Continuing the series we inaugurated last month with James Q. Wilson’s article on crime, we here move on to the issue of education.
It is now widely recognized that this country is failing at every level to educate its young people properly. But there is less agreement on what accounts for this dismal situation, and on how it might be changed. In addressing those questions, both Gertrude Himmelfarb, writing on the universities, and Chester E. Finn, Jr., dealing with the schools, draw on many years of experience and reflection.
“There is a great deal of ruin in a nation,” Adam Smith informed his readers. And so there is in a university. It is a comforting thought that we might keep in mind as we contemplate the transformation of higher education in recent years and consider what should be done, or undone, about it.1
A quarter of a century ago, Robert Nisbet wrote a book that is still the seminal work on the subject, The Degradation of the Academic Dogma. To readers fresh from the dramatic events of the 60’s—the student “rebellion” at Berkeley in 1964 and the later uprisings in one university after another—Nisbet provided a larger perspective, locating the beginning of the revolution well before that memorable decade and making professors, administrators, and the government complicitous in that revolution.
Until World War II, Nisbet maintained, the university had been sustained by nothing less than a “dogma”—a faith in reason and knowledge, in the rational, dispassionate search for truth, and in the dissemination of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. The objects of knowledge changed in the course of time: the classical curriculum gave way to the modern one, by the addition first of modern history, literature, and languages, then of the sciences and social sciences. But throughout the centuries, the essential dogma, the commitment to reason and knowledge, remained intact.
A corollary of that dogma also remained intact: the hierarchy of knowledge and of the bearers of knowledge. Even in this most democratic of nations, Nisbet found, the university was not a democratic institution. Not all subjects were equal sub specie universitatis; not all were worthy of study. Students were not the equals of their instructors, nor administrators of professors, nor junior professors of their seniors.
Nor did the university give equal status, or equal time, to non-Western civilizations. There were courses, to be sure, on Asia, Africa, and India. But they were peripheral to the curriculum and were studied in the spirit and methods of Western scholarship. The university was frankly “ethnocentric” (it is curious to find Nisbet using this word that far back), committed to a “faith in the Western tradition: in the ideas, values, systems, and languages that belong to the tiny part of the world that is the promontory of the Eurasian continent known as Western Europe.”
The academic dogma, as Nisbet saw it, was quite different from the democratic dogma. The academy was a community in itself, distinct in its mission, its values, and its structure from the larger society. This was not to say that it was of no social utility. Throughout the centuries it fed into the mainstream of society—into the law, diplomacy, clerisy, polity, civil bureaucracy. It also served as a socializing, civilizing, and even moralizing agent for the students who passed through it (and perhaps as well for the professors ensconced in it). But it did all this indirectly, as a fortunate byproduct of its essential functions, which were the creation, preservation, and transmission of knowledge and culture.
So, at least, it was until after World War II, when the expansion of the university, partly as a result of the GI Bill, brought about a “Reformation” of the university, comparable, in Nisbet’s view, to the great religious Reformation of the 16th century.2 The new reformation was precipitated by money—the influx of funds, first from the government and then from private sources, which generated projects, programs, institutes, and centers that were unrelated either to the teaching function of the university or to the kind of research that had an intimate connection with teaching. The university, already burdened with business and professional schools, was thus transformed into a “multiversity.”
The sciences were most obviously affected by these new sources of money, but so were the social sciences, which discovered a new rationale for grant-getting and a new mission for the university: the solving of social problems—poverty, the environment, urban unrest, juvenile delinquency, and whatever other subject might occur to a resourceful professor. If disinterested knowledge was the dogma of the pre-reformation university, “relevance” was the dogma of the post-reformation university.
Having committed itself to solving society’s problems, Nisbet observed, the university could hardly ignore the problems of its own students, their emotional needs, egos, sensitivities, and identity crises. The university then assumed the character of a therapeutic institution as well. Since part of the therapy (especially after the uprisings of the 60’s) involved the “empowerment” of the students—their admission to curriculum, governance, even appointment and tenure committees—the result was the conversion of the university, now a multiversity, into something that resembled a “participatory democracy.”
