The Menace of Liberal Scholarship

No More Vietnams?

edited by Richard M. Pfeffer
Harper & Row, 292 pp., $5.95

In a recent essay, Conor Cruise O’Brien speaks of the process of “counterrevolutionary subordination,” which poses a threat to scholarly integrity in our own counterrevolutionary society, just as “revolutionary subordination,” a phenomenon often noted and rightly deplored, has undermined scholarly integrity in revolutionary and post-revolutionary situations. He observes that “power in our time has more intelligence in its service, and allows that intelligence more discretion as to its methods, than ever before in history,” and suggests that this development is not altogether encouraging, since we have moved perceptibly towards the state of “a society maimed through the systematic corruption of its intelligence.” He urges that “increased and specific vigilance, not just the elaboration of general principles, is required from the intellectual community toward specific growing dangers to its integrity.”

Senator Fulbright has developed a similar theme, in an important and perceptive speech. He describes the failure of the universities to form “an effective counterweight to the military-industrial complex by strengthening their emphasis on the traditional values of our democracy.” Instead they have “joined the monolith, adding greatly to its power and influence.” Specifically, he refers to the failure of the social scientists, “who ought to be acting as responsible and independent critics of the Government’s policies,” but who, instead, become the agents of these policies. “While young dissenters plead for resurrection of the American promise, their elders continue to subvert it.” With “the surrender of independence, the neglect of teaching, and the distortion of scholarship,” the university “is not only failing to meet its responsibilities to its students; it is betraying a public trust.”

The extent of this betrayal might be argued; its existence, as a threatening tendency, is hardly in doubt. Senator Fulbright mentions a primary cause: the access to money and influence. Others might be mentioned; for example, a highly restrictive, almost universally shared, ideology and the inherent dynamics of professionalization. As to the former, Fulbright has cited elsewhere the observation of Tocqueville that “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.” Free institutions certainly exist, but a tradition of passivity and conformism restricts their use—a cynic might say that this is why they continue to exist.

The impact of professionalization is also clear. The “free-floating intellectual” may occupy himself with problems because of their inherent interest and importance, perhaps to little effect. The professional, however, tends to define his problems according to the technique that he has mastered, and has a natural desire to apply his skills. Commenting on this process, Senator Clark quotes the remarks of Dr. Harold Agnew, Director of the Los Alamos Laboratories Weapons Division: “The basis of advanced technology is innovation and nothing is more stifling to innovation than seeing one’s product not used or ruled out of consideration on flimsy premises involving public world opinion”—“a shocking statement and a dangerous one,” as Clark rightly comments. In much the same way …

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