Starting from Scratch

The problems facing colleges and universities are pretty fundamental- an institution intended for a social elite has been repurposed as a piece of universal schooling, at the same time as the states that historically funded it are bogged down by huge healthcare and pension obligations.

The cohorts now entering college in the U.S. are poorer, less white, and arguably less well prepared than their predecessors:



Some of the ideological unrest on campus can be seen, perhaps, as responses to these underlying changes (although this would not explain why unrest has been most intense in elite colleges.)

But there’s one more issue that is worth considering.

Whatever story you tell about how the university came to be, the creation of social and physical distinction between students and teachers and the broader world must be part of it. Wearing robes and silly hats, having an inward-facing campus (the quad), as well as collecting the materials for learning in one place were about separation, barriers. Even at our most romantic about college, we use this same vocabulary of a unique and hallowed space.

As the 19th century left-wing historian and social reformer Arnold Toynbee (not his nephew the right-wing 20th century historian Arnold Toynbee) put it, college (in his case Oxford) “is where one walks at night, and listens to the wind in the trees, and weaves the stars into the web of one’s thoughts; where one gazes from the pale inhuman moon to the ruddy light of the windows, and hears broken notes of music and laughter and the complaining murmur of the railroad in the distance.” The ideal of college is “the ideal of gentle, equable, intellectual intercourse, with something of a prophetic glow about it, glancing brightly into the future, yet always embalming itself in the memory as a resting-place for the soul in a future that may be dark and troubled after all, with little in it but disastrous failure.”

Okay, sounds fun. How do we get there?

The basic problem is that technology has made this kind of inward-facing consciousness impossible. It’s not just that focusing long enough to read and absorb a difficult or lengthy book is harder than ever before. It’s that on one’s shoulders, sitting like the devil and angel in an old cartoon, are the commenting chorus of online life.


It is strange to me that no one suggests, as an experiment, perhaps during an interterm break or summer session, conducting a short intensive class which begins by everyone turning in their laptops and cell phones, not just for the duration of class meetings, but for the full three or four weeks of the class. Meet for three hours a day, read and discuss three hard books over the duration, and cook or drink or play chess or go sledding or make out (and prepare for class) for the rest of the time, but stay unplugged. Stay in dorms with land lines, so parents don’t get too freaked out.

I’d be curious what the students would say at the end, and whether anyone would be interested in trying it again, or for a semester at a time.

2 thoughts on “Starting from Scratch

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