University Restoration I: Viewed Out of Berkeley

This is Part I of a short series. Here’s Part II.

An EECS friend from Cal who just graduated wrote,

Here are some thoughts about graduation. John posed the question, “Do you feel educated?” My answer is nope. If college was supposed to be the segue between a mediocre high school graduate primed for a wage job and the professional working man, I must have pulled a Bush and fell off somewhere along the line. I don’t think I remember much from any of my classes. College, I feel, served only to evaluate my learning abilities rather than equipping me with all the tools required to excel.

Now, I’m not sure how true his impression is, but I think it does serve to highlight at least something lacking in education. It’s for this same reason, that of not being satisfied about feeling educated, that I so often plan to take courses in areas I feel I’m lacking in or areas that are rather out-of-the-way, whether it’s classical Chinese with the accompanying ancient texts or Classical Theories of Political Economy (for next semester). Something isn’t there that should be.

Disappointments with tertiary education

At Cal, I feel many students do have some desire to learn, or they might have already done something else with the four years, but so much of that comes to be sacrificed on altars of “a future”, what in Chinese we call 前途. Maybe I’m nostalgic for an age that existed before even my parents came into being, but I still want to say something to the effect that university isn’t what it used to be, at least at the country’s premier public university. Some people on campus may protest Cal’s involvement with BP as a commercialization of science – of which the Canadian Walrus magazine also has written – but I shall not address that here.

Learning and teaching

What I do say is that I think there’s legitimate reason to be disappointed with this paradigm where universities, rather than serving students by challenging them to know knowledge and wisdom and thus graduating young people with a vigorous desire to seek the truth, seeks to take a short-cut and serve society directly. So disenchanted are some that they question having the same people teach and do research. I recognize that this has created problems ever since the first time students complained about foreign TAs who could not speak English. I put forth, however, that it is the best true learners who are the best teachers, and he who is not ever learning will not teach adequately; has there been a great teacher who wrote or spoke nothing new? Confucius. Socrates. Jesus. In human memory we have known few teachers as influential as they were.

Curriculum reflecting the university’s purpose?

The problem, then, is not the thing that makes a university a university but the way a university is run and the way students are taught, not just by any individual professor but by the entirety of the curriculum. It is not an ideal arrangement for anyone on campus that faculty-student contact is sparse and feels weird, that graduate students are forced to teach classes for their money and not only for their professional development or that the curriculum, as exemplified by the typical College of Letters and Science graduate’s transcript, often looks like major + random-looking “breadth” classes. There is neither coherence nor a real pull away from overspecialization, which makes for an uncomfortable position that no one particularly likes.

No direct beneficiary being especially satisfied is, of course, not itself a problem, because one can only expect this of a institution meant to be characterized by academic freedom and not held captive to a political agenda. But what this does mean is that the institution, whether wilfully or not, has abandoned a sense of unified purpose, or, if it still has one, does not serve its intended purpose effectively.

To continue to Part II about what should be happening, click here.

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