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My Turn: What was, and is the idea of a 'university'

Posted: January 11, 2012 - 1:01am

In Medieval Europe, centuries ago, there came to be “universities,” and today we still have organizations that are called universities. But what was the idea, the concept behind the idea of a “university?”

The term or word university meant that it was a place where students who had grown up, lived and studied in their particular countries with their own laws and traditions came to a place and lived together in their “co-leges,” [the same laws] that is, places where they shared many things. The new idea at that time was that they would then be exposed to the latest ideas, the best minds from around the world, the “universe.” There they would listen to speakers explaining these new ideas and presenting the latest discoveries, the latest ways of looking at things. They were challenged to question and think about what they were being told.

It was a time when they were presented with the latest discoveries in astronomy, Arabic mathematics, anatomy, government, history, human behavior, sciences — all at the same time. The most important participants were students and these great “minds” sharing their thoughts and ideas. Of course there were those who provided the services, the facilities and made sure things were arranged for these confrontations to occur as “administrators.”

Then, over centuries, those with special knowledge, skills, specific interests expanded so that universities became “departments,” “schools,” “disciplines” and special areas of research and teaching. Knowledge, skills and expertise expanded. Students entered a university, and then were funneled down into particular areas of study. Some specialized in business, the physical or natural sciences, the arts, the humanities, social studies, education or other areas. Those who had to facilitate all these activities, the administrators, moved into the “business of education,” and became those in charge of all that went on. That goes on today in many universities.

Universities became specialized areas of study with programs in medicine, law, physical sciences, philosophy and theology, the arts, humanities, the environment, history and many other areas. They became developed study programs for careers in life. The whole dream or ideal of a place where students came together to learn about the “universe” of knowledge was lost.

What also was lost was the great dream or hope that a person who completed a university education looked far beyond the horizons of their special interests. To be a “university graduate” meant much more than one had learned job skills or a profession, and considered the whole world, the “universe.” It meant they saw they saw, to some extent, the “big picture.”

Today, universities are big business. At some universities, athletic programs bring in so much money that, at times, coaches are paid more than the president of the university. University administrators are hired to be good business managers, to bring in the most money.

There are many good programs, schools and ways of learning job skills, becoming qualified in a profession. But, in my opinion, that is not what makes a school or educational program a “university.” It should be a place where students are taught skills, share knowledge with scholars, but most of all, learn to think, question and do their own research on what they discover are the most important questions in a person’s life.

I know these ideas are controversial. So I ask parents of the future generations who will live in the 21st century, “Do you prefer that your children or grandchildren go beyond secondary education, to get a job. a career in life, or that they get a “university education”? Or both?

• Dr. Olson is a professor of anthropology (emeritus) at University of Alaska Southeast, and an elected fellow of the American Anthropological Association, 1993.

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