The university: still dead

Andrew Delbanco’s insightful new book on the history and future of the American college exposes an institution that has no idea what it should be.

Angus Kennedy

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In the course of tracing the changes from the religious foundations – the colleges – of the early American colonists through to the vast ‘multiversitys’ of today, Andrew Delbanco usefully draws attention to the fact that putting a big sign up on a college saying Committed to Providing Excellent Higher Education for All would probably signify that the very opposite was happening inside. He notes a grand inscription at Columbia University from the beginning of the twentieth century: ‘Erected for the Students that Religion and Learning May Go Hand in Hand and Character Grow with Knowledge.’ At the time, the buildings were actually going up for research staff, not for undergraduates, religion was ‘certainly no longer at the center of campus life’, tradition and the canon were being thrown over for the modern, and the idea that professionalised career academics should bother themselves with the moral improvement of undergraduates was quaint at best.

Delbanco’s survey of the tradition of college education and its basis in Puritan faith, both its provision of a universal liberal education and its focus on building character, is a salutary reminder when today’s colleges and universities brand themselves ‘Comprehensive Knowledge Enterprises’, distance-learning hubs or engines of social mobility. Teaching at Columbia – one of the few colleges still to make two years of the liberal arts compulsory – Delbanco is in a good position to diagnose the slow death of the college model even where it should be healthiest: in the well-endowed and elite institutions of American higher education.

‘Every year the teacher gets older while the students stay the same age.’ This has always been true, but Delbanco’s observation has a poignant weight today when college is always justified as being for something, whether for the economy, or for democracy, or for social mobility, and not as a place that exists as a community asking questions together, trying to unify knowledge to make sense of our lives – in short, as a place where we pursue the truth. Such aspirations, which underpinned those religious foundations, upheld the spiritual authority of the college and allowed teaching to be both a way of drawing out the soul of the student but also a way for the teacher ‘to cheat death – by giving witness to the next generation so that what we have learned in our own lives won’t die with us’.

Delbanco’s short book is absolutely right then to address the simple but excellent question: what should college be? Not what it is for, but what should it actually be.

A college, in his definition, is about ‘transmitting knowledge of and from the past to undergraduate students so they may draw upon it as a living resource in the future’. Education, in other words. An American university, conversely, is ‘mainly an array of research activities conducted by faculty and graduate students with the aim of creating new knowledge in order to supersede the past’. The problem he identifies is that the university model has come to eclipse the college model but that both are necessary. When the trend is towards seeing the past as dead and gone, and everything must be geared to what we are told the future demands, the sad result is that we not only become stuck in the present but can make no sense of it. College exists, but what is it for? College becomes an existential problem and every attempt to answer it from the future can only be a demand for it to change. And change again. The issue is not so much lack of demand for college education but ‘less and less agreement about what it should be’. It is as if the college curriculum was being set by astrologers and, looking at the bewildering pick-and-mix of courses on offer, maybe it is.

As founded by Puritan settlers, the college and its professors taught small communities of students in lectures modelled on sermons to the congregation. Like the sermon, then, the lecture relied on the concept of grace: that unpredictable moment when the congregant really hears the word of God in his heart; that unpredictable and magical moment when a student really gets it. This is what Emerson called the ‘miraculous in the common’. This is what Socrates hoped to elicit and stir up in his questioning back and forth, the act of provoking a soul, not instructing it.

That spiritual authority has now gone and so too has the faith in the ability of education to draw out the one from the many, e pluribus unum, to form character from the messiness of subjective experience. College was not, however, just another word for church and nor was it a seminary. It was a place where the humanities took first place.

The liberal education that American colleges offered was rooted in the classical tradition of the artes liberals – stretching back to ancient Greece and Rome. But as Delbanco rightly argues, America’s contribution was to democratise it, bringing what Matthew Arnold termed ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’ to all, regardless of origin. He notes the hostility to the idea of the ‘best’ in today’s relativist anti-elitist elites but reminds them how Arnold finishes his point: ‘and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits’. That is to say, the danger of not knowing the best of the past is that the present stagnates and becomes fixed: our prejudices go unchallenged, our lives unexamined.

