The Relation between school and society has always been uneasy. The community of students and teachers is an instrument of society, but it is also a constituent member of society and has its own aims that tend to conflict with the uses of the world for it. There are cross-purposes in doctrine, morals, politics.
From the elementary grades on up, the schools are society’s chief instrument for the planned socializing of the young. But this means that they must deal, generation by generation, with persons who are growing, indeterminate, and therefore somewhat unpredictably free. And the teachers who concern themselves with this refractory material are not only themselves rather detached from ordinary business and dedicated to various humanistic or sectarian ideals, but they cannot help being accomplices of the youth. Veblen compared the usual college to a “house of correction or a penal settlement,” but even in a maximum security prison (like that studied by Sykes in The Society of Captives), the guards, despite a pretty absolute power to control and punish, have to come to terms with the inmates against the world.
In this essay, let us concentrate on the college years, say seventeen to twenty-one, when we put the finishing touches on the socially advantaged and (perhaps) intellectually superior youth who then commence into choosing professions, making marriages, and voting in elections. Broadly speaking, the own aims of the colleges have been: (1) to pass on and further the tradition of the arts and sciences; (2) to develop to the full each youth’s capacities and power (which might include unmaking the prejudices he has come with); and also (3) often less explicitly but always obviously, from the seminary of Pythagoras to the Houses proposed for Harvard by Professors Jencks and Riesman, to provide a kind of Utopian community, out of the economic and family mainstream, for finding identity, for transferring affection from family figures to chosen grown-ups, for self-government, and for friendship and sexual exploration.
In its role as an instrument of society, the college has a further set of aims: (4) to prepare the young for life by providing them with acceptable attitudes and “marketable skills”—the phrase is James Byrant Conant’s; (5) to train them to further the purposes of society, such as running the economy, practicing the professions, winning the war, and so forth; and indeed (6) to affirm with scholarly authority the social ideology, as—to give an uncontroversial example—in 1914 the German universities affirmed the national Kultur.
These two sets of aims are not always compatible. The workaday society tends to cramp capacity; the goals of society are not always the ideal goals of culture and future humanity; and conventional society is often impatient with communal mores. When society is wise, however, it has two further uses for its colleges that depend precisely on the youngness of youth and the detachment of scholars: (7) to prepare in a regular way for its own “continuous reconstruction,” as Dewey said, adding that for this “the education of youth has a fairer and freer field of operations”; and (8) to have, in the disinterested scholars and their ideals, a critical standard for business as usual—as Kant put it, “The faculty of philosophy is the loyal opposition from the Left.”
When the conflict between the schools and society is very sharp, it must necessarily result in the school’s being shackled—although, of course, if the scholars have the truth, they must ultimately break free and prevail or society will crumble, for what is not true will not finally work. The question is not, as Dr. Conant thinks, whether the school should be harnessed to the “national goals” rather than devoted to “individual development” or “pure research.” The school is always harnessed to the social goals. The question is what are the national goals, how broadly or narrowly are they conceived, and how rigidly are they enforced? Let us compare two educators, Dr. Conant and Thomas Jefferson, both concerned entirely with the national use of the school system. Neither has anything to say about “individual development” or “higher learning for its own sake.” Both democratically want to educate everybody; they plan for the whole system, from grade school through high school to college and professional school; and they provide methods of selection to assure that the academically talented continue and the rest are fitted for non-bookish jobs. Both lay heavy stress on professional training, and both meet the national needs by emphasis on science and technology.
