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The Ninnyversity?

In any case, even if Professor Kearney’s categories were correct, which they are not, his system of polarities is false, since it is not how ideas work. New ideas permeate old ones, run underground and pop up in unexpected places, mingle surreptitiously, or even coexist side by side without either conflict or conflation. One system of beliefs or values rarely challenges another directly and finally overthrows it in a single cataclysmic struggle. It is more a matter of guerrilla warfare, secret infiltration, and eventual mutual accommodation.

The third error is the crude way in which Professor Kearney relates ideas or sets of ideas directly and functionally to the alleged interests of certain classes. This bull-in-a-china-shop approach to intellectual history is no way to advance our understanding of the sociology of knowledge. Under this reductionist treatment the intellectual disappears as an individual with a personal and unique contribution to make, and becomes merely the symbol of a class or interest.

Thus Professor Kearney not only associates the classics, Aristotelian scholasticism, and the Early Fathers with conservatism; he also associates conservatism with the gentry. Everything else—biblical study, Ramism, Cartesianism, Baconianism, the Moderns—is regarded not only as potentially subversive, but also as associated with the merchants. This attachment of specific curricular programs to specific social groups like gentry and merchants is pure poppycock unsupported by any shred of evidence. For example, how is it possible to argue that the strength of Locke’s position “depended essentially upon the appeal which he made to new social groups…the monied interest” (p. 159)? In his treatise on education, Locke is specifically and exclusively concerned with the bringing up of a young landed gentleman, and his undoubted links with the Whig Party leaders hardly turn him into an educational reformer in the mercantile interest.

The social bases of the model are not any better founded than the intellectual ones. The shrinking enrollment of upper-class students after 1670 cannot be explained by any hypothetical decline of the gentry in the face of merchant competition. If the lesser gentry were indeed in financial difficulty at this time, the greater gentry and nobility were in a flourishing condition, and yet the latter were fleeing the universities as fast as the former. What we see in the late seventeenth century is a wholesale rejection of the value of a university education as a preparation for life as a member of the elite. Attendance of gentry at the university declined not because they represented a declining social class but because they no longer chose to send their sons there.

As for the second allegedly declining class, the clergy, their numbers were stationary, and their status was rising, while their finances were certainly not getting worse and were soon to improve with the aid of Queen Anne’s Bounty. They were rapidly becoming the social associates of the gentry, the solid backbone of the Tory Party, and were beginning to infiltrate the Bench of Justices. What sense does it make to describe the post-1689 period as “The Age of Dissent” (p. 158), when in fact it saw the solidification of squire and parson as the dominant elite of the countryside?

The fourth flaw in Professor Kearney’s book is the assumption that there is a one-to-one correlation between what goes on in the university and the needs of outside society. This is to take the misguided functionalist notions of modern sociologists far too seriously. As every historian knows, all the institutions of society are partly functional and partly antiquated, vestigial, or even frankly “dysfunctional.” This is because they all have a history and a life of their own, and their response to outside pressure is consequently imperfect, stumbling, tardy, and even reactive.

Professor Kearney assumes that the things that are taught in a university are directly and functionally related to the needs of society, but the history of higher education in the West over the past four centuries does not support this assumption. The three great and unquestioned contributions of the university to society have been the preservation of the cultural heritage of civilization; the advancement of learning, meaning the increase in factual information and the formulation of new ideas about both nature and society; and the technical preparation of graduate students for the professions—until quite recently for the church, law, and medicine, and now for a whole range of new occupations from engineering to the professional study of history. These are three services without which no advanced society can function, and which have usually been supplied in the West by the universities.

It must be admitted that the cultural heritage in art and music and creative literature has hitherto always been transmitted outside the university through an informal apprenticeship system. It must also be admitted that some of the most innovative thinkers of modern times—Marx and Darwin and Freud, for example—have lived and worked quite outside the academic profession, and that at one period, the eighteenth century, the advancement of learning took place almost entirely elsewhere. But over the last century, the university has been acquiring a more and more exclusive monopoly over all three functions, evidence of which are the creative arts and creative literature programs, the research-oriented faculties in the major institutions, the rise of professional schools in law and medicine and business, and the growth of the graduate programs, which effectively control admission to the various academic disciplines. (As a result, I am myself already a hopeless anachronism in the late twentieth century, made possible only by the cultural lag of the English educational system—a professional historian without a Ph.D., and an art historian who has never attended a course in art history.)

