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Plight of the University

In response to:

The Wasteland of American Education from the November 5, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

It is hard these days not to write about the American university, as of so much else in the United States, without falling into some kind of a jeremiad, but to someone of a slightly younger academic generation like myself (Ph.D., history, 1961), Jacques Barzun’s description of our plight [NYR, November 5] cannot help but seem extravagant and somewhat misplaced in its particular tone of lament. I share a serious concern over the future of the liberal arts, but Barzun’s assessment seems off the mark because it is couched in the vocabulary of someone who overrates the good old days (say, pre-1950) and who seems partly to retain a then prevalent myth about the nature of learning.

Much of Barzun’s essay mounts an attack on the rise of specialized research, with asides that reveal the lingering intensity of a conservative’s reaction to the relatively brief student protests of about thirteen years ago. As a result, continuities in the history of the American university get lost from Barzun’s vision. Scientific and scholarly investigation was excoriated by defenders of polite liberal culture (more lately called the humanities) from the very beginning of the university, and in much the same language that Barzun continues rather predictably to use, as I long ago showed in The Emergence of the American University, dealing with the period prior to 1910. From then until now an uneasy but surprisingly persistent balance has been maintained within American academia between advocates of utilitarian professionalism, basic research, and liberal education. This balance is indeed now threatened, but even at present, especially at eastern universities that retain great social prestige and can continue to set the terms for their BA degrees, the liberal arts operate from a position of considerable strength. The long traditional anguish of their spokesmen stems from the fact that they have to share their power with others.

Barzun laments that “the old idea of membership in the university is virtually impossible to maintain.” Here he invokes a holistic past that never was, at least in intellectual terms. In fact the American university, whether around 1900 or 1940, was characterized by immense internal chasms. The omnipresent gulf between students and faculty led Barrett Wendell to complain that under-graduates “seem as unable to meet us intellectually as a near-sighted eye to detect a small star, or a color-blind man to read railway signals,” and it caused a frank observer to assert in 1909 that “almost every educator, if asked what was the main fault of our large colleges, would…[reply] that it was the loss of personal relationship between instructor and student.”

The problem was that students wanted fun and good times (or, at Dink Stover’s Yale, a competitive race for social success) rather than intellectual substance. Only Barzun’s brief aside urging the elimination of intercollegiate athletics addresses itself to this century-old reality. On top of this, as we have seen, the faculty was internally divided throughout this whole period in terms of basic educational goals, and above them stood an administration already by the 1890s dedicated more to public image than to any clearcut academic philosophy.

The past that Barzun fondly invokes was not wholly a myth, but I suggest that it took off not from the reality of a shared academic perspective, but rather from the social atmosphere of the gentleman’s faculty club. The period Barzun appears to admire so much in contrast to the recent past is one—need we be reminded—in which Jews could not easily get tenure and in which women could fulfill professional careers mainly in segregated annexes. One wonders how deeply Barzun actually wants to associate himself with that long-term American academic past.

Meantime, what is the nature of learning? Barzun says it must foster “some measure of common understanding and common action in the teeth of endless diversity.” (In their own way, were not the students of 1968 trying to create that, albeit with immature abrasiveness and from a different political perspective?) Barzun’s invocation of the phrase “common understanding” makes one immediately wonder, what is its assumed basis? Is it some external reservoir of human wisdom inherited from the Greeks, extending in a single line, as Paul Shorey described it circa 1910, “from Homer to Tennyson”? Is it derived from some lingering wisp of philosophical idealism? Or merely from a vague, undefined cultural nationalism?

Not all diversity is healthy. But is the academic realm an appropriate one for striving to achieve more than a limited and necessarily transitory sense of community? Sitting as freshman advisers, we inwardly lament those students who announce overly safe and rigid career plans and cheer those who, despite today’s climate, remain more receptive to the liberal arts. Yet we know that our advice and our teaching can at best push them only to a certain point, and that we have to regard their own hard-pressed life-choices (for instance, to major in economics or in one of the natural sciences) with a sad acquiescence, which we modify mainly by the imposition of a few freshman requirements.

Today, just as in the older past Barzun invokes, the most important kind of learning, all too rarely fostered, teaches students to cope with cognitive diversity rather than trying to posit a unity whose reality is instantly sensed to be false. This is done, for instance, by requiring that students deal deftly and imaginatively along the way with counter-arguments to whatever stance is being taken in a paper topic. Critical reasoning, attuned to a genuine awareness of cultural and socio-economic diversity and underlain by the humane values now tragically being abandoned in national politics, remains a more important goal of teaching than a vaguely promoted “common understanding.” At the very least, someone who invokes the last phrase has an obligation to make more explicit just what sort of “common understanding” he would recommend to the rest of us.

We all want to “save” the university. But we should be clear as to what kind of a university we think is worth saving. It is a kind, I believe, that, to the extent it was ever achieved, dates from the much more recent past than Barzun will allow.

Laurence Veysey

University of California

Santa Cruz, California

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