Saturday, December 13, 2014

Greener grass?

Here’s Paul Fussell, on teaching for a year at the University of Heidelberg in 1957:
As the year went on, I became increasingly disenchanted with the American university, with its nervous concern about student well-being (in every aspect except the intellectual) and its hypertrophied and needless administration, constructed, presumably, on “business” lines. I began to see American colleges as little more than overgrown and pretentious high schools, where genuine education seemed increasingly unlikely. It was hard to forget Mencken’s satire of the American “proliferation of colleges.” “They are even spattered,” he notes, “over such barbaric States as Mississippi and North Dakota, where it would be dangerous to be educated in any real sense.”

The University of Heidelberg allowed students to live where they pleased in town. There were no “dormitories.” Their social and sexual lives were regarded as their own business, the university having no deans, counselors, or “relationship advisors.” The university assumed that students, being adults, could have their misbehavior, if any, attended to by the police, not the university, which had quite a different mission, the development of intellect, a mission performed by no other social institution. At Heidelberg there were only three “administrative officers.” There was a president, elected from the faculty each year. He (never she—this was the 1950s) occupied the presidential office for a year and, while continuing his scholarship, performed the few ceremonial duties attaching to the office. There was a bursar, who took in the students’ and the state’s money and made it over, in appropriate shares, to the faculty. And there was a housing officer, who helped the students find lodgings with the town’s many landladies and adjudicated the inevitable disputes with them. There was no provost, no alumni officer, no vice president in charge of development, no head of the division of athletics, no coaches, no head of academic advising (the students were assumed to be bright enough to find in the catalog what they were interested in), no Office of Alcohol and Drug Education, no Budget Office, no Career Planning and Placement Office, no university chaplain, and no “bookstore” selling more T-shirts and condoms than books. The students attended the lectures and seminars they considered useful adjuncts to their continuous reading. The point was to pass examinations at the end of their university years, and any way they prepared themselves was fine.
I’m not at all convinced that the kind of university Fussell describes would educate people more effectively than the ones we have in “barbaric” America today, but I can’t say I’m all that sure it would do worse, either. Maybe universities have always been more about credentialing than educating, in which case a system that makes the credential much, much more expensive has a lot to answer for. In any event, it’s always interesting to see that there are alternatives to the things we take for granted.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

American universities are quite good, and to claim otherwise should require a good deal of evidence. All else being equal, however, less attention to student well-being and needless administration would certainly decrease the cost of higher education.