Another Day of Stanford Weather
Why Oh Why Can't We Have Better Pollsters?

Why Are We Here? (In a Big Lecture, That Is)

Why do we still have big lecture courses in universities? It is somewhat of a mystery...

The Pre-Gutenberg University:

  • Universities have their origins in the medieval need of the powerful to train theologians (for the church) and to train judges (for the emperor and the kings of France, England, Castile, and other kingdoms.
  • A manuscript hand-copied book back in 1000 cost roughly the same share of average annual income as $50,000 is today.
  • Hence if you have a "normal" college--eight semesters, four courses a semester--and demand that people buy and read one book a course, you are talking the equivalent of $1.6M in book outlay. Can't be done.
  • Hence you assemble the hundred or so people who want to read Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy in a room, and have the professor read to them--hence lecture, lecturer, from the Latin lector, reader--while they frantically take notes because they are likely to never see a copy of that book again once they are out in the world administering justice in Wuerzburg or wherever...

Then Comes Gutenberg:

  • From Greg Clark: The Secret History of the Industrial Revolution: "[C]onsider the introduction of the printed book by Gutenberg in 1445, again in the period where we can find no evidence of aggregate productivity growth, at least in England.... Output per worker increased by roughly 30 fold from manuscript production in the fourteenth century till the early nineteenth century... greater than the productivity advances achieved in the cotton textile industry over the Industrial Revolution period, though it took place over a much longer period..."
  • Institution of the lecture does not make its original sense.
  • Why not get everybody to buy the book, read the book, and then assemble in seminars to discuss the book?
    • Almost all of us can read faster than a lecturer can talk.
    • It is much easier to index and rewind a codex than a live audio stream before the age of mechanical reproduction.

Yet the Lecture Remains: Why? Four Possible Reasons:

  • Budget stringency: lectures are cheap for the university relative to seminars, and even if they are markedly less effective they do soak up students' time
  • Alternative information channel: The ears are wired to the brain differently than the eyes, and there is value in not only reading something but also hearing something in producing the synaptic changes that we want to see happen in college.
  • A self-discipline device: if people have to show up at a certain place at a certain time to accomplish a task or be disciplined, they are more likely to do so. Lecture as a way of solving our self-command and self-control problems.
    • But why not then just have a study hall? Everyone reads the book, and the monitor circulates and answers quetions?
  • A sociological event: East African Plains Apes like to do things in groups that involve language--that is just who we are--and the lecture is just another example of this

All four of these surely play some role. But I have no idea of the relative balance between them--and neither, it seems, does anybody else I can find...

Early universitates magistrorum et scholarium:

848: Magnaura (Constantinople)
859: Al-Karaouine (Fez, Morocco)
975: Al-Azhar (Cairo)
1088: Bologna
1096: Oxford
1150: Sorbonne (Paris)
1175: Modena
1209: Cambridge
1218: Salamanca
1222: Padua
1224: Naples
1233: Mustansiriya (Baghdad)