Cardinal Newman
Cardinal Newman; drawing by David Levine

It has become a sociological commonplace that we have been moving into a post-capitalist, even a post-industrialist era in which, along with much prestige and money, residual power now passes to the university men. From this one might infer that we also are witnessing at last the decline of the nation-state. But the nation-state remains a powerful institution, and those who serve it or receive its aid, even on a per diem basis, generally wind up as state’s men. This is as true of academicians as of lawyers, corporation presidents, or poets. It is arguable indeed that the academicians have given the nation-state a new lease on life. For they make possible, for the first time, the conversion of a mode of government into a politico-social organism, a true Republic as it were, whose educator-guardians supply the rationale, the indispensable training, and the continuing fund of personnel for its maintenance and protection. All this and the open society too. For all his worries about alloys, Plato, the ur-academician, would have been enchanted.

Such, in effect, is the premise of Professor Daniel Bell’s new book, The Reforming of General Education, a work that offers by far the most articulate presentation by a university state’s man of the problems and possibilities of liberal education in the university age. Bell regards self-consciousness as a proper benefit of liberal education; he himself is also more conscious of his premises and of the terms of his own guardian’s role than are most other members of his class. What they casually see, his sociological eye automatically places in a selective historical context; what they take for granted, his ever-available pen explicitly affirms. Because of this, certain chapters of his book, which is formally preoccupied with problems of undergraduate education in one great national university (Columbia) provide a useful preface to the whole spate of writings by still more highly placed leaders of the university set who are concerned with the unprecedented situation of the American university as the central institution for higher learning and the indispensable service agency for the American “national society.”

The concept of the “national society” deserves the italics which Bell gives it in the following quotation, for it provides the implicit frame for a great deal of establishmentarian thinking about feasible reforms in the great American universities:

…within recent decades…the United States [has] passed from being a nation to becoming a national society in which there is not only a coherent national authority, but where the different sectors of the society, economy, polity, and culture are bound together in a cohesive way and where crucial political and economic decisions are now made at a “center.”

Remembering the day, some may feel that, construed as sociology, this statement is overdrawn. But there can be no question as to its usefulness as a thesis of centrist educational ideology. And anyone who hopes to save something from the wreck of general and liberal education in our universities must confront it as a pervasive over-belief of our university leaders.

PROFESSOR BELL describes a palpable fact when he points out that more centralized power has lately accrued to the state than has ever before existed in this country, and that as this power increases so do its ties to the nation’s scientific technology become ever stronger and tighter. And as the national government becomes the mainstay of our ever more technical and expensive scientific research, so reciprocally the university, where so much advanced research and teaching occurs, is a new force to reckon with in our national polity. For it forms the base of a whole new intellectual class whose “leaders,” as Bell carefully phrases it, are accorded “both national importance and moral authority.”

Here an interesting parallel comes to mind. What Oxford and Cambridge were to England in the time of its greatness, so Harvard, California, Columbia, and other national universities are now to the world-powerful United States. The all-important difference is that the forms of education in which the English universities excelled—the individual tutorial, classical studies, humanistically oriented history and politics, and philosophy—are precisely the areas which seem least useful and relevant to the going concerns of our present national society. Where the English university tended to produce cultivated non-specialists whose gifts were those of developed critical common sense and judgment, and acute if informal logical sense, the contemporary American university characteristically, though by no means always, turns out highly trained scientific technicians, sometimes capable of contributing to the advancement of learning, but only within a restricted sphere of inquiry. Where the Englishman received, so to say, a common law education which led him from case to case and from precedent to precedent, developing along the way his sense of analogy and relevance, the American, within the range of his specialty, is trained to be methodical, exact, and systematic. Outside his professional range, he remains rather clumsy and impressionable, likely to be opinionated in a speculative way, but where something is to be done, curiously indecisive, ready to place the burden of obligation on someone else who can supply a more “informed” judgment.


