Seeking a way to keep brick-and-mortar colleges and universities relevant, in an age when online institutions threaten to make the attainment of a bachelor's degree substantially easier and more convenient, David Sheffield '11 ("What could Brown do for you?", Feb. 25) proposed several recommendations for bettering the Brown experience.
In essence, he argued that Brown should create a more obviously personalized system, possibly through the use of tutorials, with recorded lectures to supplement the private meetings — and to maintain a reasonable schedule for professors.
Incorporating the tutorial system is simply a phenomenal idea, which Sheffield was adroit in mentioning and defending. It not only provides that personal, collegial experience impossible in an online setting, but also would resurrect that archaic idea that a college is a place for controlled chaos. Outside of a few obligations, the college student should be free to float, as it were.
I have a friend at Princeton who, currently studying abroad at Oxford, unreservedly praises its system of tutorials. More or less, he told me, his only requirement is a weekly paper addressing the week's readings, which he must discuss with his tutor at an appointed time.
He is also encouraged to attend the lectures of a visiting professor — which are public lectures, distinguishable from a Brown course's standard lectures — to provide more discussion material. However, meeting with his one tutor is essentially the only class component.
Unlike the Brown system, a tutorial system seems to premise that learning is chiefly acquired through reading texts and writing responses thereto. But, with the use of visiting lectures, one also develops a healthy respect for the more passive activity of listening to scholars in a given field.
Structuring one's time and education at university, then, falls under the purview of the individual student, in conjunction with any groups he might form with those in the same discipline. In such a system, education, as in times past, becomes an activity of genuine self-ownership; obligations are minimal.
Enforcing classroom obligations, many have rightly argued, is a rather pedestrian way to approach college learning. Preparatory schools — even most common secondary schools — are the proper place to have desks and teachers, not colleges. No, at a college one should train his mind, engage in a learned community and become so consumed with ideas that even sleeping in a bed becomes too practical a notion.
As Cardinal John Henry Newman — an Oxford-educated, Anglican clergyman who eventually turned to Rome — contended in his book, "The Idea of a University," the fundamental purpose of that medieval creation is to produce a learned, discerning person.
At college, he wrote, "A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation and wisdom."
Newman further argued that, in its purest form, an education in the liberal arts is meant to inculcate that knowledge is worth having and pursuing merely for its own sake.
One does not, or at any rate should not, obtain an undergraduate degree merely to increase one's credentials and opportunities, or even to acquire certain facts and details.
One goes to college to engage, with others pursuing that same sort of liberal mind, in a moral community the indelible mark of which will never fade.
In short, there really could not be anything more important for Brown, or any college that grants bachelor's degrees, than to support the vitality of its undergraduate life.
And that conception of a college, I think, may be what Sheffield missed in his treatment of this issue. He offered wonderful recommendations for those — such as myself, and presumably anyone committed to the traditional liberal arts — who prefer the physical college to the virtual, but his heart was not in it.
Certainly this may be a result of his focus on the sciences while at Brown, but I hold that it is more likely the result of the economical way in which most modern thinkers evaluate.
Our culture is, as Nietzsche lamented when appraising the Anglo-Saxon peoples of his time, rather obsessed with shop-keeping and ledgers. In any transaction, one mark on the debit side necessarily requires an equal mark on the credit side, so many think.
Yet is that truly how an education should proceed? Clearly it was not the guiding principle at the genesis of the modern university. Even in this day, the stalwarts such as myself uphold the idea that education is emphatically not concerned with utilitarian ends. One should not receive an education to earn a higher income; to compete with the Chinese; to get a job in Manhattan; or to devise destructive war machines for our federal leviathan.
An education at a physical, traditional campus is its own end. While Sheffield may not entirely agree with that sentiment, his proposed solutions for maintaining the uniqueness of brick-and-mortar colleges and universities are laudable. Let us hope, however, that we have a reason to do so.
Sean Quigley '10 adores the medieval period more than your average Protestant.