Commentary Magazine

The Community of Scholars, by Paul Goodman

Higher Education and the System1

Most of the writing about colleges in the United States is done either by novelists or by educators, with the novelists reporting the details of the spiritual sterility which exists in the colleges, and the educators explaining how to increase the incidence of sterility by new forms of academic organization. As the body of educational literature grows in this way, it may soon be possible to construct a college curriculum entirely of academic novels, plays, and educational documents, with new works from psychology, anthropology, history, and sociology added annually as more and more of the social and behavioral scientists turn to the university culture for their materials. A little more of the present trend and the encapsulation of the colleges within their own culture will be complete.

With the present degree of self-consciousness about education and the enormous amount of information we have about the problems of the colleges, it would be natural to assume that great new projects were now in motion. This is not the case. The new projects have mainly to do with increasing the number and kind of requirements for academic subject-matter, increasing the number of scholastically trained young people to meet the need for technical manpower, increasing the speed and accuracy by which academic materials can be covered, and dealing with the administrative and housing problems of a rapidly expanding student body.

The ideas for reform are not coming, as they did in the 1920’s and 30’s, from radicals in the teaching profession who wish to found new institutions on new principles. The restlessness about education is coming from the students, some of whom are genuine radicals whose aim is to abolish the entire big university system and to create new forms of education in their own terms.

I have before me a prospectus for a special issue of a student magazine on the reform of higher education. Under the title “What Goes On,” there are three sub-headings: “Kiddie Land, U.S.A.,” on student experience; “The Kiddie Grows Up,” on the graduate student and young faculty; and “The Baby Sitters,” on the administrators. Under the title “What Is To Be Done,” the sub-headings are: “Guerrilla Warfare,” “Revolution,” “The Beachhead,” and “Guides for Action.”

It is Paul Goodman’s awareness of the reality of the educational problem as seen by students like these that makes his ideas for the reform of colleges so important a contribution to contemporary writing about education. His articles, his lectures, his books, his visits to colleges, and now his new book, The Community of Scholars, reveal both a direct awareness of the situation of the student and an intensity of concern to do something about it.

Goodman’s quarrel with the universities is that they are now organized as teaching machines to train the young in marketable skills when they should be self-governing communities where young people can grow up to be free. As it is, “the young are kept from learning by rules, task-work, and extraneous distractions.”

The model for Goodman is in the medieval community of scholars, the studium generate, except that in his community, Goodman wants a direct confrontation of the scholars and students with their society, or with what he calls the “objective culture.” The way he proposes to close the gap between the society outside and the life inside is by the presence in the university of elders with experience of the world, scholars who know what they are doing and who not only can but want to teach what they are doing and what they know. They are veterans, professionals, who “speak and apply the university’s authority in the world.”



The model for the Veteran, the word Goodman likes for his kind of teacher, is the physician. “Conceive him at the hospital with students, and the event has a curious duality; as an artist he is treating an individual patient; as a teacher he is demonstrating a universal pathology and scientific method.” The same is true of philosophers, historians, and those who teach the arts—they must be in the world and know what it is doing. They cannot teach a subject simply by having studied it. They must be practicing philosophers, political activists, historians, artists, writers, intellectuals.

The community Goodman wants is this:

It is anarchically self-regulating or at least self-governed; animally and civilly unrestrained; yet itself an intramural city with a universal culture walled from the world; yet active in the world; living in a characteristically planned neighborhood according to the principles of mutual aid; and with its members in oathbound fealty to one another as teachers and students.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of how a community of this kind puts itself together and what we do with the animally unrestrained when they all get out of hand, why aren’t there college communities like this in America?

Goodman’s answer is that the administrators took over, and through a combination of manipulative devices and personal ambition, have made the universities into bureaucracies for processing students. The remedy is therefore simple. Academic executives, college presidents, and whoever else is in charge must go. In their place must be put the self-governing body of students and faculty.

What I miss in Goodman’s account of the university is any social or economic analysis which makes sense of its present development. The administrators are there in large numbers because millions more students have come to the colleges with fewer and fewer scholars who are either willing or talented enough to teach them properly. If the United States had remained small and unindustrialized, we might have been able to build the Jeffersonian program Paul Goodman admires, with all the educational communities small and the scholars highly selected. But I don’t see how this is possible except in a society much like Jefferson’s.

