Why go to University?

I’ve just got time this morning before the Astronomy Grants Panel reconvenes for another day of deliberations to put up a quick postette. I thought of this quote the other day when we were inducing inducting inductifying enrolling the new undergraduates. I think it encapsulates what I think a university actually is, specifically why it’s essential for a University education to be part of an environment that also encompasses research, and why even in the digital age (and beyond),  personal interaction between student and teacher will always be essential. Call me old-fashioned.

The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already.

From The Idea of a University, by Cardinal John H. Newman, Chapter 2.

9 Responses to “Why go to University?”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Exactly so. There is a lot more to learning than can be learned from books – so-called ‘tacit knowledge’ that you pick up from watching experts, via a generalised ‘apprenticeship system’. Michael Polanyi’s book “Personal Knowledge” is an exploration of this theme.

    However, in some parts of life our universities are wrecking this arrangement by furthering the divorce of theory from practice. We are going down a road whereby you will soon need a degree in the theory of hairdressing before you are allowed to cut somebody’s hair…

  2. The interaction with tutor, mentor, fellow researchers, fellow human beings is so important. A completely different dimension to that of emails, blogs, twitter, webcasts, wiki etc. It defines who we are (and who we are not). On a practical level (I seem to remember) strong neuro-pathways (memories) are built so much quicker and stronger through the rapid feedback, that a virtual world cannot match and, for me, sparks the creative process.
    Also haven’t found a interweb substitute for beer… so raise a glass to University! An all who sllel i herrrr. Hic.

  3. This morning on the train, I was reading an article about a collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica based on 19th-century German plays (really!) in the latest Mojo where there was a similar quote, attributed to John Coltrane: If it ain’t in your life, it ain’t in your horn.

  4. http://www.loureedmetallica.com/

    OK, one is late 19th century and one early 20th.

  5. “You got to be in the sun to feel the sun.” Sidney Bechet.

  6. Peter,

    I do agree with you, but I am not sure I totally agree that students need to learn from those who are *actively* doing research. Many very good researchers are appalling, uninspiring lecturers. And many very good lecturers are not first rate researchers.

    Whilst I agree an undergraduate should be aware that research is on-going in their subject, is it really necessary for them to be mainly/exclusively taught by people involved in said research?

    • I agree. I think it depends on the course taught, the ambitions of the student etc. Also, there are people where were good researchers in the past, but now, for whatever reason, aren’t, but might be good lecturers.

      Despite his ego, Isaac Asimov freely admitted that he was the worst researcher on the faculty. But he was also the best lecturer. On the other hand, no-one was ever awarded a doctorate for working with Einstein.

    • That was behind my comment Phillip. Einstein was, by all accounts, an appalling supervisor and lecturer, and had little or no interest in students. I found the standard of the undergraduate lectures at my alma mater, Imperial College, to be abysmal on the whole (with one or two exceptions), even though it has consistently been rated the “best” physics department in the UK over the last 40 years.

      I am sure many of the most dedicated lecturers put the interests of their students before their own (selfish?) research, and would prefer to stimulate and excite their students about their subject rather than get their citation rating up another notch.

      Universities should have a mix of both types of people, and also people’s priorities can be different at different times in their career. But, in “traditional” universities, one’s worth is almost entirely determined by one’s research.

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