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Washington University of Utopia

Washington University in St Louis is in turmoil, over harassment scandals, unjust termination of faculty and staff, and student complaints about our complex, politicized, computerized curriculum. One faculty member has called for mass resignations, from Chancellor Wrighton on down. Let's seize this opportunity for renewal and fundamental reform. Let's all come down from our castles and apologize to each other for all our transgressions, as the Jains do each year. Let's then submit our resignations, and reorganize, as Washington University of Utopia.

Let's grant all faculty and administrators in the College equal rank. Everybody would have three titles: Lecturer, Assistant Dean, and Advisor. I look forward to clasping hands with Assistant Dean Wrighton, Lecturer in the College, as an equal! Let's abolish tuition in the College. Let the alumni pay, and let students make voluntary donations, with a money back guarantee. Let's abolish grades in all the ideological disciplines, replacing them with detailed letters of evaluation (public or private, according to the students' choice). Let's abolish Departments in the College, to eliminate petty turf wars. We could replace them with four Divisions: Humanities, Social Sciences, Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences, and a fifth Division for Individualized and Cooperative Studies. Everybody would be expected to take some courses in each Division, as a matter of courtesy at least, but most courses would be cross-listed with at least one other Division. Let's expand the existing Focus programs into divisional Common Core courses, required for all students before anyone is allowed to specialize. Let's rededicate our College to the liberal arts, putting education above professional training.

Let's keep the Graduate Schools hierarchically organized, and divided into many autonomous Departments, in order best to teach disciplinary culture, politics, and professor craft. These Departments would be free to fight turf wars, and anathematize each other, for the greater glory of Washington University of Utopia, and for the entertainment and edification of the whole community. Let's formalize our de facto academic feudal system, with dukes, duchesses, counts, and an Emperor or Empress on top. Tuition would be charged to discourage students with no true vocation for scholarship. However, generous fellowships would be available, especially for students of special talent and limited means, and every PhD would come with a money back guarantee. Graduate students would be free to arrange their own classes, in consultation with the faculty, who would always be accessible to their students. Graduate faculty would publish anonymously, contributing to the Washington University of Utopia Wiki.

This may sound utopian, but most of these proposals work well at other schools. Many Bible Colleges, for example Central Christian College in Missouri, have abolished tuition for students living on campus. When this was announced, enrollment and alumni donations surged. Many European universities, and Penn's Sanskrit program, use a tutorial model, allowing students to arrange their own courses in close consultation with their professors. Robert Maynard Hutchins organized the College of the University of Chicago in four collegiate divisions, plus a fifth New Collegiate Division for experimental programs (the graduate schools also follow this model). His books, including The University of Utopia, describe his educational philosophy, "the life of the mind."

Utopia means "no place," but we can make "Washington University of Utopia" a real place, a topos, just by working with the system we have. Why double major? This is usually just asking for frustration. Why not take what interests you, using the 'pass/fail" option freely? Why not create your own Special Major, formally or informally? I was an informal "Civilizational Studies" major in college, and I asked noboby's permission. Be creative! This is a great school, with potential to be much better if we all take the initiative. Don't ask permission, you don't need it. It's your education.

1/11/07 Postsrcript for Advisees

Since sending this to my Four Year Advisees, I have had many fascinating discussions. Some of you are interested in double majoring. I say, go ahead! Don't ask permission, it's your education! Actually, I think a double major may often be appropriate, especially for pre-professional students who also want a liberal education. Washington University allows students to double major across Schools, and many students come here for that reason. They are quite right to do so.

Most of your parents are paying a lot of money for you to study here, so you have to pay attention to what they say. If your parents will pay only for something practical, that is understandable, but you should still choose your elective courses freely. It is YOUR education, not your parents', and I mean this with the utmost respect. A double major may be a good compromise.

I was very fortunate to have parents who did not interfere with my education, I think mainly because they did not understand what I was doing, and did not really want to know. That had its down side, but over all, I am glad I had the freedom to explore my interests. By the way, at my alma mater, the University of Chicago, nobody was allowed to choose a major until after the first year of "Common Core" courses. In the original Hutchins College, the first two years were common. Under that model, nobody would specialize until the third year at the earliest.

(Please see Teach me, please!, Student Life, 11/10/06)
(Please see
A 'major' mid-college crisis, Student Life, 12/6/06)
(Please see
Special majors offer new twist on curriculum, Student Life, 11/6/06)