From all this, it was only one short step to the politicization of the university. The socially-conscious university was, inevitably, a politically-conscious one. Professors and students had always had political views and commitments, but they had expressed and exercised them in their extracurricular capacity, as it were—as individuals rather than as professors and students. The 60’s changed that, bringing those views and commitments into the university itself, into classrooms, the curriculum, faculty appointments, and official pronouncements on political affairs.
Nisbet did not suggest that all universities succumbed to these tendencies to the same degree. Some were quite immune to them, remaining liberal-arts colleges rather than multiversities, emphasizing teaching, writing, and research of the old variety, preserving a “core curriculum” that was more than a token “distribution requirement,” functioning as genuine educational communities, and resisting the call to social and political “activism.”
Nor were all disciplines, even in the large universities, affected in the same way. For history and literature, the 1950’s were a period of great fertility and creativity. The sciences flourished in those institutions that managed to resist the distortions produced by government and corporate contracts. And Nisbet’s own discipline, sociology, was greatly enhanced by the new kinds of student attracted to that relatively new subject. The postwar students, more mature and diverse than the old, had a profound effect on the university, bringing to it an atmosphere of professionalism and entrepreneurship, and at the same time a more vigorous and fertile intellectual spirit.
A quarter of a century after the publication of Nisbet’s book, we may be tempted to speak of a “Second Reformation,” much of it prefigured by the first but carried to extremes that even Nisbet could not have anticipated. If the First Reformation enlarged the university by making it accessible, as a result of the GI Bill and a booming economy, to students who could not otherwise have afforded to go to a university or who would not have thought to do so, the Second Reformation has enlarged it in quite another way, by making it accessible, under “open-admissions” and “affirmative-action” programs, to students who do not meet the regular requirements.
The original, and entirely laudable, purpose of affirmative action was seeking out such students (especially blacks and other minorities), encouraging them to apply, and giving them remedial courses that would enable them to fulfill the requirements and meet the regular standards. In the course of time, however, affirmative action came to mean the admission of students under a different set of standards, with little or no obligation to meet the regular requirements.
Initially confined to students, affirmative action was soon applied to the faculty, so that all universities now find themselves under great pressure to appoint women, blacks, Hispanics, and other “unprivileged” groups. One university recently extended the affirmative-action category to homosexuals, announcing that it would make special efforts to recruit them and promising to give them preferential treatment in appointments; it is to be expected that other universities will follow suit.
A more momentous effect of affirmative action has been on the curriculum itself, especially in the humanities and social sciences. One might say that affirmative action has replaced relevance as the reigning dogma in the university. Women’s studies, black studies, and ethnic studies (although not gay studies—this was a later development) were the product of the First Reformation, initially as individual courses, then as full-fledged departments. It took the Second Reformation to “mainstream” these subjects into the curriculum, converting some of them from electives into required courses. While most universities have abandoned the Western-civilization requirement (the very idea of Western civilization is anathema in politically-correct circles), many have imposed a new requirement, often the only one in the curriculum, of a specified number of courses in African-American, ethnic, or women’s studies.
The basic categories of affirmative action—race, ethnicity, and gender (displacing, to the chagrin of Marxists, the older trinity of race, class, and gender)—are being imposed not only on the curriculum in general but on individual disciplines and courses. The goal now is to mainstream these categories into every subject, so that a course on the Renaissance may be obliged to give due place (and perhaps more than due place) to the role and status of women, or a course on the novel to include a proper representation (or overrepresentation) of works by women, African-American, and third-world authors.
So far, this goal of mainstreaming has been only sporadically achieved. In some institutions it has been officially prescribed; in others it has been encouraged but not made obligatory. But everywhere there is a considerable amount of social pressure to adhere to it.
It is interesting that gender should have emerged as a far more potent force than race or ethnicity, penetrating into the heart of the disciplines—“transforming” them, as the feminists boast—as the others have not done. Perhaps this is because there are more women students and professors than black or ethnic students and professors, or because the feminists are more ideologically aggressive. Or perhaps the concept of “engenderment” lends itself to bolder, more imaginative uses. The original concept of women’s studies—the study of women in particular periods or places—has been transformed into feminist studies—the study of periods and places from the “viewpoint,” as is candidly said, of women. To “engender” the French Revolution, for example, is not only to deal with the role and status of women in the Revolution, but to “feminize” the Revolution itself: to interpret it as the struggle of liberty, personified by a female figure, against the patriarchal monarchy (or, as another theory has it, as the struggle of patriarchal republicans against an effeminate monarchy).
