The Deviant University
The university today is being subjected to the brutal searchlight of inquiry and criticism. Ironically, at a time when education has acquired a new mystique and is the method offered for curing most of the ills of society, this mystique is not associated with institutions that should embody it. The lauding of education as the best means of promoting progress is accompanied by a denigration of the academic. In some quarters the university, indeed the very idea of a university, is considered to have lost its raison d’être. The attack upon the university cannot be airily dismissed as springing simply from know-nothingism or anti-intellectualism. It has deeper causes.
A generation ago, public reproaches of university life were directed against its narcissism. In college and university communities the principal aim that was sought was the life of the mind, unsullied by contact with the marketplace. Members of those communities made their living, it seemed, only by taking in each others intellectual washing. Now, however, public criticism is pointed not at the indifference but at the activism of the university, at the brash attempts by professors and students alike to use the university to destroy “middle-class morality” and to control and revolutionize society. In their efforts to do so, a minority of student leaders boast that they will destroy the university as an institution, “not pull it apart brick by brick, but bring it to a complete stall.” In their hands the torch, traditional symbol of education lighting the way of the future, has become a firebrand. So serious have these gestures become that the public: is no longer able to dismiss them as mere harmless acts of exhibitionism.
The traditional preoccupation of universities with reasoned solutions of society’s problems has given them and their leaders within the last generation admittance to the seats of power in a political system that sought to identify itself with science, objectivity, and intelligence. Is it possible that those who are now trying to wrest control of the university away from its lawful authorities recognize it as an essential element in a national political system and are ambitious to take advantage of its privileged status to elevate themselves into positions of power? In other words, as universities have become engrossed in the political game they have become pawns in a power struggle. Some of the protesters, particularly those who are ensconced in positions of leadership, appear to believe that they can retain leadership positions or gain higher ones in a new socialist society. While striking out existing agencies of power, for example the selective-service system, the police, and educational administrators, they aspire to gain absolute control over them for their own use.
Such self-seeking revolutionaries, constituting a small minority, can and must be dealt with forcibly by agencies of social control. They must be disabused of their predilection to seek changes in education through methods of violence. When they equate progress with incendiarism and confuse dynamism with dynamite, they must be restrained. Somewhere a line must be drawn in these matters.
On the other hand, it is precisely because the university has so long and so effectively played the political game that some of the rebellion against it now takes the form of an emotional indictment of the university as an arm of the state. For at least a generation colleges and universities have been teaching that our only salvation lies in governmental centralization and bureaucratic controls. It is against this so-called “liberal” ideology that many of our modern campus nonconformists are now protesting. When they see that those dogmas result in war and regimentation which adversely affect them, they resist. Many of the protesters simply desire to return to a more libertarian type of society. They feel an outraged sense of having been conned. They have been tricked and short-changed by the university. They are crying out against the identification of the university with public authority, against higher education as a nationalized industry, against Big Brother in Washington and the Holding Company, the universities. The world they have inherited is not the world they desire. The “thing” that each one of them wishes to do is not the “thing” that others in society wish them to do. They are convinced that they are opening the way for a dynamic revival of the American dream by opposing the policies and practices of government. Their protests, though seemingly devoid of any objective except rebellion for its own sake, nevertheless, insofar as they have rebellion itself as an objective, represent a rejection of the system with which the university is identified. This is their method of announcing that they are not “with it,” that they have unplugged themselves from it. Why?
For many years the university has been alienating itself from the kind of world that these young rebels intuitively aspire to see and live in. They want a better system than the system to which the university has been gradually accommodating itself. The university against which they are protesting is not the university of the open mind. It has disappeared and no longer exists. “The president of Columbia,” chanted the students in New York in their demonstrations in May 1968, “is the president of the United States,” naming him. “What I mean by revolution” declared the president of the student body of Washington University in the three-day Conference at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in August 1967, “is overthrowing the American government and American imperialism and installing some sort of decentralized power in this country.” At the later convention of “hippies” in Philadelphia, some of the conferees declared It to be their objective to restore to this nation the kind of free society that existed at the time the Constitution was adopted in the 1780s.
