The Education and the University We Need Now


A peculiar feature of neocapitalism in America is the presence of large groups which are excluded from production and which, because they are economically superfluous, must be kept in places of detention. The most important of these groups are the blacks and others of the new poor, young people, and women. By considering these latter groups as superfluous people we can discover the way in which old institutions, like the school and the family, have taken on new functions of custody and detention. We are thus brought face to face with the crisis of American society in one of its most acute forms: for it is precisely those institutions that are breaking apart under the revolt of their subordinate members—students, young people generally, and, increasingly, women. These elements currently form the most militant sections of the white Left.

For young people—and, as higher education becomes compulsory for all, this category includes almost everyone between the ages of, say, thirteen and twenty-two or even twenty-five or twenty-six—the condition of being excluded from useful work is historically new. Formerly young people entered the labor force in large numbers. The gradual achievement of universal education, like many other reforms that appear now only to have hastened the coming of the “technetronic society,” was wrested from the ruling class in the face of determined opposition. The struggle for universal education was part of the struggle of disfranchised groups and classes to free themselves. Thus free schools went hand in hand with efforts to eradicate child labor. Feminism contributed a second source of pressure for democratizing the schools.

These struggles, however, might not have succeeded if capitalism had not outlived its early dependence on child labor and female labor (on unskilled labor in general) at the same time as it was generating a growing need for highly trained technicians and professionals. These developments had the effect of rendering the industrial labor of women and children superfluous, for the first time in history. Together with the unions’ monopoly of a shrinking labor market, the changed situation made it both feasible and desirable to exclude women and children from the working force. Both the family and the school were profoundly altered as a result.

In the case of the schools, these changes, together with an already existing tendency to make the schools into a total educational environment (a tendency that goes back as far as the seventeenth century), spelled the slow death of the medieval concept of education, which left the pupil free of supervision outside school hours. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries this concept, already feeble in the secondary schools, disappeared even from higher education and gave rise to the phenomenon of the university in loco parentis: the residential college with its close supervision of all aspects of students’ lives.

The segregation of the young in a state of prolonged adolescence means that they are kept in a subordinate and dependent condition (not merely unemployed but unemployable) at a time when they are physically mature and would formerly have qualified for adult status. This fact underlies the peculiarly generational character of the student revolt. It also tends to create a subculture of youth, although this “youth culture” is partly synthetic, created by the corporations and their propaganda agencies for purposes of commercial exploitation—for although the young are unemployable, they command impressive spending power. Young people are thus the victims not only of institutional segregation and low status, but of cynical propaganda that glorifies youth and tries to convince them that they have the best of everything. The official glorification of youth in the twentieth century closely resembles the nineteenth-century glorification of womanhood, which was cynically designed to keep women in a subordinate position, but which many women internalized, just as many young people today internalize the glorification of youth and remain permanently adolescents, emotionally, intellectually, and—not least—politically.

The problem of youth can no more be solved within bourgeois society than any of the other problems with which it is faced, because the solution requires a fundamental reorganization of education, and this in turn depends on a reorganization of the entire economy. What needs to be done is precisely what neocapitalist society cannot do without committing suicide: destroy the custodial function of schools; dissociate education from the process of providing qualifications for work, so far as this is possible, and where it is not, recognize more frankly the character of education as apprenticeship while seeking to improve apprenticeship itself; and, finally, provide acceptable alternatives to formal schooling, both for young people and—equally important—for adults.

Technical training should be shifted from the university to a new system of secondary schools, thereby releasing the university from its custodial responsibilities and freeing it for serious intellectual work. Graduation from the new technical academies or colleges, which students would enter at thirteen or fourteen and from which they would emerge at eighteen or nineteen, should qualify them for most work now open only to holders of a college degree. The object of such schools should be, not to offer the traditional rounded education—which in any case has become a hollow pretense even in the university—but to train scientific generalists, people qualified for technical work but capable of critical and independent thought and, in particular, aware of the philosophical and social implications of scientific work and of modern technology.