Here the likeness ends, because the national goals are different. Conant is planning to maintain an over-mature and over-centralized status quo: training scientists for the cold war, manning the existing corporations with technicians and apprentices, and trying to dampen the “social dynamite” of unemployment in the slums. Jefferson, on the other hand, is building a new world, and the purpose of education is the continual renovation and improvement of the democracy itself through enlightening and improving the electorate. Conant centralizes the lower schools as much as possible, in the interests of managerial efficiency, but he tends to leave higher learning to the system of free enterprise (in its current semi-monopolistic meaning). Jefferson, just the contrary, provides for the university, supported by the nation, to be controlled by its international faculty: Swiss, French, German, British, and American, Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant; but he insists that the grade schools must be maintained by local initiative, and indeed he tries to decentralize them even further than was common in Virginia in that period. “Were it necessary,” says Jefferson, “to give up either the Primaries or the University, I would abandon the last, because it is safer to have a whole people respectably enlightened than a few in a high state of science and the many in ignorance.” But the point of higher education is the progress of all humanity: that “each generation, succeeding to the knowledge acquired by all those who preceded it, must advance the knowledge and well-being of mankind.”
Having narrow aims, Conant tightly determines the courses and credits; he lays stress on grading and encourages speed-up in getting through. But Jefferson is for an uncontrolled elective system at the college level; he wants no grades nor degrees (except the M.D.); and he urges students to tarry in school another year if it is economically possible, lest they become merely skilled know-nothings. Since both educations have practical aims, they emphasize specialization for the students; but Jefferson is strongly opposed to it for the teachers: “A man is not qualified for a professor knowing nothing but his own profession. He should be well educated in the sciences generally [so as to be] able to assist in the councils of the faculty.” This is, of course, the opposite of our present license to teach, the Ph.D., which concentrates on a specific field and the narrowest possible research.
This brings me to the subject of the present essay, the fate of the intramural community under different conditions. Jefferson has the community constantly in view. He decides that the faculty must be entirely autonomous. (It is hard to know what his practice would have been about hiring, since he died before the University of Virginia had to make replacements.) He strongly resists as undemocratic the existence of any administration or president, approving rather the European model of an officer annually elevated by the faculty from its own ranks. There is a touching letter in which he, the founder and chairman of the board, apologizes for suggesting the adoption of a text which the teachers might have overlooked. As for the students, they also are entirely self-governing, without discipline or policing: “Pride of character, laudable ambition, and moral disposition are [sufficient] innate correctives of the indiscretions of that lively age.” Obviously with such community autonomy and the progressive aims of Jefferson’s open-ended democracy, there would be little conflict between the college and his kind of society. (Not Virginia, to be sure; right off, the legislature rejected one of his great faculty as an atheist.)
Dr. Conant, on the other hand, never has the intramural community in view at all. Rather, he everywhere implies a powerful organization, interlocked with the outside, with a firm rule of attendance, credits, guidance, grading, finally professional placement. Throughout, the students are on a ladder. Our present national goals, as reflected by Dr. Conant, are not very humanistic and perhaps could not be achieved without such organization and discipline as he favors. That is, when there is potentially a sharp conflict between the aims which a system of education might pursue for itself and the aims it is asked to pursue for the sake of the nation, such a conflict is to be dealt with mainly by strengthening the administration.
Indeed, thanks to administration, the present climate of our schools is not conflictful at all but, by and large, a clinch. As pillars of society, our colleges serve neither the national goals of Dr. Conant nor the ideal aims of the community of scholars; but they are great, and greatly expanding, images of Education, no different from the other role-playing organizations of the modern world. Fortified in their departments and tenure and the kind of academic freedom that is protected by the American Association of University Professors, the senior scholars are not much disturbed by either their students or the administrators; and society is satisfied by the symbolic proofs that education is going on, syllabi, diplomas, research, and publication. And the students are educated in the process: most of them learn, in the great colleges, the secret of our uniquely glamorous establishment, to conform and batten; a few protest, or dissent and quit, like rats deserting a sinking ship (and they also are drowned).
