We’ve come up with a formula and a practice that we believe is capable of making up for what’s been lost with the end of the University as a place of humanistic learning and a natural space for the development of personal autonomy.
In this decade, we’re living through the end of the University as a place of development of personal autonomy. This alarming situation has been radicalized by the capture of universities by the short-term interests of Big Businesses, which are the ones that create the fewest jobs. Today, whether through a discipline of in-person classes organized into courses, a MOOC, or a “virtual campus,” the dominant mode of learning is job training. A surprising number of new graduates, even in “all-terrain” careers like Economy, get their degrees without having read anything other than notes and presentations, without having worked through a single book by the sources of what they were taught, or learning the history, the “whys” of the theoretical corpus that is transferred to them. And we won’t even talk about other disciplines needed to gain a critical and global view.
When you look for tools complementary to the learning of Humanities outside of university institutions you inevitably come across the origins of Popular Universities. We are not the first, obviously.
Onfray and the PU of Caen
The Popular University of Caen gives its classes in auditoriums of institutions in the small Norman capital (110,000 inhabitants), which had, until recently, sat empty. It is fed by a phenomenon characteristic of European provincial capitals: outsized and publicly funded cultural faculty.
Its model is simple: free and open entry, two hours a week: one for a lecture, and one for conversation. The lectures—only those of Onfray—are recorded and later broadcast on public radio. In France, “intellectuals are still celebrities,” and Onfray is the pride of Caen. A score of teachers round out the prestigious roster.
But are the expectations of higher education satisfied by cycles of conferences? To put it another way: what does a center of higher studies like this contribute? Let’s leave certification aside: we know that certifications are counterproductive, and in the final analysis, the people we admire were not formed by taking notes.
What’s left of the University if we take away lectures (whether good or bad), textbooks, and exams? In the Continental world, little or nothing. In the Anglo-Saxon world, reading lists and tutoring. These are—or at least, were—so central that they make textbooks irrelevant. Textbooks, in the old Anglo-Saxon academic tradition, are for context, and are replaceable today by a MOOC. Where you really learn is reading books and papers and commenting on them calmly and in person with your tutor once a week, face to face, and often around a teapot. If the tutor is good, his/her students will follow different itineraries, pursuing their own objectives.
Onfray is right that a Popular University is, first and foremost, a place of higher education, and that lectures are important. Opportunities like what Caen offers, or the Spanish Society of Classical Studies in Salamanca, are very valuable.
But there is a problem: the supply of lectures is overly limited by geography, and if we want increase the capacity for service, using video and the Internet or radio like Onfray, it becomes a public broadcasting service financed by local administration and supplemented with private donations.
Putting together a new form of higher learning
Let’s start with the idea of the reading list. Instead of making it exhaustive, so as not to leave out any contribution, let’s choose the most representative works of each of the elements we want to highlight in the knowledge of a specific topic. Instead of simply listing books and articles, let’s present them as milestones in a narrative, so that their meaning can be understood even before reading them. And let’s “decorate” the results with video recordings of conferences and interviews as interesting as those of Onfray. The result is what we call a itinerary. We’ll put everything on the network. The cost for one more person to participate, from anywhere in the world, will be zero, or very nearly. We will be in a situation of practicing abundance by giving real guides for self-teaching.
What would we be leaving out? Everything that physical presence contributes: the interpersonal relationship with other people learning at the same time as us, and the possibility of talking with experts and teachers in an informal setting on the topics we’re reading about. But does it cost that much to set up something like that anywhere there’s a minimum of people interested? There’s no reason it would. All it would take for that is a platform on which people doing an itinerary could show their interest in creating a get-together with other itinerants from their same city. When a certain number is reached, the system itself would put them in contact through a coordinator endorsed by the author of the itinerary, who would invite experts and teachers from nearby to participate in the gatherings. If there is some expense—travel, for example— to bring someone in, the itinerants themselves could cooperate and pass a hat. Or they could simply hold the talks without guests, and share sources they’ve discovered while doing the itinerary.
What is the result?
The result is a Popular University that uses the best parts of the British system—direct work from sources— and the best parts of MOOCs—videos of master classes and documentaries—to go beyond the Onfray model, and also offers the advantages of physical presence to as few as three or four interested people in a city. All this, any place in the world and with practically no infrastructure costs.
We’re developing the software, which will take months to be presentable. We only have four itineraries ready. But we’re already in contact with teachers, associations, and intellectuals who are interested in proposing itineraries on their favorite topics, whether they may be those they’re researching now or those that, for whatever reason, they are passionate about.
Could there be any doubt that this is and will be the great project of our Club for the coming years?