It seems to me that what Goodman has done is to agree to Veblen’s analysis in The Higher Learning in America, and to assume that what Veblen said was correct for the 19th and early 20th centuries is now correct for the 1960’s. The fact is that Veblen’s Captains of Erudition, as counterpart to the Captains of Industry and the Robber Barons, disappeared quite a while ago, and are now the counterparts of corporation management. When Goodman says that “the president has a remarkable freedom to determine policy whether educational, architectural, or financial,” and that among his time-serving administrators, “he is the master in his own house,” free “from headaches in his dealings with legislators, the press, parents,” and able to “control the student organizations and newspapers,” he is simply wrong about the facts.

There are occasional instances in which the entrepreneur who started a college himself or took over one which was already drifting down the drain has now the sort of power and attitude Goodman describes. There are also small colleges, little known to the public, which depend for their survival and future almost entirely on the initiative and administrative talents of the president. In such cases the president’s role is very much like that of the owner of a small business, except that this business is literally non-profit.

But Goodman’s description would startle most of the other college presidents, including Quigg Newton, who was consistently attacked by members of the state legislature during the six years of his tenure at the University of Colorado, who had a number of headaches from the Colorado press and parents, who fought a battle with the editor of the student newspaper, and who leaves his post this year, following the election of two Republican trustees hostile to his educational policies.



What has happened in the university system as a whole is very simple. The self-government of faculty bodies and the strength of the departmental system is such that the president no longer has much to say about faculty appointments or educational policy of any kind. With the growth of a corporate structure, the president’s duties have been almost exclusively relegated to matters connected with public relations and fund-raising.

In the case of the state university president, the public relations are carried on continually and unremittingly with members of the state legislature and the public at large in order that appropriations may be secured, and the fund-raising and political dickering with alumni and alumni groups is a consuming task which leaves almost no time or energy for educational policy, even if the president had the power to make it. He is responsible for the total budget, he does appoint his own executive officers and deans, occasionally he has a part in major faculty appointments. Thus he exerts a degree of educational power, for good or ill. But his major effects are achieved by direct work with power groups and by political lobbying, along with his efforts to exert public influence by statements and speeches on public issues, including the issues of intellectual freedom and the role of the university in American society. As far as the presidency is concerned, the private university differs from the state university only in the range of its clientele and of the people whose interests must be served.

The real question is not whether the university president as educator should be condemned for having educational ideas which he would like to put into effect, but whether the sheer equilibrium of forces—educational, economic, political, intellectual—should serve as a substitute for the vigorous advocacy of ideas by those who have them. If the university president is to be simply a manager and not an educator, then the educational decisions are made in management terms, and we get the bureaucracy which wants no trouble.

But the matter goes even deeper than this, and much deeper than Goodman indicates. The idea of a self-governing faculty and student body is one which most of us share and which has been tried fairly often. As Goodman points out, the Black Mountain experiment was one such trial, and it ceased to function largely because a process of self-government, in which anarchy could be modified only by total consensus, resulted in exactly the ad hominem practices which Goodman advocates as desirable.

After a time, self-government by faculty and students becomes tiresome to everyone unless it is mitigated by some sort of administrative delegation. It is terribly true that some scholar-teachers are not very good at running things, and that many scholar-teachers with liberal views about self-government become very difficult people when elected to administrative positions. I wonder if Paul Goodman has met any departmental chairmen lately.

In the pathology of self-government among nervous intellectuals, Veterans or otherwise, the most frequent symptom of breakdown is the refusal by the community to allow anyone, elected or appointed, to make decisions or to act without the consent of the entire community. Anyone who has ever tried to get anything done with a committee of intellectuals, few of whom answer their mail or return telephone calls, and many of whom regard any simple and sensible request from their colleagues as a possible infringement of academic freedom, will grant that there is merit in the delegation of responsibility by electoral vote or other means. It is commonly reported on the basis of evidence that the greatest obstacle to educational reform in the direction suggested by Paul Goodman—the restoration of a personal relation between students and faculty—is the conservatism, preoccupation, and short-sightedness of the collective faculty body.



Yet none of this diminishes the truth of what Goodman says about the university bureaucracy and its debilitating effects on the education of students. “The teaching-and-learning,” says Goodman, “is not for keeps. It does not, immediately or ultimately, meet any intrinsic test of making a difference or exercising mastery. Instead there are credits and grading.”

The most interesting question is, of course, what can be done about it.

