As this is being written, the colleges and universities are digging in for another round of campus troubles. Since the outbreak at Berkeley in 1964, the campuses have become a problem of national concern and, despite the many diagnoses, a matter of puzzlement. Although the head of one major university, responding to a US senator’s question whether greater financial aid might not solve the universities’ ills, remarked that he knew of no difficulty which would be worsened by more money, the puzzlement remains. Most educators and public officials agree that higher education is in deep financial trouble, but no one believes that lack of funds has produced student unrest, even though it may contribute to the conflicts over black and ethnic studies.
American politicians are not at their best when confronting problems which elude a financial solution, and it was only natural that they should fall back to other familiar positions. The first consisted of forcing the campus problems into legal categories from which, presto, they emerged as issues of rule violation and laxity in law enforcement. The obvious solution was to withdraw government aid from disaffected students and to warn the colleges and universities that they would suffer financial loss if they continued to be soft on law and order. The second position was equally predictable: trace the problems to an international Communist conspiracy, and then prove the allegation by introducing hostile witnesses, in this instance some SDS types and a few Yippies.
Although it is likely that higher penalties will tend to discourage campus protests by raising the material and psychic costs to the activists, it is unlikely that such measures will prove to be of more than symbolic significance—interesting testimony to the ways our decision-makers perceive the problem within a framework of public outrage and private anxiety. President Nixon himself has expressed private worry that student discontents might persist even if the Vietnam war ended, which has the merit, at least, of leaving open the possibility of discussing the state of the campuses in other than the conventional terms of public policy. For it may be that we are experiencing a profound crisis in the liberal psyche, broader yet similar to that expressed by John Stuart Mill:
Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you? And an irrepressible self-consciousness answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down.
Suppose no Vietnam, no racial tensions, no poverty….
Perhaps, then, we might think of the student problem, not as a policy question, but as a symbolic fact, as a state of affairs intimating a more general disorder.
Recall the remarkable quality of Academic Commencement, 1969. Normally commencement is an amiable time, when relatives, friends, and dignitaries gather to honor the graduating students and distinguished recipients of honorary degrees. But last June it was a time of high tension. Administrators and faculty prayed that the ceremonies might be completed without interruption by dissidents or militants. Parents looked on in shock and disbelief at the dress, deportment, and rhetoric of their offspring. The truly remarkable feature of commencement, however, was not the threat of disruption by the young, but the abdication and anxiety of the old. The President of the United States went near no major college or university. He chose, instead, to appear first at a junior college in South Dakota, where he dedicated the Karl Mundt Library and denounced student troublemakers, and then at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, where he affirmed that patriotism was still the highest virtue, and pledged to defend the military against its domestic critics.
Customarily, commencement is a time when notable figures from public and private life invite their youthful audiences into the adult world and seek to describe its promise. But this year, all across the land, and in all manner of academic institutions, student speakers dominated the proceedings, telling the adults what was wrong with the world and what the new generation intended to do about it. They rejected both the austere past symbolized by Dakota and the Cold War anti-Communism of Karl Mundt, and the lethal and bleak technological future of the Air Force Academy. They insisted that the world was now theirs, and had to be understood in their terms.
The June events signified a reversal of the rites of passage and a redefinition of the rituals of rebellion. Despite that, they have now been nearly forgotten.
One reason why the events of June were soon forgotten is that the modes of interpreting campus troubles have become fixed within a certain pattern. Placed within that pattern, the June days seemed disturbing, but not surprising. For nearly a half-dozen years now the language and imagery of revolution have been used to describe and analyze events on the campuses—revolt, rebellion, student power, violence, and the like. Once this framework is set, a host of historical associations related to the great revolutions of the past arises, inflating the fears of the threatened, and swelling the dreams of the hopeful. Believing themselves in the midst of revolution, both sides relax their inhibitions about violence.
