the idea of a university

Last night we went to the symphony, Hilary Hahn playing the solo for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. In ways I can’t describe, she could make a violin weep in one line, soothe on the following, and scream in the next. The bow would draw to and fro, and then suddenly turn course and beat against the string, her whole body working the violin as double stops slid from one to the other as though the violin itself shared a soul with the person playing it.

For my part, I’ve spent the last hour figuring out this box with the DVR, the cable attached to it, and the intricacies of channels with three digits. This box and I, like Hilary and her instrument, share a soul now.

Or, perhaps not.

The contrast between what the soloist can do with her violin — create meaning that the rest of us never knew was there, but are now better for it — and what I can do with this box — make sure that it can record The Daily Show each day without overwriting episodes of Glee, makes me think about what we’re capable of, what we are meant to do, and how we prepare ourselves for it all.

This relates to some of my own work, the stuff that might be more substantial than figuring out digital cable. In short, I actually put some time into writing, “real” writing, whole hundreds of words of it last night. This is the compilation of chapters that are supposed to be about professional development and universities’ purposes. The last passage I was working on was about our traditional, cultural views of research and teaching. The former produces new knowledge, and the latter dumps it out, at least in our general standard view of things. It’s pure and simple, and universities provide the place for exactly this in and out of knowledge. This is exactly the idea behind The Idea of a University, the book I pulled off my office shelf this afternoon after reading the review of another book that made reference to this one. It’s reaffirming to have one’s notion of the way things function, precisely, by finding them documented in a text.

Except for one thing: This text was written in the mid-1800’s.

It’s amazing sometimes to see how far things have progressed, like when I saw a clip of Arthur C. Clark’s 1964, black and white filmed prediction that one day, perhaps by 2010, we would be able to do business with one another from all over the world, utilizing radio waves and semiconductors. Wow, they would have said in 1964. And wow, we say now, to be able to imagine such a sweeping change and actually see it come to light. On the other hand, it’s more shocking to see a description of the university, its role, and its inner workings, all portrayed 150 years ago in exactly the same way we would describe it now.

We say that this is the twenty-first century and that, living in such a time, we need twenty-first century skills. We have a nineteenth century educational system. I think back to other past predictions of what life is supposed to be like now and sometimes I still long for jet packs and that flying car (except for the fact that I’ve seen how badly people drive in only two dimensions — I’d hate to give them another). In education, the college system especially, I’d settle for a car that you need to crank by hand to get started. It would be a reform. John Dewey, after all, wrote of reform at about the same time that these kinds of cars were first making the impact that would reshape society. The cars kept moving, but the ideals of education for all, learning by engaging actively with ideas and the community, towards personal empowerment and fulfillment, to be able to express our individual self with a pen or a violin bow, and to be able to prepare for and effect change in society … well, we’re still working on that.


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