Goodman is skeptical of most of the reforms now proposed, from the formation of small college units in the university residences to the installation of honors courses. The main flaw in the proposals, says Goodman, is that they do not bring in professionals to do the teaching. They try to educate the young by putting them through academic exercises under the supervision of people who have had no experience other than academic. This does not help the young to discover and accept who they are, to explore and find genuine opportunities to fulfill themselves in work and in action, “to unblock the intellect . . . to prove that it is possible for persons to display intellectual virtues without embarrassment or punishment, and to use them in the community and in the world without futility.” To accomplish this, Goodman believes that there should be no standard curriculum and that instead students should choose to work at what interests them; he accepts Dewey’s view of the intrinsic organization of studies in which the aim is to learn something in such a way that it leads to wanting to learn more. He argues for the extensive use of field work and the practical study of social situations; he proposes that the students be asked to write serious stories, plays, and essays about people and events in the college community, rather than spending all their time in “humanities” courses.

Since Goodman believes that the prospects for reform of the present system are dim, he advocates as an immediate alternative a series of secessions by faculty members from their university posts to organize small communities of scholars who would form associations for teaching and learning, un-chartered, uninhibited by administrators, unfettered by social or academic rules. The classes would be twelve to fifteen in size, the faculty would be composed of professionals who were already engaged in their professions, along with four or five university scholars, and the students would choose to study whatever they wished with the person who taught it. The secessionist community would, Goodman says, flourish best in a city, preferably by attaching itself to an existing university whose library and other facilities would then be available. No academic credit or degrees would be offered, although it would be assumed that students who had spent quite a lot of time with good professionals and teachers would be able to get into graduate school on their merits.

There is no reason at all why such a secessionist movement should not be tried, or why, as has also been suggested, a group of intellectuals in the universities and in government should not drop out of their formal posts for a period of time to establish an institute for the study of contemporary issues, with a few younger people associated with them. Anything that can break up the pattern of present college structures and can bring students into closer touch with first-rate teachers and professionals is a move in the right direction.



The Irony in the proposal, as far as Paul Goodman is concerned, lies in the fact that as soon as he presents it in his book he becomes involved with administrative detail and must deal with practical things like drawing up a budget, arranging for the use of buildings, and coping with the problem of recruiting a suitable faculty. He finds as he begins to work out a budget that if his teachers are to be paid even $10,000 each, the students would have to pay from $700 to $800 each, about half the Ivy League tuition, without provision for library, laboratory, buildings, a community life, or anything else. If the students paid less, the faculty would receive less, and then the problem for someone (President Paul Goodman?) would be to put together a group of teachers who could afford to teach a group of students who could afford to pay the tuition. First thing you know you have an administration, a money-raising and public relations program for scholarships, faculty salaries and buildings, and we’re off again.

But the possible variations of the Goodman idea are interesting and productive, whether or not the idea itself is put into effect. Already there are in existence work camps, study trips, field trips, research projects, non-resident years, foreign travel programs, work-study programs, and many other programs which go back to Goodman’s central concept. Proposals exist for a world college in which a completely international student body would work on world problems with an international faculty; for peace internes who would take a year out of college to work directly in the peace movement; and for private peace corps projects for college students both before and after graduation. Some of the ideas for extending the range of education have been developed by students, others by professionals outside the universities, others by artists, writers, and the clergy.

Accordingly there is more room for maneuver than Paul Goodman thinks, both inside and outside the college, and much more can be done within the existing universities than Goodman has so far considered possible. I believe, with him, that the greatest improvement in the present system would be to abolish it entirely and start over. But his secessionist movement in a modified form could very easily be adapted to the structure of a large university, following the style of the experimental college which Alexander Meiklejohn began at the University of Wisconsin in the 1920’s and 1930’s. A free curriculum and a new community could be established with a faculty of its own, drawn from new appointments and partly from the university at large. Many deans and faculty members are ready to begin a variety of experiments when the ideas for beginning them are produced and the teachers able to do them are available.

What I find missing in Goodman’s community is the kind of faith in the student that goes beyond the mere granting him of powers of self-government in a community staffed by his elders. There are Veterans among the students—young men and women whose experience in life and in the arts and sciences already goes beyond the experience of many of those who serve as their teachers. The kind of arrangement which I would like to see made is one which would free the students in their present college environment to do the things of which they are already capable. If they were taught less they would learn more. If they were given the chance, they would show how well they can teach each other.

In the meantime, the Goodman country is an attractive substitute for the real university world. He is writing and talking about the reality of the student predicament, and because he cares so much about what happens to the young and what happens to the society which is refusing them proper entry, his ideas are having a potent effect on the intellectual life of the American student. A serious teacher can hope for no greater satisfaction than that.




1 A review of The Community of Scholars, by Paul Goodman (Random House, 175 pp., $3.95).

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