Bacon once remarked that “even if men went mad all after the same fashion, they might agree one with another well enough.” If political and campus officials and large numbers of students agree that they are locked in revolutionary struggle and strive to act accordingly, it is idle to say that they have misunderstood their situation. But it is worth asking, nonetheless, whether inherited notions of revolution are not anachronistic and hence a source of confusion for all parties.
Most of our ideas and images are still shaped by revolutions which happened in pre-industrial societies where differentials of wealth, power, and privilege were deeply and hopelessly etched, and where a small and visible ruling class on the top oppressed and exploited the masses on the bottom. The revolutions of France, Russia, and China were directed against the long historical past and its persistence into the present. Today any lucid discussion of revolution in the advanced states must begin with the fact of technological society, not with ideas fashioned to analyze traditional societies. It must ask whether that fact does not by itself alter the sense in which a revolution is a meaningful possibility; whether social evils do not therefore acquire a novel form; and whether the marks of oppression are not to be sought among groups very different from the oppressed classes described in the classical literature of revolution.
The main feature of technological society is not merely rapid change, but, as its admirers have said, creative destruction. It not only destroys habits, beliefs, and institutions inherited from the past, but those which were created only yesterday. In a society where memory is an irritant because it impedes progress, concepts like “tradition” or categories like “the past” are mostly meaningless. To revolt against such a society means striking against the fluid present rather than against the burdensome past. It means, too, that instead of struggling, as revolutionists usually have, against societies which seemed incapable of moving and growing, today’s revolutionist is in the absurd position of protesting against a society in constant movement and capable of promising everything, from the abolition of poverty to the abolition of death—either as a penalty or as a disease.
Talk about “revolution on the campus” is pathetic or mythological, for not only does it overlook the hard fact of technological society, but it also exaggerates the revolutionary potential of the campus. Because universities and colleges are vital to the economy and culture of technological society and because they exercise power over their own members, one may be deluded into believing that they are instrumentalities of power, and hence bases for revolution. Sometimes universities and colleges are able to exercise influence over other parts of society, but by most criteria of power they are weak. As potential centers of revolution they are hopeless, for there is little power to mobilize.
The manifest discontents and chronic disorders on the campuses are important, but their importance is distorted if they are viewed as revolutionary cells in a body politic vulnerable to the classic disorders of revolution. The condition of the campuses is significant because the campus represents the most advanced part of our society, not its most oppressed. It is where the knowledge explosion is happening, where the discontents with our racial, urban, and foreign policies are continuously aired and publicized, and where all manner of experiments are being lived by the new generation. Although student activists are apt to describe students as the “new proletariat” or simply as “niggers,” their plight is significant not because they are oppressed but because they are corrupted.
Student discontent first broke out in the economically most advanced and affluent society (something which has been overlooked by social scientists who have warned of the impending “Latin Americanization of the universities”). Most of the trouble and violence has occurred at the most prestigious institutions. Except for the recent outbreaks by blacks and their “Third World” allies, the rebels have come from comfortable, professional, middle-class and upper middle-class families.
These are familiar facts, but the conclusion from them is what matters: if a revolutionary condition exists on the nation’s campuses, it represents a protest by the middle class against the middle class. Or more pointedly, it is a condition created because the middle class has turned against its world and against its own values. How little similarity there is between the politics of the students and classical revolutionary situations is evident in the intense and almost universal hostility of the working classes and rural populations toward the students. The hatred of the “masses” is stirred by the abrasive politics on campus, and by the casual sexuality, drug experimentation, and general slovenliness of the students. It is kept in motion by the continuous spectacle of the sons and daughters of those who have made it in America and who now defile those values of work, achievement, and upward mobility which sustain the city worker and the people of the small towns and rural areas. To claim that the workers and farmers of America are the victims of false consciousness is to miss the main point. What is being expressed on the campuses is a post-Marxian phenomenon, an attempt at change initiated from above and opposed to the aspirations, grievances, and values of those below the middle classes in the social hierarchy. It is, moreover, an attempt at revolution which dares not go into the streets, the factories, and (increasingly) the ghettos.
