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Essay on Universities

Free essayNowadays, it is impossible to imagine the contemporary society without higher education institutions like universities and colleges. They have become an integral part of the world. Obtaining a degree is one of the most essential life stages and a sort of transition from childhood into adulthood. University is not simply a place where young men and women gain knowledge and acquire professional skills, but rather a symbol of maturation and becoming a true adult who can earn money and thus live an independent life. Moreover, universities and colleges are institutions that shape the future of the whole country as more and more people enroll there every year. Currently, there are more than 16 million students in the United States. This number is predicted to increase exponentially in the nearest future. It has become ordinary to choose a desirable future university almost in the first school years and to spend school time preparing for the entrance. Children have different expectations concerning their curriculum and professors, but what they all share is their assurance that a university degree will become the first step towards self-improvement, acquiring self-identity and becoming professionally successful. Values, beliefs and professional skills they get there will become the foundation of the entire life for many graduates. It is determined by the fact that the majority of freshmen is psychologically immature and thus can be easily influenced, even manipulated to some extent. Therefore, professors often may carry the burden of shaping the image of the whole nation that is created during 4 or 5 years that every average student spends in the college or university. However, not everyone knows that university in its modern sense is a relatively recent phenomenon that was mainly shaped in the Age of Enlightenment. It is especially true for the USA as there are a lot of really old educational institutions with long histories in Europe and Great Britain, like Oxford or Sorbonne. Nonetheless, they were also significantly modified by the Enlightenment philosophy and views. Universities and colleges have to be extremely dynamic and flexible in terms of being able to adapt to the society’s needs and rapid development of the humanity. They are the main fount of progress and innovation. Therefore, they cannot afford suffering from stagnation or decay. Today, higher education is often considered to be a controversial and debatable issue in terms of its perspectives, drawbacks, and advantages. Despite some faults in the educational process, universities remain a powerful source of wisdom, knowledge, and progress. Therefore, faculties, administration and students have to unite their efforts in order to preserve a high status of universities and colleges.

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James Piereson in his article The Left University: How it was born; how it grew; how to overcome it raises a topical question of what a university is today. He comes to the conclusion that the prevailing part of colleges and universities has adopted the so-called left orientation, which is harmful for the educational process and contradicts with the traditional image of a higher educational institution. In order to make his viewpoint clearer, he gives a short historical outline of universities in the USA. In his opinion, “the ideology of the left university is both anti-American and anti-capitalist” (Piereson, 2005). Prior to expanding on the notion of the leftist orientation of the university, it is necessary to mention the most remarkable hallmarks of its history.

Within the timeframe of 1636-1900, colleges and universities were occupying an insignificant place in the nation’s life. The U.S. history of higher education institutions started with the founding of Harvard, yet their influence and importance increased only in the beginning of the 20th century. Prior to that time, they could hardly affect economic and political developments. First American universities were based on the British model. Their main aim was to transmit knowledge to a limited group of men who were going to be involved in teaching, ministry, and law. Universities were mainly religious institutions and thus were controlled by various Protestant denominations. There were no public universities that would accept any person willing to acquire knowledge and vocational skills. For a long time, up to the Age of Enlightenment, no one even thought about establishing a state university because people were extremely conservative and followed the long-established dogmatic rules imposed on them by the clergy. Since universities were literally owned by the Protestant denominations, religious groups could wield their manipulative powers through these institutions, though their influence was limited as very few people wanted to obtain the degree. The range of offered vocations was limited as well. Therefore, very few universities of those times in the USA as well as in England could be granted an honor of being called a place where “new knowledge might be generated or where original research might be conducted” (Piereson, 2005). The latter processes were characteristic of nonacademic institutions that gained popularity in the Age of New Science and later in the Enlightenment period (Coffin et al., 2011). In the early 19th century, the situation was changed, though not drastically. “Prominent founders of the nation” like James Morrison and Thomas Jefferson realized the importance of universities and their potential role in shaping the nation (Piereson, 2005). Inspired by the British and European Enlightenment philosophy, they advocated for establishing secular academic institutions instead of the existing religious and vocational ones. However, these men as well as other graduates did not identify themselves as scholars or academics. They thought of themselves as of the members of a “republic of letter” (Pierson, 2005). Their huge achievement lied in their intention to apply the lessons of the past to solving of the present practical problems. Thomas Jefferson was one of the first proponents of creating a new republican university that would provide the best students with a secular education in such subjects as languages, history of Greece and Rome, practical sciences, and the correct interpretation of the Constitution. Although he saw his dream implemented when the University of Virginia was founded, his vision of a new type of the university was “stillborn” (Piereson, 2005). The author of the article sees the main reason for his idea’s failure in the peculiarities of the national history of those times. The value of the republic of letters was somehow undermined by national sectionalism and expansion of slavery. Jefferson’s views were opposed by the emerging Jacksonian culture that prioritized equality and commonness while being suspicious of expert wisdom. Pioneer democracy could not realize the benefits of an entirely academic institution as its representatives viewed it as an aristocratic phenomenon.

