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The Ninnyversity?

It is essential that the dreams of the liberals for a more egalitarian, more free, and more culturally sophisticated society should not be abandoned in a wave of despair. What we need is a new educational strategy for their implementation. Professor Berg suggests that a better way to achieve the ends we have in mind would be to concentrate resources upon improving the primary and secondary sectors of education, rather than upon continuing the indefinite expansion of the higher sector. This would solve the present problem of too much education for many children of the middle classes, who are consequently discontented, and too little for many children of the poor, who are also consequently discontented.

One hundred years ago President McCosh of Princeton complained about the “vast amount of talent lost to the country in bright boys‌being obliged to devote their lives to manual occupations. I hold that the secondary school is the main means of calling forth talent in every country.” The plans for publicly financed high schools ultimately triumphed, and so transformed American society, despite the horrified opposition of the laissez-faire liberal President Eliot of Harvard. We now all know that McCosh was right, that the bottleneck in upward social mobility occurs very early in life, and yet at present the emphasis is being placed much later, on the open university.

Secondly, Professor Berg proposes a head-on attack on the purposeless certification mania which now threatens to deflect the universities from their true tasks of personal liberation by exposure to the free market of ideas, the preservation of the higher culture, the production of new social criticism, and the advancement of learning. He would like to see employers lower the educational barriers they are currently building ever higher, since his evidence shows that they bear no relationship to subsequent job performance.

Thirdly, Professor Berg proposes that society adopt as a first priority the creation of a condition of full or near-full employment. This is absolutely essential, since at the moment the colleges are acting as concealed unemployment relief agencies, keeping millions of youngsters off the streets for between two and four years. If these adolescents were freed from the social and financial obligation to go to college, and could follow their inclinations to seek meaningful work and to establish a family, they could not find employment as things stand now, since the jobs do not exist. If for accounting purposes some of these millions of unwilling students were added to the ranks of the unemployed, as in a sense they should be, and if part of the cost of higher education was added to the cost of relief, America would be shown to be content with an unemployment rate very much higher than that of any other fully industrialized society in the world.

Lastly, Professor Berg proposes the creation of a diversity of paths into the upper reaches of the job market, instead of giving the monopoly to a largely irrelevant education in college. There is now good reason to believe that only a minority finds satisfaction in a bookish education prolonged through adolescence, and that this is particularly true of the liberal arts and social sciences. Departments such as the professional schools of law, business, and medicine, and until very recently in engineering and the natural sciences, where the learning is directly related to expertise for a future job, clearly provide an education in which most students find satisfaction. The same cannot be said of the humanities. What is needed is the provision of far greater opportunities for specialized training in a variety of trades and occupations, from plumber to journalist, from computer programmer to electrician.

Such training can take place in technical schools and community colleges, the enormous expansion of which in the last few years is one of the most hopeful signs of change. Enrollment in the latter has risen from half a million to two million in the last decade, and is expected to continue to rise at a tremendous pace. These colleges offer vocational training preparatory to employment, and also general education for those who hope later to transfer to a four-year college. They are very cheap and they are centrally located near major centers of population. They appear to be a much more practical solution to the problem of creating an open and upwardly mobile society than the cramming of increasing numbers of bored students into four-year colleges and universities.

But many who are fully competent to teach vocational skills are to be found elsewhere than in schools and colleges. New ways must be found to give both the young and the old access to those who can provide the instruction they want—through subsidized apprenticeships, industrial training programs, and the creation of independent specialized centers for learning, in all of which the emphasis must be on relevant competence, not on certificates. At the same time, the employers themselves must be willing to set up on-the-job training programs of their own, and to accept applicants on the basis of ability and aptitude, not on that of the diplomas they carry with them.

Another proposal, not made by Professor Berg, but put forward among the very similar set of recommendations recently published by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, is to open the universities and colleges on a vastly larger scale than has hitherto been envisioned to fully adult students returning to seek cultural enrichment or technical instruction. It may well be that the humanities, such as philosophy, literature, and history, could more profitably be taught to experienced adults rather than to adolescents. Perhaps we should not be so eager to pump an understanding of Hegel or Cervantes or the French Revolution into the reluctant minds of young people too immature in their emotional development and too ignorant of the world to understand the problems of community and power and passion and sex with which these subjects face them.

But if adults are to be released from work during the daytime for periods of study, there will need to be a major rethinking of policy concerning job security and leaves of absence in all the factories and offices in the country. This will not be easy to accomplish, unless the much heralded effects of automation substantially reduce the demand for labor.

The problem that faces us today is how to preserve high culture from dilution and eventual decay in the crisis of mass higher education, and at the same time how to keep American society open for upward mobility from below. This latter objective is urgently necessary at a time when the last major underprivileged group is trying to force its way upward into the middle-class mainstream against the unique disadvantage of racial prejudice.