If the state of the campuses is more reflective of a middle-class revolt than of a revolutionary situation, then the relative ineffectiveness of the students may reveal something important about the possibilities of fundamental change in a liberal, affluent, and technologically advanced society. Tocqueville’s conjecture that among democratic nations “great intellectual and political revolutions will become more difficult and less frequent than is supposed” now seems confirmed. A society capable of producing floods of consumer goods, of supporting high levels of employment, or subsidizing those it cannot employ, of practicing a form of politics in which organized groups gain some material satisfaction most of the time, and of providing endless varieties of entertainment and distraction is a difficult target to attack. Such a society lends itself more to “targets of opportunity” than to frontal assaults, e.g., poverty, discrimination, inadequate housing, and exploited fruit-pickers.
The dominant groups of this society are, from the revolutionary point of view, elusive. They prefer the politics of influence and indirect power, rarely flaunt their privileges, and are open to new recruits. It has been a century since they have told the public where it can go. The lack of clearly defined enemies is tacitly recognized in the vocabulary of the rebels: the use of words like “dissent,” and of actions like “protest,” “resistance,” and “demonstration” are an admission that they are reduced to seeking targets of opportunity within a generally benevolent system. Because the liberal, affluent, technological society is characteristically bland, accommodating, and good-natured, it renders the revolutionary powerless, allowing him to act out, outrageously if he wishes, his subversive impulses, encourages him to theatrical revolution, which means that he can shock but never destroy.
The affability of the managers of technological society is encouraged by something more than the fact that they preside over an economy which supplies them, as no other ruling group has ever been supplied, with a generous margin or surplus so that concessions are always possible and mistakes always corrigible. What they have in addition is the enormous power—also without historical precedent—which accrues to those who control a society of consumers, a power owing as much to the powerlessness of the subjects as to the instrumentalities of the rulers. In all previous societies, powerlessness was the consequence of deprivation: deprivation of rights, privileges, property, work, education. Although pockets of material deprivation still exist, the main source of powerlessness is not deprivation but consumption. Technological society lives by consumption, and its members live for it. They allow the quality and tempo of their lives to be set by the changing requirements of technology. They above all acquiesce happily in the reduction of control over the quality and intensity of personal experience which is one of the fruits of technology.
Think of the American who comes to Yosemite in a camper truck with a boat on top, a motorcycle strapped to the front, and a power-boat trailered to the rear. He thinks he has expanded his range of action and his powers of enjoyment, whereas he has really become the prisoner of his technology, restricted to where it can take him and what it can bring him. He suffers a reduction in personal power and experience even while thinking he has extended them. It is instructive that in the same state of nature the sworn enemy of the camper trucker should end in the same state of powerlessness. Deep in the wilderness one may meet a bearded and beaded hippie, totally stoned, incapacitated from encountering nature on its terms. He has renounced the powerlessness of active consumption for the powerlessness of passive consumption.
The powerlessness of the many forms the larger setting for the powerlessness of the campus rebels. The dominant groups in our society do not fear the latter; on the contrary, they find much that is charming and usable in their dress, idiom, and eternal youthfulness—so much so that constant efforts are made to absorb the culture of the young. It may come out wrong, sometimes emerging as Playboy culture and commercial advertising. Yet, as we know from recent accounts, the gap between Mrs. Luce and the rebels is not always great. What does alarm the elites, and helps to explain their willingness to support harsh measures against the campuses, is the possibility that the antics of the rebels will intensify and ignite the deep-seated fears and hatreds of broad sectors of the population: urban workers of recent foreign origin, small-town America, and the less sophisticated middle classes in the South, Middle West, Southwest, and Southern California.