From many converging sources, the impression emerges that, whatever may be their importance, our academic leaders are unprepared for the moral roles that have been thrust upon them. Yet it is precisely these same leaders whose limiting attitudes and aptitudes at once set the tone and determine the aims and functions of the contemporary university itself. Everywhere within the university, including the humanities, their influence and their example are as pervasive as their sufferance is indispensable. There seem to be exceptions: for example, President Pusey of Harvard is distinguished as an educator for his rehabilitation of the Harvard Divinity School and for his support of the study of religion within Harvard College. But this emphasis has not seriously modified the drift of things at Harvard, as the recent review of Harvard’s general education program by the so-called Doty Committee illustrates.1 And at California, at Cornell (as we shall shortly see), even at Columbia, where the idea of general education originated and where the emphasis on liberal studies in the College has always been vocal, the pull is overwhelmingly in the direction of the forms of specialized research and instruction which are useful to the national society and which therefore receive the largesse of its government.

TO A NON-LEADER or anti-leader (in Bell’s sense) it may be dispiriting, though it should not be surprising, to find that of the many prominent university spokesmen who have written about the “crisis” of the university, few (Jacques Barzun is one erratic and strangely self-defeating exception) have any fundamental objection to make to the way things are going there. Nowhere among our leaders can one find a president or dean with the radical independence and crusading zeal of Hutchins, the imaginative cross-fertilizing passions for language, poetry, and science of I.A. Richards (at the top of his form), or the leonine philosophical imagination of Dewey, with its interlocking educational concerns for logic and history, for nature and experience, for settlement houses and Cézanne, for methods of resolving problematic situations and the consummatory activities that can make a life worthwhile or a civilization significant. Nowhere, if it comes to that, can one find someone bold or strong enough to assert, however outrageously and ambiguously, what I once heard Paul Tillich say at an elegant dinner for Harvard general educators: that without a relation to the ultimate concerns of genuine religion the modern university cannot possibly be the educational center of an acceptable human culture. How serviceable, and how undistinguished, are the words of our presentday university leaders. How barely distinguishable from one another are these foxes, these well-meaning inside men, whose only thought as educators is to advise the prince, to be of use to the national society.

This does not mean that what they say is of no consequence. Just the opposite. Because they instinctively know what is “possible” within the context of the national society, it is to them we must turn in order to learn what may become of the university, and hence of us all, in the years ahead. And when they describe—as, for example, President Clark Kerr of California did a couple of years ago—the “uses” of the “multiversity,” as he called it, we are forewarned that, if there are none to oppose them, such indeed will be the uses of the university in our time.

IT IS IN THIS SPIRIT that we must take The University in Transition, by James A. Perkins, currently President of Cornell and a Bellean national society leader if ever there was one. Perkin’s pedigree is impeccable: it includes everything from a Ph.D. and assistant professorship in political science to the assistant directorship of a “School” of Public and International Affairs, and from government service to the vice-presidencies of a distinguished liberal arts college and of a great foundation. The names of the national governmental and educational advisory bodies on which he serves read like a catalogue of great problems for a course in Contemporary Civilization. When he informs us, therefore, that the distinctive feature of the American university is its commitment, not only to the accumulation and transmission of knowledge, but also to its application as a public service, we do not have to reach for his idea of “public service.” By public service he means, essentially, service to the national society and its government. Nor are we in doubt that the service rendered may include the person of the applicator himself.


President Perkins’s account of that knowledge worthy to be impressed upon the minds of university students holds no surprises. Homogeneous with the prose that invests it, it reads like the précis of an entry on “Knowledge” from the University Administrator’s own Book of Knowledge. President Perkins may be called a rationalist and a gnostic; for him, that is, all knowledge is a product of “reason,” and human good is an emanation from knowledge. He dutifully reaffirms “the Greek affirmation” of man as the rational animal, declares knowledge to be the result of “reason’s application to the results of observation,” and confidently states that knowledge, so viewed, is applicable to “the whole range of human experience.” He does not spend himself in definitions of “reason”; so often, however, is “knowledge” equated with the products of “research,” that one feels that, even without research, one knows what he has in mind. Nor does he plague us with uncertainties about the ranges or limits of the life of reason, much less with the possibility that reason and the standards to which “reasonable men” hold themselves liable may be subject to critique. President Perkins, so to say, takes a positive view of reason just as he takes a positive view of science. And he takes the American university, at least on the side of its research, as a going cognitive concern, as of course within limits it unquestionably is. My quarrel is not at all that he raises no doubts about the validity of scientific research or the importance of its transmission and use. Rather is it that he seems not to see that there may be precious forms of knowledge, possibilities of human study and learning, worthy of a great university’s concern, which simply are not products of “research” and which do not fall reasonably within the purview of most American (or Greek) academicians’ notions of reason.

