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German fraternity students, circa 1900

In the summer of 1740, Adam Smith transferred from the University of Glasgow to Oxford. Things did not work out there as he had hoped. It wasn’t just the class snobbism that got to Smith, a scholarship student. He saw his years at Oxford as a waste of time intellectually, so much so that the outrage he expressed more than two decades later reads like a response to a fresh wound. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith complained that the indolence of Oxford professors had reached the point where most “have…given up altogether even the pretense of teaching.” He added that institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge were, in effect, “sanctuaries in which exploded systems and obsolete prejudices found shelter and protection, after they had been hunted out of every other corner of the world.”

Smith was far from alone with his frustrations. In eighteenth-century Europe, distrust of universities ran high. They were often seen as sclerotic places where traditional privileges allowed for the kinds of abuses Smith listed. The situation was particularly fraught in the German territories, because a culture of student rowdiness had also earned German universities a reputation for corrupting young people. In 1787, Friedrich Schiller reported from Jena that university students would lounge in their windows and empty the contents of their chamber pots onto the busy streets below. “The students delighted in terrorizing honest citizens,” he wrote to a friend.

This made for good literary material; academic satire was one of the most popular genres of the era, with even Frederick the Great writing one. But the state of student life unsettled parents and thus exacerbated the problem of declining enrollments, which left a number of universities too poor to pay their faculties regularly, something that didn’t help them offer better instruction. Professors who spoke out against the excesses of student drinking and secret societies could face violent reprisals, as the philosopher J.G. Fichte did in 1794–1795. Students repeatedly bombarded his house with rocks, nearly killing his sick father-in-law on one occasion when a large paving stone came crashing through a window. With technical institutes—an Enlightenment favorite—and finishing academies proliferating, and with scientific academies functioning as centers of discovery, a question raised by learned and influential commentators grew louder and louder: Do we even need universities?

This moment of crisis led to an inspired reimagining of higher education (a reimagining whose other enabling conditions scholars have located in circumstances that range from the rise of German idealism to a desire for prestige on the part of an emerging professional class). What we now think of as liberal higher education took shape at this time. Fichte wrote that in their present form, German universities couldn’t really justify their existence. They would have to transmute themselves into institutions where, through open-ended, preferably humanistic study, young men from all social classes learned to think systematically but also boldly and independently, becoming “artists of learning.” Doing so would mean developing capacities that would serve them well on whatever career path they took, and that would make them fuller people. As Fichte put it, the education universities impart should be a “free and infinitely adaptable possession, a tool we can readily apply to life.”

The philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher never got along with Fichte, and he and Fichte disagreed on various aspects of university reform. But generally speaking, they shared a vision that will seem familiar to anyone who has read today’s rationales for a college-level general education program. What should be “second nature,” according to Schleiermacher, is for the student “to view everything from the perspective of systematic inquiry, see individual things not in isolation but rather in their intellectual interconnection and place them in a larger context.” Writing in 1808, Schleiermacher claimed that young men equipped with such abilities would be vastly more capable as bureaucrats than those who had been saddled with narrow vocational training. Impractical study had a deeper practicality.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, the scholar-statesman tasked with redesigning Prussia’s system of education, applied this notion not only to the “subjective development” of students, but also to the production of new knowledge. He proposed that the best way for “the state” to get “the scientific and scholarly knowledge it wants” would be by giving the university enough autonomy to pursue research freely. When the University of Berlin opened its doors in 1810, with Fichte and Schleiermacher on the faculty (and making life difficult for each other), this was its guiding ideal: open-ended learning and research for their own sake.

In the essay collection Speaking of Universities, Stefan Collini, professor emeritus of English and intellectual history at Cambridge, writes insightfully about the fate of that ideal. His interest is partly historical. As Collini observes, “the ideal of free enquiry,” which “has been at the heart of the conception of the modern university,” has always operated in the midst of counterforces.


The modern university has had, from the start, more frankly utilitarian functions than liberal education and pure research, such as offering professional education. The very process of bureaucratic modernization in Prussia that gave Humboldt his opportunity as a reformer also led to an increased emphasis on credentialing through comprehensive exams, which, in turn, encouraged a student culture of learning for the test. Although Humboldt’s redesign and rhetoric won greater prestige for the faculty of arts and sciences, formerly categorized as the lowest of the faculties, before the founding of the Second Empire, most students opted for concentrations in professional areas like law.

It wasn’t until around 1870 that arts and sciences enrollments at the University of Berlin surpassed those of medicine, and the shift had a lot to do with Germany’s boom in dye production drawing vocationally oriented young men to chemistry lectures. By the 1880s, the German state, under pressure from industry lobbyists, had begun pushing universities closer to technical education in certain areas. In the US, the Morrill Act of 1862 mandated that any university or college making use of the land grant system of funding that it established must “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.” The debate about which side is more important to the land grant mission—the liberal or the practical—rages on.