The university has already sacrificed its status as a bastion of true liberalism by “cozying up” to the state. In exchange for government monies it has accepted the concept of captive scholarship, has allowed the fine art of teaching to be either neglected or prostituted to noneducational ends, and has converted the social sciences, in some cases the physical sciences, and even religion into handmaidens of the state. It has abdicated its independence and true “academic freedom” in exchange for support by government agencies, while insisting that the academic freedom to be protected must be only the freedom to conform within a narrow academic and official ambit. If the university is indeed committed to academic freedom and is fulfilling its historic function as an open forum of ideas, how does it happen that the academic community presents a nearly monolithic front on all major social, economic, and political questions, and that that front remarkably coincides with the collectivistic “liberal” syndrome, which is and has been for a generation the dominant ideology in our society?
The university has failed to fulfill the requirements of academic freedom because it has too strongly and too uncompromisingly identified itself with a single all-encompassing ideology, the dogmas of statism camouflaged as modern liberalism. It has become, in this sense, a doctrinaire institution, committed to the principle of the closed mind. “Today,” Professor Isaiah Berlin wrote in 1950 in words as true now as then, “the tendency to circumscribe and confine and limit to determine the range of what may be asked and what may not, of what may be believed and what may not, is no longer a distinguishing mark of the ‘reactionaries.’ On the contrary, it comes as powerfully from the heirs of the radicals, the rationalists, the ‘progressives’ of the nineteenth century as from the descendants of their enemies.” (“Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 28, p. 382.)
In the area of the so-called social sciences, for example, the university has deplorably narrowed its conception of its mission. It has largely accepted the postulates of a modern ideology—that man is motivated entirely by his economic interests; that economic factors are decisive in society and in history; that the proletarian class, defined in economic terms, is involved in a necessary struggle with the bourgeoisie, also defined in economic terms, for control of society and for its share of the economic benefits of the industrial revolution; that capitalism as a system is inseparable from exploitation and is responsible for international wars; that government must dedicate itself to social justice and can achieve it by mechanistic and legal methods; and that socialism (that is, centralized authority) will inevitably triumph over capitalism as a form of social organization. And these ideas are held and propagated with passionate conviction, for one of the many paradoxical aspects of modern university life is the emotionalism of the “intellectuals.” For the troubles of our time the teachings of the self-styled intelligentsia, not the upthrusts of the ignorant, are responsible.
A man is free to the extent that he knows intellectually what he is dealing with. But he remains still in fetters if he only emotionally feels what he professes to know and reacts with passion to pressures for change. When men such as this, lacking the essential attribute of freedom, come to dominate university life they subtract from the contributions which the university can make to a free society. The university should be a place of both informed and disciplined thinking, and among its members logic must prevail. “Logic,” wrote Professor Alfred North Whitehead, “is the olive branch from the old to the young.” (The Aims of Education, p. 122.) If it does not prevail in an educational institution, then that institution is intellectually bankrupt, however involved it may be in society and its problems. Under these circumstances the defense of academic freedom and of the university as a free marketplace for ideas is disingenuous and irrelevant.
The rightful role of the university in freely exploring all facets of knowledge is not under attack. For young people, who aspire by nature to undertake difficult tasks, to cultivate, their creative impulses, and to make the world a better place in which to live, the ideologue-dominated university presents no opportunity and no challenge. The university, like the state that is controlled by these dogmas, is therefore exclusively preoccupied with the conditions of living, not its values or ends. College and university leaders have failed abjectly in making a case for educational values; they are wandering farther and farther from this, their primary mission, in their preoccupation with finance and budgets. They have allowed their institutions to sink into a morass of educational inadequacy and even to contribute to the destruction of society rather than to its enlightenment and vision. The university has rejected Matthew Arnold’s sage advice to educators, “Teach a whole.” It has become instead a place of half-truths masquerading as the whole truth, unresponsive therefore to all phases of society’s complex needs. It has forfeited its commitment to the rational examination and the never-ending reconsideration of all principles.
Because universities have attached themselves too firmly to the state, they have, despite their fine protestations to the contrary, become politicized, and they have consequently succumbed to a debilitating servitude to the present. As a result, the notion has become widespread that it is scientifically and intellectually immoral to accept anything from the past as valid. Truth and reality can be found only in the present and in the future. This view is imposed even upon higher education by its own administrators. “Education,” decrees the president of one of the New York State University colleges, “should be geared primarily to the future with the only reference being made to historical events as a means of enlightening the students’ understanding of current events and the production of future social problems.” Guidelines such as this have rendered the university an officialized fatuity. Pressures for compliance with such guidelines, usually unexpressed but tacitly sensed, are not long in rigidifying an academic system.
