End our ‘multiuniversities’

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The Article

Before leaving the topic of, “Education, Need to get government out of,” in my naive Sunday series on “What is to be done,” let me touch specifically on the topic of our universities.

I wrote, recently, a rather facetious piece on this topic for a Catholic website in the United States, in which I asked whether universities were ever a good idea, in the face of the modern assumption that such questions need never be asked. I alluded to evidence that, back in the 13th century, when Europe’s oldest universities were new, the same sort of nonsense prevailed on campus as today: kids suddenly “empowered” by freedom without adequate discipline; professors with a little too much tenure for anyone’s well-being.

The “behaviour issues” that followed from that were noted in ancient Alexandria, too. Young people can easily be persuaded that they know everything. Yet wisdom requires us to realize that we know very little. This should be easiest to grasp when we focus on a subject. It is then that we are most likely to appreciate what perhaps Eratosthenes first observed: that as the radius of our knowledge advances, the circumference of our ignorance spreads.

Forms of “post-secondary” teaching within tightly disciplined monastic institutions, before the Western invention of universities, may well have been a better idea. The Renaissance of the 12th century was, after all, achieved without campus life. (Alas, chronological prejudices inculcated in our modern universities leave students unable to comprehend the significance of that intellectual and spiritual revolution.) Now, do I propose that we go back to the Middle Ages? I would if we could, but since we can’t, I propose something more subtle: that we create the conditions in which significant intellectual and spiritual growth (as opposed to mere technological accumulation) would become possible again. Everything I have written in the Ottawa Citizen, over the last 14 years, may be read as an indictment of the smug and plausible “liberal” attitudes inculcated in our public schools and universities; of attitudes that are, in fact, inimical to a genuine humanism.

The great majority of the universities—founded since the Second World War to bureaucratically process and credentialize a large part of the general population, as a matter of “right” and regardless of their intellectual capacities—are in effect “community colleges” or trade schools.

Many of the trades being taught are perverse and wouldn’t exist without further government subsidy (“women’s studies” for instance, to produce “professional” feminist agitators). But most are the commonplace trades, and the colleges only provide incredibly inefficient and ineffective ways to replace the older apprenticeship arrangements, while cosseting the young from the demands of the job market until they are thoroughly spoiled.

Proponents imagine that by picking up the job-training tab, the government is giving highly taxed businesses some sort of compensation against competitors in lower-tax jurisdictions, just as our socialist hospital system is supposed to pick up a tab that might otherwise fall heavily on employers.

This is bosh, but it cannot be demonstrated in a short space, beyond mentioning that services and standards will always decline when the customer is displaced by a bureaucracy pretending to seek his benefit. This is because the provider of each service becomes answerable not to the customer, but to the bureaucracy.

Publicly funded, “mass market” colleges are further defended because, in addition to providing job-search credentials, they are supposed to teach a minimum of basic “information-processing and communications skills.” The joke here is that undergraduates today are being taught in college less than what they would have received in a traditional high school. And even that, in turn, wasn’t for everybody; only for people who needed to become highly literate.

The mission of the universities—to be centres of true, humanistic learning—is contaminated by this welter of extraneous purposes. In the degree to which any college depends on public subsidy, it becomes a plaything of political and bureaucratic forces with no understanding of that vital and original mission.

Of course, the world’s greatest universities remain the private ones. In a remarkable way, even without abject dependence on the state, these Harvards and Princetons and Oxfords and Cambridges have also become creatures of the Zeitgeist, obliged to advance politically correct notions of the good, even when in opposition to demonstrable truth. They become “finishing schools” for the smuggest and most plausible. But so far as they are private, and their arrangements voluntary, we leave them to their fate.

What interests me is the foundation of new universities, and the recovery of faculties within the old, that can again be committed to classical ideals of science and scholarship; to the ambition for comprehensive, and therefore unified knowledge; to what the term “university” always implied.

Two connected points I have been making, here: First, let our publicly funded “multiversities” dissolve, and be replaced by job-training schemes that are actually answerable to market forces.

Second, let the real universities—including surviving fragments within the “multiversities”—reconstruct themselves, under the voluntary patronage of people who actually care about such things.

David Warren
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