European and American universities have thus straddled the divide between “economic practices and the life of the mind,” as Collini puts it. They are “doomed to be homes both to instrumentality on a large scale and to the critique of that instrumentality in a tension or conflict that cannot be wholly resolved.” This helps explain why there has pretty much always been the sense that the ideals of liberal education and free inquiry are under siege.

Collini might have gone further in probing the dynamics driving the perception that the university has seen better days. That the ideal of pure research can generate its own form of vocationalism—namely, a focus on technical training and the specialist’s lack of intellectual openness—has also been an important motif in the fretting about liberal higher education. This line of lament stretches back at least as far as Adolf Diesterweg’s Ruining German Universities (1836) and was summed up by Nietzsche, who wrote, “It isn’t the triumph of systematic scholarship that sets the nineteenth century apart but rather the victory of systematic method over scholarship.”

Similarly, the relationship between the ideal of character formation in liberal education and its ideal of free inquiry has been complicated, and it, too, has caused much elegiac feeling. Perhaps the most famous example is Max Weber’s 1917 speech “Science as a Vocation,” in which he asked whether universities should try to instill in students values beyond the ones open inquiry requires. He concluded (with resignation) that they should not; but as influential as his position has been, it hardly settled the matter. With democracies and their systems of values being tested, his question has been regaining prominence. A century after Weber addressed an audience of students in wartime Munich, Harvard’s president Drew Gilpin Faust warned students gathered for commencement that “in today’s world I believe it is dangerous for universities not to fully acknowledge and embrace their responsibilities to service and values, as well as to reason and discovery.”

Rather than taking up the values-versus-discovery issue, one of the more productive topics in recent scholarship on higher education, Collini mostly concentrates on the tension between free inquiry and liberal education, which he has no problem describing as “the true ends of universities,” and instrumental aims. Not the least of his motivations for tracking how advocates of the liberal model have reckoned with the pressure of such aims in the past is to cull resources for dealing with it in the present, when, in his estimation, it has gotten much worse. Collini sees market values overrunning academic ones in the here and now.

He focuses on the situation in Britain, but he warns, not implausibly, that it could predict the future in other countries, including the US, where the majority of college students are enrolled at public institutions (and universities are no strangers to managerialism). Since 2010, the Tories have radicalized what Collini calls the “financialization” of higher education. McKinsey-trained bureaucrats have mixed invasive oversight and deregulation in an attempt to impose the logic of the market on Britain’s universities. In this transactional model, students are viewed as the paying customers for the services universities provide, and universities are pressured in various ways to treat them as such rather than as, say, students.

In Britain and the US, high levels of student debt have made free tuition a part of political platforms on the left. Yet there is also a great deal of popular “indifference or even hostility toward universities,” in Collini’s phrase. British universities haven’t been roiled by free speech and safe space controversies, which have drawn to US college students the kind of opprobrium previously reserved for the campus “troublemakers” of the 1960s and their counterparts in eighteenth-century Germany. (Surely it’s unusual for the US attorney general to bemoan the character defects of American college students, as Jeff Sessions recently did.) But in both the US and Britain, populist anti-intellectualism, a tendency to see professors as ideologues of the liberal elite, and resentment over the job security of tenured academics have intensified problems of public trust.


Nor has the situation been improved by recent scandals over compensation for administrators at public universities in both countries, or by other messes that have landed the University of California and CUNY in the news. These include $175,000 spent by UC Davis to “scrub” online references to student protesters being pepper-sprayed by campus police, hundreds of admissions offers rescinded by UC Irvine on shaky grounds, and the Office of the President at the University of California interfering with a state audit. Meanwhile, right-wing websites that “monitor” academia appear to have doubled down on their efforts to make every incendiary or insensitive tweet by a liberal professor go viral. Hence, at least in part, the results of a Pew Research Center survey conducted in June 2017: 58 percent of Republicans now believe that America’s colleges and universities have a “negative effect” on society, up from 34 percent just two years earlier.

This climate of opinion is bad for academic autonomy. It has emboldened Republican politicians in Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin to take aim at tenure. It has also led Democrats in the California state legislature to push for rolling back certain areas of self-governance in the UC system. Furthermore, mistrust of colleges and universities can only get in the way of public investment in higher education, which would make it easier for millions of students to think of more than their job prospects when choosing a major. The atmosphere of suspicion is especially hard on what Collini refers to as “real learning.” With its indirect payoff for society and hard-to-measure “impact,” liberal higher education requires of its supporters a particularly great leap of faith. What, then, should concerned advocates of liberal higher learning do?

