Former dean gives lecture about ‘mankind’s best idea’
Dean emeritus of University College, Robert Wiltenburg, Ph.D., spoke on the topic of “An Ever-Modern University” at Saturday’s MLA Lecture Series.
Delivering a speech to a markedly older audience in January Hall, Wiltenburg spoke of a university’s unique ability to remain modern in an increasingly changing society.
He argued that universities are mankind’s best idea—and that we have Europe to thank for it.
“With such a history, over nearly a millennium, and still growing and expanding at a high rate, especially in the developing world, the university must be considered the most successful and significant cultural creation, setting aside the great religions, of all time. And the most universal. It is also Europe’s greatest, and most benevolent, gift to the world. The world can’t get enough of it,” Wiltenburg said.
“A lot can happen in a thousand years. Through it all, the university continues to thrive and prosper and help all of us to do the same. There can be no question that universities have been mankind’s very best idea: endlessly adaptable, helping to improve and transform the lives of individuals and societies. [The university is] a great contract for human betterment, stretching over centuries and generations, and spread now to every country and every culture,” he added.
He noted the lasting impact that universities have on students’ lives and on society in general.
“Students come to a modern university for a variety of presentable, and not so presentable, reasons: to get credentials, prepare for a career, to please their parents, be with their friends, to fall in love or whatever. And if they’re lucky, and if we’re good, they’ll find a teacher, or two, who helps them to focus their energies, learn to ask better questions, to find their work in life, find friends and people to love and be loved by. To build part of the tools and confidence to make some vital difference in their own lives and in the larger life we all share. Universities all over the world are playing that part every day and creating the modern men and women who will make a better future,” Wiltenburg said.
The audience contained a number of Washington University community members, in addition to St. Louis community members.
The speech was followed by a question-and-answer session in which Wiltenburg addressed concerns from attendees about the impact that technology and finances will have on the ability for universities to remain “modern.”
One audience membe asked about the role of financial support from private donors in a university’s development, which Wiltenburg considered essential to the development of certain fields.
“Things like the sciences and engineering have to buy expensive new equipment. Support, endowments—you know all current students are living on the past gifts, past generosity of something. Without support, you can’t do it,” Wiltenburg said.
Wiltenburg also noted that online courses have the potential for great educational experiences, but only when engagement between class members is high.
“I think it’s been proven beyond a doubt that you can have a first-rate educational experience in an online course. Now, of course, what has also been proven beyond a doubt is that it’s not cheap. It’s not simple. You need the same level of interaction that somebody [in a traditional college course] would have. Everyone has to engage at roughly the same level. I think there’s no question that, if you do it right, it can be a first rate experience,” Wiltenburg said.
Hailing from New York City, Wiltenburg joined Washington University in 1982 as director of the expository writing program and as assistant professor in the Department of English. He became Dean of University College in the College of Arts & Sciences in 1996. Wiltenburg recently stepped down after serving as dean for nearly 20 years.
The series, entitled “The Modern University,” is sponsored by University College, the professional and continuing education division in Arts & Sciences.
The next speaker in the MLA Lecture Series is Jennifer Smith, dean of the Colleges of Arts & Sciences and an associate professor in earth and planetary sciences department. She will be speaking on “Educating to Innovate: The Liberal Arts in the 21st Century.”
The MLA lectures are offered every Saturday in February from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in January Hall, room 110.