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October 3, 2012

Have we forgotten the purpose of the University?

some towers in the distant background, other buildings on the side, as we look down the mall and see students play and communicate.

Village design of University of Virginia by Tanner

I don’t know when the first University was established in the United States. That’s not because I’m too lazy to find out, it’s because different colleges claim the title. So, rather than nitpick over names and dates, I’ll tell a few stories from history that illustrate the worth of University, and how its meaning has changed.

When I started my degree at Aberystwyth, one of the lecturers made an observation, about our changing expectations. The University’s old motto was “Nid byd, Byd heb gwyboneath.”  It generally means “It’s not a world at all, a world without knowledge.”

In other words, Knowledge is seen as essential, and the University’s mission is to spread, or perhaps even create, that knowledge.

But, knowledge of what?

Aberystwyth, like Wales in general, was generally “non-conformist” 135 years ago. That meant they weren’t part of the official church of England, but held other Protestant beliefs (chiefly Methodist). The non-conformists needed their own preachers who knew the gospel well. They needed lawyers who were loyal to the Welsh ways and would treat their Methodist clients fairly.  They needed teachers who could teach the brightest pupils. They needed thinkers to find out what else they needed.

America’s first Universities were created in colonial times (although not always using the word “university.”)  But, despite the fact that the pre-Independence Universities were creating cunning preachers and lawyers, American leaders saw that something was missing.

Thomas Jefferson saw founding the University of Virginia as one of his greatest roles.  Greater than being President or Vice President.

George Washington did not ask for an academy like West Point to create more generals, nor for better paid generals, but he wanted better generals, generals who could think. He needed creative people, people who had the experience of the ancients. He wanted a stronger military, an intelligent military, a military of men who knew more than the limited experience of a single human lifetime can teach you.

One educated soldier, who served Washington loyally but perhaps never met him, was William Eaton of Connecticut. Eaton didn’t have any Pell grants or trust funds sending him to school. No, he had to drop out when his funds were low, tutor a local farmer in exchange for food, and go back and forth between school and breaking out and crying because he was a terrible salesman.

This was after serving as a private in the Revolution. I don’t know what his war record was like then, he was just a boy. William Eaton didn’t seem to even have a high school diploma.

So, what did he study at University? The classics. William Eaton learned about ancient Rome and Greece, and he learned “dead” languages. And this education served him well. And he also made friends. And he continued to write to these friends, some of whom obtained important government positions.

Eaton later rejoined the military, and his education didn’t push him straight upfront. But, he was a good writer. When his boss tried to get Eaton in a dodgy real estate transaction, and Eaton refused, Eaton was accused of making a profit off of military supplies like uniforms.  William Eaton wrote and spoke in his own defense with eloquence and detail.  Because of Eaton’s way with words, we know his side of the story well, even if he didn’t convince everyone.

Later, Eaton was approached with a bribe. He reprimanded the man who bribed him, but seemed to be out of the army. However, Eaton continued to write to his friends.  Some of these friends were contacts he made while studying at university, and a few became powerful members of Congress.

Eventually, William Eaton’s writing paid off.  Eaton landed a good job, with the help of a friend in government, as the American Representative to Tunis. He was the consel, and it didn’t pay as well as ambassador.

Eaton’s ability to write well, which he perfected at university, as well as his ability to research, prepared him well. Before going, Eaton read up on North Africa, like a true scholar. Eaton tried to learn what he could of the language, culture, and history of the region. He’d already secured a foundation in college, including an ability to learn languages and a knowledge of the ancient world, which helped with the geography.

While we may forget Eaton’s exploits in the history book, his sense of history meant that he developed a vision which took him beyond that of the other two counsels in North Africa at the time.  The other two counsels had more experience in the region, about a decade of being captives in the court of Algiers.  And they weren’t bad writers either.  But Eaton was better able to make the case for what would become known as America’s first overseas intervention.