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Harvard students at the Hasty Pudding Theatricals celebration honoring Octavia Spencer as Woman of the Year, Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 2017

They could, of course, try to follow Collini’s lead in conveying how new policies and practices are undermining it. Much of Speaking of Universities is devoted to detailed reports from the trenches. Collini describes how Britain’s revamped system for auditing academic productivity diminishes professorial autonomy to a degree that would have made Adam Smith blush. As cynical as he was about professors, Smith, who became one himself, maintained that the evaluation of academic performance should be left to academics. When it comes to teaching, “extraneous jurisdiction…is likely to be exercised both ignorantly and capriciously,” he wrote. And it is also likely to leave those subjected to it feeling “degraded.”

Today, professors and researchers in Britain are measured according to standards they have little control over, with the distribution of research funding at stake. This has been going on for a while. Now, however, the independence of the bodies overseeing the evaluations, which are supposed to have an “arm’s length” distance to the ministry they report to, is being diminished as the government reconfigures those bodies—and the evaluations—to match its higher education agenda. What especially interests Collini is how the evaluation process is tilted to the disadvantage of the humanities, whose substantive measures of quality are badly out of sync with the evaluation’s quantification schemes and criteria for “impact.”

In addition, Collini lays out how other ways of determining value in the transactional model—few student customers, for example, means little value—endanger less popular fields that contribute to the pursuit of knowledge, such as mine, German. He also devotes considerable space to examining the language in which the policy decisions driving the financialization of higher education are couched. He demonstrates, for instance, how “the Mission Statement Present is used to disguise implausible non sequiturs as universally acknowledged general truths,” as it does in the claim: “Putting financial power into the hands of learners makes student choice meaningful.” For the actual claim here is that going into debt will do students good.

Collini writes that academics should “be able to articulate an understanding of what universities are for that is adequate for our time.” He certainly believes that he knows what they are for. Whatever else universities do—however much they become identified with functions like that of health care provider, tech hub, sports franchise, booster of the economy, bastion of inclusiveness, or stage for political speech—their most fundamental role in Collini’s view remains to be the place that combines liberal education and free inquiry.

Collini is certainly adept at taking apart managerial discourse and laying out aspects of the predicament of universities in clear, sometimes vivid prose: he compares the critical power of classic writings about the “idea of the university” to the force of the Large Hadron Collider. Hence the impact of his work: he enjoys a sizable readership and has caught the attention of politicians involved with university reform. What’s missing is a fuller rearticulation of the very thing he’s arguing for. Given how alive Collini is to the effects of language, it’s odd that he relies on phrases like “real learning” and “true ends of universities” to evoke liberal higher education. The problem with these formulations isn’t their generality or abstractness, or simply that they’re haughty and threadbare. It’s that they make for a contradiction that dulls the salutary jolt of Collini’s book.

Collini wants to preserve certain core ideals. But he also claims for himself the position of a progressive realist, of someone who understands and even embraces the inevitability of change. In order to maintain this position credibly, you have to go beyond offering truisms like “fundamental forces in the world…are bound to affect the character and functioning of universities.” The challenge is to balance a traditionalist critique of present trends with a sincere openness to the evolution of liberal education and research culture. Here Collini’s mandarin terminology gets in the way.

Another strategy for reanimating ideals is to bring to light the underappreciated richness of their roots. This is the approach that Geoffrey Galt Harpham, a former director of the National Humanities Center, takes in trying to redress the problem of “the defensive, moralizing, banalized discourse that has for many years been associated with liberal education and the humanities.” The wager of his book What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez? is that we will put ourselves in a better position to make the case for liberal education in the US by doing one of the things humanists do: tracing its lineage in significant texts. Here the most important text is the aspirational report of 1945, General Education in a Free Society, known more widely as the Harvard Redbook, which wanted all citizens to have “some common and binding understanding of the society which they will possess in common.”

Although he gives Wilhelm von Humboldt credit for pioneering the modern notion of liberal education, Harpham stresses that it was in “the post-WWII United States that the concept of Bildung was applied to a national program of universal education.” Hence his title: Mr. Ramirez is a pseudonym for a Cuban émigré who went to community college “to better himself” and was asked, in a required general education course, to weigh in on Shakespeare. He floundered, but the experience motivated him. Eventually, Mr. Ramirez became a distinguished professor of literature. Where else, Harpham asks, could this have happened?

The real question for him, though, is how it happened. How did the general education ideals that changed Mr. Ramirez’s life come to be? Harpham offers an answer by way of the following steps. With its talk of the “whole man” and “moral citizenship,” the Redbook can come across as a cold war relic. What Harpham tries to show is that its basic ideas about individual and social development through literary study remain persuasive. From there he suggestively links the project of general education—and the importance of English departments in the postwar era—to older democratic traditions in American culture, such as early modes of interpreting the Constitution and Emerson’s championing of eloquence.

