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The Place of A University

ISSUE:  Spring 1977

The American university was dominated in the 1960’s, first by the crusade for civil rights, next by that against the war in Vietnam. It was, preeminently, the era of cause-commitment: an attempt, so its adherents say, at human oneness—between rich and poor, black and white, university idealist and oppressed South Vietnamese. It was, too, a time when goodwill, if only it was intense and fervid enough, seemed all that was ever called for or needed,

Today the university is thought to be experiencing something quite different—a more introspective, self-concerned time, overshadowed by anxieties over one’s own economic future. The student seeks admission to law or medical school; many faculty strive for diminishing spots of tenure; the institution itself seems preoccupied, above all else, with the search for “funding.” The present seems almost to mock the earlier time of idealism, now turned suddenly inward by the disappearance of war and conscription and the first breaths of unaccustomed hard times.

Breaks in eras, of course, are never so neat as their chroniclers might wish. Enough has just occurred, where I teach and elsewhere, to make it clear that the habits of cause-commitment have not been entirely unlearned. Then, too, the earlier era of moral activism had some undoubted good effects. The academies helped achieve racial progress that was long overdue; academic opposition, perhaps more than anything, helped wind down and terminate an ill-advised war. Opposition to the war also meant opposition to the way it was conducted: by secrecy, by cover-up, and by falsehood. Mr. Nixon’s failure to perceive this meant his disgrace and downfall, though the academies, by now burnt out, took a back seat in Watergate to the Congress, the courts, and the press, Mr. Carter, in turn, strove to appear more in tune with the university message of the sixties: that politics is to be played as an art of high conscience, openness, and morality, albeit with some overlay of humorless self-righteousness.

Notwithstanding the beneficial effects, the university suffered in the 1960’s setbacks which, had they continued, would have meant an end to its useful contributions. By setbacks, I do not refer to the loss of political support on the part of those who resented the academic viewpoint. I refer rather to a loss of integrity by our own lights. Issues during that era of cause-commitment were drastically simplified at the expense of those ironies and subtleties that so often comprise truth. The self-discipline and self-doubt of scholarly inquiry succumbed to the hoarse self-assurance of slogans on the street. Tolerance yielded to the shrill attempt to attach to one’s opponent some discrediting label, if indeed one had the good grace to permit the voice of the opposition to be heard at all. What were once enclaves of civility became battlegrounds of distrustful constituencies. Most unfortunately of all, scholarly conclusions began themselves to be regarded not as products of detached reflection so much as the contrived adornments of ideological predisposition.

If the era just past thus proved anything, it was the incompatibility between cause-commitment and the scholarly process as well as the difficulty of committing university communities to moral activism with anything approaching the necessary moderation and restraint. Perhaps, now that some dust has settled, we may come to believe that the university’s great calling is one that transcends the championing of causes. For universities fill a social role quite generically different from that of big business, organized labor, the NRA, the Sierra Club, the NAACP, Common Cause, or other political pressure groups with their own wearisome agendas of reform. And that difference is not explained simply by asserting that the academic issues of the last decade—racial equality and peace in Vietnam—were somehow of greater moral moment than gun control or the common situs picketing bill.

I do not by all this mean to sound a call for academic amorality or monasticism. Nor am I suggesting that members of universities should or even could in the end avoid some measure of political controversy. What I do believe is that the modern university must stand, above all else, for a commitment to process, for a special and unique way of approaching social and intellectual problems, for habits of mind and patterns of thought to which members of university communities can be expected to adhere. It is irrelevant, finally, whether that process leads to so-called “liberal” or “conservative” conclusions, so long as it is genuinely and honestly followed. Yet in this process lies the best, indeed in my view the only, hope that universities can discharge the position of responsibility and power into which they will inevitably be thrust.


It may seem anomalous, in a period of economic stringency, to speak of the growing influence of the great universities. But such is plainly the case. Terms such as “ivory tower” and “groves of academe,” coined to imply the remote impracticality of the academy, seem quaintly inapposite today. The academy’s role in government is now more than secure; it has become indispensable. From the first major influx of intellectuals in the New Deal, to the Ivy League atmospherics of the New Frontier, to the Kissinger-Schlesinger-Schultz-Mathews-Levy-Dunlop-Moynihan-Bork parade of the Nixon-Ford administration, the contribution of academics to national policy has been conspicuous. The roster of academic names in government is, however, only the most visible manifestation of a more critical dependency of all phrases of national life upon the American university.

The reasons for this dependency are important. First, academicians are one of those rare and privileged breeds whose purpose it is to think. Ideas are our tools as much as the wrench is the working man’s. The professor, in fact, is judged above all else on how boldly and creatively he expounds ideas. This in itself is unusual. The energies of most of mankind are consumed not in thought but in routine action—cleaning a building, assembling a car, filling out or typing up forms—or in high level motion with travel, deadlines, and ceaseless conferences with clients or customers. Yet in a world as complex and confused as ours is, an important advantage goes, almost by default, to those with some chance to ponder and reflect about it.