Yet it was just this democratic approach to tradition that was to be thrown out along with the bathwater of religious faith. Not in the 1960s, but nearly a hundred years before, when the college began to be seen as hopelessly backward, full of dull clergymen boring America’s youth with ancient history, ill-suited to the pressing demands of the modern world and the new industrial nation. The issue came to a head with a famous debate, recounted by Delbanco, between James McCosh, president of Princeton, and Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard, who met, like boxers, on neutral ground in New York in 1885 to decide what a college curriculum should be.

McCosh was a philosopher of the Scottish School of Common Sense, in the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment. He was a clergyman, but an enlightened one, who accepted evolution and tried to reconcile it with religion. He defended the traditional view of the college as a place where the classical curriculum (language and literature, science and philosophy) should prevail and should be mandatory for the first two years. His concern was that young men were impressionistic and needed exposure to mental and moral ideas as well as physical science. His fear seems prescient: ‘if our students are instructed only in matter they are apt to conclude there is nothing but matter’. And, thus, nothing matters. ‘Whatever’, in other words.

McCosh’s opponent, Eliot, was to transform Harvard from a sleepy provincial college into America’s foremost research university. In his inaugural address, he stated that the growing specialisation demanded by industrialisation and the division of labour required a reform of education geared to ‘special training for high professional employments’. He rejected the ‘vulgar conceit that a Yankee can turn his hand to anything… leap from farm or shop to court-room or pulpit’. His reforms were designed to help students be ready for, and adapt to, the rapid pace of technological and economic change. He introduced an ‘elective system’ into Harvard, with a vastly expanded curriculum, giving students freedom to choose what they wanted to specialise in, while massively expanding the graduate and professional schools to facilitate advanced research. In short, he took a position in support of academic freedom – and the freedom of the individual – in order to harness college to the needs of the nation: ‘for the State, it is variety, not uniformity, of intellectual product, which is needful’.

Interestingly, Eliot’s defence of freedom and variety against stifling uniformity (identified with religion and tradition), went hand in hand with a contemptuous attitude to the ‘vulgar’ Yankee. Lay democratic knowledge was dismissed in favour of the modern expert, but all in the name of democracy. Eliot equally, with his conviction that a ‘youth of 18 can select for himself a better course of study than any college faculty’, threw open the door of the college cloister to two possibilities. Firstly, students would increasingly choose courses, usually the measurable hard sciences, geared to the demands of the economy and their own financial security. Secondly, the authority of the college faculty would be downgraded to the same level as that of the student. And thus, that modern paradox was inaugurated: the professional expert lacking in public authority.

Most American colleges now allow ‘virtually unlimited freedom’ to undergraduates to choose what they want to study. Very few ‘tell their students what to think’. Most ‘are unwilling even to tell them what’s worth thinking about’. Delbanco rightly though does not tell this as a simple story of decline from a golden age of the college. Eliot’s reforms were well intentioned and necessary. McCosh was yesterday’s man. But Delbanco does chart how the incessant demands on the college to take in more and more students and to produce more and more specialised knowledge is not just a tale of increased equity and access and much needed specialisation; it is also a tale of the fragmentation of knowledge and the development of a profound uncertainty about values.

There is a prevailing view – dominant in the sciences – that the job of university is to increase the store of knowledge so, in Eliot’s words, ‘each successive generation of youth shall start with all the advantages which their predecessors have won’. In this model, specialised graduate researchers are like ants bringing twigs to the heap. Or, as Delbanco has it, runners in a relay race. The problem – especially for the humanities – is whether this model can place value on the dawdlers and the ruminants rather than just the sprinters and worker ants.

The humanities have not responded well to the challenge of science. Literature, for example, has moved from dressing itself up in the scientific rigour of linguistics to the postmodern rejection of truth and the relativisation of all values through to the contemporary fad for passing off computer-run word pattern searches against digital texts as amounting to ‘readings’ of books. Science itself suffers from increasing ‘scientism’, where facts are held as truths and research studies are set up as instruction manuals in how to live.

Despite the growing influence of neuroscientific explanations of every aspect of our lives, we do need to remember that science has precisely nothing to tell us about values, about love, about the meaning of a life, of death. It has nothing to do with meaning at all in fact. As Camus puts it in The Myth of Sisyphus, whether the Sun goes around the Earth, or the other way, is a matter of profound irrelevance to the meaning of life. If it did so determine meaning then we would not be free. There is no ought from is.

