws of who we are even though we think ourselves better. There is one place Gulliver stops on his journey that had particular interest to me. He becomes one with wild horses and sees freedom for the first time. The horses have given human beings the name ?Yahoo? and see us as the savages that we truly are.
Several months before seeing this movie I thought it a good idea to check out a new elementary school just to see modern education at work; it also being a part of my current study of everything. I was told due to security reasons I was not allowed to look so on my way out I did anyway. I looked into a classroom and saw young children standing neatly at attention next to computers with thin screen monitors. At the blackboard a teacher wrote ?Y A H O O? in large letters for everyone to see. At that moment I started questioning the importance of ?yahoo? over the teaching of the basics of life at the elementary level or any other. Mr. Swift saw us as savage ignorant ?yahoos? over three hundred years ago and still cannot believe his insight.
None of us are born ?yahoos? we are what we are taught. Do students of any age bring homework home such as lessons in happiness or is it ?yahoo?? Is computer science more important than love? Has geometry, algebra, calculus, computers, biology, science, astronanophysics, materialism, and ?yahoo? taken the valuable space of what is important, how to live? Are we being taught the importance of helping others, or the importance of money, and helping only ourselves? Can you imagine a school called The Institute of How To Live instead of Technology? The School of Law could be the School of Morality. The department of physics or in other words the department of measuring the differences in nature could be the department of unity or simply the department of equality. The Truth. Imagine that. Would the universe be a better place if we studied what we can see instead of what we can not? I think Mr. Swift knew the foundation of ignorance is education, what about you? The question has often been asked: Why do we have to study something we will never use? Would a class on the proper use of a public garbage can be more beneficial than Euclid?s geometry on this trashed planet of ours?
Many people over our human history have pointed us to where wisdom is to be found, right in front of us not further away. We have been micro and macro measuring everything only to take us further from the truth, something we were unfortunately taught to do. We have a choice to make with the direction of education for our future, so which should it be, ?yahoo? or the truth? If man has become ignorant and cruel then perhaps a change in curriculum to what is most important and true will not only enlighten and make us wise, but ultimately and absolutely set us free.
Truth 101,
=
MJA

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, November 7, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

I did not spend much time in universities. As a re

I did not spend much time in universities. As a result, I had to work with greater determination for the working life that I was able to attain and for the better-than-median income I finally earned before retirement. I somewhat subscribe to Heisenberg's OEOs* approach to figuring out why things work the way they do. My experiences regarding post-secondary education and the recipients thereof, is that in many cases, both are overrated. But, as a business, the education system has successfully lobbied for and promoted itself and seems to illustrate a phenomenon I have been hearing about, that so-called historionic effect.
When I worked in a public administration position, I was always told how much more promotable I could be if only I went back to school and got more advanced degrees. The jobs I applied for did not require knowledge of exotic mathematics, physics, biology or any of the sorts of stuff that doctors, engineers or other professionals had to obtain. These positions required knowledge of laws, regulations and attendant state policy(ies); things which I knew by the time I began to seriously seek advancement. But since I did not have the prescribed educational credentials and was by then over fifty years of age, my knowledge, experience and practical skills counted for nothing.
Another prohibition in public sector career paths is the matter of politics. It may equal educational level in determining who advances and who does not. But, no one wants to talk about that.
So, I do understand when I see and hear questions about higher education. But, I am retired now and doing what I want to do; when I want to do it. It is a great feeling. Remember this: education IS a business, like any other. It is merely more successful (usually) in portraying its professed altruism.
(*OEOs: Observations, Experiences and Opinions; THE HISTORIONIC EFFECT, A PRESSURIZED WORLD, copyright, 2003)

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, November 10, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

Heisenberg, Neuman and the carpenter have missed i

Heisenberg, Neuman and the carpenter have missed it all, in my estimation, although this historionic effect thing seems plausible. Every bit as plausible as Taleb's Black Swan scenario. Here is how I see it: education was supposed to usher in the human utopia; the age of enlightenment; brave new world---the beginning of an age of universal understanding. What happened to that? Locke would have a brain hemorrage, were he alive today---or maybe he would just jump off a tall building.
What have we done with education? Well, admittedly, quite a lot. In a few positive words: we have survived, progressed and prospered. Expectations were met, based on projections and subsequent achievements. In the minus column, we still cannot get past our history(ies) with one another---and this is where the meaning(s) of education become(s) foggy and parochial. It all depends on where we live. WAIT A MINUTE, HERE. What am I talking about? Who is this historionic effect guy anyway and why isn't anyone trying to figure out what he is saying? I would like to know, wouldn't you? Or does it bother you that you have not formed the concept? The carpenter is right in his assessment of the business aspect of education---but others have said that---no news there.
I wonder a lot. How about you?

