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The Twilight of the Germanic University

[] — An essay by the humanities scholar Gerald Graff was published today at Inside Higher Ed. “It’s time to end ‘courseocentrism’” was Graff’s presidential address to the Modern Language Association, originally delivered last month at the MLA’s annual meeting in San Francisco.

In the essay Graff calls for the establishment of more curricular linkages across departments so students won’t receive such a dis-integrated education. “[O]ur experience of teaching in hermetically sealed classrooms,” writes Graff, “makes us—to coin a word—‘courseocentric.’ Courseocentrism—like its ethno-, ego-, and Euro- counterparts—is a kind of tunnel vision in which our little part of the world becomes the whole. We get so used to the restricted confines of our own courses that we become oblivious to the fact—or simply uninterested in it—that students are enrolled in other courses whose teachers at any moment may be undercutting our most cherished beliefs.” Because there is so little integration across the curriculum, “taking courses becomes a process of serially giving your teachers whatever they seem to want [and] jumping through hoops replaces deep socialization into the intellectual community. In other words, the disconnect between courses and teachers ultimately reproduces itself in a disconnect between students and academic culture itself.”

I posted a reply to Graff’s essay that turned into a miniature essay itself, so I thought it might be useful to repost it here as well.

The Twilight of the Germanic University

These are fine prescriptions, and the curriculum will be healthier if they are followed. But in large universities, such as Mr. Graff’s UIC with 15,000 undergraduates, the faculty’s microhabitat is so peripheral to much of what goes on that they seldom realize how peripheral it really is.

Like Prospero, the faculty long ago lost control of their dukedom through inattention to matters of state, and a host of usurpers took over—from non-academic student affairs departments, to criminal sports enterprises, to marketing hucksters pushing branded credit cards that send kickbacks to the business office.

There are 168 hours in every week. Less than one tenth of those hours, even for a full time student, are actually spent in the presence of the faculty. And even that single tenth is mostly spent under structured and scripted conditions.

Is there “a disconnect between students and academic culture itself”? At one-tenth time there is never a “connect” in the first place.

This is the fruit of what’s usually called the Germanic university model, adopted in an earlier age when a campus of two or three thousand was considered just barely manageable—a university model that has spun completely out of control since the bubble of the 1960s.

Scholars brought up under the Germanic model, Woodrow Wilson wrote in 1909, “have never thought of the university as a community of teachers and pupils: they think of it, rather, as a body of teachers and investigators to whom those may resort who seriously desire specialized kinds of knowledge…. They do not think of living with their pupils and affording them the contacts of culture; they are only accessible to them at stated periods for a definite and limited service.”

So complete was the Germanification of American universities during the twentieth century that few faculty today even imagine there might be another organizational tradition in which they could live and move and have their being.

But there is another way: the “collegiate way” that breaks large institutions into into small, permanent, cross-sectional, faculty-led residential colleges running perpendicular to the academic departments, like the warp and weft of a fabric. More and more universities are beginning to turn along this way each year—public and private, large and small, North American and Asian and Latin American and European—so many that it constitutes a clear international movement, albeit still a small one.

But unlike Prospero, we have no magic spells that can bring about restoration. Hard work is required, for a generation and more.

Is the Industrial State University of the twentieth century, obese and infested with parasites, too big to fail in the twenty first? Perhaps. But that used to be said about a lot of things, from capitalist banks to communist empires. That’s probably what the owners of the humming textile mills of 1909 thought too. They never would have imagined their buildings standing vacant today along a hundred river banks all across the country.

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