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Friday, April 14, 2017

How to fix the universities

The university system is unsustainable and needs to be replaced. But online universities aren't the solution.

T he word academia used to conjure up images of a peaceful, contemplative environment like that portrayed in The Exorcist, which was set at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. These days that movie strikes me as a metaphor for what academia is really like: a calm and dignified leafy setting on the outside, while on the inside heads are spinning around and green vomit is spraying everywhere.

In other words, they've become the opposite of what they once stood for. Universities now stand for suppression of free speech, violence, and unthinking hatred of capitalism and of our culture. Worst of all, the denizens of these wretched hives of scum and villainy can't see what is happening. They still think all is well.

Their economic model is also unsustainable. Grade inflation makes college degrees increasingly less valuable. The metastasis of administrators and bureaucrats results in tuition inflation of 8% per year. All this is no accident. Just like our healthcare system, it's designed to fail: the ultimate goal may be to force the government to take over the universities.

Roald Amundsen at the South Pole
Downtown Fargo, North Dakota

What to do? Many years ago I took a course at a Catholic university on how to make monoclonal antibodies. I expected to see crucifixes on the wall and a nun up front with a ruler, whacking people's hands and telling them to be quiet in a dominatrixy sort of way, but no, none of that—it was just an ordinary science classroom.

Nowadays, of course, nobody ever makes monoclonals on their own—companies do it for you for a fee—so I never used any of it.

But it strikes me that this was a great model for how to do away with universities altogether. You know, those places where kids, jammed together like sardines in dorms, learn readin', writin', and riotin', and think nothing of stepping over the unconscious bodies of their drunken friends on the weekend. Online education won't do: there's a very good reason, having to do with evolution, for why parents send their kids off to a place that's as far away as they can afford. No, what we need are not Internet universities, but more specialized ones.

The New Model For Higher Education

Here's the model: an intensive course at a specialized center, unaffiliated with any old-style university. The centers could be in places like Fargo, North Dakota, where housing is cheap and there are lots of parking spaces.

Students would go there for six months at a time and live in an immersive environment while they focus on learning one single thing—calculus, for example, or molecular biology. Then they go to some other center to learn the next thing.

There would be no administrators and no bureaucrats—okay, I'm fantasizing here—and the main job of the profs, as now, would be to do research. But in order to maintain their academic integrity no government money would be allowed. Their salary would come entirely from tuition. This means if there's no job market for the subject, it won't be taught.

Engineers would spend six months in the Calculus Institute in, say, Fargo, North Dakota, and then move on to Ogden, Utah to study at the Physics Institute. And so on. At the end they have documents that certify their knowledge of calculus, physics, and whatever else they need.

In other words, replace the universities with centers of learning dedicated to individual topics. Students would benefit by seeing what will happen to them if they go into that particular field.

Courses like Lesbian Macrame, Critical Plant Studies (see also here), and Che Guevara studies could be taught too, but only if they helped students make a productive living. Let the job market decide.

For geopolitics, they could go to RAND corporation or Cato institute and learn it from the real experts who get paid to use their knowledge. They'd discover that learning about Western culture is important and profitable, while learning about intersectionality is not.

Students who derive economic benefit from learning shouldn't get subsidies for doing so, especially since the subsidies go mostly from one bureaucrat class to another. The lack of bureaucracy would reduce the costs dramatically.

Instead of a diploma, they'd get certificates demonstrating basic competence in topics that actually mean something to an employer. Anyone who's ever hired somebody for a technical position knows it's exhausting trying to determine whether a potential employee knows how to do basic tasks like making chemical solutions or calculating a radioactive half life.

Oh, and one more thing: accountability. If an employer discovered that a student doesn't actually know what they were supposed to, the employer could sue the institute for fraud.

Created apr 14 2017; last edited apr 14 2017, 5:53 am

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