To achieve both goals we need a radically new strategy for higher education, to pare away much of the useless fat accumulated over the past decades, and to devise much more varied, flexible, and specialized responses to the needs of widely different segments of the population. The multiversity, the gigantic impersonal all-purpose educational factory assembly-line, is clearly unworkable, both in theory and in practice.

The creation of a much more varied range of institutions of higher education, the shift of many students out of the universities altogether and into systems of apprenticeship, the postponement of education for some far into adult life, and the abandonment of the certificate as a requirement for entry into most jobs will all require a dramatic reversal of the trends of the past twenty-five years. It will involve major rethinking and readjustment, not merely by the academic profession, whose jobs are dependent on the maintenance in involuntary servitude of their swollen audience of students, but also by employers and businessmen.

To implement the necessary changes will require a greater shift of psychological attitudes, an equally sustained attack on powerful and well-entrenched vested interests, and a more complicated reallocation of priorities than those now currently in progress to reduce the size of the military-industrial complex. It is going to be far easier to reassess defense priorities than it will be to reorder those of education, but much of the money saved on the one is likely to be wasted on the other, unless this reordering is undertaken.

Today is not the first time that high culture has been thought to be in danger in America. In 1809 the Reverend Joseph Stevens Buckminster delivered the Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard which has about it the ring of contemporary prophecy. Looking back over the years since the Revolution, Buckminster concluded:

Our forms of education were becoming more popular and superficial; the knowledge of antiquity began to be despised; and the hard labor of learning to be dispensed with. Soon the ancient strictness of discipline disappeared; the curriculum of studies were shortened in favor of impatience or the necessities of candidates for literary honors; the pains of application were derided, and a pernicious notion of equality was introduced which has not only tainted our sentiments, but impaired our vigor and crippled our literary eminence.2

Although the preparation of freshmen entering college is today clearly still improving (except in places of open enrollment), whereas in 1809 it was clearly deteriorating, there are signs that the developments described by Buckminster are again beginning to affect undergraduate and even graduate education. Although no serious damage can yet be detected, there is already apparent a growing reluctance among students to permit discrimination between sheep and goats, to reward excellence and punish sloth or stupidity; a widespread contempt for any form of learning which does not have the crudest kind of relevance to the contemporary scene; a decline of respect for that infinite capacity for taking pains which is so essential for success in any form of intellectual endeavor; and worst of all, the rise of the cult of unreason, emotion, and free self-expression, regarded as somehow superior to logic, clear thinking, and self-discipline.

At its best and most healthy this takes the form of Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse’s pleas for the recognition of sexuality and sensuality as an essential means of perception, complementary to that of the mind. But it turns into something wholly destructive when it becomes a call to substitute emotive feeling for rational thought, and intuition for fact. Its most extreme manifestations are the growing popularity of astrology, Tarot cards, and Zen mysticism, and the growing temptation to escape into the gaudy world of drugs. Some of the young are clearly seeking a kind of religion, but in the search they are rejecting one thousand years of civilization. As has been well said, they are the Holy Barbarians of our time. Their mentors, who are leading the young down these dead-end paths, are guilty of the ultimate trahison des clercs, the conscious denigration of the life of the mind. Once that is no longer respected, the university has lost the justification for its existence. There is no need to give up on reason, just because apparently “rational” men like Herman Kahn, W. W. Rostow, and Robert McNamara have led us into the present mess.

In the light of the gloomy potentialities lurking in the current situation, the story of the rise and fall of higher education in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries carries a warning, or a prophecy, for the present. On one occasion in modern European history, enthusiasm for higher education on the part of the state, the parents, the children, and the academics reached extraordinary heights and then collapsed. Educational overproduction was judged dangerous by the authorities, since it created a public nuisance, namely a body of alienated intellectuals; it was recognized as self-defeating by the parents, whose overeducated children could not find suitable employment.

The curriculum was condemned as boring and irrelevant by the students, and scholarship itself was condemned by influential groups of religious enthusiasts as an obstacle to emotional perception of the Divine will, while the secular elite no longer thought it worth the trouble. Student numbers fell drastically, the flow of funds from outside dried up, and the universities ceased to be the centers of intellectual innovation, since the ebbing of the tide of bored and frustrated students carried away with it the cultural dynamism of the universities. Western civilization admittedly survived, but the eighteenth century was intellectually impoverished because of it. This is what happened three hundred years ago all over Europe; there is some reason to suspect that, if a major reassessment of the essential role of the universities is not carried out, it may perhaps be about to happen again on both sides of the Atlantic.

  1. 2

    J. McLachlan, American Boarding Schools, Scribner’s, 1970, p. 20.

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