Commentary Magazine


The Future of the University

No one surveying the academic scene today can conclude other than that the American university is in an exceedingly precarious position. The luster of even the most historic and distinguished of universities is fading. For the first time in the history of this country there is valid reason for wondering whether the university will survive. Alarmism may be the refuge of the timid, but any optimism at this time regarding the future of the university in this country would be little more than euphoria. The blunt and inescapable fact is, the university in America is in the most critical condition of its history.

All too plainly the university has become the object of contempt for many, including students, and of apprehension for others, including widening sectors of the public, nearly all of whom once regarded it in much the way the Church was regarded during the Middle Ages.

Already, indeed, the image of a Harvard that could rally the most powerful of its alumni before the threatened entry by a Senator Joseph McCarthy appears to be a tarnished image. The same is true of Yale, of Berkeley, of Wisconsin, of, quite literally, every major university in America at the present time. One has the sense of a constantly widening indifference, at best, to the university in the minds of Americans. I believe no people has ever lived that has had more pride in the idea of college and university, however naively expressed at times, than the American people. For how many families has the university or college not been the very essence of Americans’ dreams for their children? What pride was once taken in both admission and in graduation. The commencement ceremony had begun to assume almost ecclesiastical overtones, much like those of religious festivals in medieval Europe. Communities competed with each other for the privilege of being host to some new university or college or branch of an established university. Would anyone suggest that any, or much, of this is the case today?

In these circumstances, the most serious mistake that any partisan of the university can make is to assume that “our affluent, technological, post-industrial society cannot possibly do without the university.” This is both absurd and complacent. Of course contemporary society can do without the university. What it cannot do without is knowledge: its ever-continuing discovery and its constant diffusion to new generations. But to assume that only the university is qualified to perform this mission is as preposterous as it would have been for any 16th-century guildsman to assume that only through the craft guild could the production of goods be continued. Other ways were then found. And other ways will be found—are already being found—to meet the research and teaching requirements of knowledge in our technological society.

The essence of our problem lies in what might be called the degradation of the academic dogma—the dogma according to which scholarship and teaching are ends in themselves apart from any extrinsic purposes they might be thought to serve. Were it not for this degradation there would be little cause for apprehension at the present time. The university has been under assaults from the outside at other times in its history. Generally these had their origins in politically conservative sectors of society, in American business, and in the more fundamentalist parts of American religion.

The university was under attack during the Depression 30′s, again for the most part from the Right and with the added spur of widespread economic misery. But the power of these attacks notwithstanding, the university then had a solid and tough core of resistance: one formed by faculty members, administrators, students, and others who knew what the purpose of a university was, what it could rightly do, and what it would risk its very soul by doing.

I have no desire to idealize that university and that academic community when I say there was the general, if usually unstated, awareness by faculty of the privileged position of the university in American society. It was understood that the price of being able to engage in dispassionate scholarship and in rigorous, honest teaching was a fairly high one: this price was keeping the university as far as possible out of politics, out of economic enterprise, and, generally, out of the areas of society where partisan strivings are endemic, where Mammon rules, and where passionate moralism is of the essence. There was awareness among academic persons of the inherent fragility of any community that is founded upon that most recent, and even yet rare, of Western virtues: dispassionate reason.

A kind of social contract existed. For its part the American social order gave financial support and loyalty to an institution that must have seemed frequently aristocratic, sometimes arrogant, and always somewhat medieval in structure—an enclave of intellectual privilege in mass democratic society. And the university, as its end of the contract, provided for youth, during its most difficult stage, adolescence—at least for that part of youth able and willing to enroll in universities—a community founded solely upon reason and the pursuit of knowledge, and a structure of authority that proceeded from learning and acquired wisdom.

I stress my description of the university’s part of the social contract. So many faculty members and university presidents have by now trumpeted the university’s role in the “knowledge industry” that it is necessary to point out that this was at no time accepted as the chief function of the university. Teaching and scholarship, yes, but these acquired their luster from the unique community and authority that was built around them for the edification of adolescent youth.

It was the university, not society, that broke the contract. It broke it during the period just following World War II when a veritable Reformation occurred on the American campus—complete with economic, political, social, and intellectual changes. Paul Goodman speaks of the New Reformation. I should prefer to speak here, with all appreciation to Mr. Goodman, of the Last Reformation. For under the eye of the historian it is possible to see contemporary ravages of the university as the last in a string of Reformations that began in the Church in the 16th century and that, in due time, came to include guild, manor, landed aristocracy—and, of course, the knighthood. Knights too once belonged to guilds, their function, combat, just as scholars belonged to guilds whose function was teaching and study in the learned disciplines. Is there anything unbelievable in the thought of the university professor in the 20th century coming to resemble, and quite soon, the figure that Cervantes immortalized in Don Quixote? I think not.