The sciences have been more impervious than most disciplines to political pressures and intellectual fashions, but even they are not entirely immune.3 They are, indeed, the latest converts to engenderment—not in the sense of encouraging more women to become scientists, but in altering the conception of science itself. Some feminists object to the rational, logical, objective structure of science (to say nothing of the language of science—“power,” “force,” the “big-bang” theory) as inherently “masculinist” and patriarchal, and demand that science be made more compatible with a “feminist perspective” and “female subjectivity.” An article, “Toward a Feminist Algebra,” complains that conventional mathematics suggests “a woman whose nature desires to be the conquered Other”; and a book, The Science Question in Feminism, declares Newton’s Principia so suffused with “gender symbolism, gender structure, and gender identity” as to be nothing less than a “rape manual.”
The effect of this multipronged assault of affirmative action—in student admissions and faculty appointments, in the curriculum and disciplines—has been the Balkanization of the university. The traditional ideal of the university, as a community where professors and students are united in a common enterprise for a common purpose, has been replaced by the idea of a loose, almost amorphous, federation made up of distinct groups pursuing their special interests and agendas (and, often, voluntarily segregating themselves in dorms, dining rooms, and lecture halls).
By the same token, the disciplines have been fragmented, so that they no longer have a common focus and a common body of knowledge. This is the effect of “multiculturalism” as it is now conceived and practiced. Instead of viewing race, class, ethnicity, and gender as parts of a whole, introduced into the narrative of American history, for example, at those points where they are particularly relevant, they are now seen as competing wholes—not as parts of a single story but as quite separate and distinct stories. E pluribus unum has been converted into Ex uno plura—“from the one many,” as the famous gaffe by Vice President Gore has it.
A byproduct of Balkanization is the further politicization of the university. The rival groups, recognizing no common mission, are engaged in a continual power struggle, not only about such matters as appointments, tenure, and the like, but about the very substance of education—what should be taught and how it should be taught.
Indeed, knowledge itself, according to a fashionable theory, is nothing but a reflection of the dominant power structure. The older idea of knowledge, implying that there is a truth to be known, is deemed authoritarian and oppressive. Since there is no truth, no objective knowledge, there is only power. “Everything is political,” a popular slogan has it. Hence the professor is necessarily an advocate and the classroom a political arena; the only stipulation is that the professor’s advocacy be open and clear.
Compared with this ultimate act of politicization—the politicizing of knowledge itself—“political correctness” (PC) may appear to be a lesser evil. Yet PC goes beyond the much-publicized rules governing behavior and speech, beyond even the attempt to govern thought by means of “sensitivity” and “consciousness-raising” sessions. It goes to the heart of the academic enterprise. It may seem benign to neuterize language, disallowing “he” in a generic sense (although even that can wreak havoc with the study of Shakespeare or of historical documents). But to be made sensitive to the sexual connotations of such words as “force” or “penetrating” (as in a preceding paragraph of this essay), or to the racial implication of a phrase like “black thoughts,” is distracting and inhibiting. Far more serious, of course, is the suppression of research on intelligence, for example, on the ground that the subject itself is suspect and that the conclusions might be politically incorrect.
In the light of all these problems, it may seem carping to complain of the trivialization of study and research—courses on comic books and popular films, dissertations on deservedly obscure writers merely because they are “unprivileged,” distribution requirements fulfilled by ludicrously inappropriate and undemanding courses (a course in interior design to satisfy the humanities requirement, or on “Lifetime Fitness” for the social-science requirement). Combined with the absence of any structured program of study, such trivia contribute to a further fragmentation of the university and the dissipation of any sense of educational coherence.
What makes it worse is that these are not “gut” courses devised by pandering instructors and sanctioned by a lax administration. Some are seriously intended and defended by professors flaunting their defiance of traditional standards—or, indeed, of any standards. The well-known professor of literature Houston Baker says that choosing between Pearl Buck and Virginia Woolf is “no different from choosing between a hoagy and a pizza,” and proudly declares that he himself is “dedicated to the day when we have a disappearance of those standards.”