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The marginal place of the universities and their core principles were altered between the years 1870 and 1910 (Piereson, 2005). At this time, religious ties were broken and universities acquired a more secular character. They adopted some features that are still valid. These are research practices, academic freedom, and modern structure of the university, as well as graduate school, and elective system. Since then, the university has begun to hold an exceptionally crucial and prominent place in the life of the society. Professors followed the idea of the Enlightenment philosophers that a scholar’s task was to “search for the truth in science, philosophy, and morals unimpeded by political or religious authorities” (Piereson, 2005). The modern American university was born through vigorous competition of the faculties that began to regard a professor as an independent researcher rather than a teacher. Another achievement of this period is the division of the university into specialized departments and colleges with their own formal rules for study, research, and publication. The author supposes that the modern American university appeared simultaneously with the modern liberal movement that affected its nature to great extent. Moreover, he tends to think that the liberalism of the 20th century “originated with the emergence of the modern university” (Piereson, 2005). The period between 1910 and 1960 was the time of the modern university’s evolution. There appeared a distinct division between a research university and smaller liberal colleges. During this period, the core curriculum became the centre of the debates due to the institutionalized faculty governance. College education strived to become available to all. The side effect of this availability was a wide-spread opinion that young people had to obtain a degree in order to get a decent job. This phenomenon of the massive chase after a degree, no matter which one, was further worsened by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Griggs v. Duke Power case (Leef, 2008). According to it, companies could not exploit employment tests in order not to discriminate job applicants. Therefore, the only way to differentiate between the skilled and non-skilled applicants became a degree. However, the quality of the degree was mainly overlooked as only its presence was important. George Leef in his article Clarion call: Costly Unintended Consequences expresses an opinion that the “degree requirement usually has nothing to do with knowledge” (Leef, 2008). The author questions whether the USA spends enormous sums of money on colleges just to provide the employers with a cost-saving screening tool. Another serious issue of the article deals with a paradoxical situation that the incomes of the graduates have been constantly increasing in comparison with workers without a college diploma while academic standards have been worsening for decades, thus providing students with exceptionally weak knowledge. The author concludes that the modern USA is not about that “the economic returns on education are rising, but that openings into the world of business, professional and governmental employment keep dwindling for non-college people” (Leef, 2008).