Yet, despite the willingness of many to dismiss freedom as ‘so-called’ free will, there remains, as Delbanco notes, a questioning spirit, especially in the young. This spirit still seeks existential answers and ‘even as the humanities become marginal in our colleges, they are establishing themselves in medical, law, and business schools’. Encouraging as that may be, the decline of the liberal-arts model, of collegiate spirit, of universalism, within American education remains as real as it was when Allan Bloom identified it in The Closing of the American Mind. Now, it is just that much more developed, obvious and demanding of solutions.

It is not possible to simply resurrect the spirit of McCosh and usher in a new American pastoral to college campuses, even if the teaching staff were to hand and the cost could be born. The devaluation of ideas and the intellectual tradition in society is real; it has material force and cannot be wished away. It is important to be honest about that fact and not try to disguise the problem by selling students a pup.

College presidents and faculty can rightly point out that they have always had to find a way of negotiating teaching the best of the past with the demands of the present, not to mention the need to balance the books. That was the very real debate played out between McCosh and Eliot. Yet, today, Eliotism has taken hold to such an extent that even he would recoil from what has happened in his name rather than pretending that all is well in the academy. Delbanco quite rightly stresses that college today faces not only a fiscal, not just an ethical, but even an existential challenge.

It is here, in the last chapter of his book, that his tentative solutions to the problems he has exposed don’t quite live up to his insights. It is very difficult for many professional academics, despite following the logic of their own arguments, to see quite how bad the situation is. It is one thing to recognise that learning and character have little to do with college today, another to admit that it may be beyond repair. Words like freedom have such a powerful hold on us that no one relishes the prospect of exposing the fact that the freedom offered to students today is really a freedom from education. It is not a popular position to argue that passing off need-blind access policies as freedom is beside the point when that access is to educators deeply uncomfortable with what is right and what wrong.

In a very real sense, the extent to which those within the academy dress up the corpse of liberal education as sound and healthy is scandalous. Delbanco quotes Cathy Davidson, a Duke professor no less, arguing that ‘rapid-fire switching from texting to surfing to blogging, etc, is not a cause or symptom of distraction but an “ideal mode” of learning’. In reality, this is a case of not paying attention to professors who don’t have the authority to spark the students’ interest.

There’s more where Davidson’s idea came from. When lectures are delivered to students in their bedrooms, these aren’t really lectures at all. They are York Notes you can’t even be bothered to read to yourself. When grading is ‘crowd-sourced’ to teachers and students, it’s not grading anymore. It is an exercise in avoiding judgment. And when a Harvard professor thinks an hour-long lecture needs to be broken up into bullet points, each one followed by 10-minute breakout sessions to make sure it’s been digested, one can be sure that no real learning is going on.

We can do better than that. Emerson said: ‘men are convertible… They want awakening… get the soul out of bed’.

We need new ways to manage that old tension between tradition and freedom in higher education. Our starting point must be the re-establishment of the authority of the professor as someone with something to say worth hearing. If that means traditional education, even religion – at least in the sense of striving for the apprehension, even a glimpse, of the sacred, of non-ordinary reality – then let it be so. College should be a place where we are offered a chance of going beyond the real and the quotidian, not a place that needs to be dragged any further into the real world. It is a sad fact but one well known to parents all over the American and Western world that faith schools and colleges retain a conviction as to the seriousness of the business of educating the young that is markedly absent from the secular institutions of today.

Many professors, Delbanco included, know only too well how in American colleges what is now called the ‘independent-operator professor’ (structuring his teaching around his own interests and passions) is giving way to the ‘instructor-for-hire’, monitoring ‘standardised content over some “delivery system”‘. Some, like Delbanco, remind us what the word ‘professor’ once meant: ‘A person who professes a faith, as in the Puritan churches, where the profession was made before the congregation as a kind of public initiation.’ Someone ‘undaunted by the incremental fatigue of repetitive work, who remains ardent, even fanatic, in the service of his calling’.

Who though is prepared to take to heart what is maybe the best lesson we could learn from the early American colleges? Who is prepared to say when institutions have ceased to live up to their ideals and have become something else? And who is to obey the resulting imperative to found new institutions? In that respect it is worth reflecting on the story Delbanco tells of how those very colleges multiplied quickly through doctrinal splits. How Cotton Mather founded Yale, ‘unhappy with the fall from orthodoxy’ at Harvard. And how Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, ‘as a corrective to the “languor and inefficiency” into which his alma mater, William and Mary, had fallen’.

Angus Kennedy is head of external relations at the Institute of Ideas and convenor of The Academy.

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