It is always difficult to explain why Renaissance man was both a humanist and a classicist. How could Erasmus, for example, find in the authors of antiquity a justification for his concern with modern man? The answer, of course, lies in this—that permanent truths are as valid today as yesterday; or that, differently expressed, history is the very essential structure of humanity.
But modern humanitarianism ignores the relevancy of yesterday’s truth to today’s problems and is substantially committed to a creed of antihistoricism. Under this creed it attempts to construct intellectually a detailed “modern” system and to absolutize it, making man and society static and stifling all possibility of progress.
Whenever truth is embodied in a neat package of clichés fobbed off as intellectualism, the validity of all rational processes and of the ideas emanating from them begins to be called in question. This condition, climaxing a generation-long process of abdication of responsibilities in education, accounts for the degradation of university life around which so much controversy today swirls. The university has allowed itself to become preoccupied with means, not ends; with the materials but not the substance of education; with political compliance rather than the task of animating youthful vision. As a consequence it is failing to carry out its civilizing function and has become fair game for immature absolutists who cling with intolerant passion to their false “certainties.” But behind these juvenile “certainties” lurks the conviction, often unrecognized even by those who trumpet them on college campuses, that the university has been perverted from its true purpose. If the values of education cannot or are not demonstrated, then obviously the institutions which are expected to exemplify those values will not receive and do not deserve support.
Much of the unrest of students is really attributable to their need for finding alternatives to the statist trap in which they are caught. Their world was fashioned by their statist-minded elders, and in rejecting it they also reject them, causing the present acrimonious generation conflict. Some of them simply dismiss the present society out of hand without bothering to analyze it or to label it anything except unredeemably bad. Despite the fuzziness of their resentment, many of the student activists see the status quo against which they rebel as a totalitarian creation. Although they sense it only vaguely as such, their feeling of frustration is basically directed against a collectivist mode of life which was considered desirable by the older generation and which has now been fixed upon them. It is the older generation now which is committed to authoritarianism, centralism, and socialism. From this system the young rebels, the exponents of individual enterprise, and all those who are young in heart and spirit today find it necessary to dissent.
What these protesters desire is complete disengagement from a system that is manifestly failing. They are seeking the true freedom which has traditionally been associated with university life, but which the modern university denies them. Some of them unfortunately fly off into an eccentric libertarianism, even into bacchanalian libertinism. They have succumbed to the blandishments of the apostles of decline and have accepted the solution of utter negativism and surrender. These are, in the language of students in Latin American universities where the same phenomenon is occurring, the nadaistas or exponents of nothingness. They are the pitiable casualties of a deviant educational system, a system that has done little to further the quest of the human spirit for progress toward something higher and better than itself, toward the “divinity that shapes our ends.”
The university has abetted its own absorption into the state. For obvious reasons, the public university could not resist this process, but while accepting it academic leaders have failed to educate the public to the uses of a university broadly and traditionally conceived. With less justification, the private university also has connived at its own subordination to the state and consequent distortion of purpose. The university, like the individual in modern society, is suffering from an identity-crisis; it has melted into its environmental background to become an undifferentiated thing. In April 1968, the Association of American Universities, composed of both public and private universities, voted to depart from its time-honored policy of eschewing open political activity and to launch a frankly politically motivated campaign to obtain a larger chunk of government monies from Washington, representing their cause as almost a life-or-death matter for higher education in the United States.
The current protest against higher education may be viewed as a wholesome upthrust by the victims of ideology against the ultimate logic of that creed. Their discontent, if properly channeled, may succeed in thwarting the death-wish of modern liberalism for our society. Though it is devoid of explicit philosophical pretensions, it may result in a redemption of faith and of values. They may be yearning for a refurbishing of old absolutes to serve their modern needs. In their strange and often incoherent argot they are complaining of the general misplacement of value priorities in our society and of the failure of our educational institutions to restore them. Every university, whether public or private, is a public instrumentality. It must serve public ends. But in order to fulfill its best public purpose it must remain a place of free inquiry unidentified with the political climate of the moment. A university as a many-faceted social entity will necessarily reflect certain aspects of society, but if it would fulfill its fundamental purpose it must seek to ennoble all of them. In doing so it will be criticized for thinking, for helping, for acting in unorthodox ways, but only by doing so can it properly perform its mission.
