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Community of Scholars?

In response to:

Two Cheers for the University from the August 22, 1968 issue

To the Editors:

Lawrence Stone’s “Two Cheers for the University” [NYR, August 22] seems somewhat misdirected, for the university under attack by the student revolutionaries of Paris bears little resemblance to the Anglo-Saxon “liberal university” which Mr. Stone so passionately defends. Rather than a “haven” “half in, but half withdrawn from, the world,” where professors and students partake in the great intellectual communion, the French university is a massive bureaucratic organism of civil servants each in charge of a quaintly specialized branch of a vast circumlocution office: a totally centralized, rigidly hierarchical structure of faculties which has banished the idea of the university as a place where exponents of different disciplines work in some cooperative manner to initiate the young into a major area of knowledge in a relatively coherent way. In fact, the May revolt in France can be seen partly as a demand for universities in a country which hasn’t had them since the eighteenth century.

But what mainly disturbs me in Mr. Stone’s article are his fond references to “the disinterested pursuit of scholarship,” the “pursuit of learning for its own sake.” He is correct in suspecting that these were under attack in Paris in May and June, because to the most aware and articulate of the students such disinterest and purity are merely masks for an unavowed, perhaps even unsuspected, ideological commitment of the class of the clerks to bourgeois capitalist society, their acceptation of a social contract stipulating that in return for the “academic freedom” granted them—the freedom to be mandarins—they will refrain from making comprehension of the world into a tool for changing the world in radical fashion. The students want to unmask this concealed commitment, to make their teachers face their choices, primarily their choices in the uses of knowledge. It would be easy enough to point to certain results of the “pursuit of learning for its own sake” in nuclear physics; it is not, however, necessary to be so melodramatic to affirm that all of our gestures are implicitly political commitments, and that an exclusive pretension to disinterestedness and purity may simply be playing the game of the established order. More and more, the student movement everywhere is going to be directed to what Mr. Stone calls “the subversion of the society which surrounds [the university],” and more and more those cast in the role of the students’ intellectual guides are going to be forced to face the politics of knowledge.

Peter Brooks

Department of French

Yale University

New Haven, Connecticut

Lawrence Stone replies:

Mr. Brooks’s analysis of the state of French universities coincides exactly with my own. I too spoke of “overdue reform of a sclerotic system of education,” etc. In so far as a considerable body both of young faculty and of students in France are now demanding a more decentralized, democratic, and coherent educational organization, one can only applaud and cheer them on (from the published reports, Edgar Faure’s reform proposals, which have just been passed by the National Assembly, seem to go a considerable way in this direction).

Where we are in fundamental disagreement is about the true function of scholarship and the role of the university in society. Mr. Brooks believes that scholarship and teaching must be subordinated to a specific purpose—“making comprehension of the world into a tool for changing the world in radical fashion.” Is this the sole function of all scholarship and teaching in capitalist countries? Is it also a function of scholarship and teaching in socialist countries to change their own societies in a radical fashion? Assuming for a moment that Mr. Brooks is right, how are we to decide on the direction of that radical transformation? On what logical grounds is the furtherance of the ideals of the radical right any less desirable as a function of the University than the furtherance of the ideals of the radical left? As for the exploitation of scholarship for political purposes, this is obvious enough in the modern world. But it is politicians, not scholars, who both in Czechoslovakia and Vietnam are using for oppressive imperialist purposes the wealth and military power which are the fruits of scientific, economic, and social research. Would Mr. Brooks agree with me that full-time university scholars should not lend themselves and their scholarship to secret political organizations such as the CIA (or its equivalent in socialist countries) and that universities should not get mixed up with secret military institutions like IDA (or its equivalent in socialist countries)?

If Mr. Brooks is right in his prediction (and hope?) that more and more the student movement everywhere (does he include Eastern Europe?) is going to be directed to the subversion of the society which surrounds the university, it is not difficult to foresee the outcome: the revival of right-wing authoritarian repression; active political interference in campus life; plain-clothes detectives in the classroom (as in Paris today); political screening of applicants by admissions offices (for which pressures are already building up); and an organized witch-hunt against first radicals and then liberals at both student and faculty level. This spells the end of political freedom in the university for students as well as faculty and the triumph of just those reactionary forces in society at large which I (and presumably Mr. Brooks) most dislike. (For what it is worth, this interpretation of the likely outcome of student tactics of violent “confrontation” is also that of a wide spectrum of French intellectual opinion, ranging from the conservative-liberal Raymond Aron in Le Figaro, through the left-liberal Beuve-Mery in Le Monde, to the member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, René Andrien, in L’Humanité.) I am prepared to face up to the politics of knowledge, but I fear Mr. Brooks has not yet faced up to the knowledge of politics.

If I am more frightened and repelled by the violence and authoritarianism of the radical right than I am by the violence and authoritarianism of the radical left, it is merely because the former is very likely to obtain power, as a result of the activities of the latter. Both threaten certain values in the university and in society which I believe are worth preserving. That those values should be labeled as bourgeois, and therefore derided, is a very dangerous and false hypothesis; even many good Marxists, in Czechoslovakia, France, and elsewhere, would not agree today. They have come, at last, to see that liberal ideals of free speech, free press, tolerance of reasoned dissent, political compromise, etc., have a utility which transcends the capitalist/communist, bourgeois/proletariat polarities.

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