That these are not isolated cases is demonstrated by a survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Humanities a few years ago, which found that students could graduate from:
- 78 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities without ever taking a course in the history of Western civilization;
- 38 percent without any history at all;
- 45 percent without a course in American or English literature;
- 77 percent without a course in a foreign language;
- 41 percent without a course in mathematics;
- 33 percent without a course in the sciences.
Another survey conducted by the Gallup Organization showed that:
- 25 percent of college seniors could not locate Columbus’s voyage within the correct half-century;
- 25 percent could not distinguish Churchill’s words from Stalin’s, or Karl Marx’s ideas from the U.S. Constitution;
- 40 percent did not know when the Civil War occurred;
- most could not identify the authors of works by Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton.
So much for the bad news. The good news is that it is not all bad. What I have been describing is real enough and prevalent enough, but it is not the only reality and it is not universal. It is a tribute to human nature that some students succeed in acquiring a decent education, and some professors manage to think and teach and write as if there is such a thing as knowledge and as if truth can still be aspired to, however difficult it is to achieve.
These students and professors are not innocents. They know the pressures they have to resist and the price they have to pay. The author of a dissertation on the political philosophy of John Adams does not expect to receive the kinds of job offers (especially if he is a white male) as the author of a dissertation on the sexual politics of Alice Walker (especially if she is a black female).
There is, then, a saving remnant in the university—and perhaps more than a remnant, perhaps even a large, if silent, minority of professors and students who would prefer a more traditional mode of teaching and scholarship but who do not have the intellectual resources or, in some cases, the moral courage to speak out openly. (Tenure, we have discovered, is a security against unemployment, not against timidity.)
Some professors try to avoid confrontations with their students and colleagues by making minimal concessions to the prevailing fashions in the classroom (putting the obligatory number of books by women and blacks on the reading list), while continuing, in their own research and writing, to “do their thing.” One can sympathize with them. They disapprove of the politicization of the university and do not want to spend their own time and energy in political disputation. They want only to teach and work. But inevitably the pressure to conform intensifies and finally becomes intolerable.
It is these professors and students, openly or covertly disaffected, who give us cause for hope. And it is upon them that we may usefully direct our attention.
I am painfully aware of the anticlimactic nature of this approach. It would be gratifying to launch a counter-reformation to undo the damage done by the two massive reformations that the university has experienced in the past half century. And it is not difficult to think of ways of bringing about such a counter-reformation:
- Restore a core curriculum, a structured course of studies such as was common only a few decades ago, not only at Harvard, Columbia, and Chicago but at most colleges and universities throughout the country.
- Spin off the institutes, centers, and special projects that clutter up the university and distract it from its main purposes. And while we are about it, spin off, too, the professional schools: business, medicine, law, social work, the performing arts, even the advanced scientific research that might better be conducted in specialized institutions.
- Reduce the number of departments, courses, programs, administrators. A massive retrenchment policy would concentrate the mind admirably upon what is important and what is not (as well as having the incidentally salutary effect of making the university more solvent and less dependent on government subsidies).
- Reverse the process by which liberal-arts colleges are transformed into universities. There are still a number of colleges that have resisted the lure of graduate programs, but far too many that have not. (Recently all the state colleges in Pennsylvania declared themselves universities. Hence we now have Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania—not, as one might think, a branch of the University of Pennsylvania, but a separate, state-supported institution.)
- Eliminate the category of Teaching Assistants (TA’s), the graduate students who currently bear much of the burden of undergraduate teaching in many eminent universities, and who are themselves only barely more knowledgeable than the students they presume to teach.
- Reinstitute the old prohibitions against indoctrination in the classroom.
- Restore the original meaning of affirmative action.
One can think of other reasonable measures of reform. But all of this, in my opinion, is an exercise in futility. The reformations have gone too far to be undone. There are too many vested interests in and outside the university, too many professors committed, intellectually as well as politically, to the new programs and policies, too many recent graduates (and future professors) who know no other mode of scholarship and teaching, too many timid spirits who cannot envision any radical departure from the present conception of the university, and too many cynical ones who want only to enjoy their comfortable sinecures. There have been very few successful counter-reformations in history, and this, I am afraid, would not be one of them.
I return, then, to the idea of a saving remnant, those dissidents, open and covert, who currently keep the spirit of education alive. I can only offer some modest proposals designed to support and embolden them.