To be fair, President Perkins, himself trained as a political scientist, would probably not wish to be held to strict interpretations of such concepts as science and reason. Undoubtedly he would repudiate the notion that all knowledge, or science, must be formulable in mathematically exact terms. Yet what he says about “the humanities,” and it isn’t much, suggests that he conceives them, at least for university purposes, primarily as those products of historical and philological inquiry which would be publishable in the Proceedings of the Modern Language Association. It does not include the sort of informal critical and philosophical reflections upon literature and the arts that one encounters, say, in the prose writings of Coleridge, or Arnold, or Nietzsche and, in our time, in the essays of Eliot, Camus, or, particularly in his earlier period, Trilling. In its current usage, the cant word “research” is a perfectly apt term for the work of the experimental psychologist or comparative linguist, and hence for the preliminary investigations that are often invaluable to the man of letters, the humanist, and the philosopher. It is not, I believe, a word that is appropriate to what the latter are doing when they finally close with the “objects” of their concern, nor is it the word for what they are doing in performing their own characteristic jobs of work.

PRESIDENT PERKINS fancies the three primary activities of the American university as “missions.” If his account of the first mission is an academic stereotype, one part of what he says about the second mission—which he habitually calls the “transmission” of knowledge—is not. Indeed, his is the first published expression I have encountered of a powerful trend among those members of the academic establishment who would streamline the whole university curriculum so that it can more readily serve the interests of research and public service. For nearly a decade not only general education but also, in its older senses, liberal education have been under quiet but increasingly severe attack in the universities. And the rash of reexaminations of general education—which scarcely two decades ago was regarded as the educational reform of our age—is in fact less a function of an understandable desire to improve, let alone expand, existing general education programs than to curtail their role in the undergraduate curriculum and to make it easier for “bright” students to avoid their requirements.

Now it must be acknowledged that many “G. E.” courses are uninspired (so, by the way, are many departmental courses), boringly taught to phlegmatic students who want to get on with their careers and lives. Further, the better secondary schools, and particularly the private schools, are currently giving students great lashings of general and liberal studies. The average freshman from Choate or Loomis sometimes reminds one of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, who has “known them all already, known them all,” from Plato’s dialogues to the plays of Genet, and from set theory to the dark night of the soul. What really remains for such a creature but to move on as rapidly as possible to graduate school? The new device in many universities of admitting precocious freshmen to something called “advanced standing” has many justifications, among them the avoidance of an expensive fifth year of high school at Harvard or Cornell, another prolonged course, that is, of general and liberal studies. Moreover, as President Perkins and Professor Bell both ask, in effect, “Who, nowadays, wants to teach General Education?” (Young Ph.D.s with their careers and of them go where the prestige, the security, and the hard money are, and at most universities this is not the office of the Committee on General Education.)