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Wherein does our Last Reformation consist? Substantially in the same elements to be found in all the earlier Reformations in Europe: economic, social, intellectual, and political elements. There was, to begin with, the post-World War II efflorescence of the Higher Capitalism on the American campus in which overnight faculty members became entrepreneurs of research lavishly funded by government and foundation. The “project” rather than the academic course, the institute rather than the classroom, became the principal identifying attributes of this new breed. I refer to the altered conception of the university whereby it became a kind of adjunct government to Washington and Geneva, with consultantships, not scholarly books, the mark of the successful Man of Power. I refer to the assumption by the university of the role of Super-Humanitarian, ready—nay, eager—to meet directly all of society’s problems; or at least those that had sufficiently strong interest groups representing them. I refer to the Cult of Individuality and its consecration of the individual academic “star” rather than the community of reason and learning. I refer to the university’s sought-out role of Benign Therapist, using either a bastard version of the liberal arts or, in due time, sensitivity and encounter sessions to bind up middle-class youth’s identity-scars. And I refer, finally, to the fantastic increase in the whole level of internal politicization of universities, with results so often resembling a Byzantine bureaucracy grafted onto Jacobin democracy.

All of these new functions—each of them no doubt noble—had their enthusiastic supporters among faculty, administrators, and trustees. One would have to go back to the pre-Reformation Church in Western Europe for so good an example of a dogma-based community corrupted by wealth, by power, and by Faustian ambitions. Being noble, why could not the university be great? Being great, why not wealthy, powerful, its communicants citizens of the world? Why could the university not be, at one and the same time, philosopher-king, philosopher-Croesus, philosopher-soldier, philosopher-statesman, philosopher-healer, philosopher-humanitarian, even philosopher-revolutionary? So might a corporate Faust have dreamed.

The student-faculty insurrections of the 1960′s did not break down academic authority and fragment academic community. It was the prior breakdown of authority and the fragmentation of community that caused the student-faculty insurrections. What was for a long time fatuously called the “democratization” of the university was in fact the destruction of the academic community, its dogma, and the structure of authority that rose directly from curriculum and scholarship. A vacuum was created, and the several powers and tyrannies of the student-faculty revolts moved into this vacuum. It has always been this way in history. The revolution in France at the end of the 18th century, in Russia in 1917, and in Germany in 1932 give profound testimony to this fact. In retrospect it is possible to see that even had Vietnam and black civil rights not provided justifications, there would have been insurections in the 1960′s anyhow. The vacuum of authority and the desolation of community would have seen to that.

Recent turbulence notwithstanding, the lamps of the university in America continue to glow. If they didn’t, there would be little use in even speculating about the future of the academic community. The luster under which a Harvard or Princeton or Columbia, a Berkeley, Michigan, or Wisconsin, has lived for so many decades, even centuries, is not easily and quickly darkened. Assessed in terms of the number of “light and leading” at these places, and many others, along with the continuing appeal of the university in the minds of parents, the prestige of the university even today, after a decade of strife and storm, is great. Thus it would be a mistake to underestimate the possibility of the university’s capacity to survive. Not all of the academic community is dissolved. Not all of the American public have become disgusted with the university. Most, I would judge, are more confused and bewildered than disgusted.

If a determining number of persons—chiefly the faculty in the university—will take the mighty step of seeking to arrest present processes of degradation and to form a fresh community of academic purpose, a freshly affirmed academic dogma, there is no reason to suppose that disaster is—as it now would appear to be—inevitable.

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II

What vitalizing function, then, can be seen for the university that is alone capable, given its special character, of restoring academic authority and rebuilding academic community?

Keystone of the research establishment? But there are other organizations better qualified for this, given the technical requirements of large-scale research today. Adjunct government? But government has its own special demands and requires its own distinctive roles, both of which appear ill-suited to academic aptitudes. Radical critic or conscience of society? But societies do not generally support, with tenure, their radical critics; and anyhow there are more fertile contexts for the Gracchi, Robespierres, Benthams, Marxes, and Lenins of history. Supreme humanitarian, responsible for all of society’s political, economic, and psychological ills and deprivations? The university is no more qualified, basically, for this than is either the church or the labor union. Therapeutic community designed to heal identity-crises in middle-class youth? But even to the extent that this function may now be said to exist more or less successfully, it does so only in the reflected glow of the university believed to be a genuine intellectual community. Microcosm of culture, of the creative arts? To some extent, without doubt, but any thought of the university’s cloistered community being seedbed for the Shakespeares, Mozarts, and Picassos of history, of providing necessary incentives, flies in the face of all that we know about the nourishing contexts of the arts in society.

I do not say that the university must rigorously eschew each or even all of these; that is, totally. No great institution is ever cabin’d, cribb’d, and confin’d to but a single, narrowly conceived purpose or function. But no institution can remain either great or long in existence unless, giving structure to all its secondary or ancillary functions, there is some one, distinctive, and clearly perceived function; some purpose or meaning that casts its light over the social order. Whatever it is, if it is to have any semblance of realism and possibility of fulfillment, it must be one that has substantial relation to the trained capacities of those who work, live, and die in the university. Trained incapacities are an all too frequent occurrence in the history of culture; nowhere more evident than within institutions facing breakdown or stasis.