The first proposal, befitting an educational institution, is to engage in an educational campaign, reminding people, in and outside the university, of the proper mission of the university and showing how far the university has departed from it.
That mission should be defined broadly. Even in the pre-reformation days, there was no single model of a university, no standard curriculum that would fit all sizes and shapes of institutions and students. There was, in fact, a good deal of diversity—perhaps more than we have today when that word has become the code name for a new kind of uniformity.
What we then had, in addition to a wide range of programs of study, was a common denominator of subjects deemed to be the minimal requirements of a liberal education, a common assumption about reason and objectivity governing both the classroom and research (not always attained but always aspired to), a common view of a scholarly community that brought together professors and students, however different in all other respects, in a common enterprise for a common purpose.
The first task of the educational reformer, then, is education itself—education about what a university was, what it has become, and what it might be. Even for those who have lived through the reformations of our time, it is all too easy to be seduced by present preoccupations and passions—to forget the difference, for example, between the original meaning of affirmative action and the current one, or between women’s studies and feminist studies, or between black studies and Afrocentric studies, or between pluralism (in the sense of “from the many one”) and multiculturalism (in the sense of “from the one many”).
The blurring of these differences has been facilitated by the kind of obfuscation that only academics are capable of, and that the present generation of academics, trained in the arcane language of postmodernism, is more adept at than most. Only by recalling ourselves to first principles and comparing them with present practices can we appreciate the gravity of the situation and the need for reform.
The most heartening experience of recent years is the public exposure of PC and the resulting widespread revulsion against it. The first reaction on the part of the guardians of PC was to belittle the evidence as “anecdotal” and “impressionistic”: the cases cited, it was said, were probably not true, and if true, they were isolated incidents of no significance. That argument is now rarely heard, as the evidence has mounted and as the supporters of PC have been forced into the open to defend what most people sensibly regard as indefensible.
If the public were similarly alerted to other practices—the “advocacy teaching,” for example, that transforms the classroom into a propaganda and proselytizing forum—and if it heard professors blatantly supporting that practice, it would be similarly dismayed, not only at the particular views (political, sexual, moral) that are being conveyed, but at the idea that teachers (and, even more presumptuously, TA’s) should feel free to impose those views upon their students.
The second proposal is a corollary of the first. Even a saving remnant needs saving. The most strong-minded dissidents need to know that they are not entirely isolated, that others share their principles and, at the very least, are aware of their existence.
Here we may be encouraged by the example of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), an organization of professors dedicated to a more traditional view of the university and expressing that view through conferences, publications, and other activities. Professors who formerly felt too beleaguered to make public their disaffection now feel freer to do so, secure in the knowledge that they are not alone, not hopeless eccentrics or mavericks. (It is also helpful to know that if their institutions try to penalize them, others will come to their support.)
The existence of such an organization has the additional virtue of making it impossible for the dominant forces in the academy to pretend that there is no opposition to their policies, that everyone agrees with them. For many this is not a pretense. Like the film critic who said that she could not understand how Richard Nixon got elected because she knew no one who had voted for him, so those who are caught up in the prevailing fashions are often genuinely unaware that any enlightened person can differ with them. My own measure of the success of the NAS is the remark I sometimes hear, by those hostile to the organization, that they are astonished to find so many reputable scholars associated with it. A more objective measure of its success is the formation of not one but two rival organizations to counteract it.
If some professors have been moved to protest against the current tendencies in their universities, alumni and trustees may be encouraged to do so as well. A national association of alumni and trustees would keep its members informed of problems that are not regularly reported in the press (the accreditation, for example, of universities based upon affirmative-action criteria), and of measures that might be taken to forestall or combat undesirable policies. It would thus serve as a clearinghouse for alumni and trustees who are often ignorant of what is happening even in their own institutions, let alone in the academy at large.4 More important, such an organization would suggest to alumni and trustees that they have not only the power but the duty to take a more active part in the institutions with which they are identified, to which they are contributing in time and money, and for which they are assuming moral and, in the case of trustees, legal responsibility.