The dominant groups do fear polarization, but they fear one of the polarities—the student rebels—not so much for what it represents as for the forces it may activate. They fear the other for what it does represent. It brings reminders, often unattractive, of what technological society is always trying to forget and to destroy: its past—a past in which work, self-denial, simplicity, and physical strength were celebrated. Whereas the technological elites can share with the rebels a common fascination for electronic marvels and for the endless movement which modern communications and transportation allow, and can enjoy in private the pleasures which the rebels flaunt in public, those same elites are repelled by honkies, Southerners, and citizens of Orange County. But because they know that the real threat to technological society comes from those who are frightened and confused by incessant change, they are willing to sanction, perhaps reluctantly, firm measures against those who are hip, mod, cool, and really plugged into the future.
The fundamental malady of technological society, then, is the nearly universal sense of powerlessness, disguised as consumption and maintained by rising expectations. That sense of powerlessness is expressed in various ways: in the rage and confusion of the working and lower-middle classes; in the aimlessness of the middle-class hippie; in the despair of the poor and the anger of the blacks; in the fear and harshness of the American Gothics who rallied first to Goldwater and then to Wallace.
Among the many causes which promote our common futility there is one that has gone relatively unnoticed. We may be the first people to experience what it means to live in accordance with the fundamental postulates of the scientific and technological credo. It is one thing to talk, as philosophers and scientists have done for a century, about the differences between scientific beliefs and moral, religious, and political beliefs; about the objective status of the one and the subjective status of the other; about how the one is grounded in empirical realities and the other in prejudice, superstition, or metaphysics; and about how the one gives us power over nature and the future, while the other gives us only solace for our ignorance.
It is quite another thing when an entire society attempts to shape its life by scientific and technical knowledge, making that knowledge the very foundation for the continuance and the security of society, and encouraging its pursuit even to the point of sacrificing the welfare and shattering the memories and hopes of many of its citizens. It is quite another thing because that knowledge is, by the admission of its exponents, silent on the questions of how a man should live, and what he should choose. Those who have interpreted the meaning, presuppositions, and methods of scientific and technical knowledge have insisted that it cannot prescribe ends. They have also asserted that other forms of knowing whose business it is to traffic in “values” lack the characteristics of genuine knowledge, e.g., empirical verification, quantifiability, even rationality.
Once the scientific culture takes hold, there is a scramble to emulate it and thereby avoid the stigma of inferiority; hence its spread to the social studies, history, and the humanities. The end result is the divorce between knowledge and values symbolized by the underlying agreement between the techno-scientist and the hippie, the one declaring that values are subjective preferences, the other mumbling, “Man, I’m only doing my thing.” The end result signifies that values are no longer shareable as knowledge, and hence one gets only their functional equivalents: sensation, feeling, spectacle.
But if it is in the nature of the techno-scientific culture to render values private and unshareable, perhaps there is still hope. Perhaps there is one important value crucial to that culture and yet a value to which all can subscribe and even share, the value of knowledge itself.
Knowledge permeates the whole ethos and structure of technological society. This is what mainly distinguishes it from previous forms of society. Consequently, higher education plays a vital role. Its institutions have become the foundation of a society based on scientific knowledge. We must then ask two questions concerning the universities and colleges. Are they succeeding in making knowledge something that can truly be shared? Are they realizing the goal of making knowledge power and hence a means of overcoming human powerlessness?
At first glance it appears that the university has the prerequisites of a community held together by the active sharing of knowledge. Many of the conditions one would want to postulate seem fulfilled. For some time now public universities have been committed to opening their doors to a wide variety of groups and classes. Along with the private institutions, they are now making a serious effort to enroll sizable numbers of students from racial and ethnic groups. Within tolerable limits, the communities of higher education are open; and, despite mounting costs, education is relatively cheap and available. Beyond these and other material conditions conducive to sharing knowledge, there have been the great changes in the nature of knowledge, typified by modern science, which also seem to promote communal ends. Of the many things that might be said to characterize the modern ideal of knowledge, these are the least disputable: it is rational, secular, empirical, cumulative, and public. No secret mysteries, no fixed dogma, no priest-hood.
