By Richard Vedder
Jesus Christ never went to college, never earned tenure, never even had a formal teaching position, never published ---yet was one of the greatest teachers that ever lived. He inspired thousands directly, and millions, even billions, indirectly. His was a teaching mission, trying to instruct people how to more meaningfully live their lives. At the time of the celebration of His birthday, we might reflect on the differences between his approach to learning and that in the modern university setting.
Jesus used powerful, but simple messages to make a point. His extraordinary charisma, clarity of presentation, etc., made him a popular preacher, but the true success of the religion that grew up around him came from the spread of his ideas. It was teaching about Jesus' teachings that was done so successfully. Part of the success was organizational/managerial. The creation of a church organization was critical.
The Roman Catholic Church, and later Protestant churches, for the most part operated in a curious mix of centralized authority and decentralized means of carrying out the mission. Looking at the Catholic Church, the teachings are incredibly centralized, with much of the weekly message to the "students" being the same the world over, readings from a universally used book (the Bible), and a standardized ritual. Yet the message is distributed at a very local level, with priests and ministers using their own discretion in dispensing advice in their weekly sermon. That is not too different from the model of the large for profit universities, where the curriculum and lessons are standardized nationally, but where individual instructors in many communities dispense the lessons with a considerable amount of individual discretion.
Relative to the modern university, the focus has stayed mostly on a single mission --keeping the adherents faithful and reaching out to new adherents. A secondary mission --serving the poor, for example, exists, but usually is performed by separate organizational entities --the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities being examples. The central function of the main church is kept simple. Organization is kept fairly simple as well. Interestingly, Catholic K-12 schools operate with vastly smaller bureaucracies than government schools, and there are many small Catholic (and probably those of other Christian denominations) colleges that are relatively low cost and single mindedly devoted to offering a Christian education at an affordable price.
Too many of today's colleges and universities have lost focus -- they try to do too many things --run entertainment enterprises, have conference centers competing for the convention trade, run food and lodging operations, TRY to spur economic development (almost always unsuccessfully), engage in commercial technology transfer, etc., etc. Churches usually have no third party funding because of the separation of church and state, among other things. Where third party funding becomes important, even churches lack the vitality they do where survival depends on the support of the faithful. Thus the Lutheran Church in Sweden, supported by the state, spends a lot of money in relation to the Christian message it sends, and the country has been effectively non-religious if not anti-religious. By contrast, some schools that are almost entirely tuition-driven are very devoted to a narrow mission ---- satisfying the customers.
The massive spread of the European welfare state is associated with a sharp decline in religiosity. Who needs Jesus when we have the State to provide? Similarly, I wonder if the intrusion of the State into higher education has in many cases had a similar impact --lowering the quality of the outcomes but raising their costs.