These are times in which the revolutionary processes of digitalization are changing personal and professional relationships, as has rarely happened in history. That is why it is convenient to reflect, perhaps with the necessary integrity and serenity, on the future of higher education institutions that we know as universities.
Precisely because it is the digital revolution that forces us to question the future of a millennial institution, it is fundamental to clearly differentiate between the university as an institution and its function in society.
If there is any lesson we can get from the study of the history of the universities it is that they were not always the preferred place of learning or even the most effective one. But the universities managed to become a center of educational and cultural innovation while posing as bastions of defense of some of the values we defend as inalienable: the independence of ecclesiastical and earthly powers, the originality of scientific thought, the invention of applied research. To all that, and much more, universities have contributed to society.
But far from idealizing the university as the culmination of the most noble aspirations of the human spirit, it is also convenient to point out some of its shadows and, above all, to analyze in what aspects its time may have passed.
Lights and shadows
While it is true that they emerged as an instrument of social pressure of an emerging bourgeoisie against the infinite domination of the Church over the ways of thinking, it is no less true that they served political power without dissimulation to win their favors and attract their funds.
Perhaps the most famous example of this fact is the obligation to which Henry VIII submitted to all Masters of all colleges of Cambridge and Oxford to accept his marriage to Anne Boleyn and contribute to the creation of the Anglican Church. Whoever refused to do so, such as John Fisher , the famous Master of St. John’s College at the University of Cambridge, of which he became Rector, was simply beheaded. Censorship did not disappear, it simply changed hands.
It is no less true that the university was born, compared to the monastic and cathedral schools, as a form of education only accessible to the wealthy classes. Sending a son to study in Bologna, Salamanca, Paris or Oxford was something that only the nobility and the high bourgeoisie could afford, unlike the possibility that lower-class children had to pursue an intellectual and ecclesiastical career if they entered any seminar of any ecclesiastical province of the West.
And precisely this is another of the great differences: while women could study in convents, become writers, like Santa Teresa, and have their own space away from the daily harassment of men, the university only admitted women in their classrooms at the end of the 19th century , and in many cases he refused to grant them comparable titles until well into the 20th century.
What exactly are we going to miss? A way of thinking? That is not going to change: if human progress is based on something, despite the alarming dystopias that fill television screens, we tend to get accustomed to certain concepts that we defend as a species despite the stumbling blocks of the dialectical advance of History. .
What we will miss
Maybe we miss a forum for discussion of ideas, but social networks and the digital world have already replaced those forums, despite the obvious risk of tribalization that Cass R. Sunstein talks about in #Republic . Student protests, for example, a key aspect of the university’s contribution to the struggle for social rights in the 20th century, are now organized by whatsapp, and not on campuses.
It is easier for us to miss the applied research that was born in German universities especially in the nineteenth century : an altruistic research, not financed directly – although financed and interested there has always been also -, which has achieved very high levels of knowledge , especially in the nineteenth century, particularly in the field of empirical science.
We will also miss a place where young people stimulate their desire for knowledge, although it is still to be seen if that battle against digital stimulation is not already lost, which is itself is not bad: the manuscripts lost the battle of being the privileged means of communication in front of the books, and the books and the written press are losing it without remedy in front of the digital advance. The means change, the message lasts .
Nor does the formula work, at least in Spain, to go to the university in search of a degree that guarantees a better job. The employability rates of university careers should be simply an oxymoron, in addition to not working. If years ago a diploma was enough, now nothing is done without a master’s degree. We have extended the stay and we have raised the costs, but a university, if it wants to be faithful to the ideals that we attribute to it, that are not necessarily those with which it was born, it should not be an employment agency.
If the end of the university, in the end, is to enlarge the human spirit under the direction of a teacher who models the thinking of future generations, the problem then is not digitalization, or offshoring, or costs, the problem is the trust young people can have in their teachers. My experience of 30 years of teaching tells me that this confidence, today, is almost nil: it does not matter if we change the methodology, shorten the texts, change the exams. It is not the battle of teaching that we have lost, it is the battle of trust.
Author Bio: Susana Torres Prieto is completing a PhD in Philology. Specialist in Slavic and medieval studies. Academic Director of Humanities at IE University and IE Business School, IE University