Reading Booman today, I came to the realization that a normal lifespan is long enough for a person to lose everything. The world changes in such a way and at such a pace that one is bound to witness the disappearance of whatever makes living in this world interesting and rewarding.
So, I learned here that one of our large public universities SUNY-Albany has decided to scrap Classics, French, Russian, and Theater. Universities everywhere are in financial distress. They are dumping unneeded ballast so they can stay afloat. That unneeded ballast, though, happens to be the university’s soul.
I attended college in the seventies, and then dropped out, and finally dropped back in and got my degree two years ago. So my perspective covers some ground. And I found that both times I was in college, the most exciting courses were in the Classics Department. I don’t think that this is a coincidence. The people who devote their lives to that type of scholarship acquire a mindset that is critical, incisive, insightful, and playful all at once. There was nothing in my college experience to match the intellectual excitement of being led through a text by Plato or Euripides in the original. And I was not a Classics major.
Of course, it all makes perfect sense. Students need to get job skills, and don’t have time for much else. The universities don’t want to spend limited resources on departments that nobody majors in. So they disappear. I expect the next to go will be the libraries. Very expensive, and why keep them up? Students do their research on the internet these days. And what percentage of the volumes in the libraries’ holdings are even taking off the shelves in a given year? I’d guess less than 1%.
But universities can not exist — they make no sense — if they see their purpose as providing pre-professional training. You don’t need the expense of dormitories and gyms to provide professional training. You don’t need to have leaders in the field explaining basic concepts to 18-year-olds. You don’t need a classroom for what can be provided just as well and much more cheaply on line. By jettisoning precisely the services that only a university can provide, the university is abetting its own demise.
I’ve probably spent too much of my life learning languages so that I could read books that I thought were too important to me to read in translation — Plato, the Bible, Proust. I don’t think students are wrong for wanting some payoff for the amount of money they have to spend for their education. But I feel that the world is becoming narrower, and I feel sorry for the students who won’t experience the useless yet wonderful pleasures that lie in the texts they will not be given the opportunity to read.