UD‘s friend Tony Grafton sends her a letter the literary critic Gabriel Josipovici recently wrote to the Times Literary Supplement.

Josipovici is angry about various moves on the part of the British government to shut down humanities departments at universities and prop up career-oriented programs.

The question this raises is: Are universities really businesses? And if not, what are they? Are they to become forcing houses for the immediate economic development of the country and nothing else (ie, are Business and Media studies to replace Engineering, English, History and Philosophy)? If that is what the country wants, so be it. But we should be clear that it means the end of universities as they have been known in the West since the Middle Ages.

Readers with insanely long memories will remember that these were the founding questions I asked when I began this blog. On the very first page of University Diaries, I quoted James Redfield, from the University of Chicago [scroll down]:

The problem with universities is that universities are not operations which are constructed for making money. They are operations which are chartered to spend money. Of course, in order to acquire money to spend, they do have to acquire it. But their job is to pursue non-economic purposes. Or, to put it another way, their job is to pursue and, in fact, to develop and shape purposes within the society in some specific way. They are value-makers. They are not supposed to be pursuing the values of the society by responding to demand; they are supposed to shape demand, which is, in fact, what education is all about.


An economics major at the University of Oklahoma writes an opinion piece which makes absolutely clear why the university – British and American – is becoming a sort of first-responder unit to socioeconomic emergencies (UD‘s comments in response to his argument are in blue):

The core curriculum is an inefficient model of education that keeps students in universities much longer than is necessary. It is absurd and childish to force adults who have chosen to major in economics to study cell structures, just as it is absurd to force biology majors to understand the Keynesian national income model.  [See how Redfield’s whole idea that universities are about creating values, shaping demand, is DOA here?  Redfield regards the university as intellectually transformative:  It takes young people who are not yet liberally educated in a serious and disciplined way, and it trains them in rigorous forms of thinking even as it introduces them to the best which has been thought and said.  But this model assumes an open-minded person, eager to uncover,  grapple with, and organize the profoundest historical, aesthetic, philosophical, theological, mathematical, and scientific material.  This student regards freshmen as adults infantilized by an institution which thinks they have something more to learn than a trade.]

The rationale behind the liberal arts model of education is that “the whole individual” should be educated. This of course is simply an impossible goal, for there are endless academic pursuits necessary to educate “the whole individual,” from ethics to ballet to ancient French.  [The liberal arts curriculum has an ancient and well-elaborated character and rationale which has nothing to do with pablum like ‘the whole individual.’  But one can forgive this student for thinking that the term ‘liberal education’ refers to mush, since many universities have so compromised this curriculum as to make it look way random.]

The core curriculum, aside from forcing us into several classes we simply do not care about, also makes classes less valuable for those who are genuinely interested in the topics discussed. One only needs to peek at the masses of freshmen texting and doodling during their introductory lecture halls to see that this is true.  [The coercion principle is of course a problem here too.  What a liberal arts student would consider a well-considered requirement, the trade school student considers arbitrary authoritarianism.]

… The reason this model still exists is an entire college degree is still worth the entire cost of tuition to students. We’ve all heard the numbers about lifetime earnings for those with degrees rather than only high school diplomas, and that’s why most of us are here.  [Most of the students at the University of Oklahoma, in other words, jolly along the university for most of their years there, only in order to get a higher salary when they finish.]

However, it would be much more cost-effective to shave off the useless requirements of our liberal arts degrees and only require students to take those classes which are relevant to our chosen major or majors.

For many students, such as my fellow economics majors, this would shave as many as two full years off the time necessary to complete our degrees. This creates two additional years to pursue internships, travel or gain real work experience while we’re still relatively young.  [Time-managementwise, who could argue with this?  But he could save even more time and money doing an online course in accounting, macro- and micro-economics.  He could even do it on the weekends, so that he could take that full-time job he’s panting for.]

For others, such as Petroleum Engineers, abolition would probably not save them an extra year in college, but would allow them to focus more heavily on their career-oriented studies.

One effect of the core curriculum many people ignore is it can actually prevent students from truly delving into a second or third subject. Because we are required to meet so many different requirements, students may find they do not have time to pursue a minor or a second major.  [Again, from the start, it’s about picking and choosing.]

Even if the core curriculum were abolished, there would still be students who choose to pursue minors and dabble in other subjects. Some would even choose a liberal arts education, pursuing many tracks.  [Dabble says it all, eh?]

To these students, additional classes are worth their tuition. Many of us, however, would choose to explore other topics in our free time (as most of us already do) and focus our time at the university toward our future careers.

Abolishing the core curriculum forever would allow students to earn their degrees in less time. It also would allow them to customize their education to their own goals and desires rather than requiring them to satisfy some administrator’s definition of “well-rounded.”  [Just some damn administrator, after all.]

Do you suppose anyone at the University of Oklahoma will think it worth their while to respond to this student’s polemic with a defense of the university as a liberal arts institution, rather than a trade school?

Trackback URL for this post:

5 Responses to “What’s a university?”

  1. Daniel S. Goldberg Says:


    In this vein, I thought you might be interested in Michael Slouka’s recent essay in Harper’s, if you have not seen it yet.

    I comment here and here.

  2. Daniel S. Goldberg Says:

    Erratum: The author’s name is Mark, not Michael Slouka. (I was thinking, ironically, of Michael Oakeshott).

  3. Timothy Burke Says:

    The Slouka essay is very good. I keep meaning to blog about it.

  4. Mr Punch Says:

    The argument about the core curriculum is not the same as Josipovici’s, though. The Oxbridge model prevalent in Britain has never devoted an extra year to a core curriculum, and Josipovici does not argue that it should. Both bear on the value of the liberal arts, but the structural/curricular issues are quite different.

  5. Jonathan Says:

    I think this student is largely right. What he’s missing, as you say, is the context and history of universities vs. trade schools, and the fact that the former is not for him.

    Oversimplifying, you can divide people into the curious, life-of-the-mind sort–never more than 10% of the population–and the incurious, like this author. The incurious belong in trade schools, not universities, both because they shouldn’t have to spend money on an education they don’t want and because they ruin the classes for the curious.

    Unfortunately, there’s been a long process of school inflation, by which all the vocational schools and normal schools have renamed themselves universities. (Paul Fussell’s book “Class” has a few very memorable pages on this topic.) The root problem is that prospective employers (and other social forces) create a huge incentive for the incurious to masquerade as the curious, which they do by getting “university” degrees. This causes suffering for the curious and incurious alike–the former because they take classes with a predominance of the incurious, and the latter because, like this author, they waste time and money on classes they don’t want and probably won’t benefit from. (The teachers suffer too, of course.)

Comment on this Entry

Latest UD posts at IHE