Thus modern knowledge appears uniquely designed to be the stuff from which communities of scholars and students might be formed. In addition, the modern idea of knowledge has promised to help men to a fuller measure of personal freedom, liberating them from ignorance and superstition, and enlarging the efficacy and power of the individual. Unlike those who had trafficked in metaphysics, theology, aesthetics, and the like, the modern man would know something that could be applied directly to the world. He could be equipped to move into the world, confident of his ability to make a place for himself where what he did would make a difference in shaping his life.
Yet when we look at what the modern ideal of knowledge has become in the university, we find that at every turn it threatens to diminish what it had promised to enlarge: freedom, efficacy, and sharing. The modern ideal is summed up in the slogan about the “knowledge explosion,” which the universities have done so much to detonate. So great is the proliferation of knowledge that the problem now is how to retrieve it from the swelling data banks where it is stored. Realistically, the “knowledge explosion” means that a few know a great deal about how nature and society “work,” while the rest of us are about as ignorant as we have always been. Further, as knowledge has become increasingly refined, it becomes more inaccessible to the many, more esoteric, more removed from the world of common experience.
Comparable effects have also been produced in the life of the university by the pursuit of knowledge as a form of power. Repeating the pattern of the outside world, a few university men enjoy great power, while the many are about as powerless as they have always been, perhaps more so. Power within the university depends upon the demands of the “knowledge-market” outside. Those in the university who have knowledge which is in demand, or, equally important, know how to organize those who do have it, come to have superior power and influence. Their superiority is exhibited in countless “special arrangements,” higher salaries, lower teaching loads, more research support, more spacious accommodations, and more influence in university councils.
All of this is obvious. It is necessary only to draw the obvious conclusion: the distinction between university and society, the enduring effort of universities to develop a life and culture different from that of society—an effort which began with Plato’s Academy and continued into recent times—is now a distinction without a difference. If anything of a difference remains it is a consequence of the reversal which has taken place in the relationships between university and society. Broadly speaking, from the sixteenth century to the end of the nineteenth, universities were frequently criticized for failing to assimilate important types of knowledge, such as modern languages, newer forms of mathematics and science, and various practical arts. In our century, however, it is the other way round. Society is constantly required to adapt to the knowledge being developed in the universities, knowledge not only in the natural sciences and engineering, but in economics, psychology, and sociology as well.
These changes have registered their severest effects upon undergraduate education, especially at the large public universities. Today, undergraduate education is a shambles. Traditionally it has had the task of general education, of defining and transmitting the knowledge appropriate to a “well-educated” or “cultivated” man. When a civilization reaches a fair degree of self-consciousness and self-definition it embodies in a formal curriculum those values which it regards as essential to the best intellect and sensibility: the Greek Academy; the medieval trivium and quadrivium; the liberal-humanistic curriculum of the nineteenth century.
Moreover, in those earlier societies possession of the knowledge imparted through the college succeeded fairly well in equipping men for understanding themselves and their social order, and for taking positions of influence in church, state, and society. And since virtually all the educated shared a common fund of knowledge, college education enabled all those who had it to converse among themselves about the questions that mattered.
Merely to say these things is to see immediately how far we have moved from them. While all of the older conceptions of the content and purposes of undergraduate education still linger on in more-or-less mutilated form, nobody is very certain of their utility—or, as it is called today, “relevance.” Certainly, they provide the stuff of commencement day addresses and college catalog prose, but few will still argue that they provide the knowledge that leads to social power and influence. Nor is anyone really convinced that the liberal arts curriculum teaches values and molds character. About the strongest claim made for education in the arts and humanities today is that the knowledge so gained can enrich one’s leisure time: education to solve the “problem of leisure”; and leisure here means recreation, not the fullest use of one’s capacities.
