The Endangered University

Stover at Yale

by Owen Johnson
Ross and Perry, 386 pp., $34.95 (paper)

Along with freedom, the other sacred word in today’s college is “diversity.” Nearly sixty years ago, the Harvard “Red Book”—the famous faculty report on general education published in 1945 when the end of World War II was in sight but not yet at hand—identified the coming challenge of postwar America in a chapter ominously entitled “Problems of Diversity.” By using that word, the authors were not exactly prophesying the impending influx of women, as well as racial and ethnic minorities, into historically white and male institutions; they had in mind no clear picture of demographic change, but they did anticipate what they called “differentiation” in the “inner sphere of ability and outlook” of future students. With a sigh of Brahmin realism, they conceded that the old economy in which “thousands of lighter jobs…used to call for a brisk young pair of hands” was disappearing, and that unprecedented numbers of young people would finish high school and want a chance to go to college.

This prediction was borne out in the postwar years, which saw enormous growth in the size and quality of public universities and the rise of a community college system that afforded educational opportunity to millions of first-generation college students. Anticipating the surge of democratization, the “Red Book” authors had asked prospectively, “How can general education be so adapted to different ages and, above all, differing abilities and outlooks, that it can appeal deeply to each, yet remain in goal and essential teaching the same for all?” With a flourish—but not without reason—they concluded that “the answer to this question…is the key to anything like complete democracy.”

This question has never been answered. In fact, by tacit agreement, it has been dropped. The new diversity has exerted a necessary and salutary pressure to open the curriculum to non-Western and other nontraditional subjects. But there has been almost no parallel effort to establish courses that bring students of “differing… outlooks” together into productive discussion. As Louis Menand argued in these pages a few years ago, most of the high-sounding postwar talk about general education was “lip-service,” and the growth has been mainly in technical and practical education. The few institutions that still have compulsory “Great Books” programs—such as the University of Chicago, Columbia, and St. John’s College—adopted them well before World War II. I happen to teach at one of those institutions, which naturally expresses public pride in its rigor and wisdom, but as my former colleague the literary scholar Arnold Rampersad (now at Stanford) remarked a few years ago at the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Columbia Core Curriculum, the Core is like the interstate highway system: we are glad we have it, but we could never build it today.

The new diversity has tended to exert pressure on the curriculum to be more various at precisely the time when some measure of commonality is needed. Yet it is risky to raise any question—even a friendly …

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