The American Dream   /   Summer 2013   /    Essays

Resisting Complacency, Fear, and the Philistine

The University and its Challenges

Leon Botstein

Peter Struck, Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, prepares to record a lecture on Greek Mythology; © Matt Slocum/AP/Corbis.

The first issue I wish to raise is the presence and presumed threat of technology. My position on this matter is simple. Technology, as it is now emerging, is still in a very early stage. As an instrument of university learning, it is a good thing and promising. The error is for scholars and teachers to be against it, in a Luddite fashion. Let us use and integrate it.

No one really knows what the technology or its uses will be like, and there is no reason, from an historical vantage point, to be anxious about it. When sound recording came into being, most informed observers thought it would become primarily an instrument of composition. Online courses are only now beginning to put bad teaching or non-teaching out of business. The larger universities in the United States have been guilty of ineffectual teaching, particularly of undergraduates, for decades. We are responsible for any destructive competition technology has brought our way. We have accepted the large lecture course in, for example, organic chemistry designed to discourage most of the students and to engender not a whit of interest in the subject. We leave the teaching of undergraduates to graduate students whose work therein has no reward to their professional career and no central role in their training. It provides no status. This is worst perhaps in the sciences where the assumption is that if you need teaching, you should not be in the field in the first place. Facility is mistaken for talent. These are grave, commonplace errors.

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