Not that the university is at all ideal in this respect. Administrative committees, governmental red tape, personnel recruitment and evaluation, the securing of grants, the grading of papers and exams intrude, necessarily and otherwise, on the academy’s central mission to the point where summertime and a sabbatical seem the only escape. The sense of immediacy and interruption that characterizes the work-a-day life of the executive and reduces him in many instances to the art of staff management is overtaking academia, though perhaps not to the same degree. The desire for the contemporary triple threat professor—scholar, teacher, administrator—risks suffocating the slow process of thought maturation. It is as if increased association of the academy with the world of action had somehow brought with it the habits of that world and threatened the university’s unique status as a community of thinkers.

The university as a place of thought presupposes the university in a position of detachment. Hopefully, ideas emerge free of the poltical and monetary self-interest that make suspect the bulk of public pronouncements. The power of the voice of scholarship is that it is raised not to sell a product or to boost a candidate but to address the merits as they are honestly perceived. And the institutionalization of scholarly detachment is an important element of the university’s future integrity and well-being.

Brief reflection may demonstrate why this is so. America, as political theorists so frequently have observed, is a democracy that hedged its bet. Non-elective centers of power exist throughout the country to evaluate the stewardship of elected officials, to test and retest the credentials of popular consensus. These non-elected institutions were expected to espouse, upon occasion, unconventional ideas and accordingly were placed somewhat beyond reach of public retribution. Indeed, without some formal protections, the great institutions of dissent—the press, the judiciary, the universities—would become merely mouthpieces for those notions of which prevailing majorities momentarily approved. Thus the press was explicitly mentioned and protected by the First Amendment; federal judges were granted life tenure. And though academic tenure is not so explicitly based in the Constitution, it bears some kinship to those protections that are.

The ideal situation, of course, would be that of an enlightened public supporting an autonomous academy which in turn reciprocated with responsible self-governance. But the ideal, or even close approximations of it, are not often achieved. In part, this is because the obligations of the university include social service as much as social criticism. That service can take many legitimate forms: educating the young not just in figures and facts but in the precepts of citizen leadership; aiding the understanding of self-distress and societal malaise; assisting the solution of contemporary challenges, be they the better breeding of livestock or delivery of health care; and pursuing mankind’s horizonal goals, a cure for cancer, a more deliberate pace to the process of aging. For many critics, unfortunately, this notion of university service has been myopically defined to mean hows not whys, nows not the future, applications not formulations, the safety of adequacy not the risk of excellence. Add to this the fact that with public funding comes a call for public scrutiny, and with private contributions comes, at the very least, the donor’s right to a healthy beef. Thus the university, far from being independent in any pure sense, is consigned to perpetual tensions with popular institutions: tensions there are no sure ways to resolve and no safe ways for universities to ignore.

The university’s great strength is that of an institution of independent thought, though I have tried to point out that the threats both to thought and to independence are far from insubstantial. But there is a further factor, one that eclipses all others in explaining the university’s mounting prestige and influence. That factor is simply the growing incomprehensibility of the human condition. Nowhere was this more evident than in the last presidential campaign. Every issue of substance—nuclear arms proliferation, the SALT talks, the crisis in health care, the plight of the cities, the decline of the family, the gathering energy shortage—was either ignored or discussed in terms so elemental as to be insulting. Instead the entire nation—candidates, media, and public alike—became transfixed with gaffes: Carter’s Playboy interview, Ford’s remarks on Eastern Europe, Dole’s on this century’s “Democrat” wars, and Mondale’s on General Brown’s unfitness to be a “sewer commissioner.” This, plus the corresponding obsession with every minute fluctuation of the polls, made a serious event into something more akin to spectator sport.

In a sense, the whole exciting emptiness of it all was nobody’s fault. Voters are understandably drawn more to a contest of personalities than to the question of exactly how the Backfire Bomber may be treated in the next SALT agreement. Candidates are, not surprisingly, fonder of flashing cameras and flocking crowds than a vexing discussion on the rising costs of health care. Thus political campaigns become more and more an escape from the intractability of our troubles, a pretense of man’s control and mastery. Sadly, the world passed some time ago the capacity of any one man, even a President, to comprehend very much of it. The Renaissance man may be just that: a possibility in the 15th century or even in the Enlightenment but certainly not in the late 20th. Thus the substance of American policy—the content beneath the platitudes—is left increasingly to those who at least profess to know what they are about. Like it or not, (and it is a most unsettling feeling), our fate lies increasingly in the hands of the various sets of experts. And the experts tend to congregate at universities, where persons are encouraged to devote lifetimes to the study of the properties of protein, the cultures of the Middle East, the curves of supply and demand, the theories of punishment, the topography of Mars, new uses for computers, the political system of Red China, and so forth. Universities, of’course, are not the only places where expertise resides. Governmental departments and agencies, private institutes and foundations, the research tanks of the great corporations rightly claim their share. But it is the university— with its libraries and laboratories, its intellectual and cultural cross-currents, its premium on thought development and exposition—that will, of necessity, be asked to seek the answers to a riddlesome world.