I suggest that the university’s most feasible function for the future is in essence what it has been in the past: that of serving as a setting for the scholarly and scientific imagination. No doubt such a conception will seem archaic, off the main line of history, even reactionary to many. But quite apart from the demonstrable (as I believe) unfeasibility of the other conceptions I have mentioned, why should the conception of the university as setting for ideas, as setting for both the discovery and the teaching of knowledge in the learned disciplines and professions seem any more archaic today than it did three or four decades ago—at, say, Chicago, Berkeley, Harvard, Columbia, or Caltech during any one of the great periods each of these and many other universities have known?

What, in a civilized society, could possibly be wrong, or seem stagnant, or archaic, or antiquarian, about the vision of an enclave in the social order the principal purpose of which is working creatively and critically with ideas through scholarship and teaching? Is not man’s highest evolutionary trait thus far precisely his capacity for dealing with ideas: learnedly, imaginatively, and critically? Is there any more promising hallmark for a civilized society than its willingness to support a class of persons whose principal business it is to think, to arrive at knowledge, and to induct others in this principal business?

Making exception only for the occasional periods of torpor, of desuetude in the university’s long history, periods when its just reward was witnessing the greatest minds of society doing their work outside the university’s walls—this is precisely what the university has been about. The university is no monastery or retreat. And its business is the business of human life: intellectual business. But only as filtered and interpreted by the minds of those best qualified to distinguish the major from the minor, the important from the trivial, the relatively lasting from the manifestly transitory. It does not seem to me to matter very much what the intellectual content of a curriculum or course be so long as it is a subject clearly evocative to good minds and one on which a sufficient body of knowledge or informed understanding exists to provide the basis of intellectual discourse, of intellectual community. Much harm to the university has been done in times past by those who have tried to make the classics, say, or “liberal arts” or “general education” or perhaps some imagined need of the human personality the exclusive or chief subject of the university.

When Macaulay, no lover himself of the classical curriculum, was asked once why he nevertheless drew his recruits for the civil service from the classics at Oxford and Cambridge, he replied: “Because that is where the best students are. If instead of the classics astrology were the preferred subject I shouldn’t mind. I would then seek out those students most proficient at casting nativities.” Many crimes have been committed in the name of the classics and the liberal arts. Much of the present widening indifference of students to the university, especially in the nonprofessional areas, stems directly from subjects too long ritualized, their natural juices gone, their existence dependent almost wholly on curricular requirement.

This, however, is not the place to decide what subjects shall be the essential ones in the university. How, in any event, could one so decide: that is, abstractly? Subjects, courses, and curricula have changed frequently and diversely during the university’s eight centuries of history. They have been and always should be resultants of what is going on in the whole area of creative scholarship, in the largest area of all, that of human culture.

Our concern here is none of these. It is the mission of the university, the role of the academic community in contemporary society. It is this, not the intellectual content, really, of the university, that is the source of the conflict presently threatening to destroy the structure of the university in America. Why must the proposal of an intellectual community, of a scene of ideas given structure by teaching and scholarship, be apologized for? Is it the radical function that is desired? But nothing is more radical than an idea. Is it the humanitarian function? Nothing in the long run is more humanitarian than a humane and moral idea. Is it citizenship? But no one can be a citizen simply by sedulously learning to be a citizen. The university’s relation to government, research, the arts, and other great functions should be close. It always has been close in the university’s brighter moments in history.

But close in ways that are germane to the university. There is something inherently aristocratic and guild-like about the university. And this has been as true of the great universities in times of creative ferment, right down to the Chicagos, Berkeleys, Harvards, and Michigans of the present century as it has of lesser universities in dull times. No genuinely intellectual community can possibly exist save in terms of an aristocracy that consists, basically, of no more than respect for the best ideas and the best scholars and teachers, and the proper ranking of these with respect to those ideas, teachers, and scholars of lesser worth—as this worth is demonstrated within the academic community. No more can any genuinely intellectual community survive without a system of authority, a system made legitimate by its clearly perceived relation to the function or purpose around which community and aristocracy alike are built.

Admittedly there is a degree of aristocracy that becomes mere privilege-claiming arrogance. And we should be blind if we did not observe the degree to which the academic community in America has, in recent times, manifested such arrogance. So too is there a degree of guild-like authority, of emphasis upon structure and dominant purpose, that can only too quickly lead to a kind of complacent torpor of mind. All of this is true. But are we nevertheless to apologize for the idea of an intellectual aristocracy, one mindful of obligations as well as rights and privileges? I profoundly hope not. The highest goal of human culture is not obliteration of aristocracy: it is, so far as we can manage it, the basing of aristocracy on the levels of genuine intellectual and moral quality. Nor is there anything intrinsically wrong with the idea of either guild or community when we are thinking of contexts for the arts, letters, and sciences. Despite a romantic myth to the contrary, a great deal of the world’s most creative work—even in the spheres of music, painting, and literature—has been done in guilds and communities, however loose in structure some of these may have been.