Tom's picture

Tom

Wednesday, November 10, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

I think universities are called upon to do too muc

I think universities are called upon to do too much: finishing schools for the middle-class, human capital factories, youth unemployment reducers, parental dreams fulfillers, repositories of society's knowledge, centres of socially relevant practical and theoretical expertise, advancers of human knowledge, advancers of national intellectual property and economic competitiveness, sources of soft-power......
It's no wonder its so hard to think through what universities are 'really supposed to be'! And no wonder modern universities so often fail to fulfil our expectations, even in their supposedly core goals of education and research.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, November 11, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

I don't know what your provost had to say but I th

I don't know what your provost had to say but I think Tom said it as well or better than any of us. Universities have undergone evolutionary change, as have all things living and inanimate. It is the nature of the universe and its components. Education is pushed to be everything to everyone---everywhere. Even an "untouchable" in India can have a cellphone. Imagine that.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, November 12, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

I came from an academic system completely differ

I came from an academic system completely different from that you speak in your post. And it?s very interesting to see new approaches.
When I was student I felt that i do a lot of unnecesarly stuff ( too much theoretichal knowledge) and few interesting activities. As for research activities, there wasn?t any kind of those.
To put things in order, I must mention that I studied politichal sciences at university. I think (hope not mistake) that in this domain it is possible to do a lot of research activity.
As to be fair let?s say that once a year we were demanded to make some relevant practice in public adminstration or non-governmental field. I participated as an observer from a non-governmental organization to the presidential ellections an also at a referendum. It was quite interesting and challenging.
As to return to your post I might say that I?m really frustrated for not having the chance to study in a great universty like those you have mentioned.
Finally, I think that the communication means are not so relevant as the contents. If a university have internet courses it?s no problem if it is a quality work.
P.S. Sorry for my broken english.I'm in the process of improving it :)
Best regards,
Lucian from Romania

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, November 19, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

An excellent presentation of important, relevant i

An excellent presentation of important, relevant issues. I don't know how to handle them, but I've recently finished a long and happy career at a place that values teaching over research, that is more of an academy than a laboratory, that grants tenure (or did in my day) if you get along with your colleagues, publish enough (which needn't be much)to show that you are keeping up with your field, willingly serve on a variety of committees, and are not the target of a lot of student complaints.
Would that the contemporary situation allowed for more such places; although I suspect that there actually are more of them than popular opinion admits.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, November 30, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

Truth is universities became seen as cure alls to

Truth is universities became seen as cure alls to the worlds ills, they are not.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, December 2, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

The TruePhilosopher has summarized well what other

The TruePhilosopher has summarized well what other commenters have said. His/her remark is oversimplified, to be sure, but, oversimplification can be forgiven when brevity fires a neuron or nudges a ventricle. Universities are like religions: original intentions were pure; later contingencies, interpretations and re-assignments complicated the mission.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, February 20, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

In last year's State of the Union, Obama declared

In last year's State of the Union, Obama declared job creation his "No. 1 focus," then spent much of 2010 on other priorities like overhauling healthcare and Wall Street rules.
With the elevated unemployment rate still ranking as Americans' top concern, there is little doubt jobs will again be the centerpiece of Obama's speech.
But more than ever before, Obama is also expected to use the annual address to cast himself as more of a fiscal hawk, possibly a tough sell for a leader presiding over trillion-dollar-plus annual budget deficits.

JoshuaJLee's picture

JoshuaJLee

Tuesday, March 10, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

agree with you, With the

agree with you, With the hoisted unemployment rate as yet positioning as Americans' top concern, there is little uncertainty employments will again be the centerpiece of Obama's discourse. 
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Guest's picture

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Monday, April 27, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

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Guest

Sunday, March 13, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

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adam_jhon's picture

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