Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Our Broken Mulitiversities

"Minding the Campus" has posted an essay authored by yours truly on the sorry state of higher education in America. I wrote the piece some time before the financial crisis, but in some respects its basic argument may be even more relevant in the wake of that crisis with its attendant pressures upon schools to provide ever-more direct forms of career preparation and the demand for elite credentials as the route to landing the diminishing number of what are regarded as good jobs.

Here's a snippet:

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Traditionalists and conservatives may decry the decline of liberal education at the heart of the modern university - and its replacement by a Left-wing agenda - but the deeper truth is that liberal education has been more fundamentally and powerfully displaced by demands of global competition. While traditionalists and conservatives might wish to apportion blame to the vast Left-wing conspiracy - particularly those increasingly irrelevant faculty whose postmodernism has become a form of stale institutional orthodoxy - the truth is that the rise of the Left faculty was a response to conditions that were already making liberal education irrelevant, a sort of pathetic and ultimately self-destructive effort to make the humanities relevant and "up to date." These purported radicals - mostly bourgeois middle-class former hippies - were not agents of liberation, but a deeper reflection of the reality of the irrelevance and neglect of the liberal arts in a dawning new age of global competition.

Still, it should be acknowledged that their initial instincts were not altogether damnable. The first student protests of the 1960s arose in response to Clark Kerr's 1963 Godkin Lectures - eventually expanded and published as The Uses of the University - in which Kerr declared that the old ideal of liberal education within the college or university was officially defunct and was in the process of being replaced by a new form of the "multiversity." The aim of the new "multiversity" was to advance the great Baconinan project of human dominion over the world. He declared that "the multiversity was central to the further industrialization of the nation, to spectacular increases in productivity with affluence following, to the substantial extension of human life, and to worldwide military and scientific supremacy" (199). The first student protests on the Berkeley campus - often forgotten - were in response to these lectures and its implications for the neglect of undergraduate education in the name of research and "the creation of knowledge." Allan Bloom acknowledged his initial sympathy with the protesters in an overlooked passage of The Closing of the American Mind, though he rightly noted that the protests quickly morphed into a general anti-authoritarian sentiment defined by the ambition for personal liberation. Worth noting is that both Kerr and the liberationist protesters - antecedents of the modern Right and the modern Left - agreed on the fundamental point that what was desirable was the dismantling of the classical liberal arts tradition. Both ultimately came to share the belief that the object of the university was human liberation from old restraints - whether material (to be solved through science and modern economics) or moral (to be overthrown by Left campus radicals). Today's university faculties are largely populated by denizens of the liberationist Left in the form of the faculty, while the administration remains dominated by technocratic professionals who largely evince allegiance to Kerr's declared ambition to pursue the aims of the multiversity. An unholy alliance exists in which both sides pursue their agendas separately but utterly compatibly, both in profound agreement that what is most fundamentally undesired is a return to liberal education. For both, a liberal education represents a restriction on the aims of the modern university. Both seek liberation, but on terms that would be unrecognizable to the original definition of "liberal" in the term "liberal education."

A liberal education - most often pursued in the context of a religiously-affiliated college or land-grant university - was originally an education in self-governance, moral restraint, and acknowledgment of the limits of human power and preparation for life in a family and a community. When we think of "liberal arts" more concretely, we rightly picture a numerous variety of different institutions, most (at least once) religiously-affiliated and variously situated. Most were formed with some relationship to the communities in which they were formed - whether their religious traditions, attentiveness to the sorts of career prospects that the local economy would sustain, a close connection to the "elders" of the locality, a strong identification with place and the likelihood of a student body drawn from nearby. Most understood liberal education not as the effort to liberate its students from place and the traditions that a student brought from home (this is the implicit aim of the modern devotion to the teaching of "critical thinking"), but that in fact educated them deeply in the tradition from which they came, deepening their knowledge of the sources of their beliefs, confirming - not confronting - their faith, and seeking to return them to the communities from which they were drawn where it was expected they would contribute to its future well-being and continuity.

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Such a form of "liberal education" would be objectionable across the board in today's society - by faculty, administrators, students and even parents. To the extent that it would neglect the education in success - the formation of a character that is capable of living anywhere and doing nearly anything demanded by the competitive global marketplace (even economically eviscerating the very sorts of communities from which a student originally came), it would fail to provide the sort of result that is demanded by the global society and by the consumers and providers within the elite institutions. A school that insisted that the mark of success would be achieved by students who returned to their home communities where they sought to contribute the benefits of their education, or who understood that a good life was constituted by the formation of sound families in settled communities, would certainly be regarded as some kind of fantastical and risible institution. Students at the schools where I have taught - Princeton and Georgetown - uniformly have absorbed the belief that a mark of failure would be to return to their home State or town upon graduation (unless that happened to be one of five or so large American or international cities). Almost certainly demand would decrease, jeopardizing a school's rankings and all the attendant benefits that come from such prestige.

Debates over the "culture wars" - whether or not there should be more conservative or traditionalist professors on the faculty, whether one or several core courses should be required, whether great books are being assigned - are ultimately of little relevance in light of the more fundamental structural forces that have redefined the university for the past half-century (if not more). Unless conservatives and traditionalists - and, for that matter, intelligent critics on the Left - are able to articulate and develop a persuasive critique of these deeper and more profound forces, there is very little prospect for a revival of the liberal arts, and every reason to believe that they will continue to fall into irrelevance and neglect. The one thing needful in our time - an education in self-restraint, limits and tradition, the lessons our colleges and universities were designed to reinforce - is the one thing that our great universities are no longer well-designed to provide since our elders generally agree such an education is undesirable. We need great readers of palimpsests to draw to the surface the older writings and recall the purpose of the buildings, the names and roles of the university's officers, and the great teachings and goals of the university tradition. How such a forgotten art will be restored, however, is a problem without a good or easy solution.

4 comments:

dhex said...

"Students at the schools where I have taught - Princeton and Georgetown - uniformly have absorbed the belief that a mark of failure would be to return to their home State or town upon graduation (unless that happened to be one of five or so large American or international cities)."

isn't that part of why they strove to go to an elite university in the first place? escaping one's nest, as it were, is a pretty strong drive for some.

Robert said...

A drive which was carefully nurtured. That's the point.

massminuteman said...

It seems to me that the ideal aspired to is the textbook definition of a second rate institute of higher education. James Joyce's Trinity University, as he describes it in 'Portrait of the Artist', is precisely such a place.

Tim Lacy said...

The culture of aspiration has always been a part of American college life, at least from the 1890s going forward, but it's been since WWII that the impulse to success has eclipsed real learning in favor of gaming the system. As the college degree has become expected for professional life, the degree has been diluted of its ability to symbolize and deliver "true learning," or liberal education, or humanism, or whatever label you prefer. People now game college like they gamed high school in the 1950s.

And it's even more interesting to consider this eclipse and dilution in light of Notre Dame and other Catholic universities that aspire to meet American culture halfway. What's the point in disparaging Notre Dame's Catholic philosophy of higher education in light of the president's commencement/honors when the real question is about what a degree from ND, or any other multiversity, means? And that doesn't even address what a corrected Catholic degree should mean in light of history and tradition (i.e. orthodoxy). - TL