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III

Let us assume that the ideal of a community of ideas, undergirded by the primary functions of teaching and scholarship, is a worthy one for the university; not merely worthy but probably the only feasible one, all things considered. What, then, must be done to reestablish this academic community, to make it once again as evocative and creative as we know it to have been at other times in its long history? I suggest the following as being the prime requirements at the present time. They are requirements that confront the public, legislatures and government officials, boards of trustees, and students. But above any other single group in society it is the faculties of the universities that hold commanding position in the acceptance and then the implementation of these requirements. And among university faculties the crucial ones, clearly, are those in our most distinguished, our oldest and most prestige-laden universities. One must not underestimate the kind of influence that radiates from a Berkeley, Harvard, Columbia, Michigan, or Yale. As they go, so goes the academic nation.

What are the most fundamental requirements of the academic community and its rehabilitation in American life? I shall list them in the approximate order of their importance, or at least priority:

1) Repudiation of historicism. This is vital, for already the air is full of proposals for the university each of which is said to be rooted in the “clearly developing character of the contemporary university.” No mistake, however, can be greater than basing either proposal or analysis upon some imagined trajectory of development, upon what Sir Karl Popper has called historicism. Particularly pertinent here is prophylaxis against historicism regarding the university’s role in politics, large-scale research, and humanitarianism. Each of these has behind it large numbers of advocates. For them it is not enough that a certain proposal be desired or advocated. It must additionally be declared “inevitable” or “inexorable,” the consequence of its being pulled by the locomotive of history down a single track bed. Failure to hook on to the locomotive of history results, it is said, in being condemned to archaism, in being reactionary or nostalgic. How many follies and knaveries in history have been committed by those in supposed possession of the “track of history” it would be impossible to guess. But the number is large. The first and indispensable step, then, in reform of the university is abandonment of historicism. The sole objective of planning should be simply the highest possible combination of the desirable and the feasible.

2) The restoration of authority. Nothing else can be achieved until the university is able to create again a system of recognized authority such as it had down until a decade or two ago.

The first step in this rehabilitation of legitimate authority lies in endowing the formal administration of the campus with the priority and freedom from incessant veto powers by faculty and students that formal administration in the American university once had. Not least among the degradations of the academic scene in America during the past quarter of a century has been the degradation of, first, department chairman, then dean, then president. For a long time this degradation of role and authority was rationalized in terms of faculty participation in the university’s system of authority. And one grants immediately, a good university is simply inconceivable apart from a substantial measure of the university’s reliance upon faculty judgment in those areas—curriculum, academic policy, above all, appointments and promotions of faculty, along with admissions of, and degrees and certificates granted to, students—where it is uniquely informed and therefore vital.

But by the same token no great university has ever been achieved in this country without the leadership that flowed from relatively strong administrators, particularly presidents. It is not merely that Harvard, Berkeley, Chicago, Cornell, and other universities became distinguished under the leadership of strong presidents such as Eliot, Wheeler, Harper, and White; it is the further fact that they managed to remain great for long periods only as the result in very large degree of this leadership. And, as the veriest novice in the study of administration knows, no administration can become effective over a long period of time if its every act is under the de facto, if not de jure, veto power of faculty committees whose insights are inevitably surer in matters of consultation and leisured advice, than in matters of direct administration.

This is the first necessity: the restoration of the authority of the president of the university, and of the provosts, deans, and department chairmen, in whose hands responsibility is placed for the governance of the university. This carries with it, of course, the corollary that boards of trustees and—as in public institutions—political figures in legislative and executive offices of government will be obliged to give firm backing to university officials. As matters now stand, the university president is as often rendered impotent by failure of key public, or trustee, figures to back him in time of crisis as by failure of faculty.

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There will be nothing easy in this restoration of authority to presidents and deans. On a score of grounds it will be attacked as an invasion of faculty and student democracy. But apart from such restoration I do not see how the university can do what it is supposed to do academically or how it can hope for the rather privileged enclave-like status that is the real structure of its freedom in society.

The faculty have the most to learn here. Few things have done more in recent years to undermine the authority of the university than the wanton spreading of the view that the faculty, qua faculty, must concern itself with each and every aspect of administrative life on the campus. It has led men and women whose sole claim to distinction is as teachers and scholars into areas of governance and responsibility for which they are largely unfitted by temperament and by principal interest. The revolt in the 1960′s of students against administration had, as its immediate prelude, the subtle but nonetheless puissant revolt of the faculty against the administration, a revolt characterized by spreading, deepening faculty insistence that all spheres of the university—student discipline, management of residence halls, and the scores of other spheres that exist, that are bound to exist on a university campus in our century—must be brought continuously under faculty scrutiny and direction.

No good university can conceivably exist unless the de facto authority of the faculty is great in matters of appointment and promotion of colleagues, in admissions, in the granting of degrees, and in curricular matters. These, after all, are the sovereign elements of the academic community. But there is, on the evidence of the history of the university, a price that must be paid for the faculty’s dominance in these crucial areas. And that price is forbearance from insistence upon dominance in each of the multitude of other, secondary, ancillary areas of the university.