So how do we in the academy respond? Clearly, the nature of our response determines not merely the regard in which academia is held but the capacity of the country to deal intelligently with problems of unprecedented difficulty. My own fear has been that the university might somehow approach the issues of the eighties and nineties in the mood of the sixties. That would be distressing because, as George Kennan best put it, “the state of being envagk is simply incompatible with fruitful study,” My aim thus is to try to suggest ingredients of an academic approach to issues which is more in concert with the challenge of America’s future.

A first quality is that of intellectual humility. By humility, I mean not a false and unctuous self-deprecation but a healthy skepticism toward one’s own mental prowess and moral rectitude. Humility underlies the ability to listen, which alone makes possible the proper airing of ideas. Then, too, the shades and grays of modern problems conspire to undermine the self-assured. It must be conceded that such humility does not come easily to the academic nature. Most of our lives are spent handing down The Word: either to scribbling students in class or in print for the would-be enlightened to read. It must be conceded, too, that the established academic who wishes to avoid genuine disputation from students and colleagues on his personal dogmas can be remarkably successful in doing so. Finally, academicians have too often been guilty of a class snobbishness that holds middle Americans as rather cloddish creatures moved largely by prospects of material gain.

Outside of academia, of course, the country has suffered long at the hands of the arrogant, both during Watergate and Vietnam. Those misfortunes were wrought by stubborn men, men apparently immune to self-doubt and self-reappraisal, men preoccupied, above all, with saving every little bit of face. Their failings, however, spoke beyond the world of inner Washington to seats of influence throughout the country, including the great universities. There is, in truth, a special need for academia to take heed. For intellectuality is innately a subject of public suspicion, and intellectual arrogance becomes quickly an object of widespread contempt. Yet the two things, intellectuality and arrogance, need not be inseparable; the most authentic genius yet produced by America, Thomas Jefferson, never lost an affection and respect for common people.

A more serious threat even than arrogance to contemporary dialogue is the tendency toward oversimplification. The irony is that as the complexities of our problems grow, so also does the urge to oversimplify them. Part of the reason for this lies, of course, with the media, which learned very early that the public responds better to emotive cues than to cerebral ones. Yet even were the opposite the case, the electronic media would be hard pressed to explain the full complexities of nuclear energy, for example, in the allotted minutes on the evening news. Those who would win attention soon learn to play to this essential fact of life. Opposing views are labelled racist or reactionary rather than thoughtfully countered. Issues become known simply as law-and-order or peace-through-strength. Governmental programs are packaged as The Great Society, Detente, A Voice for Virginians. Campaign slogans—Keep the Big Boys Honest, You’ll Know He’s There, The Choice for Change—become indistinguishable from commercial advertising—Ford Has A Better Idea, Stop In At the Sign of the Cat, Come to Marlboro Country. Complex matters are everywhere reduced to pungent slogans to be drilled into masses of inattentive or indifferent heads. The only danger in all of this is that it misconceives badly the nature of reality in the modern world, Maybe it is silly to expect the academy to be any different. Where one’s feelings are engaged, the temptation is to join the chorus, to hurl one’s epithets with the rest. And yet someone somehow ought to resist presentation of contemporary dilemmas in terms of black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. Someone has to deny the impulse to ascribe bad faith, ill will, or infirm intellect to the other side of a difficult issue. Most modern problems are really best seen in terms of competing choices or tradeoffs: in the very crudest terms, guns versus butter, unemployment versus inflation, conservation versus development. The academic challenge is to define for society the nature of its choice in the most precise possible way. To take a common example: a public cry is raised for law-and-order, i.e. tougher cops, stiffer terms, an immediate stop to parole. The academic sees the question differently. Society might indeed reduce crime if (1) it is willing to spend more on street lights, police, courts, prosecutors, and correctional facilities; or (2) if it is willing to devote more study and resources to the underlying causes of violence; or (3) if it will sanction greater restrictions on individual rights. This formulation is, to be sure, only the beginning, not the end of the difficulty. But by posing the matter thus, the academic at least helps avoid beguiling notions of something for nothing, the demagogue’s deception that all things are either simple or possible.