In a humane and rational system of secondary education, specialization would not be allowed to interfere with the more basic objective, now neglected at every level of the school system, of relating special scientific knowledge to general scientific knowledge and science itself to human experience generally. By sacrificing its pretensions to classical education, the technical college would be in a better position than the university to capitalize on students’ hunger for “relevance” by offering, for example, instruction in the scientific understanding of society instead of burdening students with required courses in the humanities which seem “irrelevant” to most students for many good reasons along with many bad ones.

The technical school, by retreating not only from the absurd pretense to offer a complete classical training but also from the present swollen conception of the school as the sum of a person’s education, would make it possible for young people to enter the adult world at eighteen or nineteen. It would also be organized in such a way as to free them, while they are still in school, from compulsory full-time instruction, leaving them with time for games, jobs, reading, and the cultivation of the inner life. The possibility of attending a university and pursuing scholarly work should always remain open to those who are interested in and qualified for such work, while the years of technical schooling and apprenticeship should provide time and space in which young people can change their minds about the direction they wish to take.

One of the first priorities of a new social order is variety, a greatly extended spectrum of choices. Higher education, in various forms, needs to be made widely available to adults, while young people, on the other hand, should be exempted from compulsory schooling and provided with other means of qualifying for work. Even today, much technical training takes place on the job itself—tacit proof that prolonged academic training is far from indispensable, even for many highly skilled jobs. A recent study by the sociologist Ivar Berg (Trans-action, March 1969) suggests that in many cases there is no correlation at all between education and industrial efficiency, and that academic credentials are usually more important in getting jobs than in actually doing them. This helps to explain why so many students, both in the high schools and in the universities, experience education as an arbitrary confinement and as something “irrelevant” not only to the search for truth but even to qualification for honest employment.

It also helps to explain why disaffected students, both in secondary schools and in the universities, tend to be concentrated in the humanities and social sciences. In the scientific and technical disciplines, academic training still bears a discernible relationship to work and is often indispensable to the process of qualification. Students in these fields know that their futures depend on mastering an exacting discipline.

What many employers value, however, is not academic training itself but the academic degree, and a large number of students, knowing this, naturally gravitate to subjects which, since they are irrelevant to employment in any case, at least have the advantage of being relatively undemanding. The erosion of academic standards in the humanities and social sciences reflects, among other things, the school’s attempt to provide job training that is irrational even on its own terms; and the restoration of academic standards, accordingly, would directly challenge prevailing arrangements by exposing some of the more glaring absurdities of compulsory education and by making it more difficult than it has been for schools to serve merely as places of detention and custody.

American capitalism nevertheless demands prolonged compulsory schooling, even when it does not directly qualify people for employment, because if prolonged schooling ceased to be compulsory, society would have to find something useful and rewarding for young people to do. Any efforts to desanctify education and to provide a more rational and flexible system of apprenticeship will be fiercely resisted by the ruling bureaucracies. That is why a new system will not be adopted until it becomes the goal not simply of student movements but of the working classes as well. The object of educational reform has to be seen not merely as a way of freeing youth from compulsory mis-education (in Paul Goodman’s phrase) but as humanizing apprenticeship—a necessary step in the self-emancipation of the working class and particularly of its intellectual and technical strata. Educational reform, in other words, has to be seen as a class question.

Not that young people themselves constitute a social class, as some of the spokesmen of the student movement have claimed. To call them a class obscures what is precisely one of the most interesting conclusions to emerge from an analysis of youth, women, blacks, and other groups that exist for the most part outside the system of industrial production and therefore outside the class structure to which that system gives rise. The questions now being raised by these groups are not class questions in any strict sense—and this is the heart of the matter—they are class questions in the broad sense that they cannot be resolved except by changing the class structure of American society—that is, by putting an end to the hegemony of the bourgeoisie. The problems of youth cannot be dealt with except by restructuring an educational system geared to the needs of the bourgeoisie, the reform of which the bourgeoisie will resist with all its force. Educational reform cannot be regarded, therefore, as a matter of peculiar concern to students. The entire working class and large sections of the middle class have a stake in changing the system, and it will not be changed except through their joint efforts.