One cannot devote himself effectively to teaching and scholarship if he must be forever sniffing out possible derelictions of those whose job it is to supervise plant and facilities, the social and moral behavior of students, athletics, or relationships with trustees and alumni. If the professor’s authority in study or classroom is to remain great, he can hardly subject it to the inevitable follies and errors that must attend efforts to make this authority equally great in the nonacademic areas of the university.

A great deal of nonsense is being spoken these days about the students’ right to participate in the government of the university. One even finds spokesmen for the view that students should sit on governing boards, highest faculty councils, the committees concerned with appointment and promotion of faculty, the approval of courses, and so on. All this for a class that by its very nature is transitory in the university: four or five years at most for any given student and the ever-present possibility of dismissal for demonstrated ignorance and incompetence. That students have a collective right to have their scholarly interests treated seriously; a right to make their views known to faculty and administration; a right to be spared the childhood-perpetuating restrictions and indignities that used to be heaped upon them in the name of in loco parentis; a right to speak out (even if not a divine right to be listened to incessantly); a right to participate as they see fit in political and other activities outside the university, subject as adults to the laws of civil society and in recognition that the university cannot also be their sanctuary—all of this I take to be so valid as to be scarcely worth the emphasis here. Above all, from the point of view of the practical reinforcement of the faculty’s teaching responsibilities, students have the right—I would say duty—to evaluate and assess as best they can, as effectively, even loudly, as they can, the quality of the teaching they are getting. I shall say more about this below.

But it is preposterous to suppose that students, none of them likely to be present on the campus for more than four or five years at most, their responsibility for the campus accordingly diminished, should participate at high and crucial levels in the formal government of the university—either within administrative or within faculty councils. Any effort so to suppose can only result in persuading students that what they are clearly not qualified to assess—levels of knowledge in a field, scholarly stature of professors, relation of courses to the state of knowledge, among other spheres—is less important than what they are qualified to assess.

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The vital point, though, is restoration of authority. Without such restoration of authority in the university there is no possibility of present encroachments upon the autonomy of the university being arrested: encroachments by legislature, governor, federal agency, and by police. And these encroachments are becoming as plain in the private universities today as in the public. Last year 32 states passed laws aimed directly at academic turbulence. The chief consequence of breakdown of authority within an institution is invariably the rise of power—whether from within or without. If members of the university faculty are unwilling to make a major distinction between the (admittedly fallible) authority of president, dean, or department chairman on the one hand and, on the other, the power of the police, they are sure to get ever greater amounts of the latter.

3) A clearing of the scene. I do not see how authority, scholarship, teaching, or any other vital aspect of the university can be long maintained without a substantial number of present structures and activities on the American campus being removed within the next ten years. On a rough guess I should think at least 75 per cent of all existing institutes, centers, and bureaus in the academic sphere of the university should be phased out.

It is not research, large or small, that I am concerned with seeing phased out of the university. Research, along with teaching, is what universities are all about. But research in conjunction with teaching, and of a scale that does not constantly threaten to dwarf the rest of the university! I am well aware that there is much research today that simply cannot be done except in vast, highly organized, bureaucratized centers. Very good. But let such research be done where it can be done more efficiently and without damage to academic community. And let those whose passions are directed toward this kind of research be free to move from the university. Make no mistake. A substantial number will choose to move, including some of highest luster.

Make no mistake either about the powerful resistance that will be mobilized immediately against this clearing of the scene: by trustees, faculty, and graduate students, among others, not to mention those in the great foundations, major departments of government, and others whose vast funds have made the jungle of institutes possible. The cries of status-pain, of income-pain, of power-pain, will be awful to have to listen to. It is inconceivable to me that the work of clearing the scene of the thick overgrowth of institutes and centers, along with the many other forms of organized distraction from teaching and of organized depredation upon the academic community, could be done by any one university alone. My guess is that, given the very deep roots and very wide spread these organizations and activities have at the present time, only concerted action by the top twenty or thirty universities in the country would bear substantial result. If this be conspiracy. . . .

4) The depoliticization of the university. The university is today suffused by politics; this includes the private as well as the public university. I use the word “politics” in every significant sense that word could have for the university. The number of laws and administrative regulations affecting university operation that stem from federal and state governments is at an all-time high. This is the consequence of, first, the Higher Capitalism in the university, involving the multitude of financial relations with agencies of government, and, most recently, of the apprehension created in the public mind by the turbulence of the 1960′s. There is no need to emphasize the degree to which the campus has become a microcosm of the national and international scene in the number and intensity of ideological issues it has assimilated during the past two decades. And, finally, no one can miss the extent to which “participatory democracy” in university affairs has not only sapped the foundations of any coherent system of authority, but also created a setting of instant and chronic politics that makes serious teaching and study all but impossible.