So our professor of 1990 has humility of mind and the courage not to simplify what is, indeed, not simple. A third quality—integrity of thought—is best introduced in relation to the problem it is designed to meet. It is hardly original to observe that the single most important question in the world today concerns the uses to which technology is put. One might say, as Archibald Cox did about equality, that technology, once loosed, “is not easily cabined.” To a world of diminishing resources and expanding population, the benefits of technology are irresistible, even as its dangers remain unknown and, perhaps one day, ungovernable. With the cell and the atom, man toys with the basic building blocks of the universe and, perhaps, with his own extinction. For if there is much that is noble about man’s curiosity, there is something also quite profane, some warning, maybe, to be gleaned in those Old Testament tales of disaster that followed man’s excessive grasp.

I do not wish to be grim. Modern inventiveness has brought us all enormous benefit, and in a world order based upon national rivalry, technological stagnation for this country is unthinkable. Yet there is deep cause for concern. Our national experience has been too exclusively with technology’s brighter and better side. In a country that invented or developed the steamboat and railroad, the cotton gin and combine, the telegraph and telephone, the auto and airplane, electricity, television, and the computer, some optimism on the score of technology is both understandable and forgivable. But we must take care lest a chief source of our greatness as a nation become as well the cause of our demise. Only lately have we begun to discern some of technology’s darker implications: the carcinogenic potential of asbestos, the danger of fluoro-carbons to the ozone layer, or of kepone to the marine food chain. The threats posed by our technology—whether of arms sales and proliferation, of nuclear power, of chemical pollution, or of electronic surveillance—need badly to be more openly debated and more widely understood.

The most recurrent future conflict in America may be that between proper public management of technology and the survival of personal liberty. We must first acknowledge in our midst powerful incentives to continue in destructive habits. Let us suppose, for example, that some common food, natural resource, or production method is found dangerous to human safety or health. Its removal costs labor jobs, management profits, and/or a change in comfortable habits of consumption. Thus any governmental remedy to technological ills faces inevitable resistance in cries for greater quantums of proof and further delay. On the other hand, government agencies may trade upon our fears of technological disaster to expand power over every aspect of our economic, and eventually our personal lives. This tension is already coming rapidly into view as any observer of PDA, OSHA, and the FTC and FOG battles with cigarette advertising can readily testify.

The university provides for me a ray of hope on this foreboding subject. It lacks the self-aggrandizing potential of the federal bureaucracy and the zeal for profit of private industry. Its members possess the sophistication to comprehend what is at stake and some obligation to insure that products of academic research be put to responsible use. The precise role of the university on this question is difficult to foresee. Its contribution will depend, above all, on integrity of thought: an allegiance to informed judgments of the public interest over what might make headlines, secure larger grants, or meet favor with colleagues. Anything less from the academy would be most disquieting. For the management of technology is a question that combines wide ramifications with narrow margins of error. And it is here that luxuries of wrongheadedness will be least affordable.


A personal word remains. I may have been ill advised to speak on the subject of the American university and omit mention of publish-or-perish, affirmative action, student cheating scandals, or the many other winds now blowing through the academic world. But I wanted to focus on a single phenomenon—the growing complexity of all things around us—and the implications of this for those of us who work in universities.

The most important implication concerns the academic disciplines themselves. Does the technical cast of modern life portend the growth of the utilitarian university, the coming of age of the problem-solving professor at the expense of the Chaucer scholar? Is Chaucer, or the whole classical tradition, really as affordable as the acquisition of know-how? Traditionally, the fine and liberal arts have been hit hardest by hard times. Will the same hold true of technological times as well? Will money from private foundations, public coffers, and student tuition pursue in the end only the promises of pragmatism and technology?

If the classical tradition does decline, it is not for lack of a meaningful part to play. This can be briefly explained. Many Americans today face the problems of great freedom and affluence, the absence of settled roots or well defined obligations, a pace of change upsetting all expectation, a world peace enforced in the main by fears of an unprecedented kind of war. Because this freedom, this affluence, this mobility, this change, this nuclear peace are again so much the products of modern technology, the tendency is to see our own time as new and different, unlike any that has gone before. But this view has its dangers. Much may never be explained by scrutiny of events themselves, and to take the present alone and at face value can be a despondent enterprise.

Classicism—the literature, history, religion, philosophy, and art of our past and present—is the invitation to modern man to place himself in some perspective, to learn that his grief and joy are not unique, and that the Canterbury pilgrims struggled, laughed, wept, and marvelled at life as we do now. The classical tradition can alone instill within us the sense of purpose, effort, continuity, and hope with which to rebuff the dangers and confusion of the present day, To the university, above all, society entrusted this most precious gift. It is ours to nurture, to adapt to the future to which we give being.


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