Monday, February 22, 2010

Is This Really The Best Way To Do Things?

The past few posts on the nature and role of the university may cause people to ask if this is really the best way to do things. The answer, I believe, is yes! If universities were any more efficient they would be dangerous. In order to explain that outrageous claim, allow me to digress for a moment.

Machiavelli, the author of late Medieval book of real politic called The Prince, provided sage advice for keeping a Prince in power. However, what few people know is that he had second thoughts later in life about the advice that he had given. When you think about it, a monarchy is really the most effective form of government as long as two conditions occur. First, the monarch must understand what it good for the people he or she is governing. And, second, the monarch must be competent enough to achieve what is good for the people. If the monarch is corrupt (or at least does not make the needs of people primary) or if he or she is incompetent, then monarchy is not such a good idea. And therein lies the problem. Given what we know about people and human nature, it is unlikely that these conditions will be met. Hence we need a form of government that does not rely so much on a single person.

In steps democracy. It isn't that democracy is the most effective form of government. It isn't. It is slow, ineffective and often contrary. However, given our understanding of human nature, it is the most likely to be the most effective over time. It is not the most efficient. It is the most risk free. A monarch can use his or her power to very efficiently take a nation in a very wrong direction. If a democracy goes in a wrong direction it does so very slowly with much debate and discussion and many opportunities for correction.

Universities are similar to democracy in that they are slow, inefficient, and often contrary. However, as the guardians of reality, that is exactly what we want. We do not want to go tooling off in the wrong direction with great efficiency. We want to make sure that if we go in a wrong direction we do so slowly with much debate and many opportunities for correction.

Indeed, if you look at the history of universities, this is exactly what happens. It is exactly what we want to have happen. And therefore it is the best way to do things over the long term.

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