I usually read Ars Technica for the technical articles but I do find other gems occasionally like this.
Usually when people extol the virtues of universities, they discuss teaching people how to think, and how to critically examine evidence and ideas. The ideal role of this sort of university is to churn out well-rounded individuals who can think independently. Most people who despair of today’s youth seem to think that these ideal universities are a casualty of the modern world. The young lads that universities used to produce—ladies being considered too delicate in nature to actually think in those days—were supposed to cast a jaundiced eye over society and to defend against iniquities of government, big business, and, in general, be superheroes without a secret identity.
My point here is not that this ideal was a bad thing, but that universities were never intended to be places to develop independent inquiring minds. And today, universities are ill suited to developing independent inquiring minds.
In the past, universities really only served two purposes. You can see this by examining who attended universities, and what those people went on to do. Traditionally, the university intake was dominated by young men who had attended private schools. That is, young men from rich families would be sent to Eaton or Rugby to learn their letters and look down on everyone else. After a smooth passage through these schools, they were sent on to Oxford or Cambridge to complete their education.
It goes on for a while into other ideas but really this is a good assessment of how universities really work. Whenever I hear some professor talking about how universities talk about how they teach “critical thinking” skills I laugh. This cannot possible be true because at the end of the course every student must be spouting stuff that the teacher agrees with. This is not critical thinking at all. I was a professor for 11 years and never taught critical thinking. I did teach problem solving but that’s a different skill. In my opinion you can tell that a person can do critical thinking when they have views that are opposed to conventional wisdom. This rules most people out.
Anyway, I encourage you to read the whole article. I actually disagree with a lot of the article but he gets the assessment of the purposes of higher education right on.