L. A. of the Intellect

The Uses of the University

by Clark Kerr
Harvard, 125 pp., $2.75

This short book contains the text of the Godkin Lectures for 1963 which were given at Harvard by the President of the University of California, an institution which, according to the dust jacket, had “more than 58,000 students on seven campuses.” President Kerr’s subject is the operation and support of such protean institutions whose social functions, various though they are, barely include and surely do not emphasize, the traditional purposes of a university: that is, liberal study, the cultivation of a social responsible intellectual elite, and a sense of continuity with the culture of the past.

The acquisition and organization of knowledge through research are more recent and certainly more conspicuous functions, and the most interesting part of President Kerr’s book is devoted to explaining just how their function changed, as individual scholarship, self-generated within the faculties, has been swamped by federally supported projects. Federal funds may now account for more than four-fifths of a university’s total expenditure; the classic definition of a college as Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other no longer quite fits—unless these same gentlemen are pictured as rolling the log instead of sitting on it.

Dr. Kerr is sensitive to these changes, and he is articulate about them. But he does not deplore them. Social psychology has by now established that executives tend to be happier in their work than other men, but even among them, President Kerr is distinguished by his exceptional felicity. The Uses of the University is the work of a deeply satisfied man. So many first-rate creative minds are dismayed by the conditions of modern life, that it is a rare pleasure to observe one of them basking in the light of continued social progress. Dr. Kerr rather resembles Dr. Pangloss with the difference that he is attuned, not to the best of all possible worlds, but to the world as it is. Thus, his reply to David Riesman’s complaint that leading American universities have become “directionless…as far as major innovations are concerned,” is:

The fact is they are not directionless; they have been moving in clear directions and with considerable speed…But these directions have not been set as much by the university’s visions of its destiny as by the external environment, including the federal government, the foundations, the surrounding and sometimes engulfing industry.

This passage appears toward the end of the book where, I might add, his tone becomes somewhat regretful. But his regret is unconvincing, because it contradicts the Social Darwinist position which Dr. Kerr maintains with such complacence throughout this book:

The really new problems of today and tomorrow may lend themselves less to solutions by external authority; they may be inherently problems for internal resolution. The university may now again need to find out whether it has a brain as well as a body.

If, like Father William, the university could be perfectly sure it had none, it could continue to …

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