Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Decline and Fall

Christian, our son, and I were talking about education and its decline as its institutions are besieged by business metaphors and economic accountability and as, from within, obsessed by external perspectives, they become in response so prescriptive and unfocused that they no longer seem capable of action. We were concerned that their workings will simply clog up and they will become monuments reminding us of a lost time. I talked about how we were feeling the effects here in Rural Pennsylvania, and he felt that Massachusetts, where he lives, might be insulated from the worst of the destruction for a while, and he explained this idea by invoking Trantor, the center of Isaac Asimov's Galactic Empire, much of whose fictional history is reported in the Foundation Series.

Since I care about my university and by extension the whole educational matrix it is part of, I fret about the future. But Christian's reference to Asimov's world immediately put my concerns in a productive new frame of reference. Hari Seldon's psychohistorical analysis of the future and the establishment of the Foundation were designed to reduce the period of inter-Empire chaos from 30,000 years to 1,000. The university as a social institution is nearly 1,000 years old. On the one hand, it seems to be a durable institution; on the other hand, it does have many miles on it. Maybe the university has outlived its usefulness and is beginning to collapse toward the center. Institutions that seem inevitable from the inside can, from the outside, reveal themselves as fragile while the world changes around them and they fail to adapt. Some aspects of the Foundation series are based on Gibbons' Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. The Roman Republic lasted for only about 500 years and the Roman Empire for another 300 years. The university has already outlasted both the Republic and the Empire, yet they shine in our historical memory as signal accomplishments. Of course, the City of Rome still exists, though nothing like what it was. Perhaps the university—from the Latin universitas*—is also no longer what it was. The university is an already irrelevant institution, but those of us on the inside, in the center of one of these institutions, have not noticed yet, and it will be a decade until it becomes so apparent that even a highly educated person can see it. But before that happens in an effort to adapt, universities will twist themselves into many unsustainable mutations. But I suspect that whatever replaces the university dinosaurs will not be their offspring, but something smaller and more agile, something easy to overlook at first.

*"In early use post-classical Latin universitas denoting an academic institution was modified by the genitive plural, as in universitas magistrorum , universitas magistrorum et scolarium (both 13th cent. with reference to the University of Paris)" ("University." OED). The modern university—tangled in elaborate rules of matriculation and hemmed in by accrediting agencies hoarding power and boards of trusties hoarding money—is hardly a community of teachers and students any more.

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