Commentary Magazine


Group Memory, by Alston Chase; Education and the Democratic Ideal, by Steven M. Cahn

The Woes of Academe

Group Memory: A Guide to College and Student Survival in the 1980′s.
by Alston Chase.
Atlantic Monthly Press. 330 pp. $12.95.

Education and the Democratic Ideal.
by Steven M. Cahn.
Nelson-Hall. 111 pp. $7.95.

Anyone who spent part of the late 60′s or early 70′s on an American college campus, but has not been back since, may well wonder if the institutional decay so visible then was ever arrested. One reads from time to time of a “new seriousness” on the part of contemporary students, of libraries full of ardent undergraduates cramming themselves with the information they are told they will need to get the grades that will give them a fighting chance for admission to professional school. One reads, too, of the occasional university that sets out to replace its smorgasbord of a curriculum with a table d’hôte of required “core” courses. And aside from the predictable fascination with the quixotic candidacy of John Anderson, one sees little evidence of political activity, much less radical activism, on the contemporary campus. Can it really be that the desire to get into law school has replaced the impulse to stop the war, detain the dean, and sell all university stockholdings in nations not governed by leftist despots? What exactly is going on?

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Alston Chase offers more by way of explanation than reassurance. He is alarmed by current trends in American higher education, not because he preferred the radicalism of a decade ago but because he finds that the proper function of the university is being left ever farther behind. A former professor of philosophy at Macalester, Ohio State, and Princeton, Chase “left all that” four years ago and fled to Montana, where he now ranches, teaches wilderness skills, and guides people on trips through Yellowstone Park.

His considerable distance from the campus has helped Chase produce an insightful and constructive analysis of what has gone wrong with the academy and how it might—but probably will not—be set right. Alas, his shrewd observations are buried in the nooks and crannies of a woefully constructed book, one that combines autobiography with fiction, history with futurology, analysis with polemic, and trenchant criticism of the university with avuncular advice to students on how to get through it all in spite of the shortcomings.

Chase bluntly assigns primary responsibility for past and present difficulties to the academy itself. External forces have played a role, to be sure, but only because universities responded badly, allowing themselves to be lured by government into overspecialization, curricular proliferation, and institutional dependency, and by the weakening student market into a merchandiser’s willingness to sell whatever the consumer will buy.

There has been deep erosion of the three ideas which, in Chase’s view, define the nature of the university: unity, in the sense that the universe can be made intelligible and knowledge integrated “by the study of a central residue of inherited insight to which everything else could be related”; continuity, or the preservation of cultural perspective (and the “group memory” of the title) by insuring that the university changes more slowly than the society around it; and values, the search for and teaching of intellectual, moral, and aesthetic truth. “These three ideas,” Chase argues, “not only traditionally lie at the heart of the liberal arts, but constitute the glue that holds a community together.” Instead of cherishing them, the modern university has subverted them, replacing unity with a bewildering array of specialties and options; continuity with a dizzying, almost self-propelled ardor for change; and values with a headlong dash into relativism, hedonism, and anomie.

The processes of subversion are consistent with what Chase terms the new academic ideology, one that has “created, on campus, an atmosphere hostile to learning and living.” Grounded in logical positivism, it is one in which all ideas have equal value and in which morality, having no objective verifiability, has no value at all except for describing individual emotional conditions.

This ideology—itself a product of what David Riesman and Christopher Jencks have termed the “academic revolution” of the 1950′s—was admirably suited to the campus upheavals of the Vietnam era. It lent itself to new arrangements for participatory governance, to the abolition of course requirements and grades, and to the supplanting of “truth” by “commitment” as the primary goal. “The close-knit community of scholars,” Chase relates, “dissolved into a Babel of conflicting groups, each using the campus as an arena in which to pursue its interests and ideas.”

What is to be done? The prescription Chase offers is less invigorating than his diagnosis, although it seems sound enough: greater differentiation among campuses, hence more true diversity within academe; reconstruction of the liberal arts around a core of prescribed courses; judicious pruning of diversionary options and costly frills; a diminished role for government, especially federal; the rebuilding of university-governing mechanisms that are both collegial and respectful of authority; a marked elevation of academic standards; and a resumption of institutional responsibility for the quality of student life (and behavior) on campus.

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Chase has a willing ally in Steven M. Cahn, a fellow philosopher and refugee from academe. Formerly chairman of the department at the University of Vermont, he now works for the Rockefeller Foundation. Education and the Democratic Ideal is a brief but eloquent plea for an educated citizenry as the surest means to preserve an effective democratic system of politics and governance. “If the public cannot distinguish reason from demagogy, integrity from duplicity, wisdom from folly, then all is lost.” And if demagogy is on many lips and reason on few, if folly is epidemic and wisdom scarce, we have only our educations to blame—or so Cahn would seem to suggest. Surfeited with “relevance,” awash in trivia, untutored in fundamental skills, lacking any shared body of common knowledge, uncertain that there is anything so worth knowing that everyone should learn it, expert in the non-judgmental language of cultural and political relativism, but lacking both the confidence and the stable values to formulate thoughtful criticism, unchallenged by high intellectual standards, we have no sustained capacity to evaluate our leaders and demand better.

Only an educator could believe so strongly in the power of education to cure all these related maladies. Fortunately, Cahn’s vision of what the university can and should become is appealing in its own right. His specific criticisms of the contemporary university are mostly-implicit, and his reforms have a narrower focus than those of Alston Chase. Cahn is chiefly interested in the content of the curriculum and in the pedagogical methods by which it is conveyed. He retains the quaint notion that professors generally know more than students and are the proper judge of what students ought to learn.

His academic menu is certainly nutritious. Cahn believes that a liberally educated person will know how to “read, write, and speak effectively”; will understand “public issues,” the “fundamental concepts and techniques of mathematics,” and the “methods of inquiry” employed in science and in history; will have acquired “sensitivity to aesthetic experience,” competency in a foreign language, and a “knowledge of human values.”

This means students must study with professors who take teaching seriously, who hold them to high standards of intellectual performance, and who demand evidence of learning. The faculty will have to work exceedingly hard to do all that Cahn believes it should do, assuming responsibility for the entire academic side of the university, weeding out of its own ranks lazy or inept individuals, and teaching and counseling on what seems to be an around-the-clock basis.

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No more than a handful of the 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States come close to the vision of either author, and it is unlikely that many more will. Few professors or students want to work that hard. Sensible but frustrated individuals like Chase and Kahn depart for other pursuits. Few deans, presidents, or trustees are risk-takers. Nor is it a simple matter to focus the requisite attention on the inner life of the university when so much energy must be invested in responding to outside constituencies, interest groups, funding sources, and government regulators. But without goals there can be no progress at all, and the goals set for the university by these two sober, erudite, and wise participant-observers are sound ones, indeed.

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