The current turmoil in the universities shows how urgently radical change is needed and yet how far radicals are from understanding what needs to be done. The changes in production that have made young people superfluous and transformed the secondary school beyond recognition have altered the institutional function of the university. The university no longer serves as an exclusive club for the children of the ruling class and a few privileged souls co-opted from below. It still retains the old functions: it trains professionals and high functionaries of the traditional type, and more important, it trains the managerial elite and performs direct and vital services for the corporations and the government. But its most striking function today—apart from the custodial function it shares increasingly with the secondary schools—is that of training an army of intellectual workers on which the corporate system depends. In the last twenty-five years the university has become, in a special sense of the term, a working-class institution. It trains intellectual and technical workers in the special skills needed to run the industrial and governmental bureaucracies and to carry out all the commands of the managerial elite. Higher education has become another form of industrial apprenticeship.

These developments have had a disastrous effect on the traditional concept of higher education as a quest for meaning, order, and intellectual synthesis demanding, in the university, an atmosphere of unrestricted inquiry and freedom from outside interference. Traditionally the universities enjoyed a high degree of autonomy compared with other institutions of ruling-class control, and this permitted them, on occasion, even to become centers of opposition to the ruling class. The new trade-school function of the universities, superimposed on their traditional ruling-class functions, tends to make higher education another form of production.

The traditional functions themselves, moreover, have changed their character. Instead of training men of general culture who govern society through the elaboration of a unified world-view that makes sense of experience and to which all activities can be related, the university now trains men who govern through the application of specialized skills to the solution of technical problems. It also carries on government-financed research that will be directly useful to the corporations and to government, particularly the military. These activities further erode the autonomy of the university, which remains a ruling-class institution as well as a trade school, but in a new sense. No longer is the university viewed as a place in which to raise philosophical questions about the very premises of the society it serves.

All these developments greatly complicate the problems confronting the Left. Because it needs a radical intelligentsia, which can no longer be trained elsewhere, the Left has an immediate stake in the survival of the university as a partially autonomous institution. In fighting to preserve and extend the university’s autonomy, however, the Left faces at the outset the grim fact that much of the ground on which it must fight has already been lost. Yet the same historical changes that have led to this result simultaneously present radicals with an unprecedented opportunity to train a new kind of working-class intellectual and to raise the cultural level of the working class as a whole. If higher education has become a form of apprenticeship, the Left can use its tactical leverage in the university to humanize the conditions of apprenticeship—that is, to provide the working class and the “new middle class” with the means of their own emancipation.

The ruling class wishes to use the universities, much as it wishes to use the school system as a whole, to train intellectual workers to do their jobs competently, to find compensation for powerlessness in a culture of consumption, and to mind their own business in matters of state. The Left has the power—provided it overcomes its neo-Luddism and begins to take itself seriously in the academic world—to organize a broad coalition of forces within the university community and eventually, one hopes, in American society itself, for the purpose of providing students with the means of becoming not merely intellectual workers but workers who can think and question and thereby defend their own class interests against those who would keep them docile and passive.

This does not mean providing students with courses in guerrilla warfare and the crimes of American imperialism. It implies something more positive and more serious: the restoration of the unity of learning. Science and engineering must become once again a branch of philosophy, a means not simply of solving predefined problems but of raising questions about the ends of human life. The arts and humanities must be rescued from their present degraded, essentially ornamental position and established on an equal footing with science, as studies that make their own contribution to the understanding of the objective world. Unless these things are done, the working class and the American people as a whole will have no defense against a technological anti-culture that perpetrates one atrocity after another against people of other nations while it ruins its own environment and increasingly reduces its citizens to insecurity and anxiety. What is required, therefore, is not more curricular reforms designed to provide a sugar coating of the humanities and “general education” for industrial apprenticeship, but a reform of apprenticeship itself, in the form of a general attack on the instrumental conception of culture.

The issue, reduced to its simplest terms, is the issue between an enlightened and a degraded working class. But since that issue is now bound up with the survival of the university as a semi-autonomous institution and, indeed, with the survival of all that is valuable in Western culture, academic radicals are in a position to find strong allies among many liberals and conservatives both on university faculties and among the students. An alliance to reform the university, in turn, would provide radical intellectuals with a political setting in which to carry on the more strictly cultural struggle to convince liberals and conservatives that the culture they value cannot be preserved without a fundamental reform of American society itself.

