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Our Universities: How Bad? How Good?

Some 250 years later, I knew a distinguished graduate of the Yale class of 1930 who assured me that he did all assigned homework on the trolley to crew practice (the loss of the trolley, of course, is real decline). Nor do I think the American university has gone into free fall since 1987, when Dean Rosovsky estimated it to be the world’s best. In fact, I think that most good universities have undergone considerable self-study and reform since then—which, though not always productive of good results, have largely focused on improving undergraduate education, and created new opportunities for freshmen and others to work closely with creative scholars.

I must say with regret that none of these books seems to me quite worthy of its subject—with the exception of Nussbaum’s, a book that needs to be read and heeded, but may not make much headway against the critical consensus. To me, the university is a precious and fragile institution, one that lives with crisis—since education, like psychoanalysis, is an “impossible profession”—but at its best thrives on it. It has endured through many transformations of ideology and purpose, but at its best remained faithful to a vision of disinterested pursuit and transmission of knowledge. Research and teaching have always cohabited: anyone who teaches a subject well wants to know more about it, and when she knows more, to impart that knowledge. Universities when true to themselves have always been places that harbor recondite subjects of little immediate utility—places where you can study hieroglyphics and Coptic as well as string theory and the habits of lemmings—places half in and half out of the world. No country needs that more than the US, where the pragmatic has always dominated.

I am not so much impressed by the faults and failings of the university—they are real enough, but largely the product of frightening trends toward inequality in American society that the universities can combat only to a limited degree. It’s more the survival of the university that amazes and concerns me. It’s one of the best things we’ve got, and at times—as when reading these books—it almost seems to me better than what we deserve. I will succumb here to a temptation (expecting that I’ll be ridiculed by Hacker and Dreifus) of quoting Henry James, at the moment his character Nick Dormer, in The Tragic Muse, who has sacrificed a career in politics to pursue a vocation as a painter, stands before a set of great portraits in London’s National Gallery:

As he stood before them the perfection of their survival often struck him as the supreme eloquence, the virtue that included all others, thanks to the language of art, the richest and most universal. Empires and systems and conquests had rolled over the globe and every kind of greatness had risen and passed away, but the beauty of the great pictures had known nothing of death or change, and the tragic centuries had only sweetened their freshness.

Universities are not so isolated from the tragic past, but they still make a claim to speak with eloquence across the centuries. They often fail, they need reform and course correction, but they are not, at their best, merely venal and self-serving. They deserve better critics than they have got at present.

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