That liberal education—broadly conceived—is good for democracy is a familiar claim, one that goes back at least as far as Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps it has become too familiar. In his attempt to revivify the discourse in support of liberal education, Harpham, in effect, expands the script, making the American system of general education out to be an aid to democracy that is deeply grounded in American culture.

Harpham ultimately fails to demonstrate how “precious conceptual resources” now “immured” in the Redbook might renew that discourse. But it is still easy to imagine his historical argument finding its way into the speeches of university presidents in the US. On the other hand, it is hard to say whether it will inspire new college students and their families. Its prospects for assuaging their practical concerns seem doubtful.

For that purpose, there is George Anders’s You Can Do Anything, part of a growing body of literature about how liberal higher education can lead to success in business or other pursuits. Like most contributors to the genre, Anders has a background in the liberal arts. He fondly recalls studying literature as an undergraduate at Stanford, and he doesn’t present the benefits of liberal education merely in utilitarian terms. Anders believes that liberal study can be life-enriching in ways that can’t be reduced to market value. But he went on to have a distinguished career in business journalism, and he has a different point to make: with its rapid flux and corresponding need for adaptability, today’s world of business is a place where “artists of learning” can and do thrive.

In earnest and lucid support of a counterintuitive idea, Anders tells the stories of liberal arts majors who have managed to establish themselves in all kinds of careers, including several for which conventional wisdom says that only those with an engineering or other professional degree need apply. Though he isn’t writing from the perspective of someone out to save liberal education, he does seem worried about its future, and his book offers a way to stop or slow the trend of dwindling numbers of liberal arts majors.

In a time of anxiety about student debt and the future of the workplace, Anders’s stories of career success speak to visceral concerns. Deans across the country have employed a version of this approach, inviting business leaders with a liberal arts background to speak on campus. And some of these deans claim that this strategy has drawn students to the humanities, arts, and social sciences. If the message of utility here seems stark, the idea remains that utility proceeds from open-ended learning, learning that can amount to “secular soul-building,” as some advocates for the humanities still like to put it.

But the strategy also entails a shift that could have harmful consequences. Schleiermacher and Humboldt stressed the paradoxical social utility of liberal education. They wrote of its benefits for the state and society, in part because they were trying to convince the state to fund their model of higher education, but also because that’s how they conceived of those benefits. By contrast, Anders focuses on utility for the individual—there’s a reason why his book’s title is addressed to “you” and not “we”—and in emphasizing private material gains his book is representative of its genre.

Yet one can do that and still be mindful of how framing a college degree as a private good might affect public support for higher education, which is crucial for its health. Encouraging people to think of higher education, liberal or otherwise, mostly as a private good rather than a public one is basically an endorsement of the transactional model Collini opposes. It makes it less likely that people will support increased public funding for higher education if they see it as having mainly private benefits, particularly if their children are planning to attend a private institution or if the flagship state schools that receive a disproportionate share of public funding seem out of reach. UC Berkeley now rejects 83 percent of its applicants, the same rate as Harvard just a generation ago.

This is a difficult time for liberal higher education and free inquiry, especially at public institutions. As Collini takes some steps toward explaining, we are seeing longtime pressures combine with newer ones in ways that threaten what has been the mission of the modern university. But in the end, he expresses cautious optimism, which isn’t misguided. Despite all the cynicism directed at public universities there, tax increases to help the state university system have broad support in California. This isn’t yet the mass movement for high-quality, affordable, liberal higher education that some see as the sole way to significantly better days; however, it is certainly promising.

Fichte’s assessment of German universities was too bleak. Having largely freed the arts and sciences from censorship by the theology faculty, the University of Göttingen had been fostering a climate of open inquiry, as well as research productivity and rational systems of hiring and promotion. And it did very well. Founded just a few years before Smith arrived at Oxford, Göttingen was famous for the vibrancy of its arts and sciences faculty; it had a far higher percentage of arts and sciences students than any other German university. Indeed, this university, where Humboldt was briefly a student, helped inspire his reforms. One scholar has even claimed that we can see in Göttingen “the beginning, or rather the refounding, of ‘liberal education’ on the university level.”*

But the government minister who planned the university had different goals at the top of his list of priorities. He wanted to build an institution that would make money for the state, and he organized it accordingly. In the eighteenth century Göttingen wasn’t just regarded as the place to go for an education in the arts and sciences. It was also known as the place where, as some Göttingen professors liked to say, learning had become “a big commercial enterprise.”

This isn’t to imply that Collini is wrong to warn that the continuing transformation of British universities into business enterprises could make them fundamentally different. One can agree with him and still be wary of narratives of decline. Perhaps our high-pressure moment could turn out to yield not only intelligent works on the roots of general education, but also what the crisis of German universities around 1800 produced: persuasive new ways of expressing what liberal education can be.