In Defense of the Campus

04/02/2015 01:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

When I was a college student and reading John Locke's "Essay on Human Understanding" I saw in my adolescent way how knowledge sparks ideas through critical inquiry and imagination. Nowhere does Locke use the latter term but I recognized "idea" was to the 18th century what imagination would become in the 20th -- it meant going forward. I was lucky, not merely because Locke had proved the dignity of inquiry, but also because I was attending a liberal arts college where students could talk about such things. I sat in the shabby student union with classmates and we argued about Locke and Galileo, and the dignity of engagement was suddenly ours.

Lately there's been considerable talk about the approaching end times of the college campus. According to the soothsayers, we shall have no more physical colleges, substituting instead online courses and big servers. When I read or hear this argument I'm not entirely dismissive for the proposition is as fair as many. Residential colleges are expensive and nowadays one scarcely needs a physical library to acquire information, so why couldn't we have video lectures in cyber-space and save dollars dollars dollars? I too think higher education should be less expensive and believe it should be available to anyone. But then I remember how we argued about John Locke over milk shakes all those years ago -- how we sat up nights and discussed Thomas Jefferson or Frances Crick and James Watson. A genuine college education isn't merely about the gathering of information.

Learning space isn't simply classroom space. The IT crowd holds that there are four basic dynamics of pedagogy: the lecture with audio-visual material (linear learning); class discussion (horizontal learning); clusters (small group activities) and network instruction (decentralized teaching). Any of these can be accomplished without a physical classroom. And yet, in my years of study and teaching, much of what's proved valuable in intellectual terms has happened in corridors, cafeterias, while walking up hill or down or when I've invited students to accompany me across campus as I pursue some errand. Not one of the descriptors above matches what happens in extramural space or what the Greeks called the agora.

Something additional occurs on a campus, a serendipitous thing -- the overheard phrase, an argument in passing. True learning and its breakthroughs often happen "against method" as the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend once put it. This is undeniable. It's a serious mistake to imagine the attainments of higher education are merely functions of linear or horizontal delivery systems.

One shouldn't be rooting too hastily for the end of the college campus as its laboratories, it's eccentric gardens, it's serpentine walks are all creative spaces. This is the reason Thomas Jefferson designed the commons of the University of Virginia as he did, that people might meet, and by accident.

I direct Syracuse University's esteemed Honors Program. I'm fortunate as I get to see students "bumping" into each other's ideas in real time and in certified physical space. A woman talks about shipwrecks as laboratories, and another mentions Adrienne Rich's famous book of poems Diving Into the Wreck -- where a shipwreck is a metaphor for the personal past. They laugh. "How many metaphors can a shipwreck hold?" says the first student. "Oh," says the second, "now that's a big-eyed question!"

There is still no algorithm for serendipity.