A few days ago I mentioned Duane Smith’s reflections on the beneficial nature of the inherent inefficiencies of education and it struck me that those advocating a radical pogrom of the universities of “unnecessary” subjects, which is almost inevitably a cipher for the humanities, and pushing an agenda of “useful” and “practical” education, which sounds very much like turning universities into very expensive technical colleges, are suggesting a complete revision of what–at its root–education has always been about since the beginning of schooling itself. For instance, take Niek Velduis‘s description of the curriculum of the 4,000 year old schools in Mesopotamia:
The teaching of Sumerian in the Nippur eduba was not guided by the list of skills a future scribe had to master. The lack of attention to Akkadian and the overdose of high-brow Sumerian point in another direction. It seems that handing down the Sumerian language and tradition as completely as possible was considered to be all important. A pupil of the scribal school was introduced to the techniques of writing, but more importantly he was introduced to the heritage of Sumerian writing and Sumerian poetics.1
Now, I am all for revisiting ideas and systems and adapting, changing, and even completely reworking them when we have good reasons for doing so and it is clear that the changes will be for the better. However, when we do this we should be cognizant and upfront with what we are doing. Those advocating a radical repositioning of the educational system seen within the structure of traditional universities–which centers upon teaching people how to think, how to analyze the world and the ideas in it, how to form their own opinions and conclusions, how to generate new ideas, gain a greater appreciation for the previously unknown and different, develop a sense of beauty, form their own identity and ethical vision, and to acquire skills to help them flourish as participants in the world economy and as individual human beings in the global community–and focusing merely upon commoditizing education and reducing its focus to merely utilitarian ends, are casting aside an approach to education that is four millennia old.
Ever since scribal schools sprang up teachers have thought that a vital part of their roles was imparting an ethical vision to their students and helping to form an identity for them that would lead them to serve other humans for the common good. For thousands of years people have known that knowledge is power and educated people have to use their power with circumspection, mercy, justice, competency, and compassion. Over the past few years we have seen what happens when we hand extremely talented but myopic and seemingly ethically numb people the keys to our economy. To take a razor to our universities and slice off “unproductive” departments that, by the way, focus upon the bedrock of western civilization as we know it (Classics) and the country that holds the fate of the Euro and concomitantly the world financial system in its hands (German), is not only foolish but historically blind. Yet, this should come as no surprise because the fields of vision of the people who were until recently guiding the direction of UVa’s board center upon three month increments.
While the UVa scandal is presently in a temporary lull, the overall debate of what a university is and how it should look in the near future is far from over and many of the same trajectories that regents at UVa were pushing are quietly being threatened at other universities.
All this is not to say that universities should not listen to the business community, and even hedge fund moguls, as they adapt to the ever changing demographic, technological, and sociological landscapes of the current future age. They do and they should. However, at the same time, those that hold positions of trust on the boards of these institutions should also be listening to the “inefficient” thinkers and teachers that populate them. Because if they did I’m sure that the history department, or even that completely obscure ancient Near Eastern studies professor, would be very delighted to have a mutually beneficial conversation about how people of the past viewed education so that those in positions of influence might have a more thoughtful and informed ability to formulate a vision for the future.
- Nicolaas Veldhuis, “Elementary Education at Nippur: The Lists of Trees and Wooden Objects” (PhD diss., Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, 1997), 82-83. [back]