Finally, there are the students. During the turbulent 60’s, when the students were putting forward their claim to “empowerment,” the professors put forward a counter-claim. “We are the university,” they announced. (Some of us, reminded of Pogo’s famous remark, “The enemy is us,” irreverently translated the faculty’s slogan as “The university is us.”) The present generation of professors—made up of the students of the 60’s, now released from all the institutional and moral inhibitions that once restrained the professoriate—are more than ever acting on that dictum. In reaction, some dissident students—dissidents from the Right rather than the Left—are expressing their dissatisfaction, not by demanding (as their predecessors did) a larger role in the governance of the university, but by publicizing their grievances in the “alternative” student newspapers that have been cropping up in one university after another.
It is surprising that there has been no serious effort to create an “alternative” national-student organization, in the manner of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 60’s, or the American Students Union (ASU) in the 30’s. I am loath even to raise the idea: students have all too little time to get an education, without the distractions of such activities. Yet dissident students, like dissident professors, need the satisfaction of knowing that there are like-minded souls elsewhere. They require the sense of legitimacy that comes from being part of a community with shared values. I sincerely hope that if such an organization were founded (and I am not sure I am recommending it), it would confine itself, unlike both of its predecessors, to university affairs rather than national politics, and that it would resist the very politicization that would be one of its chief grievances.
If little can be done about the university at large, something can be done about the enclaves within the university where the saving remnant is found, the oases where traditional study, teaching, and research are still being conducted. In some universities, they consist of nothing more than individual courses given by specific teachers (known to other students by word of mouth); in others, of a subfield within a department (the history of philosophy in the philosophy department); or of a one- or two-year concentration (on “Western Civilization,” perhaps); or of a separate liberal-arts or humanities division (focusing on “great books”).
Here we can exploit one of the vices of the modern university: greed. The university today is even more avaricious than it was in the 50’s and 60’s. As it has assumed the burden of more and more extracurricular activities, as its administration has proliferated (each new program spawning its own complement of deans, associate deans, assistant deans, administrative assistants, and secretaries), and as it is obliged to grant more generous scholarships to students and higher salaries to professors to fill its affirmative-action quotas (as well as offering above-scale salaries and minimal teaching assignments to attract the “academic superstars” in the fashionable fields), so it also finds itself, in this economy-minded era, with reduced funds from the government. Alumni and foundation support has therefore become more coveted than ever.
This is yet another reason to form “alternative” alumni organizations which can put financial, as well as intellectual, pressure upon the university. And it is also the reason that “alternative,” as it were, foundations can exert an influence disproportionate to the funds actually expended.
The older, exceedingly well-endowed foundations (most notably, Ford and MacArthur) have long been active in financing “innovative” programs that have transformed the university. In response, smaller, more traditional-minded foundations have begun to support the programs of their liking. By a judicious use of their resources, these foundations can cultivate those oases where traditional study and teaching still flourish. (In more affluent days, universities were reluctant to accept outside support for restricted purposes; today they are more willing to do so.)
This proposal carries with it a strong caveat. Constant vigilance is required to make sure that the purpose of such grants is not subverted. My own experience on the council of the National Endowment for the Humanities is instructive. At a time when the Endowment was swamped with applications for Marxist, neo-Marxist, feminist, deconstructionist, and other modish projects, the chairman and staff devised a new program that would concentrate on the traditional works of philosophy, literature, and history. High-school teachers would be invited to apply to one of a number of summer courses, each led by a distinguished scholar and each devoted to the reading and study of a single great work—Plato’s Phaedo, perhaps, or Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, or John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.
It seemed a wonderful idea. Imagine how intellectually stimulating and spiritually refreshing it would be for a high-school teacher to return to the fount of wisdom after coping for years with teenagers and textbooks. The first round of seminars did exactly what we had hoped for and we were elated. The second year was something of a letdown; the books chosen by the instructors were not all of the highest quality and the approach to them was less rigorous. By the third summer, it was obvious that this program was going the way of all the others: the books were being Marxized, feminized, deconstructed, and politicized. High-school teachers, far from being exposed to “the best which has been thought and said in the world,” were being indoctrinated in the prevailing dogmas of academia. With the best of intentions, the Endowment was disseminating—and, worse, legitimating—the very tendencies it was trying to counteract.
Michael Joyce, president of the Bradley Foundation, the wise man of the foundation world, taught me the lesson of this experience. When a garden consists of weeds rather than flowers, he said, the more one waters and fertilizes the garden, the more weeds one will get. So too, when the dominant culture of the university is degraded, everything that comes within its province (as the Endowment programs do, since they are dependent upon peer review by academics) will be susceptible of degradation.
