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Columbia Spectator Staff

The formula seems simple on the surface. A) professors teach, B) students learn, C) parents or scholarship organizations fund it, and D) administration facilitates the entire process. But in the past few decades, our paradigm of the University has changed from an institution that provides an education to one that guarantees a unique experience. For institutions like Columbia, that not only means a college experience, but also a branded Columbia experience that is managed more like a luxury cruise line than a place for learning. The process of going from A to B suddenly involves much more than C and D—it involves X, Y, and Z as well.

We have always been told what "education" is and how it would be delivered to us. This has been the experience of education as a product—a special type of product with important social influence attached to it, but a product nonetheless. The values of American education now are probably much different than say the early 1900s, when knowledge of Greek and Latin was much more emphasized than knowing L'Hôpital's rule. In short, the recognized content of education has expanded itself. At some point, we realized that school provides both a technical education required for specialized labor and a liberal arts education required for cultural literacy and long-term learning. More recently, the consciousness of university services has discovered yet another segment of education—socialization.

I mean "socialization" as something beyond etiquette or avoiding awkward conversations in front of Butler. I am talking about the expectation that after stepping on campus, you will clandestinely imbibe alcohol in large quantities and spend some years acting irresponsibly. I'm talking about the "student life fee," the various offices with their directors and associate directors, and carrying Columbia prestige into life after school. Yes, the yacht club and club sports have been around for ages, and social networks existed before Facebook, but the concept of social life as a monetized, regulated part of a university and its sheer (expected) scale at college institutions is not.

Consumer expectations drive this new emphasis on student life, where the college experience is now more associated with "Animal House" than with Socrates. This comes from an observed pattern of changing cultural perceptions of adulthood. The New York Times ran an article last year about how "20-somethings" these days are approaching adulthood "milestones" later than ever (if those milestones exist at all), and I might agree to some extent. But my point is to demonstrate that college has become another transition place for socialization, and that the purpose of the educational institution has become so far-reaching that my talking about its various subcategories seems completely unrelated to the topic.

All of this additional administration seems necessary for the livelihood of the University, yet some part of me asks where that livelihood is. Columbia employs countless numbers of adjunct faculty, many of whom teach courses for little more than minimum wage (without benefits) at the time commitment of a full-time job, in addition to grad students for Core Curriculum teaching positions that provide only grants. As Benjamin Ginsburg explained in the Washington Monthly, the misalignment between funding for education and administration in today's university institutions is strikingly obvious. However, although it's easy to label administrators as antagonists, I have yet to meet anyone in the (sprawling) Columbia administration who has been unkind or intentionally aloof from student affairs. Oftentimes they too recognize the problems of the system they're in, but they have no individual power to change it.

I don't come from a place of nostalgia where professors took on administrative positions as part-time jobs and some schools experimentally limited the university experience to academics and its minimal and peripheral administrative needs. I know that the University, in order to sustain its primary function, needs a reputation that will attract hordes of matriculating, tuition-paying students, and that more importantly, some form of student life must exist. But if we are being sold an "education," we should be the ones defining what that is and how much is going into it. We should be asking for A and receiving A, on our terms, instead of what we are perceived to want.

We need to change the way we think about education—the way A gets to B—down to the paradigm of the lecture hall and seminar, and not only demonstrate but also communicate that we want it. One might object that you aren't getting your money's worth if classes aren't structured in the traditional way—but how much interaction is there when you are in a 300-person lecture where you can barely hear your professor? In my next column, I will discuss how we can use new educational models and resources—the Khan Academies and OpenCultures of our generation—in tandem with the older model of lecturer and student to transmit knowledge more efficiently and meaningfully, and how this method can overhaul convoluted educational administrations. These new models will reflect the way people think in the age of Google, when we more often remember how to get to information rather than the information itself.

Yanyi Luo is a Columbia College junior majoring in information science. Chipped runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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