The fact is, we simply do not know the form of the highest general culture appropriate to contemporary, largely post-industrial society. Whatever that general culture might come to be and mean, it certainly will not merely be what it always has been. Most colleges occupy the undergraduate years with a kind of pre-professional training and specialization, or a pedantic and uncertain humanism, or an uneasy compromise between the two—some “breadth” courses, followed by concentration in a “major.” The result saddens the best teachers, maddens the best students, and gladdens no one.
But the undergraduate curriculum will remain motley and infirm until the colleges decide what those vulnerable years in the lives of the young are for, and what they are not for. The most powerful emerging tendencies are either treating the undergraduate student as a candidate for graduate or professional school, or arranging things so that the student can have the greatest possible latitude for personal search and experiment. Both tendencies, of course, intensify intellectual fragmentation and pluralistic ignorance, leading to privatization rather than to genuine sharing of knowledge and experience. Once again the extremes produce weakness and lead to a society of disconnected particulars. On the one side, increasing professionalization, on the other, a growing tendency to let students go their own ways. Each tendency hurries the student toward his own cocoon.
Compared to the desperate confusions of undergraduate life, the higher reaches of the higher learning—graduate and professional schools and advanced research centers—appear peaceful and well-ordered. A closer look reveals currents which conceal weakness beneath professionalization, atomization beneath organization, powerlessness beneath power.
The proliferation of specialized knowledge, in addition to the availability of research funds, in addition to the tendency to inflate into “professional” status occupations that are really little more than fairly highly skilled jobs, has turned the modern large university into a bewilderingly complex collection of special institutes, centers, bureaus, and schools. These units occupy a semi-autonomous status within the university, enjoying their own budgets, governed by their own officers, adopting their own standards for staff and student performance, and largely oriented toward constituencies outside the university. The resulting centrifugal forces are ungovernably strong, and increasingly the university becomes a holding company with only nominal control over the agencies which bear its name.
These tendencies are strengthened by the multiversitarian ideology of the university as the servant of society. Under this ideology, knowledge is seen as the single most important “growth factor” in modern economies, and universities, as the leading producers within the knowledge industry, become indispensable to all the other productive agencies of society. Universities have always in some sense served society. But never has service been so mundanely conceived or so promiscuously offered as by the modern multiversity.
The precondition of university service to society is professional education. The natural locus of that education is the graduate departments. One expects to find a degree of professionalism in graduate study, but what is now of concern is the tendency to substitute specialization for professionalism and to extend an inflated professionalism into areas of higher education where it does not belong. At its core, the idea of a profession involves a body of knowledge and technique that can be codified, transmitted, and applied in standard ways to socially useful ends. A professional is one who has been certified by other professionals as being in possession of the prescribed knowledge. Specialization as such is not the basic mark of the professional: the lawyer in general practice is as much a professional as the one who specializes in tax law.
The Ph.D. degree most clearly displays the effects of specialization disguised as professionalism. It is no longer regarded as the badge of the man who has acquired competence in a body of knowledge which he wishes to profess to others, whose vocation is scholarship and the pursuit of significant truth, and who gives promise of intellectual creativity. In a growing number of fields, the degree is nothing more than a certification that a man has mastered a limited subject matter and certain techniques of work. The consequences are already apparent, and most are harmful: microspecialization of knowledge, narrowness of outlook, a growing inability to define intellectual significance in any terms other than those set by the techniques of research, and progressive disqualification for the task of teaching undergraduates. His growing expertise closes off much of his subject-field, while surrounding fields are terrae incognitae. His capacities for personal growth come to be defined in terms of growing technical mastery. But even this proves illusory: every field is now expected to be in “ferment,” and hence the techniques acquired as a graduate student will be superseded in a brief time. The only hope left is that he may some day become a dean.
