Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Purpose of a University

In an age when many critics of higher education focus myopically on job-preparation, tuition, and student debt, Nicholas Thompson questions whether one of my alma maters, Stanford, has changed from a university to an incubator for Silicon Valley start-ups by brilliant drop-outs supported by faculty and administrators (with apparent conflicts of interest). The piece is here in The New Yorker.

Thompson raises legitimate questions:
what’s the point of having a great university among the palm trees if students feel like they have to treat their professors as potential investors, found companies before they can legally drink, and drop out in an effort to get rich fast? Shouldn't it be a place to drift, to think, to read, to meet new people, and to work at whatever inspires you?
But I fear he's engaged in a fallacy of composition. While such start-ups may emerge more often at Stanford than at most other universities (which itself is an issue worth exploring), how often does it actually happen at Stanford? How many students drop out to become internet entrepreneurs? How often are they backed by faculty and administrators?

I haven't been back to "The Farm" for several years, but I suspect there remain a lot of students - probably the vast majority of students - who are engaged in precisely the kind of activities Thompson believes universities should cultivate.

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