The History of the University

Monday, July 27th, 2009

Philip Greenspun looks at the history of the university:

University of Bologna, founded in 1088, mostly to teach the Justinian Code, recently rediscovered. It made a lot of sense for professors to lecture in the 11th Century. What other means of broadcasting information from 1 person to 100 existed? Printing was very expensive and cumbersome. Having monks make 100 copies of a textbook by hand was not economically feasible.
The university incorporated an important quality control mechanism: student associations paid professors according to how well they taught, how many students were attracted to their lectures, and whether they showed up on time.

It made sense for students to show up to lecture and to do their homework. A student’s lodging might not have been heated. It might make sense to come to lecture simply to get warm. Students in 1088 had no television, no radio, no Internet, no email, no instant messaging, no mobile phone. A student might come to lecture for entertainment.

What about homework? Students in a pre-technological university would do homework either in the library or at home. Both places lacked television, video games, email, etc.

Times have changed — sort of:

In the face of massive technological advances, the most significant change that universities have made is removing their only quality control mechanism. Through tenure, the university now guarantees professors pay regardless of effectiveness.

Why don’t universities change?

Why should a university change? In order to graduate, a Harvard student need not take a standardized test that is also taken by a University of Massachusetts students; groups of MIT students need not attempt projects in competition with students from Olin College of Engineering. There is literally no way that a university can be embarrassed by its graduates’ poor overall performance. The comparative scores of GRE exams taken by graduates of different schools are not published. Even if they were, the GRE is basically the same test as the SAT, so a prestigious school with a lot of students who scored well on the SAT would tend to do well in a GRE competition.

His recommendations:

  • Simple Change
    Stop grading your own students.
  • Simple Change 2
    Stop lecturing.
  • Modest Change
    Build open offices for students.
  • Modest Change
    Provide detailed review of all work; grade students on their ability to assist other students.
  • Big Change for Engineering
    Teach Engineering.

I love that last suggestion. His point:

Consider the typical Computer Science graduate. He (for it is almost always men who are dumb enough to major in this dreary subject) has done a lot of problem sets, tackling small problems that were precisely defined by professors. He has never met a client. He has never been asked to do something that isn’t doable in the allotted time. He has probably never written more than one engineering document. He may never have worked on an open-ended problem. The CS graduate comes out prepared to work for an engineer, not to be an engineer.

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