Gilding the Iron Cage

“Does practice ever square with theory?” One way of resolving Plato’s rhetorical question is to turn it around and ask whether theory can ever be made to square with reality and, if so, what the nature of that reality is and why theory feels the need for a harmonious relationship with it. Among the realities with which political and social theories deal are the realities of power, exploitation, inequality, and low motives in high places. It is essential to deal initially with such matters of power, profit, and injustice because people are prone to adopt illusions and to accept euphemisms in order to endure. Without a critical viewpoint, theory tends to be apology or ideology, and then the only interesting question is whether innocence or preference has caused this to be so. Criticism of particular abuses is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of theory. The theorist must always be open to the possibility that reality may not simply be flawed by a few anomalies but may be systematically and rationally deranged.

These considerations are important in appraising The American University because it promises more than its title implies. It claims to be “both an empirical and a theoretical work”; an examination of American higher education and its “crisis”; and an illumination of “the modern world” in which education is “the most critical single feature…of modern societies.” Its credentials are impeccable. Talcott Parsons is one of the most famous living sociological theorists. Neil Smelser, perhaps his ablest student, has contributed an epilogue to the volume. The study was commissioned by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and partly subsidized by the National Science Foundation. An “editorial associate” was enlisted to prune Parsons’s thickety style. Save for Smelser’s contribution, the result is a muddle which conceals a nightmare.

The main faults of the volume are not its obvious repetitiousness, contradictions, omissions, and innocence;1 not its myopic survey of the American university from a redoubt behind the Charles River; not its ignorance of all things left, from Marx to the dissident students; or its reduction of the Vietnam war to two insignificant footnotes; or its persistent habit of acknowledging criticisms of the university and then feeling entitled to ignore them; or the odd diagnosis that the threat to the university has issued from the “expressive-aesthetic sphere” and its “extremists” who “have advocated virtual equal status in the university of the creative and performing arts with the intellectual disciplines and even tipping the balance in favor of the former on the ground that the intellect is not truly creative” (p. 46). Nor is it the book’s worst fault that it takes nearly four hundred bloodless pages to recite how the academic “system” discharges its “fiduciary responsibility” by promoting standards of “rationality” according to “sharply defined and common evaluative standards” in which “the use of economic incentives and of authority and power is minimized, though not wholly absent” (pp. 123-124, 130).

Smelser corrects this picture of the “cognitive complex”—Parsons’s word…

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