Between the college and society, facing in both directions, stands the president with his staff. Vis-à-vis society, represented by the legislature, the trustees, the alumni, the parents, so long as there is no offense and the college is successful and prestigious, the president has a remarkable freedom to determine policy, whether educational, architectural, or financial—he is exactly like a tip-top corporation executive. Vis-à-vis the college, however, his role is more problematic. The administration is strong when it can attach to itself the voting senior faculty and also the official student government and press, and can see to it that neither teachers nor students disturb the public relations with the legislators or donors. In effect, in a situation of potential conflict between the community of scholars and society, it is the task of the administration to weaken the community by (1) keeping the students out of touch with their professors; (2) making sure that student expression is in good taste; and (3) discouraging the professors from playing a manly role in the world. Naturally, this makes it difficult for young people to grow up in college. Those who have come there to find themselves by associating with learned adults are bitterly disappointed. They do not easily see how the texts are tradition for themselves, and the professors who profess that tradition do not, by the example of their own lives, make it seem very relevant. The professors in turn, isolated in the academic community, are likely to seek their satisfactions in ways that have nothing to do with teaching; for example, research and publication, more especially since these are the avenues of advancement. It is the genius of smooth administration to subdivide and to harmonize. This has been going on a long time; and the result is that one would not now say that there is even a potential conflict between our colleges and society. Put it this way: there are nineteen hundred American colleges and universities; several hundreds of these have collected in one place many learned, free, and creative adults, and all of them are centers of lively and promising youth; yet one could not name a dozen that strongly stand for anything, whether idiosyncratic, peculiarly wise, dangerous, adventurous, or even exceptionally licentious or stupid. This is astounding, that there should be so many communities and so much conformity to the national norm! One would assume there is a strict regulation of the teaching; but in fact there is almost absolute academic freedom.
College administration is most spectacularly important because of the plant and money it must wangle and manage, and the increasing enrollment and multiplying functions it must coordinate and control. The disastrous effects of this centralized bigness and the incorporation of extraneous elements have been often explained, so let me merely mention some of the usual topics. Government and government-sponsored products now carry nearly 25 per cent of the annual budget (the National Defense Education Act did not meet the same chill Congressional wind that blighted the education bill). There is much “contractual research” underwritten by foundations. An important new tax dodge of corporations is “cooperative education” and other fellowships to defray the tuition of prospective and part-time employees. Such things dictate the course of research and the balance of departments and curriculum. It is common for professors, deserting their students, to follow the grants. Endowments also dictate policy; for instance a hotel endowment involves the school in the granting of a master’s degree in hotel management; and other earmarked endowments affect other parts of campus life: a skating rink, a women’s dormitory. Given the centralized administration, there is a vast rigamarole of admissions and hiring that must be processed by business machines, and that involves para-collegiate examination boards, scholarship boards, and accreditation associations. Increasingly, also, there is a strict accounting of the financial solvency of particular courses of study: do these lectures pay for themselves? do they perhaps turn a profit? As John Corson has expressed it for the Carnegie Corporation, “Increasingly, businessmen incline to examine the administrative efficiency of universities to which they make donations.” As Jacques Barzun has more tersely expressed it, “Columbia is run like a bank.” Meantime, there are overcrowded classes that make office hours impossible, and large lectures that should be seminars; there are underpaid tutors instead of professors, and the student fees continually increase. It was on these issues that 2,000 students of an Eastern university staged an angry demonstration last fall.
It is iterated and reiterated that these factory-like and business-like ways are inevitable under the modern conditions with which administration must cope. The fact remains that the administrators engage in a tooth-and-nail competition to aggrandize their institutions and produce these very conditions. And winning the competition and attaining prestige indeed pay off; for example, “In 1954, 18 institutions (only one per cent) received nearly 45 per cent of the total endowment funds; 805 institutions (43 per cent) had no endowment income at all, although they enrolled one-quarter of the students” (V. C. Blum). Thus the winners turn into semi-monopolies and drive the losers out of existence.
