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Friday, June 9, 2023

Guest Column: The assembly line university

The first, ancient universities were tiny; a handful of students lived with their teacher, who was a great sage. The teacher carefully chose students for their potential and taught not only facts but philosophy (“love of wisdom”). Many students of these sages became sages themselves or political leaders.

Today’s universities have drifted far from their roots at Plato’s Academy. Universities today have thousands of students, hundreds of professors, and a large administrative staff. Most Americans now go or want to go to a university; a university education is no longer unique.

Teachers no longer handpick students; premade algorithms now choose students. To accommodate thousands of students, universities became factories.

Just as an industrialist measures a factory by its output, many states measure their universities by the number of students enrolled and the number of degrees conferred.  The more students enrolled, the more degrees conferred, the more funding the state gives. The more funded the university, the bigger and “better” it is. A bigger university produces more graduates, which earns more funding, which grows the university. It is an endless cycle.

The more graduates like me built on the assembly line, the less attention the university can give to me as an individual. To the university, I am not an individual, only a unit of production. I am not unique, I am one of many.

When my university has thousands of students, personalizing my student experience is next to impossible. The university sees me as a student ID number, not a person. We students travel along pre-made major paths to a degree many have earned before us and many will earn after us. The option to “create your own major” already exists at many universities, but is not mentioned to students beyond a short reference in the general catalog, much less encouraged. When we create our own majors, we become unique, not one of many.

As a student, mechanized classes give me little opportunity to become independent or go above and beyond. They teach me as if programming a computer: facts to memorize, definitions to know, scantrons to fill in. Most classes enter data into me as if entering data into a spreadsheet. My task in most classes is memorizing, not understanding.

A computer can only memorize data; it cannot understand the data’s meaning or connections to other fields of study.  A computer outperforms any human at storing data without loss or error; most classes merely train me to be a poor version of a computer. I desire novelty, change and uniqueness; not endless, mindless, monotonous repetition of formulaic actions.

I am rarely encouraged to be curious, to discover on my own, or to devise my own way to learn. I am to learn following a one-size-fits-all model, to do laboratory procedures as a trained monkey following instructions, instead of as an experimenter.

I am not unique; I am one of many.

Mechanized education produces nearly identical and interchangeable people, not wise leaders and philosophers. Mass-produced goods are cheap and easily replaceable, just as mass-produced employees are. When it breaks, find another one. Don’t spend time trying to repair it; it is one of many. Just hire a new one.

Mass-produced goods have no spirit, no personalization and no uniqueness. The rare wise leaders and philosophers cannot be replaced — they are unique, not one of many. Mass production began with the noble desire to open university education to all, but resulted in mechanization: the only way to “educate” thousands of students at once.

William Conner is a fourth-year biochemistry major. He can be reached at wrconner@ucdavis.edu.