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Is a depoliticization of the university possible? One can hope and try, but it is very hard to believe that it is. Once politicization becomes deeply ingrained, once federal and state governments are in the habit of penetrating any cultural or social sanctuary, once members of an organization begin to define their very constitutional status as citizens in terms of incessant political activism, and once the normal hierarchy of the academic community has been seriously weakened by spreading habits of participatory democracy, first among faculty, then among students, with all offices under a kind of standing suspicion, all decisions subject to threat of veto action, the likelihood of arresting these tendencies is not very great. There is much in history to give substance to that conclusion. But of the importance of depoliticization there can be no question.

5) The elevation of the function of teaching. The function of teaching was degraded when, following World War II, the function of projector grant- or institute-based research became the only genuinely valued function; when it became possible to win renown, high salary, and power in the university without more than token appearance in classroom and seminar. Of what avail is it today to remind young instructors solemnly of their “teaching obligations”; of what use is it for students to assess faculty performance; and of what incentive to offer annual teaching awards (usually thought of as consolation prizes for failures elsewhere on the campus) when the evidence is clear that through research alone—or through the consultantships and institute-memberships that stamp one a man of power on the campus—are reputation and affluence made?

How do we elevate the function of teaching? First, forget all the annual awards and citations; forget the solemn injunctions by faculty committee and administration to be a good teacher. Above all, forget the ghastly expedient of establishing special schools or centers or professorships through which, it is said sanctimoniously and fatuously, “teaching, not research, will be the function.” The good minds—faculty and students alike—will avoid such expedients as the plague they in fact are.

Second, discontinue the appalling practice, now to be seen from Harvard to Berkeley, of rewarding intellectual merit through exemption from the requirement of a full load of teaching. The stupidity of the present condition lies in the fact that all the while we issue pious injunctions to teach, we use the device of exemption from teaching as the prime means of honoring the Nobel Prize winner, the National Academy baron, the research-capitalist who has just taken the Ford Foundation for a million, the man of power who travels weekly or daily to State or Pentagon, and elsewhere. We make these nabobs directors of institutes and centers, and while I am not suggesting that they invariably eschew teaching, they stand as monuments to the clear fact that distinction lies where full and mandatory teaching do not.

Third, drop the absurd “research” from the titles of those who now live under its talismanic charm and make evident from Harvard and Columbia to Berkeley and Stanford that everybody henceforth teaches a full load, which I would myself define properly as two courses every term in the laboratory sciences and three in all other fields. Is this drastic requirement to include National Academy stars and Ford Foundation capitalists on the campus? Institute directors as well as mere professors? Professors as well as novice assistant professors? Very much so. In fact, especially so.

I am not suggesting for a moment that such action would automatically make great teachers of all who are forced to go regularly to class. What system possibly could? I am suggesting only that it is bound to raise the value of teaching. It will also help if we reduce substantially the present inflated and exploited system of leaves of absence, of which seventh-year sabbaticals are but one tiny, exposed portion of the iceberg. As a modest start I would suggest that no one, not even the most valued adviser of Presidents and Congressional Committees, not even the Isaac Newton University Distinguished Service Research Professor of Physical Science and Director of the Faraday Institute for the Advancement of Theoretical Physics be permitted academic leave oftener than one term every five years.

As I say, there is no way known to man in which a merely ordinary teacher can be made into a great one. And the worst of all denizens of the academic scene are those pathetic souls who call themselves “teachers” simply because they show little sign of being able to write anything above the level of a political manifesto. But if the steps I have suggested above are followed—and they are easy ones, really, even though the howls of outrage and threats to resign will be awful to have to listen to for a few months—I think we will all be surprised by how relatively easy it is to restore teaching on the American campus to at least the level it had prior to World War II.

6) A finite conception of the university. This may well be the most difficult of all the requirements to meet, for it is evident enough that what has somehow developed in the American mind, academic and nonacademic, is a nearly Faustian view of the university and its potential benefactors. It is difficult to see how academic policy can operate any more effectively than foreign policy without some constraining sense of limits. The kind of transcendent moralism that democracy has tended from the beginning to invest in our view of political government and of the role of political democracy in the world is to be found in full glory today in the university and in popular assessments of the university.

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It is no more possible for the university to serve all individual needs and tastes than it is possible for it to serve all social, economic, and political needs in society. The sound democratic conviction that all persons should have reasonably equal access to the university has unfortunately become converted in recent decades to the dangerous—because of the inherent impossibility of ever fulfilling it—conviction that the university must be incessantly reshaped to meet all possible interests and needs. So long as these are genuinely intellectual and academic interests and needs, no great problem is created. The progress of the university has consisted exactly in the changes and adaptations of curriculum necessary to meeting them.

It is clearly a different matter, however, when to the intellectual-academic function of the university there is added a set of other functions ranging from the spiritual and moral to the psychological and the social. A great deal of what I earlier referred to as the university’s role of Benign Therapist is a direct response to entrance in ever widening numbers of students who have little if any interest in the university as a setting for study in the learned disciplines but who must be—or so the familiar argument runs—given incentive, be made interested, be provided with something deemed relevant, be, at all costs, entertained.