Such an alliance clearly rests on the willingness of the Left to repudiate campus nihilism and to put forward a program very different from the kinds of programs it has been advocating for the last few years. The Left now spends its strength in misguided attempts to reform university structures, as if the greater participation of students on academic committees could change things; in demanding that courses be made “relevant,” which in practice means even more courses without intellectual standards and hard work; or in trying to paralyze the universities with the aim of “radicalizing” other students and thus undermining bourgeois society. Some of these activities are worse than a waste of time, for they play into the hands of the most cynical and corrupt elements of the ruling class. In the latter category we would especially place those actions that aim deliberately at forcing confrontations in the hope of polarizing and “politicizing” the campus. These three principal forms of defeatism and adventurism—it is worth noting how well these two characteristics fit together—deserve an extended examination.

Advocates of “student power” would have it that the internal structure of the university must be democratized. From this point of view the allegedly undemocratic structure of the university flows from the concentration of power in the hands of boards of trustees and administrative bureaucrats, both of whom are the servants or indeed sometimes the masters of corporate wealth. There is certainly some truth in this view. Control of universities by boards of trustees is an anachronism and reflects the irrationality with which American universities are financed. But the populist and neo-Veblenian analysis put forward by the advocates of student power suffers from the naïveté of all such analysis. The moral and intellectual crisis of the university springs not from its power structure but from a far deeper malaise in society. While a campaign to abolish boards of trustees would have much to recommend it, it would be useful chiefly in calling attention to the larger crisis in the neocapitalist economy and to the need for universities to be at once publicly financed and institutionally autonomous.

Similarly it is important that administrators be held strictly accountable to their faculties and that faculties should engage in constant consultation with the student body; but these reforms are meaningless except as part of a general educational policy. Since the Left has not even begun to raise the question of what a proper educational policy should be and has in fact been lured into espousing bankrupt and reactionary policies, it continues to flounder in petty quarrels and often pointless tests of strength.

In its pure form the student-power position proposes to set students not merely against the power of administrators but against that of the faculties as well. This kind of demand makes sense when applied to problems of discipline and to administrative matters. If students are adults—and it is impossible to pretend that eighteen-year-olds are children—they should participate as equals in the university community. Applied to academic matters, however, student power demands are nonsense. If students and teachers are equal in the classroom, then we do not need teachers or classrooms. Here democracy can have only one meaning: it is the teachers’ job to guide their students as quickly and surely as possible toward a condition of intellectual equality with themselves. That is what teaching is all about. So long as the student remains a student, the teacher must accept primary responsibility for curricula and the rules of order in class.

Whereas the student-power position tends to focus on the allegedly undemocratic structure of the university, whether in the form of trustee control or in the form of professorial tyranny in the classroom, another kind of left-wing critique of the university accuses it of elitism in a larger sense. It is argued, for instance, that instead of purveying a genteel and sterile learning, the university ought to offer courses that are “relevant” to the needs of society as a whole; or again, that instead of admitting only qualified candidates—an allegedly “elitist” practice—it should open its doors to everyone who wants to enter.

These demands are often advanced merely for the purpose of creating confrontations, and it is hard to know how seriously to take them. No one can seriously believe that the modern university is a genteel institution in the old sense or that its principal function is to provide the ruling class with the traditional refinements. As we have tried to show, the universities have already become working-class institutions in large part—especially the mass public universities that have proliferated so rapidly in the last three decades—and the demand that they should “serve the people” is redundant. The question is not whether masses of people are going to pass through the university—this is already happening—but whether the Left can use the occasion to provide the masses with a new kind of leadership of their own and to develop a genuinely educated working class. Open admissions and similar policies demagogically demanded in the name of the working class will probably contribute nothing to that result. On the contrary, they may merely flood the universities with unassimilable students and thereby hasten that vulgarization and decay which characterize higher learning at the moment and which are the logical result of neocapitalism in education.