The university also supplies a fourth service to society, the general education, until recently of a tiny social and intellectual elite, and now of a rapidly increasing proportion of the masses. In this case the specific curricular methods adopted are by no means so obviously related to social purpose as they are in the case of the other three. Indeed it is the lack of “relevance” of the undergraduate education which is one of the main burdens of student complaints. But this problem of relevance was far more glaring in the past than it is today. To give the most obvious example: what has been the functional purpose, in educational and intellectual terms, of giving the ruling classes of the nation-states of northern Europe and America a painfully narrow training in the dead language of a long-extinct Mediterranean empire? The classical authors certainly contained most of human wisdom as it was known in the early modern period, but as the contemporary critics kept pointing out, almost all of them were available in translation and the stress on the linguistic and grammatical forms tended to obscure their factual and philosophical content.

A remarkable volume of fresh educational thought was generated during the Puritan Revolution, and is discussed in detail in Professor Greaves’s useful, if somewhat uninspired, book. Most of the reformers were hostile to the current classical curriculum, some from a utilitarian wish to make education more relevant, others from a desire to break down existing social distinctions. As they pointed out at the time, and as has been pointed out many times since, the value of learning Latin in creating and preserving class distinctions is clear enough, but to label such a grind a “liberal education” is merely a hilarious early example of double-think. Indeed in my gloomier moments I tend to suspect that a good deal of what has been taught to undergraduates at the university throughout most of history—including the present—has been about as useful to the society and as beneficial to the individual as the practice of female circumcision. No such doubts seem to have occurred to Professor Kearney.

In any case, it is an open question to what extent the things students learn in the university classroom influence their subsequent political and religious beliefs. Is it possible to deduce the future political positions of an Elizabethan gentleman from whether he was fed at the university on a diet of Scheibler, Burgersdicius, and Zabarella, or one of Scribonius, Freigius, and Beurhusius? Maybe it is, but the connection has yet to be made.

Changes in the content of the sermons in the college chapels probably had a greater influence on attitude formation than changes in the content of reading lists in the classrooms. Similarly today, the fact that most academics at the better universities are liberals in their political and moral attitudes is more important in shaping the values of undergraduates than the subject matter of the textbooks they prescribe. (Even so, these attitudes have been prevalent for forty years, without doing anything very obvious to alter the Republican and conservative views of the alumni.)

Some academics consequently give up altogether. In the late seventeenth century John Aubrey decided that it was a waste of time to try to teach adolescents anything at all, since at that age their minds are so obsessed with images and fantasies of sex that they are incapable of paying attention to any other subject. There is reason to think that he was exaggerating, but even so, the impact of changes in the curriculum on student values is a subject about which virtually nothing is known. All academics assume that they have profound effects, but none of us can prove it, and Sir Osbert Sitwell’s description of his education as taking place “in the holidays from Eton” is perhaps not all that unusual. What goes on outside the classroom, in private reading, conversations with fellow students, informal discussions with the faculty, and extracurricular activity, may be more important than what goes on inside it.

Finally, Professor Kearney’s use of the student notebooks he has discovered is not convincing. It is by no means certain that the intellectual development of an individual at the university can be reconstructed from the perusal of one or two of many books of notes on lectures attended and books read for class (I am certain mine could not). Even if we assume that it can be, Professor Kearney fails to distinguish the notebooks of students proceeding to a degree and a donnish or clerical career, from notebooks of young gentlemen in temporary residence to pick up a liberal education.

Thirdly, he tends to use the argument ex silentio, making deductions from what is not in them, when we clearly can never be sure that the same student did not own other notebooks on the same or other subjects which are now lost. This is particularly important since the “Guides to Students” suggest that the curriculum was very mixed, so that one notebook might easily contain Aristotle and Galen and another Harvey, Galileo, and Gassendi. Where the evidence is reasonably abundant, we find different reading lists being given to different students by different tutors in the same college (p. 83). This is what we might expect, but it casts doubts upon Professor Kearney’s stage model.

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