The purpose of a university, simply stated, is to educate and enlighten. It must not, as Jacques Barzun warned us, confuse its role with that of the Red Cross. It is a place for searching out the truth and leading others to see that truth. It is a place for growing in wisdom. Its objective should be to strive to understand the whole of life and to foster the proven best. It invites each new generation to acquire as individuals the best possible understanding of that which is good and valid in the past and at the same time to acquire the desire to go forward to better things. It must show the past as present and bring the distant near. Upon the university has been placed by society an obligation to show a worthwhile way of life and to uphold the ideals of civilized man. It can and should respond to the demands of students for relevancy in their university experience, not by discouraging them from playing a part in the “happenings” of their time but rather by encouraging them to play an intelligent part in these “happenings.”
Within the walls of the university both tradition and change should be encouraged. “It is a place,” wrote John Henry Newman, “where inquiry is pushed forward, and discoveries verified by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge.” The university is the temple of the open mind. It must always be free to develop new ideas and to counter them with better ideas. Without such true liberalism, education and the society which it must serve closes its doors to new prospects. At the same time the university must impose cautionary restraints upon experimentation because it teaches the importance of reckoning with the consequences. These restraints follow logically from the experience of other persons, some long since dead. The university must encourage each new generation to look steadfastly at the vision which it sees and to fulfill that vision, controlled and guided by an understanding of, both the accomplishments and non-accomplishments of past generations. It must supply the material for critical judgment and perception of ultimates which the fulfillment of every vision demands
The element of the word university that needs to be stressed is the first syllable uni, implying unity, integrity, harmony. But now this traditional concept has been abandoned in favor of the multiversity, the implication being that it cannot be unified around anything, either nuclear research or medicine or philosophy or even “the thought divine.” Whereas the ideal of integration, of a common ethos, is being stressed in many areas of modern life, the university has moved in the opposite direction and is consequently falling apart. Even the possibility of restoring integrity to the university is denied by educational leaders. It is “not the job of a university in its institutional capacity,” a university president has declared, “to have any rigid total system of morality except to teach that a fact is better than a rumor, [and] logic better than confusion.” Such a pinched conception of a university denies that there is any single ultimate value or set of values, any goal or goals toward which all men strive, any aspiration for intrinsic personal fulfillment, any need for an individual to feel that he is worthwhile to himself and to others. The university viewed in this light is a positively destructive and fragmenting force in society. It is antagonistic to a genuine humanism.
The deliberate rejection by university leaders of the need to supply the unity without which the university remains only another computer in a computerized society explains the disillusionment of students, overwhelmed and intimidated by the mechanistic and materialistic logic of higher education and by its scatterbrained diversity. This situation has resulted in large part from the aforesaid politicization of universities both public and private, that is to say, from their total involvement in government, their utter commitment to a mechanistic liberalism, and their resulting inability to serve society in ways in which universities have traditionally performed their centuries-old function.
In tribute to the British universities, the late poet laureate of England, John Masefield, wrote:
There are few earthly things more beautiful than a University. It is a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see; where seekers and learners alike, banded together in the search for knowledge, will honor thought in all its finer ways, will welcome thinkers in distress or in exile, will uphold ever the dignity of thought and learning, and will exact standards in these things.
To what modern university can such a lyric description now be applied?
The university must be made again a place where old truths, glimpsed for the first time by young people, may be seen in a new light and may be grasped as tools for successful living. It must recover its mission of articulating the unity and singleness of purpose of all learning and must exert itself to fulfill once more its role as a spiritual force and as at least a partial revealer of the vision infinite. It must reclaim its traditional role as a sublimating influence in society, upholding ideals of the true, the noble, and the beautiful. It should begin again to vindicate the ideals of education, which, as it happens, are also the ideals of youth.
Donald Marquand Dozer (1905–1980) was at the time of writing Professor of History at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He earned a doctorate at Harvard and was an internationally honored authority on Latin American history and United States-Latin American relations.
Posted: June 19, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.
In Search of Community
Volume 39, Number 3 (Fall 1999)