Computers in Higher Education, 1960s Edition

28 February 2012 at 11:59 am 3 comments

| Peter Klein |

An illuminating passage from James Ridgeway’s 1968 book The Closed Corporation: American Universities in Crisis, a scathing critique of  the university-military-industrial complex. Note the cameo by Jim March:

[University of California officials Ralph W.] Gerard and [R. Dan] Tschirgi are computer fetishists who insist information is knowledge, and that the function of a university is to provide information.

In 1963 and 1964 Chancellor David G. Aldrich, Jr., at Irvine, and Gerard got IBM interested in setting up programs there. The company agreed to install a 1400 system and to supply staff and engineers. An IBM employee, Dr. J. A. Kearns, came along to head the project and was given a part-time appointment at the Graduate School of Administration. The idea was to see whether the computer could be used as a library, for various administrative functions and for teaching.

Gerard paints a glowing picture. He says that one half of the students on the Irvine campus spend at least one hour a week on the computer, and that computers are used in teaching biology, mathematics, economics, sociology and psychology.

After speaking with Gerard, I went along to see the computer in action, and ran into a senior staff man who told me in a jaundiced manner that it wasn’t operating because they couldn’t make the new IBM 360 system work right. This gentleman was exceedingly glum about the possibilities of very many students learning much of anything on the Irvine computers. So was the dean of Social Sciences, James G. March. When I asked him about the use of the machine to teach sociology, he replied grimly that all the computer did was to print out some basic definitions in an introductory course, which, as he pointed out, one could get just as well from reading a book. He went on to say that a minute portion of any introductory course was on a computer, that students spent little time on them, and that most of the time was taken up programming them. March said the difficulty was to devise a system which could answer questions rather than ask them. The most one could really expect was to have a machine pose a problem to the student, who could then go ahead an answer it on his own.

The tech described here is dated but the book itself still packs a punch. In the late 1906s concerns about the close relationships between the federal government (particularly the Pentagon), public research universities, and industry (particularly defense contractors) were new. Now we take for granted that a primary task of the research university is to produce “applied” research in close cooperation with government and industry sponsors, to commercialize its scientific discoveries, to train students for industry, and so on. But this is a fairly recent — mid-20th century — development, and not an obviously desirable one.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Business/Economic History, Education, Innovation, Public Policy / Political Economy.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. srp  |  1 March 2012 at 7:34 pm

    Actually, lots of U.S. universities were designed from the beginning to be useful to industry and the applied arts. MIT was focused heavily on training people to work in industry. The big state land-grant universities were chartered explicitly to help their state economies (especially clear with the A&M designated campuses but the same holds true for most of the schools in the Big Ten and Big Twelve.

    The pure research universities, which often started out with without undergraduates, were private schools founded by tycoons: U.Chicago, Rockefeller U. ,Johns Hopkins, etc. But it didn’t take long for the science and engineering faculty at such schools to realize that they wanted extramural funding to do their work, funding which came from either government or industry–there weren’t enough purely charitable dollars to do what was needed. And in technology, connections to industry were just as important to keep up with the state of the art as they were to raise money.

    So I’m not sure in what period pure ivory tower universities dominated.

  • 2. Peter Klein  |  2 March 2012 at 3:10 pm

    Well, I think Ridgeway would distinguish the US land-grant colleges, which were dedicated to “industry” (agriculture and engineering) in general, from the postwar universities that worked closely with specific large industrial enterprises. The land-grand mission is reflected in today’s Extension services (my university has this), in which university staff work with small farmers, budding entrepreneurs, etc. Presumably the land-grand universities were not established to provide employee training or R&D services for the Astors and Morgans and Stanfords.

    BTW I can recall vividly a meeting with recruiters from a large life-sciences firm in my state that employs a lot of University of Missouri graduates. We faculty asked what we could do to help our students be better prepared. What skills were they looking for? Critical thinking? Self-discipline? Creativity? Team skills? Nope. The recruiter’s answer: “How to read a lab manual.”

    If research universities continue to become little more than highly expensive and inefficient vocational schools, they will be outcompeted by the inexpensive, efficient, and innovative actual vocational schools. Only the signaling value of the higher degree will remain.

  • 3. Michael Marotta  |  4 March 2012 at 3:02 pm

    I agree with SRP above, that universities were “always” about vocation – law, medicine, theology, and “philosophy” for everything else under the sun. I did read recently that MIT was not considered a decent school for most of its history. So, the subject is nuanced and even arguable.

    The atomic bomb informed government of what education could do. Vannevar Bush recommended funding “everything” because you never know what will pay off.

    However, regarding the above, as we know the IBM 360 proved wildly successful, even if the Irving install was hitting a snag at that moment. Even as the authors were denigrating computers BASIC was making them accessible and in less than 10 years after this 1968 book, the computer revolution would begin.

    But that revolution – like all such – was not imposed from the top: it grew from the grassroots … and not Jobs nor Wozniak nor Gates nor a million others first went to university to learn programming. It validates Matt Ridley’s thesis in The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves.

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