But having an education itself doesn’t make you a great soldier, or a good worker. One of Eaton’s chief problems came from a man “with an education.” A sailor in the navy, who was promoted when he shouldn’t have been, and ended up causing the US Navy no end of problems. I’ll leave that story for another time.

I was going to write about my grandfather, a member of the “greatest generation” who was the first doctor in my family.   Like Ron Paul, he wasn’t paid for his services as much as doctors are today, but that didn’t mean his skills weren’t appreciated.

The same went for my grandmother, who was a nurse during the war, and later became a registered nurse.  Though her skills didn’t make her rich, they were greatly appreciated by her friends (and with the way she volunteered after her retirement, she made a lot of friends.)

Medicine has always been appreciated.  Getting back to William Eaton’s time, when America had gone to war with Tripoli in North Africa, a boat got stuck off the shore.  They were running out of provisions, and couldn’t move.  That boat was the USS Philadelphia.

The captain surrendered.  The crew were taken below to dungeons, while some of the higher ranking officers had more pleasant quarters.  Even the high ranking officers, however, were taken to dungeons when the Bashaw, or ruler of Tripoli, was angry with the United States or when things didn’t go his way.

For most of the crew, the food was bread and water.  They were chained to the floor, forced to do hard manual labor that would be considered cruel to animals, punished through a barbaric form of torture called “bastinados.”  It wasn’t pleasant, and some crew members never forgave Captain Bainbridge for surrendering.

However, one member of the crew was not thrown in the dungeon.  He was given freedom of the castle.  The reason?  He had the skills of a doctor.

The doctor could treat the Bashaw’s son.  He could help heal the Bashaw’s soldiers.  He was kind of a confidant to the Bashaw.

Likewise, if your skills are rare, and needed, you will be of great value.  The Bashaw needed a doctor.

Imagine, however, that the whole ship were filled with doctors.  All could be thrown in the dungeon.  The Bashaw could have chosen the most docile of the lot, perhaps even one who would turn on his country and take an oath of allegiance to the Bashaw’s cause (five members of the Philadelphia’s crew did “turn Turk,” including at least one natural born American.)

But, with the lack of options, the Bashaw needed one.

In the past two generations, our views of University have changed.  We’ve been misled into thinking that University exists to benefit the graduate, instead of existing to help the graduate be more useful to others.

In the UK and USA, university is big business.  It provides employment to lecturers, professors, and marketing personnel.  The law of supply and demand works in perverse ways.

There is a demand for more university placements as government and parents try to get more people into university.  But there isn’t as big of a demand for more graduates in the private sector.

In fact, part of the reason that University graduates still make more than non-graduates is because of government influence.  Not only do the growing number of universities need people to teach courses, but government also creates a lot of bureaucrat jobs that require degrees.

As government is too big, many of these university jobs are superfluous.  Some of them get paid more because of Union involvement.  The degree as a barrier to entry makes it easier for the union to remain strong, and it pushes prices up.

However, if small government people get their way, many of these jobs will disappear.

Many regulations also create jobs that “need” degrees.  In the UK recently, the government decided that nurses should have university degrees.  There are also wage subsidies available to companies that aim to hire graduates.

So, the inflated price of graduate salaries is pretty artificial.  As the economies scale back, we find more graduates are being paid less.

The price of tuition, however, continues to rise.  Colleges, though primarily non-profit, can get greedy.  They sell their degree on the idea that they bring the graduates more money (which, of course, is primarily due to government interference with wages.)  They are partly able to charge so much because the government guarantees loans and encourages people to pay for college.

Colleges do some good things along the way.  They do the research that ultimately create many of the good things we have, from 3D animated environments to advances in medicine.

However, it may be time to ask, are these cash cows doing what they were meant to?  Are our expectations realistic, or are we just deluding ourselves?

“Economists report that a college education adds many thousands of dollars to a man’s lifetime income—which he then spends sending his son to college. – William E. Vaughan”