Dissent and the Academy

The Morality of Scholarship

edited by Max Black
Cornell, 108 pp., $4.50

Professors are always signing petitions about sumthing,” the Chicago Tribune sulked in an editorial of November 29, and went on to deny the right of professors at Northwestern University to give up their suburban detachment, defy the views of elected officials, and issue a statement against the Vietnam war. The Tribune complaint has lately been balanced by an opposite one, that professors don’t sign petitions enough. This is Theodore Roszak’s theme in an article, “The Complacencies of the Academy,” which appeared in the New American Review.

Mr. Roszak is obliged to concede that there has been a “rash” or a “recent flurry of campus protest,” but his essay reads as if this had indeed been a superficial rather than a rooted and broadly spreading phenomenon. In this impression of the matter, he perpetuates at least the one academic convention of looking everywhere for what’s in front of him. The university is now the principal center of dissent to the present war. No other group except the clergy has furnished so articulate or sustained a protest, ineffectual as it may seem to have been. Mr. Roszak praises the labor unions, at the expense of academic groups, for their involvement in political activity; but the unions have conspicuously lagged in speaking out on foreign policy, and no one is looking to them now for dissent. And where, in comparison to the professors, are the lawyers, editors, publishers, doctors, dentists, and psychiatrists?

Mr. Roszak’s article is one of many recent ones by professors which, offering to expose the academy, illustrate instead its present temper and bear witness unwillingly to its capacity for self-criticism. Harper’s, in its monthly quest for piping-hot problems, has published both William Arrowsmith on the shame of the graduate school and (in the December issue) Louis Kampf on “The Scandal of Literary Scholarship.” These articles fail to acknowledge the extraordinary changes which the creation of new universities, the enlargement of old ones, the speed of promotion, the pressure from increased integration and co-education, from students, from events, from teachers themselves, have brought about. Staidness withers, the older professors have lost weight and prestige. Among the new teachers of English are creative writers who have helped to enroll the university in the making of literature as well as of criticism and scholarship. Poets and novelists have found the campus a more congenial situation, a more realistic engagement, than the publishing or magazine office, and the universities (not the foundations, which are the most miserly of Medicis) have taken over the patronage of literature.

That the university is damned from without for protesting and from within for not protesting implies that it may be coming painfully close to that intersection of commitment and detachment where it belongs. Anyone involved in teaching humanities since the Second World War knows how earnestly many of the best minds have sought to bring their concern for social improvement into curricular change. In his article Mr. Roszak tacitly acknowledges that the courses …

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