This is a good argument against a publicly-funded Endowment. But it is also an argument for private foundations that have a clear conception of what they want to do and how they can best do it: by making grants not to the university, not even to a department, division, center, or institute, but to a particular individual or group for a specified purpose and for a limited time.
This “oasis” theory of reform is a very modest approach to a massive problem. It does not promise much, but what it promises, it can deliver. If watering and fertilizing a garden full of weeds has the effect of producing still more weeds, the watering and fertilizing of a flower bed in that garden will surely produce more flowers, and in time the flower bed itself will expand and displace some of those weeds. More important, the existence of those oases reminds us that there is a difference between flowers and weeds—a distinction that the prevalent relativism of our culture tends to obscure.
In offering nothing more than the most modest proposals for reform, I do not mean to belittle the gravity of the problem. For it is not only higher education that is at stake; it is all of education and the whole of the culture. Again, a personal experience may be illuminating.
Ten years ago, when the “new history”—social history, the history of ordinary people in their ordinary lives—was all the rage, I wrote an article deploring, not social history itself, but the dominance given to it, the claim that it was the most important mode of history, even the only proper mode, to the denigration or exclusion of political, diplomatic, even economic history.
To those who contended that I exaggerated the importance of social history, that it was confined to a few elite graduate schools, and that it did not affect the study of history in general, I cited some recent Advanced Placement examinations taken by high-school seniors. In one the main essay was, “How and why did the lives and status of Northern middle-class women change between 1776 and 1876?”; this was described in the bulletin of the American Historical Association as a “mainline topic.” Another examination required the student to discuss methods of child-rearing in England between the 16th and 18th centuries. (These are high-school students who are barely familiar with the English Revolution, let alone with methods of child-rearing at that time—a subject that many a professor of English history, including the author of the present article, would hardly presume to comment on.)
Within a matter of years, this kind of history had filtered down from graduate schools to high schools, and had become “mainline” in all. It even penetrated the elementary schools. In my daughter’s school, an ambitious young teacher (an ABD—All-But-Dissertation—from Harvard) devised a course for 6th-graders, their first in European history, on “the nature of revolutions,” which had so little regard for chronology that at the end of the semester the students had no idea, as my daughter put it, “which came first,” the French, Russian, or Industrial Revolution.
A more familiar example today is multiculturalism, which has permeated all educational institutions down to the very first grades. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in his aptly titled book The Disuniting of America, cites the New York State curriculum for “global studies,” which calls for equal time to be devoted to seven specified regions of the world—this for students who are notoriously ignorant of the most elementary facts about their own country. (An official commission has recently criticized this program for its “European-American monocultural perspective.”)
“Filtering down” is to education what “trickling down” is to economics. It is often said that the university is a microcosm of society and necessarily assumes the social obligations and political characteristics of society at large. A traditional view of the university rejects that theory, insisting upon the unique nature and function of the university. But if the university is not, and should not be, a microcosm of society, it is a microcosm of education. What happens in the university is apt to be replicated, and in a remarkably short time, at all levels—from graduate to undergraduate school and from high school to elementary school; from elite universities to state universities to small colleges; from the most avant-garde institutions to the most conventional ones.
This is hardly surprising. Teachers, after all, at all levels, come from the university, and they naturally bring to their jobs what they have learned, or imbibed by osmosis, from the university. (Professors in the smallest colleges are often most eager, as evidence of their professional credentials, to emulate and even surpass their colleagues in their enthusiasm for the latest intellectual fashion.)
The university is also a microcosm of culture—popular culture as well as high culture. Writers, journalists, moviemakers, television producers have also spent their formative years in the university. For their part, academics, having blurred the line between popular culture and high culture (or between popular culture and higher education), find it easy to import into the university the ideas, values, and the very subjects of popular culture. Films and television are respectable courses of study in most universities, and soap operas, comic strips, and advertising jingles are the solemn subjects of doctoral dissertations. It is a reciprocal process of legitimation that is taking place: the university legitimates the popular culture, and the popular culture legitimates the university that is so well disposed to it.
