Why do Colleges Build Dormitories? And teach half-time?

The one thing that everyone who has studied college education can agree on is that students learn more when they work in groups.  Yet colleges don’t build infrastructure to support this.  A university will spend hundreds of $millions on dormitories, i.e., places for students to drink beer and sleep together.  Why is there is no budget for cubicle farms where students in the same major could do their homework together, asking for help from the person at the next desk and, if necessary, raising their hands for help from roving teaching assistants?

Another paradox of college life is the brevity of the calendar.  In a country where less than 3 percent of the population works on the farm, we’ve preserved a long summer break so that Junior can go home and help bring in the harvest.  The result is that parents, already reeling from the cost of 4 years of tuition, also have to figure out how they’re going to support Junior during Winter Break ski trips, Spring Break beach trips, and the long summer break in an economy where jobs are scarce.

Would it not make more sense for colleges to get out of the housing business and into the group-work business?  Let students come to campus at 9:00 am and stay until 9:00 pm, working with other students.  Then let them sleep at night wherever they want to.  If a college has infinite money, there’s nothing wrong with building dorms but if funds are scarce why not spend it on things that are directly relevant for learning?

Would it not make more sense for colleges to be in session for 45-50 weeks per year?  A student would be able to get a bachelor’s degree in 2.5 years and join the workforce, i.e., get off the parental payroll.

The answer to these apparently obvious questions seems to be “it depends”.  Mostly it depends on how rich the students’ parents are.  At a school for the ruling class, e.g., Harvard or Yale, it really doesn’t matter how effective the pedagogy is.  If Biff doesn’t learn calculus his daddy can still buy him a seat in Congress.   What Biff really needs to do is meet other members of the ruling class even if they are from different majors  The dormitory is the ideal environment for this mixing.

Similarly a school targeted to children of the ruling class need not worry about the parents’ ability to support Muffy for 4 years.  Much more important is that Muffy have plenty of time off to take the Grand Tour of Europe, hop the family fractional jet for the December trip to St. Barts, spend a summer interning in Cousin (Senator) Bob’s office.

A suboptimality arises when schools whose parents aren’t rich ape the policies of the traditional schools, all of which were established in an age when only the privileged went to college.

Prediction:  the coming decades will see the rise of new colleges with more intensive academic programs, more shared workspaces for undergraduates, and no dorms.

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Biographical Focus: Idi Amin

Sundays on this blog will be for focusing on one person, ideally someone connected to current events but who has slipped from notice.  Today’s focus is Idi Amin.

Idi Amin might seem like an odd choice because he has not been in the news for more than a decade and in fact many Westerners have the impression that he is dead.

Amin earns his place in this blog today because of the fact that the whole crop of modern Islamic rulers are merely following the trail blazed by Idi Amin. Amin, who ruled Uganda in the 1970s, took on the challenging project of creating a true Islamic nation out of a country that was only about 6 percent Muslims at the time. Amin, accused of murdering hundreds of thousands of Christians, did not get too much good press in the West (like Saddam) but he was a hero to Arabs and Muslims worldwide (like Saddam). Like Saddam, Idi Amin was the victim of a long-distance Israeli air raid (Entebbe 1976).  Like Saddam, Idi Amin was overthrown by a foreign military (in Amin’s case it was the war that he started against neighboring Tanzania that ultimately brought Tanzanian troops back to Kampala, the capital of Uganda).

Idi Amin made and kept friends throughout the Middle East.  For example, Yasser Arafat was Best Man at Amin’s 5th wedding.  After Idi Amin was overthrown he was set up by the Saudis in a magnificent seaside villa in the Red Sea port of Jiddah (i.e., when we fill up our SUVs part of the money goes to pay for Amin’s wives, cars, servants, etc.).

Idi Amin turned 78 years old on January 1 and currently lives in Mecca.

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