Not, certainly, President Perkins. His argument has force. Like Kerr, Perkins is a pluralist about higher education, but he would achieve the ends of the multiversity by different means. Kerr, an imperialist and a federalist, would let the university diversify its activities more or less as it will within one great academic union. Perkins, however, belongs to the Ivy League. He wants to maintain a greater internal coherence within the university so that none of the missions he ascribes to it will be overwhelmed by the rest. This means, in practice, that the job of transmitting knowledge must be constantly geared to the demands of advancing research and service. Perkins’s ploy is thus to “break the lock step that would keep all institutions and students working in the same patterns and at the same pace.” In a university, undergraduate instruction “can and must be different…than in a college, and that it can and must appeal to a special category of student.” This difference, as Perkins describes it, is a direct consequence of his thesis that the university is the place, among institutions of higher learning, where the advancement and application of learning in the interests of society are primary missions. Such an institution may “hold fast to the ideals of a liberal education.” But it must “recognize that, in the face of rapidly improving secondary education and the multi-concerns of the modern university, the style of liberal education will have to be adapted to its environment.” Hence, for the student “who wants to specialize”—clearly the university, as distinct from the ordinary college, student—liberal education will have to be provided either by the secondary school or by “a special program that includes liberal along with professional studies—or a combination of both.” “After all,” as Perkins blandly says, “a liberal education is the objective of a life time. Why assume it should be crowded into the first two post-secondary years?”

WHY INDEED? The only trouble is that, like so many others, President Perkins himself obviously would shed no tear if liberal studies were conducted mainly in the secondary schools or else in four-year liberal arts colleges, which would thereby become glorified finishing schools run by professor-masters for whom research and service are not true missions. Plainly, the university is here being unveiled by Perkins as America’s great center for advanced studies, which admits into its precincts only clever young apprentices whose interest in learning is, from the beginning, entirely professional. President Perkins only slightly blurs his tracks. “There can be,” he reminds us, “a liberal and professional way of treating any subject.” Yes. In a university where the missionary pressures on student and teacher alike are wholly on the professional side, “it becomes particularly important that the research-oriented professors have as broad a view of their subject as possible.” Yes. But how is this to happen in a context where there is only a “special program” of liberal studies, and when even this perfunctory hat-tipping in the direction of liberality is at once forgotten? We are warned that “the flexibility and independence of graduate-level work will have to characterize a larger proportion of undergraduate education too.” Already this is happening in the junior and senior years; for those “who are ready for it—and there are many more than we think,” it doubtless will have to be extended into the first two years. Obviously the next step must be to get rid, not of the Ph.D. degree (as some have argued), but of the B.A., at least as a university degree. This done, the incoming freshmen can proceed, without ado, to the work that will enable them shortly to swell the ranks of the professor missionaries of the American university.

President Perkins’s formula for preserving coherence and balance within the university in the face of its “multi-concerns” has a certain plausibility; formally, it preserves the identity of the university as an educational institution of sorts, as Kerr’s multiversity does not. The formula is this: ideally each of the missions should positively strengthen the other two; that is, no training for public service that doesn’t reinforce research, no research (presumably) that fails to strengthen the curriculum; but also, note well, no curriculum and no teaching that fail to strengthen research and service. In practice this implies that no additions should be made to the university staff which do not strengthen the research and service corps, no courses added that fail to prepare students for their work as proto-researchers and servicemen, no “extra-curricular” artistic, literary, or intellectual activities which can’t be justified by the power they add to the missions. Not a word is said about those dimensions of teaching whose only justification is the enlargement of the human imagination, the quickening, in part by subtle processes of emulation and identifications, of the student’s impulse to become a more fully human being. President Perkins talks of the mission of service, but he quite ignores that service which a university ought to render its own members, students, faculty, and administrators alike; the provision of an example of a community of mutually developing persons, at once learned and cultivated, dedicated to their own work but responsive to achievements of orders different from their own. Why is it that virtually a whole generation of the choicest students and junior faculty are so revolted by the grubbiness, pretentiousness, and vulgarity of the multiversity, by its remoteness and impersonality, by its deadly “functions,” including, among others, its incredible “commencement” days with their honorary degrees for retired generals, and the ghost-written speeches in justification of some manifest destiny or other? Having read several books about the Berkeley student revolt and having witnessed something of the sort in my own university, I am convinced that what animates these uprisings is not so much a demand for greater political or social freedom, or a desire to participate in the day-to-day running of the university, as a desperate, angry reaction to the meagerness and meaness of so much ordinary university life.2 President Perkins remarks that young people who “keep looking for a kind of faculty-student relationship that can best be found in an independent liberal arts college” are involved in a fruitless search which merely adds to the problem of internal cohesion (never forget the missions!) in the university. And he tells them that if they need a sense of security that comes from being a member of a smaller, tighter community, “they should not come to the university.” But, then, who should come? Youthful computers, already programmed for research and service? What he does not, will not, see is that everyone, whether student or professor or administrator, suffers from the anonymous life of anxiety-ridden specialized and professionalized missionary work to which the university anti-community commits its members. The brutal fact remains that for all too many of its inhabitants, including its students, the central institution of higher learning in our time is not remotely a “mission” (to update slightly Cardinal Newman’s image of the university as an “active cloister”) but a factory town whose industry (to employ some figure of the university leaders themselves) is a kind of knowledge.