The demand for “relevance” is similarly self-defeating. It does reflect an awareness that humane learning has been transformed into a harmless and degraded object of consumption and almost totally banished from industrial production and statecraft. It is nevertheless misguided. By its very nature it reinforces the vulgar instrumentalism underlying bourgeois ideology and practice. Indeed the demand for “relevance” amounts to a capitulation to the enemy’s world view. Radicals ought to be resisting the pressure to denigrate learning and to ignore the ethical implications of every discipline. Instead the New Left has merely inverted the terms and sought to have the universities serve the poor rather than the rich. As a general formulation, the demand that the university serve the people is meaningless; it can acquire meaning only in the terms the New Left has too often ignored or rejected—those that stress the defense of humane learning and its extension into every field of technical and scientific work.

A third type of critique of the university is at once more beguiling and even more fundamentally wrong-headed than the others. Starting from the completely accurate but not sufficiently elaborated observation that the university has become part of the machinery of production, some radicals leap to the conclusion that it therefore represents a necessary and weak link in the chain of bourgeois class rule, and that by paralyzing the university or forcing military occupation a few campus radicals can bring the entire system to a halt. The trouble with this view is that it does not clearly distinguish between the various functions of the university, all of which are necessary to the ruling class in the sense that they have to be carried on somewhere, but not all of which need to be carried on in the university.

The university both provides facilities and training for a managerial elite allied to the military and to the big corporations and also trains, on a much larger scale, intellectual workers who are indeed “necessary” to bourgeois society but who are necessary precisely in the way the working class is necessary. (No one any longer, we hope, advocates burning down factories or forcing their occupation by troops.) As to the first of these functions, the universities are not indispensable at all. They are already obsolete as ruling-class institutions in the traditional sense, and they may well become obsolete in the newer sense as well. The research required by the war machine and by the more dubious forms of corporate endeavor is already being switched to special institutes, well removed from the threat of student disruption and from the general inconvenience of students in any form.

From the point of view of the ruling class this is not an entirely desirable development, for it deprives those activities of the prestige bestowed by proximity to the old humanist culture (however debased). An academic environment, moreover, affords a few practical advantages that may be hard to duplicate in a research institute. Chronic student unrest, however, may force a flight of all types of advanced researchers into the peace and security of special institutes. The struggles against IDA, ROTC, and the rest are important because they imply a defense of the integrity of higher education. Getting rid of war- and production-oriented research would help to improve the cultural atmosphere of the campus. The Left should have no illusion, however, that ridding the university of these influences will also deal a major blow to American imperialism.

War research and social engineering can be left, if necessary, to the Hudson Institute and its equivalents. The one function that has to be carried on in the university at all costs is the trade-school function. Even professionals, if worse came to worse, could be trained in special institutions like the old Inns of Court. The universities, however, must continue to turn out intellectual workers, for notwithstanding the perfunctory character of much that passes for “liberal education,” technically trained and willing people have become economically indispensable. The universities, moreover, serve, like the secondary schools, as places of detention and custody for young people in general. Advanced apprenticeship therefore cannot be delegated to any other institution without changing our entire social system—for instance, without instituting arrangements that make it unnecessary for young people to be held in custody until they are well into their twenties. For that reason the ruling class will do whatever is necessary to keep the universities open, and in this it will probably enjoy the full support of the working and middle classes. The student Left hopes to use confrontations within the university to “radicalize” other students, but its conception of radicals as people who have opted out of the system reflects the movement’s elitism, its preoccupation with the spiritual turmoil of the affluent, and its essential indifference to the needs of people who cannot afford the luxury of dropping out.

These people, whether they come from the ghetto, from the white working class, or from the middle class itself, are determined to get what they consider to be an education, and together with the communities from which they come they are therefore determined that the universities shall remain open. They know—what more affluent dropouts from suburbia can afford to overlook—that higher education is their only chance to acquire the diplomas and the skills that lead to economic security. Of course the same system that provides them with those certificates and skills also tries to turn them into passive, easily manipulable workers, highly trained but intellectually docile. Therein lies a major opportunity for the Left to educate students and organize them for serious radical activity.