Piereson distinguishes two periods of fundamental changes that the American university underwent. The first one took place between 1870 and 1910. It may be regarded as a formative period and the time when the liberal university appeared in response to the Enlightenment philosophy and radical societal changes. The second period starts in a decade or so after 1965. The university became more ideological and egalitarian, but less rigorous and academic. The author claims that in these years the liberal university was substituted by the left university. The left university, “according to its self-understanding, is devoted to the exposure of the oppression of the various groups that have been the West’s victims – women, blacks, Hispanics, gays, and others that have been officially designated as oppressed groups – and to those groups’ representation” (Piereson, 2005). The left university is viewed as a tool for oppression. Its leaders reversed many achievements of the liberal university. New fields with ideological preconceptions were created. Academic requirements were either softened or eliminated. It has recently become common for a professor to impose his/her political views on the students in class. Many left universities faculties “outside the sciences have lost the capacity either to understand or to influence the outside world” (Piereson, 2005). The left university promotes cloning both among students and professors. It is obvious from the analysis of the current PhD programs. These programs are viewed by Mr. Jordans as the cloning process. When the dissertation has been written and defended, the PhD is awarded. A new professor usually seeks tenure that consists of 4 years of teaching freshman-sophomore survey classes. In order to be approved, a professor has to follow his/her colleagues’ lead in all professional and ideological aspects. This way, the underlying principle of the liberal university taken from the Age of Enlightenment is rejected as the university promotes not the original research and search for truth, but rather conformist ideas that cannot be objected if a student or starting researcher wants to achieve academic success.

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However, Piereson is optimistic about the future of the American university as there are signs of its coming reformation. Numerous failures and obvious drawbacks of the left university have made many trustees, donors, deans and presidents question its today’s leftish policy. Academic process and campus tendencies as well as many other malignancies bred by the leftism are intended for being fundamentally revised. There is also an issue concerning which kind of university should replace the left one. The author supposes that it should not be the right university. “It should be replaced by the real university, dedicated to liberal education and higher learning” (Piereson, 2005).

Furthermore, significant deviations from the widely accepted norms of the left university can be found even today. The most surprising fact is that the uncharacteristic of the typical left university phenomena are ingrained in military colleges that are stereotypically perceived as places for producing standardized and plainly thinking soldiers of the U.S. army. In fact, the reality is drastically different. Mark Bauerlein comes to this conclusion in his article Saluting the canon: The liberal arts are alive and well – at military academics. In the author’s opinion, military colleges like The Citadel and West Point are the remnants of the liberal university that employ teaching methods and implement curriculums completely different from the ones typical for the left university. Bauerlein tells about his personal observations in these two colleges, which allows him to compare them with some elite universities that undoubtedly fail in this competition on an epic scale.

The most effective measure of a college’s or university’s commitment to the humanities is always found in the core curriculum. Recently, elite left universities have significantly lowered their academic standards and eliminated some previously major requirements. For instance, the college of Vassar has no core curriculum at all and does not require history, English, and philosophy courses. The University of Virginia, Jefferson’s hope for an academic liberal university, requires only two humanities courses. On this background, the curriculum of Duke seems to be an extended one because its requirements include a writing course, two courses in arts or literature, and two courses in civilizations. However, this impression vanishes after a deeper insight into the quality of these courses. Their humanistic content is minimal and breadth is microscopic, which is obvious from the fact that the Duke writing course presupposes the Stepford Wives as “its only film version of marriages” (Bauerlein, 2006). The vivid contrast is represented by the military colleges’ curriculum. For instance, The Citadel’s requirements include four courses in English, two of which are composition courses and one is a literature survey. The fourth course may be either the British or American literature survey, or a world literature survey. West Point demands four extensive and well-structured courses in English as well. This comparison clearly shows that military colleges are more serious and profound in delivering humanistic knowledge. Contrary to the left universities where the professors’ ideology is often imposed and where conformity in thinking is promoted, military colleges avoid ideological pressure and promote expression of various personal opinions. The only requirement is that a student can argue for his/her thought well. Moreover, military colleges expect broad study of outstanding works and ideas. Intense discussions and fresh opinions are welcomed by teachers during humanities classes. Their design of humanistic knowledge is aimed at promoting knowledge of other cultures, histories, religions, and American heritage.