SUCH REFLECTIONS are further darkened as one follows President Perkins’s later ruminations on the universities’ struggles for internal coherence and self-control in the face of mounting external interference, particularly by the national government. But I have no space, even if I had the heart, to do more than mention his suave defense of the burgeoning, immensely costly administrative bureaucracy, with its lunatic hierarchy of trustees, presidents and vice presidents, chancellors and provosts, and department “heads,” its subtly influential administrative and secretarial assistants for whom frequently not only the student but the ordinary faculty member are figures in a committee report. Nowhere is there a touch of irony, a casual note of self-deprecation, an awareness of the appalling menace of full-time university executives and their appendages, who indeed make a mission of administration and whose relations to what goes on in the classroom or the laboratory, not to mention the dormitory or the common room, are not sufficiently developed to be called ceremonial. NOt even vaguely does President Perkins intimate that a distinction might be drawn between something called “institutional management” and “educational leadership”; that in fact the kind of institutional life American university managers must lead usually insulates them from the educational life of the university. It is no accident I think that, as Time magazine cheerfully pointed out in a recent issue, leaders of business and heads of universities have become interchangeable parts. In fact, as our universities move, in Perkins’s phrase, “from autonomy to systems” (as the University of California has already done) the president of a multiversity is nothing but the executive officer of a “knowledge industry.”3

IF ONE CARES TO LEARN something about the actual ways of university administrators, more is to be learned from Herbert Stroup’s sardonic Bureaucracy in Higher Education than from a dozen books of apology by national university leaders such as Perkins and Kerr. Stroup, a sociologist as well as Dean of Students at Brooklyn College, reminds one at times of Veblen. Unfortunately his book is uneven and offers no real alternative to existing trends. Indeed, Stroup defends academic bureaucracy as “a stablizing and regularizing influence on the social body,” whose very existence “tends to stave off haphazard, quixotic and even irrational efforts on the part of powerful minorities.” He also argues, following the political scientist, C.J. Friedrich, that bureaucracy may be a positive help to the maintenance of a democratic society.

Nonetheless in the case of the university, Stroup himself contends that “the college worker” is not less but “more amenable to the dictates of interest groups than are others in society.” He reminds us of the melancholy fact that of all groups composing the Nazi party, teachers were the best represented, and he quotes (Dean Stroup has a gift for quotation which he overworks) approvingly a statement of Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills to the effect that scientists and technicians just because of their narrow training and limited knowledge are the most easily manipulated of all groups in modern society. For my part I do not know this to be true. But on general grounds I find it believable. The very organization of the American university, with its absentee owners (trustees) and quasi-military chain of command, at once relieves the ordinary professor and student of responsibilities for what happens to the institution itself and systematically unfits him for sustained political action in spheres outside his immediate field of professional interest. For most of us academicians, in fact, major decisions and policies adopted by “the university” are like fate, and we uncheerfully accept them as such.