Lionel Trilling once expressed his misgivings at offering a course in modern literature (Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Lawrence, Mann, Gide) on the grounds that these writers were best read outside the university and that it was not the job of the university to make the students “at home in, and in control of, the modern world.” Parents today might wonder if it is the job of the university to make their children even more at home than they already are in the world of television, the movies, videos, and comic books.
The popular culture does, however, suggest one final source of hope. Just as even the most successful TV serials have a life-span of only a few seasons, and the best-sellers of one year are relegated to the remainder tables the following year, so the intellectual and political fashions that prevail in the university today may suffer the fate of all fashions.
Robert Nisbet, who alerted us to the “degradation of the academic dogma,” has written a short piece that may suggest to us (although it did not to him) a possible saving grace. His essay on “Boredom” opens: “Among the forces that have shaped human behavior, boredom is one of the most insistent and universal.” Boredom—nothing so pretentious as “ennui,” or “anomie,” or even “apathy,” but simple boredom. For Nisbet, boredom is an affliction, with no redeeming virtue. In our present condition, we may take a kindlier view of it.
Boredom has already overtaken some of yesterday’s enthusiasms. In the age of deconstruction, who remembers existentialism? Deconstruction itself is already self-destructing in this country, as it did earlier in France. It takes only a few years for the “cutting edge” of a discipline to move to the center, lose its edge, and become dull.
Bright young academics, eager to make their mark, will seek new theories, new methods, new themes to assert their individuality and originality. They will even come to see their own mentors, the radicals of an earlier generation, as an establishment ripe for disestablishing. They may find, however, that the road to power is not as easy as they think. Establishments, especially those that have come to power with all the fervor and self-righteousness of radicals, do not readily relinquish power. It is many generations now since the disciples of John Dewey captured schools of education throughout the country. There have been serious efforts to discredit and dislodge their ideology, but by adapting to changing fashions (abandoning pluralism in favor of multiculturalism, for example), they have retained power even though pragmatism has long since become one of the most boring philosophies of our time.
Those committed to a traditional view of education can take small comfort in the volatility of fashions—not only because there are vested interests and institutional rigidities that make those fashions more enduring than they might otherwise be, but because there is no assurance that the succeeding ones will be any better than the old ones. (Deconstruction has all the defects of existentialism, and more.)
Nevertheless, this volatility does provide a window of opportunity for reform. Bored with trivia, with a specious relevance, with a smorgasbord of courses, with the politicization of all subjects and the fragmentation of all disciplines, professors and students might welcome a return to a serious, structured curriculum and to a university that is an intellectual and educational, not a political or therapeutic, community.
One can envision the sense of liberation that would be experienced by women and blacks released from the shackles of gender and race, free to participate in a culture that transcends the mundane conditions of their lives, that elevates and dignifies them because it is itself elevated and dignified. This is not a romantic or utopian suggestion. It is exactly what an earlier generation of students from poor, immigrant, and, often, culturally impoverished backgrounds felt when they gained admission to the university and discovered a new world, a world not bound or blinkered by their class or ethnic origins.
That was the old mission of the university. Today it is a new, bold, challenging mission, one that might well appeal to a new generation of enterprising, idealistic academics.
1 I am using the term “university” generically to include colleges as well, so many of which have been renamed universities as to make obscure the old distinction between a purely undergraduate institution and one that offers graduate and professional degrees.
2 Jacques Barzun does not use quite such apocalyptic language, but he, too, dates the transformation of the university from 1945. From his Teacher in America (1945), to The American University (1968), to a multitude of other books on the subject (most recently Begin Here, 1991), Barzun has been one of the most imaginative and incisive commentators on the university.
3 The influence on academic science of postmodernism, environmentalism, multiculturalism, feminism, and other ideologies is documented in the recent book, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt. [See the review by Jeffrey Salmon in the June COMMENTARY.—Ed.]
4 A recent case that merits more attention than it has received is the experience of Georgia Institute of Technology. Five years ago, it scrapped its ineffectual remedial program and started a much more rigorous five-week summer course for minority students. Required to achieve a higher standard, the students did just that, so that they are now outperforming white students at that college and producing a significant number of qualified engineers. If alumni and trustees in other institutions knew of this program, they would be in a better position to urge their own colleges to pursue a similar policy—affirmative action in its best sense.
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