Which Shape?

kircher peeksTwo mentalities often appear as rivals: the preservationist and the entrepreneurial. The preservationist mentality is quick to nostalgia and slow to triumph. The entrepreneurial mentality is quick to create, disrupt, and destroy in order to advance. It is slow to mourn.

Universities, of course, have long yoked together both mentalities productively if not always happily. Preserving knowledge and its lineage could lead to new thoughts—innovation—responsibly used. But as complaints mount about the price and efficacy of a college education, so do calls for more entrepreneurship within it. Libraries become learning commons and bookstores ghosts of a wireless graveyard. E-classes might proliferate like e-cigarettes, so that e(-)veryone might vape while watching lectures on tape as a prelude to the thinking that supposedly happens elsewhere. We hear a clamor to reshape the institution: i-Systems for i-People.

Logical enough. Nonetheless, I recently spoke to a current freshman at my alma mater who planned to avoid acquiring a single textbook that year. I concede the allure: textbooks are expensive and contents change. I also sensed a boast, a cheating of the system I have heard before: “Look at me—I can pass this class with the optimally minimized level of effort and cost.”

Oddly, or archaically, enough, I finally read four books last month that I bought as a student for classes I never took, let alone enrolled in. I bought them in a college bookstore at the beginning of the semester, and I bought them because of the organized knowledge they offered, not because I needed them to pass any class. I still have other books from other semesters to read. I used to wonder the aisles in bedazzlement by so many things to know. I wanted to teach myself and was grateful that someone had conveniently put their expertise in one place for me. I could get some fraction of their wisdom for the cost of the books rather than that of the class. I, too, was cheating the system—paying less, reading more. Maybe I epitomize Socrates’s fear that writing would weaken our memories, since I frequently need to stand before a colored spine to remember what is inside. Quick to nostalgia, slow to triumph.

The medium of education matters less than its prevailing perception: as a burden to survive and eventually cast off or as a tool we seek to reshape ourselves.