Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Friday, July 24, 2009

THE IDEAL UNIVERSITY PART THREE

Here is Part Three of my extended essay on the ideal university. If you would like to read the first two parts of the essay, you can page down to earlier posts, or click on this link for the entire essay up to today's post. http://people.umass.edu/rwolff/archiveidealuniversity.pdf

PART THREE

Henceforth, I shall focus my attention on undergraduate education. The term “university” as we currently use it carries with it the implication of professional schools certifying students for careers, and that is not what I have in mind at all. So let us imagine, if we can, an ideal undergraduate institution, a liberal arts college, as we in America would call it.

Hollywood types use the phrase “high concept” to describe an idea for a movie that can be stated in less than a complete sentence. “Terminator in drag,” “Brangelina as paid assassins” [that one actually got made], “George W. Bush – the musical.” That sort of thing. When I search for a high concept to capture my vision of the ideal educational institution, what I come up with is “co-ed monastery, with sex.”

I imagine a community of six hundred students – no more – and sixty professors. A ten to one ratio is already utopian. Anything less would open me to ridicule. This community is like a monastery in at least three important respects. First, it is a community of people who are, and understand themselves to be, united by shared commitments, reciprocal responsibilities, and a common conviction that the life of the mind is a valuable and important component of life. Second, it is a a community whose members have committed themselves to hard work in pursuit of a rich and productive life of the mind. And third, it is a community of persons who take collective responsibility for the daily life of the community, and who share the labor of maintaining it in good order while they pursue the life of the mind.

As this last may strike some as odd or unfamiliar, a few preliminary words are in order. In all of the actual colleges and universities with which I am familiar, there is a sharp distinction between town and gown, between the students and faculty who ARE the educational community, at least in their own eyes, and the large number of men and women who cook the food, tend the grounds, clean the buildings, answer the telephones, run the errands, and in general provide the indispensable support without which the activities of the community would almost immediately come to a halt. No matter what the superficial casualness of the relations between support staff on the one hand and students and faculty on the other, everyone understands the status distinctions, as rigid as any caste system, that ordain the social and economic hierarchy of the community.

In the ideal college that I envision, as in a monastery [or, for that matter, on an Army base], the work usually done by hired staff will be performed by the students and faculty. The students and faculty will cook the food that they eat, clean up after themselves and wash the dishes, maintain the grounds, repair the plumbing leaks, clean the buildings, and do the filing and phone answering and other office chores. This labor will not be left to the financially disadvantaged students who do it as “:work study” to help pay their bills. It will be a natural and integral part of the responsibility of all who live in the community. Medical services will be provided by trained professionals, of course, and even plumbing, carpentry, and electrical work will have to be overseen by licensed practitioners, but one of their duties will be to teach the students the elements of those trades, so that under the guidance of licensed tradesmen, they can do most of the work.

The administration of the college will be the responsibility of the faculty, and the internal organization of the college – of which, more later – will facilitate their efforts. There will be a President of the college, who will teach as well as preside, but there will be no Deans or Assistant Deans or Provosts or Vice-Chancellors, no staff-run Learning Center. There will be a library, of course, and it will require one or several trained librarians, but all the rest of the work in the library will be done by the students. In short, to the extent possible in the modern age, this will be a self-sufficient community of students and scholars.

My insistence on this rather unusual feature of the college has its roots not only in my ideological persuasion – I am, after all, a Marxist socialist of the old school – but also in a lifetime of experience, going all the way back to a summer camp that I attended for three years when I was a teen-ager. Shaker Village Work Camp, founded by Sybil and Jerry Count, was a left-wing teen-age camp in the Berkshires that offered the children of progressive middle-class parents an eight week combination of music, folk dance, choral singing, and four hours of work a day. It was staffed, as you might imagine, by young lefties, many fresh from service in Word War II, who believed fervently in the educational and spiritual value of manual labor. We rolled and maintained the camp’s one tennis court, manicured the grounds, turned pegs on the shop’s wood like the ones that the Shakers used to hang chairs not in use [my favorite job], and helped out in the camp’s office. It was a formative experience for me, fleshing out my rather abstract understanding of communal responsibility.

What would the students and faculty of this ideal college do? I will leave that for the next part of this essay.

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