It is the unhappy fate of the once-honored liberal arts to have become the repository for most of these students, and I can think of nothing that has so hastened the degradation of this sector of the university than the heavy pastoral responsibilities that have been dumped on the liberal arts by the Faustian conception of the university. Today, as is all too evident, even the standard areas of the liberal arts prove insufficient. Hence the turning by desperate administrations and faculties to still more accessible, still more “relevant” types of course and curriculum. Hence the vogue of quasi-therapeutic sensitivity and encounter classes, of courses built around direct intuition or feeling in which all members of the academic community are indeed equal. And as these last become, as they show clear signs of becoming already, contexts of fresh boredom, fresh demand for novel diversion and “relevance,” it is anyone’s guess what the university will next turn to for purposes of pacification.

I am not suggesting that the problem of the university lies foremost in the admitting today of the mentally unqualified, the intellectually inferior. Far from it. I am inclined to think, in fact, that the problem lies more often in the admission, through false pretenses by the university, of those who are in a certain sense too bright, too gifted, too filled by intellectual passion already reached, for the inherently limited capacities of any curriculum to satisfy.

Even during its brightest and most creative moments the university, by its rather communal and corporate nature, has never been the home of all the light and leading in the West. Can one easily imagine a Buddha, Moses, or Jesus, an Aeschylus, Chaucer, or Shakespeare, a Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven being improved by enforced, or falsely motivated, residence in a curricular setting with all its requirements and layers of prerequisites? Nor am I suggesting that genius is some purely internal or genetic thing, without need of contexts. I am suggesting that the university is by no means the proper context for any and all forms of intellectual endowment.

In exactly the same way that the university is not, on the evidence, the best setting for the creative writer, musician, and artist, so perhaps is it not the best setting for the maturation of a few other, equally important, if not as vivid, types of mind and personality in society. It was not from lack of mental endowment that a Marco Polo would have been ill-placed in one of the universities of his day—or, later, anyone of the philosophes, or a Bentham, or a Marx. Each one of these might conceivably have improved the university he went to, but it is exceedingly unlikely that the university could have added a cubit to the stature of any of them.

Is the possibility not equally great in the fields of business and the practical arts generally that the university, far from being vital to personal success, is more often an organized, socially-sanctioned means of deferment of personal success? Except in certain highly specialized areas which are comparable to law or engineering, is it really any more important that the businessman spend four years of tedium in the liberal arts than that the professional superstar in athletics spend four years in a college or university? Heaven knows, one of the reasons why the costs of universities have soared is the exploitative uses business and professional athletics—and many other areas of American life, including American families looking for havens for their adolescents—make of the university.

Once, no doubt, college or university was a unique way by which the merely literate could be given at least speaking acquaintance with the wide world of culture, that is, high culture. This is certainly no longer the case. There exist a great diversity of ways in which the modern media and other institutions perform this function, and very often better than it can be done by the university.

One of the most encouraging movements now going on in this country—spurred in considerable part by the recent ugliness of the university scene—is the de-emphasis that seemingly is taking place on the university diploma and on “credentialism” generally. As Dael Wolfe has very recently pointed out, studies show that there is indeed a high correlation between college graduation and career income; but these studies, properly made, also show that what appears to be the central role of the college degree is in fact the central role of the brighter mind. There are assuredly occupational areas where university or college education is important. University teaching, law, medicine, engineering are all obvious in this regard. There are far more areas, however, where the diploma is a mere employment screening device, without much relation, as Wolfe notes, to the substantive issues involved.

I cannot help thinking that the structure of occupations in this country and, not least, the position of the lower socioeconomic and ethnic groups now struggling to get into the higher reaches of the structure, would be immensely improved if a more finite view of the university were to be taken. I have already stressed the harm that has been done both university and many interest-groups in our society by the university’s assumption of the role of Super-Humanitarian. No less harm is being done both university and many a bright, motivated, aspiring young mind by the once useful but now all too often harmful adjuration: “Get a college education.”

If the limits of the university are to be as wide as those of modern society and culture, then there is really no need for the university at all. Whatever the tasks of training necessary to fitting individuals to jobs, these can, as can the requisite search for knowledge necessary to technological survival, be carried on within the precincts of occupation, profession, or social and cultural interest.

Far more deadly to the character of the university than its exploitation in economic terms is its exploitation in psychological terms. That is, cultivation of the pernicious idea that by sending young people to universities one is teaching them to be human beings, to become citizens, to become leaders, or to find peace of mind, individuality, liberal-arts “soul,” or whatever may be in the public mind at the moment.

It is simply impossible for the university to be anything and, at the same time, to be all things; to meet any personal needs and, at the same time, to meet all imaginable personal-psychological-social-cultural needs. One of the highest of all priorities for rehabilitation of the university as the setting for ideas, as the scene of teaching and scholarship in the learned disciplines, is abandonment of the present limitless, boundless, Faustian conception of the university and its relation to man and society. Anyhow, who needs the university as mere microcosm of society?

