Monday, December 14, 2020

The Fall of the Citadels of Science: the Pandemic and the End of Universities


Far from being ivory towers, nowadays universities look more and more like battered citadels besieged by armies of Orcs. The Covid-19 pandemic may have given the final blow to a structure that was falling anyway. (image credit "crossbow and catapults")


A couple of weeks ago, I saw the end of the University as I knew it. It was a line of students standing in the main hall of our department. All of them were masked, all of them had to stand on one of the marks drawn on the floor -- at exactly 1 meter of distance from each other. A teaching assistant was watching them, least they could stray of a few inches away from their assigned position. The only thing that was missing was iron chains and balls and the cadence gang march

That was not the only humiliation imposed on our students because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Of course, it is all done with the best of intentions, but it is a heavy burden. Students can't get close to each other, they have to reserve in advance a seat if they want to attend a class, when they enter a building they have to show their ID and to stand in front of a camera that records their face and takes their body temperature. The diabolical machine can also check if they are wearing their masks right. Then, of course, the university personnel is supposed to check that the rules are respected and to report those students who don't respect them. Symmetrically, I suppose the students are expected to report a teacher who doesn't comply with the rules.

Transforming the university into a jail and the teachers into prison guards took just a few months and you may imagine that the students are not happy. Not that they are protesting loudly, they just react with passive forms of resistance. The data show that fewer and fewer of them attend their classes, even when it is possible for them to do that in person. Then, the virtual lessons are turning into an exercise of futility. Bored teachers speaking into their microphones and bored students looking into their cameras. But sometimes they flatly refuse to show their face online and you can't force them to. It doesn't matter whether you can see their faces or not, you can't know if they are listening. Are they watching movies, playing games, or chatting online among themselves? 

Just to tell you what kind of atmosphere we are living in, one of my colleagues told me that a student of his refused to attend her laboratory class saying that she didn't feel safe from infection. But she insisted that she should be graded as if she had attended. I don't think it was a trick to avoid attending a boring lab class, although it is not impossible. More likely, she was genuinely scared. She can't be faulted for feeling in that way, after having received the massive bombardment of scaring news that the TV is pouring out every day. But the effect on the morale of the other students must have been devastating. It sounded to me like the start of a rout in battle. Once a soldier starts running away, all of them will.

Next year we may have a good vaccine or, perhaps, the virus will simply go away by itself. But the virus has simply accelerated a trend that was already ongoing, forcing people to ask themselves a question that few had dared to ask before. What are universities for, exactly

Of course, universities have a long history. Almost a thousand years in Europe, even more in the Islamic world. There was a time, up to no long ago, when it made sense to concentrate books and scholars in a single physical location: a "campus". Universities were citadels of science where you could both maximize the interactions among scientists and the availability of books. Then, students could be in touch with their teachers almost every day. It was the concept of "cross-fertilization" of ideas and of minds.

But then, gradually, things changed. For the students, attending a university has become not unlike having dental work performed. Nobody likes that, but when it is needed you pay for it and you are happy when it is over. So, college was three years of boredom (maybe five) in crowded classrooms where students had to suffer hours and hours of incomprehensible lectures derived in a droning tone by someone who couldn't care less about them. The boredom was punctuated with humiliation at those silly rituals called "exams." 

Fraternities and sororities became nothing more than exclusive clubs for wealthy students. The professors, on their side, gradually lost their job security and their academic freedom. They found themselves in a rat race where they had to run to survive, competing with their colleagues for salaries and research grants. The worst was the deadly mechanism of "academic incest" that consists of academics grading each other in a baroque procedure known as the "h-index." It is loved by bureaucrats, but it rewards conformity and lack of innovation.

Worst of all was how universities were taken over by bureaucrats who managed them as cash cows. The profits of universities went mainly to administrators while teachers were paid well only if they were superstars, supposed to be able to attract paying students. The rank and file were paid low to moderate salaries while the bulk of the research work and the teaching was carried out by non-permanent staff on starvation salaries on positions that could be revoked at any time. 

No wonder that the whole contraption was starting to fall apart at the seams and, perhaps, it is good that now it is apparently to everyone. The last hit was the pandemic. Once the students discovered that they don't need to be physically present in class, they are going to realize that they don't need to attend the low-quality lessons of the staff of their local university. Why shouldn't they enroll with the best ones?

In Europe, there are about 2700 universities and in the whole world the count is at about 25,000. Most of them provide the same array of basic curricula. There follows that for most subjects there are tens of thousands of teachers who teach more or less the same things. Think of basic chemistry: I can't imagine that in Bangalore they teach chemistry differently than they do in Florence. Do we really need so many teachers? And most of them are amateurs at their job. Just read a site as "rate my professor" and you'll see that not all teachers are appreciated by their students. No wonder that it is so: there is no quality control on the way university professors teach.

If we go to online teaching, instead, for each subject we can have just a few high-quality courses prepared by teams of professional instructors. And we can keep the best teachers while getting rid of the band of useless loafers who staff universities nowadays. What a saving for the economy

It is funny how some professors are praising the new concept of "e-learning" as if it was a good thing for them. It is as if horses were praising the internal combustion engines that were to replace them. Horses didn't realize that they were going to be slaughtered and rendered for their fat. A similar destiny may be awaiting most university professors, although not literally (hopefully, at least). 

Maybe it is not going to happen so soon, but the writing is on the blackboard. Universities may well be replaced by some kind of Google service. Just like we have Google Translate and Google Groups, there will be something like "Google Teach" or "Google School" and I am sure it will do a much better job than that done by those amateurs who have been in charge up to now. And those hateful bureaucrats will have to go packing, too.

The sad thing is that for what we gain in terms of the quality of the teaching, we are going to lose a lot more in other areas. Universities were not just scientific centers. They were places where young people had a sort of "initiation," often being their first experience of living outside their families. The students were the citizens of the village of science, it was a duty and a privilege at the same time. But that seems to be gone.

And our youth? Maybe they are going to become larvae sitting in front of their screens all day long. Or maybe we'll find some way to teach them how to be good human beings. Maybe.


See also 

"On the demise of universities"

"R.I.P The University

"Colleges do the Unthinkable"



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)