The Reforming of General Education
Bureaucracy in Higher Education
It has become a sociological commonplace that we have been moving into a post-capitalist, even a post-industrialist era in which, along with much prestige and money, residual power now passes to the university men. From this one might infer that we also are witnessing at last the decline of the nation-state. But the nation-state remains a powerful institution, and those who serve it or receive its aid, even on a per diem basis, generally wind up as state’s men. This is as true of academicians as of lawyers, corporation presidents, or poets. It is arguable indeed that the academicians have given the nation-state a new lease on life. For they make possible, for the first time, the conversion of a mode of government into a politico-social organism, a true Republic as it were, whose educator-guardians supply the rationale, the indispensable training, and the continuing fund of personnel for its maintenance and protection. All this and the open society too. For all his worries about alloys, Plato, the ur-academician, would have been enchanted.
Such, in effect, is the premise of Professor Daniel Bell’s new book, The Reforming of General Education, a work that offers by far the most articulate presentation by a university state’s man of the problems and possibilities of liberal education in the university age. Bell regards self-consciousness as a proper benefit of liberal education; he himself is also more conscious of his premises and of the terms of his own guardian’s role than are most other members of his class. What they casually see, his sociological eye automatically places in a selective historical context; what they take for granted, his ever-available pen explicitly affirms. Because of this, certain chapters of his book, which is formally preoccupied with problems of undergraduate education in one great national university (Columbia) provide a useful preface to the whole spate of writings by still more highly placed leaders of the university set who are concerned with the unprecedented situation of the American university as the central institution for higher learning and the indispensable service agency for the American “national society.”
The concept of the “national society” deserves the italics which Bell gives it in the following quotation, for it provides the implicit frame for a great deal of establishmentarian thinking about feasible reforms in the great American universities:
…within recent decades…the United States [has] passed from being a nation to becoming a national society in which there is not only a coherent national authority, but where the different sectors of the society, economy, polity, and culture are bound together in a cohesive way and where crucial political and economic decisions are now made at a “center.”
Remembering the day, some may feel that, construed as sociology, this statement is overdrawn. But there can be no question as to its usefulness as a thesis of centrist educational ideology. And anyone who hopes to save something from the wreck of general and liberal education in our universities must confront it …