When I was a college student and reading John Locke’s “Essay on Humane Understanding” I saw in my adolescent way how knowledge leads to ideas through critical inquiry and imagination. Nowhere does Locke use the latter term but I recognized “idea” was to the 18th century what imagination would become in the 20th—it meant going forward. I was lucky, not merely because Locke had proved the dignity of inquiry, but also because I was privileged to attend a liberal arts college where students could talk about such things. I sat in the shabby student union with classmates and we argued about Locke and Galileo, and Lordy, the dignity of engagement was suddenly ours.
Lately there's been pervasive talk about the approaching end times of the college campus. According to soothsayers, we shall have no more colleges, substituting on-line courses and big servers. When I read or hear this I’m not instantly dismissive for the proposition is as fair as many and residential colleges are expensive and nowadays one scarcely needs a physical library to acquire information, and why couldn’t we have video lectures in cyber-space and save dollars dollars dollars. I too think higher education should be less expensive and believe it should be available to anyone who seeks it. But then I remember how we argued about John Locke over milk shakes all those years ago—how we sat up nights and discussed Jefferson or Crick and Watson. A genuine college education isn't merely about the gathering of information.
Complicating matters further is the fact that learning space isn't simply classroom space. A basic analysis of teaching holds that there are four primary dynamics of pedagogy: the lecture with audio-visual material (linear learning); class discussion (horizontal learning); clusters (small group activities) and network instruction (decentralized teaching). Any of these things can be performed without a physical classroom. And yet, in my forty years of studying and teaching, much of what has proved supremely valuable in intellectual terms has happened in corridors, cafeterias, walking up hill or down, or when I've invited students to accompany me across campus while I pursue some errand. Not one of the descriptors above can match what happens in extramural space or what the Greeks called the agora.
Something additional happens on a campus, a serendipitous thing–the overheard phrase, an argument in passing. True learning and its associated breakthroughs often happen “against method” as the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend once put it. This is undeniable and it's a serious mistake to image the attainments of higher education are merely functions of linear or horizontal delivery systems.
One should not be rooting hastily for the end of the college campus as its laboratories, it's funny gardens, it's very elevators are creative spaces. This is one reason Thomas Jefferson designed the center of the University of Virginia as he did, that people might meet, and by accident.