Mike Caulfield points to this video which, he says, “does a nice job of showing what a museum a university education has become.” The large lecture hall shown in that video certainly reinforces the point. Seeing it reminds me of a telling episode this past April. I was writing about Darwin and I recalled something I’d heard in a biology lecture I’d heard the previous spring on one of the Berkeley podcasts.

I went back to the site and wound up referring to the current year’s version of that lecture in video form. As I scrubbed back and forth on the timeline looking for the part I remembered, my daughter — who was then between high school and college — watched over my shoulder. Eventually she said: “So, the students just sit there?”

That was the first of three revelations. The second was my realization that I’d certainly absorbed those lectures more fully on a series of bike rides, breathing fresh air and soaking up sunshine, than had the students sitting in the lecture hall.

The third revelation came when I found the part I was looking for, and realized that it wasn’t as good as last year’s version, which had been overwritten by the current version.

I love university life. I’d give anything to have had the tools we have today — for recording, research, communication, and collaboration — back when I was in school. If I had a year off, I’d want to spend a chunk of it in an academic environment, experiencing it in ways that were never before possible. I’d use the same strategy I apply to tech conferences: absorb most of the packaged content out of band, and seek to maximize high-value personal interaction. My guess is that as more students begin to expect that — and as parents, who can now peer into the institution as never before, and actually see what they’re paying for, also begin to expect it — universities will adapt.

The most inspirational story I’ve read about college lately is this New York Times magazine article about Olin College, a clean-slate redesign of an engineering school:

The result is a school with no academic departments or tenure, and one that emphasizes entrepreneurship and humanities as well as technical education. Its method of instruction has more in common with a liberal arts college, where the focus is on learning how to learn, than with a standard engineering curriculum. “How can you possibly provide everything they need in their knapsack of education to sustain them in their 40-year career?” [president Richard K.] Miller asked. “I think those days are over. Learning the skill of how to learn is more important than trying to fill every possible cup of knowledge in every possible discipline.”

Also notable in that issue was this Rick Perlstein essay about how college, as a discrete experience outside the flow of normal life, is coming to an end:

To me, to Doug Mitchell, to just about anyone over 30, going to college represented a break, sometimes a radical one and our immediate postcollege lives represented a radical break with college. Some of us ended up coming back to the neighborhood partly for that very fact: nostalgia for four years unlike any we had experienced or would experience again. Not for these kids.

Hamilton Morris, with his hip, creative parents, is an extreme case of a common phenomenon: college without the generation gap. (As I write this at a coffee shop near campus, a kid picks up her cellphone — “Hi, Dad!” — and chats amiably for 15 minutes. “When we went to college,” a dean of students who was a freshman in 1971 tells me, “you called on Sunday — the obligatory 30-second phone call on the dorm phone — and you hoped not to hear from them for the rest of the week.”)

Morris is an exaggeration too of another banal new reality. You used to have to go to college to discover your first independent film, read your first forbidden book, find freaks like yourself who shared, say, a passion for Lenny Bruce. Now for even the most provincial students, the Internet, a radically more democratic and diverse culture — and those hip baby-boomer parents — take care of the problem.

A good thing? A bad thing? Probably both. It was a great essay.


PS: I almost couldn’t find that Rick Perlstein essay. It bugs me when magazines work so hard to put together a thematic issue, like that NY Times Magazine college issue, and then scatter the stories online. You guys worked hard on that issue! It has thematic integrity! Why not publish the table of contents and link each article to it?Here was the search strategy I had to employ:

  1. Find the Olin article
  2. Note the date: September 30 2007
  3. Search the Times archive for September 30 2007
  4. Restrict that search to the magazine section