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IV

Can these requirements for the rehabilitation of the university be feasibly met during the next few years—or, for that matter, any requirements designed to restore to the university the status it once had as enclave for teaching and scholarship in the humanities and the sciences? I hope so. I do not know. Who could know? At the moment, all things considered, it seems highly unlikely. I will conclude where I began: by noting the increasing intensity of the conflict between the structure of the university, the purpose and mission of the university, as these are readily translatable into the kinds of roles and statuses we find in the university, and the whole gathering fury of the winds of modernity. Very probably the New Left, for all its disdain of history save as weapon of political combat, has, down underneath its rhetoric, a surer sense of this mounting conflict than most of us who love the university. The Left can echo Voltaire’s Ecrasez l’infâme! with reasonable certainty that the university in America today has, by virtue of the Higher Capitalism and the other structural characteristics it has taken on during the past quarter of a century, as precarious a relation to modernity as the corrupt Church had in the 18th century.

I have said that the role of professor is today as deeply damaged a role—damaged by the currents of change described above—as the role of guildsman, knight, or landed aristocrat was damaged by the changes which were eventually to yield Western society its ages of capitalism, nationalism, democracy, socialism, and its several other sequences or phases of the history of modernity. Clearly, however, it does not follow that the contemporary professor will disappear overnight. The knight didn’t; neither did the proud guild master. And, as we know, there are still remnants of the landed aristocracy to read about in the English press. Even guild halls have their uses, as every American tourist knows. No one can know how much longer the roles of professor, dean, chancellor, and the others that form the university structure will continue to evoke at least a spark of public recognition. All efforts to read the future are either games or else tricks played upon the naive. I prophesy neither doom nor future glory for the university in America. I do not prophesy.

We do know certain things, however. We know that the guildsman did not become capitalist entrepreneur; that the landed aristocracy, while it may indeed have financed a great deal of the capitalist system, did not become the bourgeoisie; that, in sum, the roles and structures of medieval society did not themselves become the roles and structures of modern industrial and democratic mass society.

Whether the university survives, how long it can survive in contemporary culture as the last signal vestige of medieval social organization, is impossible to foretell. I know only that while no society can do without knowledge and its diffusion to necessary groups and individuals—and this is, of course, notably the case in our technological age—it would be fatuous to assume that the university is indispensable. I reiterate: great societies have existed before without universities in them; great sectors of contemporary society already show capacities for doing many of the things that only a few decades ago were to be found only in the university: among them dissemination of “high culture.”

There is no inherent, self-sustaining, irresistible majesty in the university; only the majesty that is conferred upon the university by a social order that, for whatever reason, has come to believe that there is something distinctive, something precious, something profoundly important in the university that is to be found nowhere else in society—not in factory, not in foundation, not in government agency, not in the media, not in the church, not in mental health clinic, nor anywhere else. And when this belief is allowed to erode, majesty erodes with it.

The greatness that is Harvard and the glory that is Berkeley can perish in but a few years, their presently celebrated degrees the objects of ridicule, their halls untenanted by any of the illustrious, their mission degraded to the caring, the feeding, and the policing of the young. Not even the young, though, will long choose to stay at Harvard and Berkeley once the word gets around that history has passed the universities by, that what the universities have to offer is no longer valued deeply either by those inside the university or those outside. History is filled with degrees, titles, ranks, and diplomas that were once thought to be important but that became in due time—after their functional importance had disappeared—mere curiosities or relics.

For more than two decades now the leaders of the American university, from Berkeley to Harvard, have done their best to make the university “relevant” to society, nation, and world; through a calculated development of growths within the university for which the words “thicket” and “jungle” are at the moment scarcely extreme. And these same leaders—faculty and administrative—have somehow wound up having made the university seem more irrelevant at the present moment than it has ever seemed during the nearly ten centuries of its existence in the West. “Who needs it?” is a question one may confidently expect to hear in rising frequency, not merely from the students of the Left who shout it now, but from a great many members of American society. As the no doubt just if cruel punishment for having tried to be all things to all sectors of American society, the university has ended up ignominiously meaning very little to anyone.

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As matters now stand in the university we are like a religious monastery insisting upon all the affluence of a freebooting capitalism; an aristocracy masochistically tormenting itself with the slogans of revolutionary democracy; a community of pacifists insistent upon riding off in all directions at once to battle the enemy; an enclave of intellectual autonomy that is yet privileged to remake the entire social order through profligate humanitarianism or calculated revolution. We declare ourselves an intellectual elite, fully entitled to aristocratic tenure of status, and at the same time the microcosm of economic, political, social, and cultural activities that even the surrounding society often seems too small to contain. It is a lovely fantasy.

If it be said that the sheer volume of the capital represented by university plant and equipment should be sufficient to maintain the university permanently in American society, I can only point to the equal volume of capital—relatively speaking—once expended on pyramids, coliseums, and cathedrals in the West, now gathering places for tourists and other sightseers. If it be said that surely some use will have to be found for the laboratories, classrooms, dormitories, faculty clubs, and student unions, I can only say that “some” use is not precisely what we are concerned with at the present time in discussions of the future of the American university.

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