I have been listening and viewing podcasts and video podcasts on art history lately. Why? Well, the history of religion, which is my special interest required the integration of architecture and art into the mix, the analysis, in order to gain a good understanding of what people believed, when and why. This got me to remembering a History department meeting I attended once (I am a part time instructor and am allowed to attend these meetings, but don’t really have a voice). At this particular university the Humanities, Social Sciences and Arts are being cut severely -one figure I heard was by 30%. They aren’t practical, you see. One of the tenured faculty suggested a union of History and one of the Social Sciences; I believe with the Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology. I thought that useful, but for my own work a union with Art History would have served better. Today my mind came back to this brief exchange and I thought, the university system and individual universities could do with a complete rethink and restructuring. They need to put the universal back into the university. When my Dad was first teaching, he was employed by a small Catholic university that had a total of about a thousand students. My Dad was a research psychologist whose undergraduate work was initially in Maths and Physics. Every day at lunch at school, he would sit with: an Historian, an Anthropologist, a Sociologist, a prof from the English department, a Chemist and a Physicist. They would discuss, from their own scholarly viewpoint everything under the sun. This was a university. Later it became a typically large and secular institution and by the time he retired, the Psychology department alone was so large he didn’t know many of the younger professors. Universality was gone.
I cannot see how the amalgamation of a department with another here and there will alleviate the isolation of fields of study one from the other. In a number of universities departments have been amalgamated and courses cut and reductions made, but not to the improvement of the education of students, but to the goal of the financial bottom line. I am not one of those who believe the government has massive funds to spend to keep the current system going. The bottom line is important and governments and I think, taxpayers in general, approve putting financial resources into pragmatic disciplines that will at some point produce jobs. This leaves those of us who teach critical thought out in the cold of course. Why we are in the cold is illustrated by another conversation I was on the sidelines of the other day. A senior professor commented with contempt on the idea that History (his discipline) had begun to focus on teaching the necessary and practical skill of thinking critically based on evidence. Content was all! was his cry. Short-sighted nonsense of course as one does not eschew the other. But we do live in a world where people shout prejudices at each other and surely an injection of calm reason based on evidence is not a bad thing. And who else can install this habit into society than those in the Humanities, social sciences or arts? Surely not engineers, or Biologists. Their work is removed from the realities of human life although having an impact.
I do not think that universities can become universal again. What I am mulling over is whether online teaching can fill this void. Can a universal look at human endeavour, at human reality be provided by online teaching? The technology and medium do lend themselves to this as one would not need a building in a geographical location where students of any sort or age could come together. We can see the glimmerings of this in iTunes University provided by Apple with its long list of colleges and universities and courses. We can see a glimmering in platforms such as Coursera and other MOOCs. These platforms can and do provide free learning to large numbers of individuals. They lack a central vision however.
It would be interesting to cobble together a carefully considered curriculum from these various and disparate sources. Say, something like: ‘What it means to be Human’: a course of study that brings together History, Biology, Art, Architecture, Sociology, Anthropology, language…… and so on. It would draw on the lectures and static websites already plentiful on the internet, but carefully avoid the lunatic element.