But calls for the disruption of the university, for student power, or even for an end to military research do not address the needs of the working class—a fact that incidentally explains why SDS has scored its few successes at elite universities like Harvard, Cornell, and Columbia. Indeed the ostensibly revolutionary strategies of the New Left, often carried out by self-constituted “vanguards of the working class,” have brought the Left to the brink of an all-out war with the working class. It is not difficult to predict the results of such a conflict, which in fact are already beginning to be visible: the Left will be smashed on the campuses and will thereby lose its only real base; the suspicion and estrangement of workers and intellectuals will widen; and the universities themselves will continue to deteriorate.

The Left needs a strategy that will link campus issues to broader social issues and thereby provide a bridge between the intellectuals and the working classes. The attempt to defend the university’s limited autonomy and to purge it of external influences that have corrupted it are only the first stages of such a strategy. The ultimate goal should be to humanize the conditions of industrial apprenticeship by restoring the unity of all learning. Scientific and technical subjects must come to be informed by ethical and philosophical concerns. The myth of scholarly neutrality, which has now spread from the “hard” to the “soft” sciences, must be challenged at every opportunity. It is a notable reproach to American scholars, and at the same time a tribute to the serious purposes many students retain in spite of repeated discouragements, that students, not faculty, organized the March 4 research strike and founded groups like the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, which has tried to destroy the fiction that “area specialists” have no responsibility for the uses to which their scholarship is put.

In view of the deplorable state of American scholarship in practically every field, it is clear that students will have to continue to play a major part in the struggle to reestablish standards of intellectual responsibility. This is particularly true in departments over which positivist and behaviorist perspectives have established an effective tyranny, and where those struggling to introduce alternative views can expect to find little encouragement from their teachers. Even purely political actions, like the campaign against ROTC, can have as an important by-product the awakening of many scholars to a sense of moral responsibility, for such actions implicitly or explicitly raise questions about what larger social and philosophical purposes the university—and therefore knowledge itself—properly serves.

To expose the irresponsibility of “objective” scholarship is only a beginning. Indeed it would be a disastrous beginning if it led only to the cynical conclusion that all scholarship is subjective and “ideological”—the conclusion which some critics are only too eager to draw. The pretense of objectivity has become irresponsible not because it is impossible for men to achieve an objective understanding of the world but because the search for objective truth has become identified almost exclusively with the techniques drawn from the physical sciences—particularly quantification—while unquantifiable experience, meanwhile, has been relegated to the shadowy and disreputable realm of “value judgments.” The effect of this has been to free the natural and social sciences from accountability to objective ethical standards and to bring about a general demoralization among non-scientists. Thus most people who teach and write in the humanities utter continual pieties about the importance of humanistic learning but do not really seem to believe that art or philosophy have any relation to objective reality or can serve as a guide to conduct.

It is this loss of confidence that makes possible the collapse of academic standards in the humanities and explains why they have become the refuge for students who are merely serving time in the university and seeking the least painful form of confinement. It is absurd to seek a reconciliation of science and the humanities—the constant refrain of our leading educationists—when those who teach the humanities have so little to contribute to such a merger, having accepted the physical sciences’ own misguided canons of objective truth. Civilized conditions of education cannot be achieved by closing a non-existent gap between science and the humanities, but only through a resurgent humanism that informs both. Once again, students must clearly play an indispensable role in all this, and nothing we have said about the teacher’s primary responsibility for defining the intellectual purpose of the university should obscure the fact that American teachers in the recent past have shamelessly abdicated this responsibility and have allowed the course of higher education to be determined by the most sinister influences in American life.

Not even the pressures exerted by dedicated students will prevail in the long run. Because the reform of education—not merely of higher education but of secondary education as well—concerns the working class as a whole, it will not be achieved until it becomes part of a general social program embodied in a new mass political movement. But such a movement will itself come to nothing unless it has as its overriding objective a new cultural synthesis, based on the rationalist tradition, a tradition now almost in ruins, but transcending its historic elitism and its disregard for the social consequences of individual achievements. Without such a synthesis, industrial civilization—capitalist or socialist—will become increasingly brutal and meaningless.