It remains to point out one general feature of the modern job and income structure that has an important bearing on present student discontent. In simpler and more stable eras, persons who went to college could usually make an early choice of career with fair confidence that the future would contain a place for them. Furthermore, those who went to college could count on a future that would bring them a fair measure of personal independence and social influence and prestige: even the schoolteacher was a figure of considerable standing in the small towns of yesterday. But today, with the vast increase in the college-educated population, these exceptions no longer hold. Furthermore, millions of the college-educated now hold jobs that are far below their skills and ability, and those jobs have all the features of industrial work save one—the need for muscle. The work is repetitive, narrow, and stunting.
The college-educated—including increasing numbers of those formally classified as professional—can no longer confidently look forward to places within the established occupational structure that will bring them independence, challenging work, and social influence. They can count on a fair measure of material comfort and security, but more and more young people are asking whether that is sufficient reward for the sacrifice of autonomy and growth. This long-range change in the shape of work is perhaps one of the basic factors underlying youthful discontent and protest. In often vague and poorly focused ways, students are demanding that education be something more than a union card to job security in the bureaucratic-technological society, where one’s talents are exploited for the purposes of others, and where the worker has traded most of the dimensions of genuine freedom enjoyed by former educated and professional classes for clean clothes and comfortable working conditions. But the implementation of that rising demand will require radical changes in the occupational and organizational structure of the technological society itself.
Societies have always been, in part, organizations for the production of the nutrients of life, but modern societies are ruled, as no others have ever been, by the drive for production. Modern production is powerfully oriented toward consumption; and, since consumption is limitless, so too is production. But to produce something means to destroy something else. That is the dynamic of modern production: it must continue as long as there is anything left to destroy.
The evidence of the destructiveness is all around us, both in the realm of nature and in the realm of that “second nature” which is culture. Modern production has obscured the sun and the stars, and it has also made the cities unlivable. It chews up great forests and drinks whole lakes and rivers, and it consumes men’s religions and traditions and makes nonsense of their notions of the aims of education. It periodically slays heaps of men in war, and it daily mangles the spirits of millions of others in meaningless labor. The only aim of the civilization is to grow, and to grow it must consume. As Ellul has shown, the process must run until it consumes those who think they run it—until man is absorbed into technique and process.
The great intellectual task of the present is the task of rethinking every aspect of technological civilization. That this civilization inherently moves toward self-destruction is now clear, and any radical rethinking must start from the premise that its manifest destructiveness will not be stopped by a broader distribution of the values or a more intensive application of the methods and processes which constitute and sustain the evil itself. If the universities were to dedicate themselves to this rethinking, then they would not only serve society in the most valuable way possible, but they might even save themselves.
This task will require more than the opening of the curriculum to miscellaneous “problem courses” on whatever happens to be interesting or bothering people at the moment—with the consequence that the problems of peace, race, poverty, and transcendental meditation all receive equal time. It will require something more of the scientists and technicians than stopping work for a “day of concern.” It will require something more of the humanists than a deeper retreat into the sanctuary of ingeniously obscure research, while mumbling incantations about “higher values.” What it will require is a new focus, and the courage to withdraw human and material resources from the subjects which have high value on the current market, re-allocating them to the task of re-discovering and redefining the humanity and sociability which have become twisted and frustrated by the “single vision” of contemporary modes of organization and public purpose.
The task is in part critical: to examine what technological civilization has done to our language, literature, art, politics, and work. Partly it is retrospective: to expose the historical choices that were made by reference to the putative benefits of science and technology placed in the service of endless growth and power. That study must try to achieve a meaningful assessment of the gains and losses incurred by these choices. Partly it is creative: to reflect upon human history in all of its breadth and diversity in order to acquire the fullest comprehension of the range of human possibilities and, perhaps, a heightened awareness of the crisis which has estranged us from our humanity and our world.
We have preferred to call it a focus rather than a curriculum in order to emphasize the urgency of our condition. Technological civilization encompasses and influences all departments of knowledge, hence it is not just a problem: It is the problem. There is no subject more relevant, none so important for the renewal of hope for our species.
October 9, 1969