If you trace the history of the modern university, you’ll have to go all the way back to Benedict and the monastery movement he founded. It was this sort of mindset, the idea that by separating yourself from society into a new society with high ideals and principles, that you can elevate your thinking, that lead to people forming the first universities. In fact, the very first universities were created by the pope.
The modern university has evolved since then, but many of the traditions and roots are still present. One of the reasons why modern universities were so important in the advancement of our civilization is because they were a store of knowledge and a place where people could get together to communicate quickly and efficiently. If you wanted to pursue higher learning, you had to separate yourself from the rest of society and hole yourself up in some university with like-minded individuals for a period of several years.
However, the indisputable facts are that modern, American universities are no longer centers of learning or communication. They are, at best, degree mills, churning out bits of paper with ink on them in exchange for very large sums of money. The promise of the modern university is, “If you spend several years here, you will have a good job that can provide for your family.” Increasingly, that promise has not been kept.
The internet was created by the military, but it was put into popular use by the universities. Professors knew what was coming when they realized they could collaborate with people halfway across the world in an instant. The private sector has taken the internet and turned it into a roaring profit machine, but the potential of the internet to enable instant communication for the purposes of learning are still being explored. It won’t be long before we realize you can get a better education online than in a classroom.
All the elements necessary for an advanced education are already present in the internet. You have the sum total of human knowledge available with a few keystrokes. You can instantly message anyone in the universe. You can participate in any discussion group on any topic you like. You can publish your thoughts and have them critiqued instantly. The world is now a giant university, and we’ve all been promoted to professor. What we do with that is up to us. We can use the power of the internet to become and expert researcher into the phenomena of the world around us, or we can spend all day watching cat videos.
The one thing the internet cannot provide that a modern university does is access to cutting-edge technology. Large corporations can afford to buy, build, and staff advanced equipment, but small businesses cannot. That’s why businesses often start near a university: they can get access to those tools. The university can become a workshop of sorts, a place where people can go to get access to machines they otherwise wouldn’t even see, and where they can hire experts to either train them on their use or have them use it for them.
Those who truly care about higher learning would do well to redirect their time and efforts into developing the internet as a free source of advanced learning and let the universities die their inevitable death. While we should maintain the labs, equipment, and experts, we have no more need of the classrooms and lecturers.