Has this any advantage for education, for teachers and students? Why should not these agglomerations be allowed to fall apart into their natural functional communities? It is still hard to see why a college cannot have its laboratory in a Quonset hut (with the cyclotron returned to the scientific institute where it belongs); why social studies are not best carried on in the local regions; why friendly games require more than a sandlot and a river; why youth would not be happier living in barracks or in old houses in the vicinity. If central services happen to be required, such as more books than a small college can afford, or an exchange of professors, why cannot half a dozen colleges in a region loosely federate, as do Knox, Carleton, Grinnell, etc.? Fifty years ago, having experienced the glories of Chicago and Leland Stanford, Veblen was moved to end his book on education as follows:
As seen from the point of view of the higher learning, the academic executive and all his works are anathema, and should be discontinued by the simple expedient of wiping him off the slate; and the governing board, insofar as it presumes to exercise any other than vacantly perfunctory duties, has the same value and should with advantage be lost in the same shuffle.
Would he say otherwise in 1962? Perhaps he might, if he knew the temper of our present faculties.
For let us turn our attention now to the closer workings of the administration and the administrative mentality in the community of teachers and students itself; and first the routine of courses, credits, and grading. Again we can borrow a text from Veblen: “The work of learning is a matter of personal contact and cooperation between student and teacher and is not measurable in statistical units or amenable to mechanical tests.”1
Why do they grade at all? Recently, at a big Western university, I sat at lunch with six senior professors, including chairmen of departments. They were unanimous in the opinion that grading is injurious to teaching and learning. It does not work as competition but rather alienates the young peer-group and makes for either cheating or sabotage. At the very first lecture, the student asks, “Are we responsible for that on the final examination?” and the teacher’s heart sinks. Grading hurts testing, which is a good teaching method if one corrects the test but does not grade it. A student likes to be tested, to structure his studying and know where he is at; the teacher uses the test as a diagnostic. If he is tested but not graded, a student is eager to learn the right answer and asks how to solve the problem; when he is graded, he is merely crestfallen and is likely to gripe that he has been badly treated. Even pass or fail are not necessary grades, for if a student isn’t doing the work, he should be fired out of the class. So they talked on. Finally I intervened and said, “Here you are six voting members of the faculty. Why is there still grading?” At this I was treated to a spate of rationalizations: if grading were dropped, the students would be anxious; the parents would complain; there would be no way to determine scholarships and admission to graduate schools. They knew perfectly well that some colleges do not grade and manage by means of recommendations. In fact, I could not fathom the reasons why they were not going to change the system. The status quo was more important than the teaching and learning.
What clear and distinct idea is expressed by grading? Consider the best instance, mathematics, since it has definite answers and right methods. Suppose out of five problems in elementary algebra the student muffs the permutations and the progressions. Does he then understand 60 per cent of algebra? But it is permutations and progressions that he doesn’t understand (perhaps he does not grasp the idea of factorials). What is the use of “passing” or “failing” him on his 60 per cent? How will that help in his further study?
The damage is worse when there is a vast class and the test has to be scored by a machine and so is tailored to the machine. This has become customary from the lowest grades to the highest. Now anyone who has had the misfortune to teach the freshman course in composition knows that most of the students can’t write an English sentence. But how should they have learned? One learns to express a thought by writing something one knows, e.g. “The mass of the moon is a cause of the tides.” One will not learn to write sentences by correctly marking a multiple-choice question. One cannot learn, too late, by compositions on “Where I Went Last Summer,” because narrative is too hard if one can’t write a declarative sentence. So this basic ignorance is built into the young by system; but the system does allow for the economy of big classes, grading on the curve, and large samplings for scientific appraisal of the teaching—since a major function of administration is Evaluation.