If it is true, as M. E. Dimock remarks in a statement quoted by Stroup at the end of his book, that “an institution tends to take on the character of its leadership,” those concerned with the quality of academic life in our universities have reason to be alarmed. For our top university leaders, as Stroup demonstrates, are largely and effectively insulated from that life. They may know something about it by description, but they do not share it, any more than the captains of other industries share the ordinary life of workers. Invariably this fact is reflected in their public utterances. Indeed, the fatal limitation of the books, and minds, of university hierarchs like James Perkins, who so gladly preach to the rest of us about missions in which they themselves participate—perhaps can any longer participate—only ritually, is their utter remoteness from the educational process. What their discourses really amount to are managers’ briefs for those parts or aspects of the national industry over which they preside but which, even as presiding officers, they understand only imperfectly. The rest—and it is a very great deal—is not their “business.”

PRESIDENT PERKINS, no more than President Kerr, offers a remotely acceptable account of the idea of the university. But if I have to choose between them, I will take Kerr’s account, both because it is more accurate as a statement of fact, and because, construed as prescription and prophecy, it leaves open the possibility that the university may remain something more than an advanced technological institute. A multiversity may be an educational department store with attached service stations of various sorts, but, like Sears, it sells everything, including, conceivably, a half-liberal education.

Admittedly the sort of undergraduate education which a university makes possible differs in important ways from that afforded by even a first-rate liberal arts college like Oberlin or Swarthmore. For undergraduates as well as graduate students, a range of educational possibilities, informal as well as formal, exists within the environment of a university, even of the second rank, which even the most richly endowed four-year college cannot match. Correspondingly, the university college has liabilities which not all undergraduates are able to offset. But “getting lost” is not, as President Perkins contends, by any means the whole problem. An undergraduate can get lost at Oberlin as well as at Cornell, and many students at smaller universities such as Brandeis have readier access to what is left of their teachers’ minds than they do at large city colleges. The point is rather that the university college itself is subject to both intellectual and (shall I say) moral strains, and has peculiar problems of identity and integrity that are owing to the fact that it is incysted within a university whose academic departments and institutes have educational and professional commitments that frequently (although by no means always) lead away from the concerns of liberal education. Quite apart from the existence of the professional schools, which can greatly enrich the undergraduate curriculum, there are the graduate school and the graduate students whose presence is felt, often for the better, throughout the college. Further, in a university college, the opportunity, as well as the pressure, to specialize and to do it quickly is commonly greater than in most other colleges. For these reasons, the issue of liberal education—what it is and what it is worth, especially to the exceptional student—may be more keenly felt in the university than in the four-year college. And partly because of this the general education movement itself and most of the current proposals for its reform have originated within the universities.

But the significance of liberal education, and hence of the problems of general education in the impending era of the multiversity and the university system, is unlikely to be intensely felt by anyone not directly involved in the primary educational experience of the university college. This is true enough, God knows, of many research professors, anxious to “get on with their work.” How much more so must it be of professional administrators, such as President Perkins, bemused by the incessant demands of all the far-flung missions over which they preside. This is a question, not of good will or personal endowment, but of experience and of the focus which experience alone makes possible. To write significantly and imaginatively about what is at stake in the contemporary crisis of the university college—and this, I have come to think, lies at the very heart of the wider crisis of the university and of the whole higher learning in our time—one must be constantly involved as a teacher, writer, and person in the fundamental life of the mind. Only so can one realize what an incomparable endowment a truly liberal education can be for young people just now coming into full possession of their powers. But only so, also, can one appreciate the sense of divided loyalties and aspirations, and the feeling of attenuation and loss which pervade the contemporary university college. Plainly, the task is, in the full etymological sense of the term, a philosophical one, well beyond the range of interest or experience, I should add at once, of most academic philosophers, themselves tied to the routines of an increasingly specialized profession. It requires someone who, like Daniel Bell, is himself (if he will not mind my saying so) caught in the cross-fire between the scholar and the intellectual, and who, one suspects, finds it impossible to satisfy all the aspirations of his own commodious mind within the limits set by even so sprawling an academic discipline as sociology. In the second part of this essay, we shall consider with what success Professor Bell, a philosopher now almost in spite of himself, has coped with the monumental job of work to which he has been called as historian, critic, and (conceivably) reformer of general education in one great university college, Columbia.

(The second part of this essay will appear in the next issue.)

This Issue

October 20, 1966