Although some left universities’ boards acknowledge the importance of the humanities “in an increasingly global and connected, yet simultaneously diverse and fragmented world”, their core curriculums and basic requirements remain unchanged (Bauerlein, 2006). The author considers it to be “refreshing” to find some schools with teachers who are passionate about their subject, open to new ideas, and who try to get “all graduates immersed in them” (Bauerlein, 2006). Although the author does not argue the importance of the humanity studies for future soldiers, he finds it paradoxical that these refreshing schools are not the elite American colleges and universities. This way, the ideals of the liberal university are preserved only in military colleges and fail to be adopted by the left university due to its highly ideological and inflexible educational policy.

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The role of the university has undergone numerous changes throughout the centuries. Before the scientific revolution, the university was mainly a religious institution that prepared graduates only for three vocations – ministry, law, and teaching. Gradually, they were transformed into the concentration places of original thought and innovation. Therefore, universities occupied a more significant place in the period of the scientific revolution, yet it was diminished by the popularity of various non-academic institutions and circles. The Age of Enlightenment contributed to the development of the university as a public institute that was able to influence the economic and political life of the society. Many Enlightenment ideas became the core principles of the liberal university. Immanuel Kant’s challenge “Dare to know!” reflects the new vision of the principal aim of the liberal university (Coffin, 2011). The scientific method of the empirical observation was adopted by academic researchers. Despite the fact that universities could not compete in popularity with various non-academic groups and salons during this period, the Age of Enlightenment contributed to the formation of the liberal university through the “thinkers’ interest in practical, applied knowledge and their determination to spread knowledge and to promote free public discussion” (Coffin, 2011). Nowadays, universities and colleges have become leftish, though there are some promising signs of the decrease of this tendency. Various issues concerning the notion of the university are discussed in the articles by Piereson, Leef, and Bauerlein. These three articles complement each other in terms that Leef and Bauerlein expand on some facts mentioned by Piereson. The Piereson’s article is an overview of the university’s history and general characteristics of the left university. Leef’s article is focused on the period of 1970s when obtaining a degree became a must for getting a well-paid job. Bauerlein contrasts left universities with military colleges that still preserve some characteristics of the liberal institution. The only weakness of all articles may be viewed in the authors’ deep involvement into the topic, which may have been claimed by some left supporters as an impediment to the objective assessment of the situation. However, their engagement does not prevent them from logically and convincingly proving their ideas that could hardly be called extremely biased or completely unjustified.

Nicholas D. Kristof in his article The Daily Me gives a possible reason for the extreme popularity and longevity of the left university. “The Daily Me” is a phrase used to designate the human being’s tendency to choose news and opinions in the media that correspond to his/her own. The author believes that people do not want good news, but they want “information that confirms their prejudices” (Kristof, 2009). It correlates with the tendency to unification and conformity in thinking promoted by the left university. “The effect of Daily Me would be to insulate us further in our own hermetically sealed political chambers” (Kristof, 2009). The author sees no miraculous way out as he himself admits to being inclined to this harmful habit. Nonetheless, people should try their best to be as open to new and sometimes opposing ideas as possible. It is the task of the university to promote this plurality of thoughts and to encourage open, but civil discussions. Debates should breed truth rather than conflicts or disunity. Therefore, solving this troubling issue should be one of the most urgent tasks of the real university that Piereson has predicted to appear instead of the currently existing left one.

The issue of the university and college education is essential for the contemporary society as over the centuries these institutions have gained the power to influence the life of the whole nation. Core curriculums, requirements as well as teaching techniques have to be revised in order to be able to efficiently eliminate the existing drawbacks of the higher education. The value of the humanities should not be underestimated, especially in the modern context of globalization. People have to learn about other cultures, literatures and histories in order to be able to co-exist in a peaceful and mutually beneficial way. Universities have to become the leaders in promoting the ideological and cultural diversity, rather than be an example of smothering fresh and non-conformist ideas. Students do not have to endure the constant imposition of their professors’ ideas. In order to transform the university and return advantageous liberal ideas, at the same time getting rid of the leftish ones, faculty members, university administration, enthusiastic professors, sponsors, and students have to cooperate in working out a program of an utterly new university.

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