Kent State not ‘the idea of the university’

Ben Wolford

LEICESTER, UNITED KINGDOM — I want to talk about why Kent State, on the whole, doesn’t teach anyone very much. But first, a note on this column.

The transient nature of the Stater makes finding continuity difficult: For example, there’s usually a new editor every semester. It’s the same for the Forum page. Columnists come and go. It’s not like reading a New York Times Op-Ed, and you generally know what Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman will say.

I’m studying abroad, so I couldn’t be an editor or a reporter, but I wanted to stay involved. So I’m writing this column.

I want to give it a bit of continuity and give the reader a general sense of what I’ll say each week. In the way of a mission statement, I’ll put this: My goal for this column is to critically examine American society from a European point of view.

From a European point of view, Kent State is something like primary school.

I suspect other American universities, especially public ones, are similarly deficient, but I’ve only attended Kent State. Had I the financial means and if I didn’t love the Stater so much, that might not be the case.

In the words of my friend, a Kent State alumnus, with whom I spoke about our higher education system on Gmail, “the project/homework/quiz/test formula to get kids to study seems a great way to let people not fail and only learn what they have to.”

Not fail and only learn what they have to.

That’s not what a university is about.

Look to the 19th-century thinker, John Henry Cardinal Newman, with regard to his thoughts on “The Idea of the University,” which he published in the 1850s. Never mind his religious bent; this is the reason you’re all at Kent State:

“It is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life; — these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge; they are the objects of a University.”

Such knowledge is gained, he says, through good education, that is, not through examinations on a “smattering” of subjects at a superficial level, but through the interactions and discourse of a diverse and educated community.

Lectures, seminars and scholarship are keys to provoking such interactions — not exams drawn from study guides that are drawn from Power Point presentations that are available online after class.

University educators in Britain understand.

Courses at the University of Leicester are three-fold.

Broadly, there are lectures, which are more like sermons. Passionate and capable professors deliver a lecture on, for example, Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure” and use Power Points only to illustrate what their words cannot. And their words are appropriately academic, like, “strikingly modern meets resolutely old fashioned,” to describe Hardy’s character devices.

Seminars are smaller groups that meet for discussion. Students are expected to have done research to argue a position.

Finally, scholarly essays are completed for assessment. They are not reports; they are the undergraduate students’ findings from research and interpretation.

Anything like that is rare at Kent State.

I’ll end with this from the seventh book of Plato’s “Republic.”

“Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.”

Ben Wolford is a junior newspaper journalism major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].