Consider departmentalism. A student is absorbed in work on an essay in history, but she “ought to” leave off and study her German or she will flunk out of the school. According to his best judgment, the professor of history thinks that the professor of German would do well to excuse her till the next semester, but of course he can’t approach him and request it. What is involved here? It seems to me that there are two viable procedures. On the one hand, there is the European way adopted by Jefferson, according to which the student follows his own interests and takes comprehensives when he is ready. The student, left to himself, or abandoned, must learn by his mistakes; and perhaps this is best, though of course it often results in dilatory exploration that does not fit our contemporary notions of scheduling from the cradle to the grave. On the other hand, in a small college working as a functional whole, a staff meeting of the teachers who know the student could progressively advise him; and this perhaps suits the comparative immaturity of American collegians. Our administrative mentality, however, chooses a third, unviable, alternative: having decided beforehand what the “goal” is, it imposes it on the student as a pattern. When the fit is spectacularly bad, the student is referred to “Guidance,” which is another branch of the administration. “As in so many other aspects of Middletown’s life, creakings in the school system are met primarily not by changes in the foundations but by adding fresh stories to its superstructure” (Robert Lynd).
At our actual faculty meetings, of course, real students are rarely discussed; but even needed reforms in the curriculum or the system of credits are hard to effectuate, since the individual teacher, even if he has tenure, is unwilling to take a disinterested view lest his own specialty be dropped or not prescribed. This is built into the system from the Ph.D. on. Instead of the license to teach signifying for the young teacher a philosophical and historical handling of the subject which gives him something to teach and to relate to other subjects, it rather imbues him with the hybris, as Walter Weir has called it, that he has made an “addition to knowledge.” In his field.
Grading, credits, departmentalization, trivial expertise all constitute an administrative mentality in the faculty that intervenes between student and teacher—in some institutions to such an extent that the formal administration itself makes more educational sense than the teachers, especially when the president has either an aggressively new or a stubbornly traditional educational idea. Such a leader is like a new top manager in a firm who for a time can shake up the bureaucracy. But he proves to be a tyrant who fires and hires according to his preconception, and soon the community is more cowed and lifeless than before (there are well-known cases).
For the most part, however, the bureaucratic system of the faculty serves admirably to produce the paper degrees and bales of publications that further the ambitions of the administration, for it is by such success that institutions acquire prestige, grants, the pick of students. It is not a system calculated to elicit original genius, to help a young person find a vocation, or to encourage the honest exploration of nature. E.g., if a student’s experiment in chemistry does not come “out,” he will not devote the rest of the semester to discovering how it did not come “out” and exactly what did happen, but he will see to it that he finally gets the “correct” reaction to satisfy the requirements. The students who fall by the wayside in this particular obstacle course are not necessarily the least gifted; it is not surprising if teachers regard the process as a waste of time and devote themselves to contractual research. The reality that can be hoped for in colleges is the occasional meeting of spirits confronting an objective subject matter. With this the administration does not deliberately interfere; but the smooth and prestigious functioning of the administrative mentality effectually prevents it from happening. There is an error in metaphysics: the inspection, bookkeeping, and scheduling that work in a factory do not work in a school; this is what Veblen was saying.
In policing the students and faculty, however, since it has to deal directly with persons, the administration is often less innocent. I do not wish to call attention to cases of irrational vindictiveness and resentment of other people’s good times, for these occur humanly everywhere, but to the essentially collegiate problem of maintaining an inoffensive appearance to the outside world. A good policeman keeps the peace in a community; it is a very different thing to keep the appearance of peace for some outsider’s prejudice.
Why, at the college level, does the administration assume policing to be its function at all? The claim is that the college stands in loco parentis. Maybe so—though it is pathetic how in this country we keep youth in social and sexual tutelage to age twenty. (At twenty-one, however, we approve an immediate taking on of career and mate.) Yet if indeed the college must be in loco parentis, the administration would seem to be the most unfortunate choice for the parent-figure, since it has no direct or exemplary personal relation with the sons and daughters, except precisely in emergencies of discipline.
In designing the University of Virginia, Jefferson attempted to combine the continental European and the American attitudes on college paternalism. European colleges assume no parental role, though they provide strong community protection against the world. Jefferson wanted the students to police themselves, without surveillance, “the rather as forming them for initiation into the duties of civil life.” Nevertheless, in his architectural plan he saw to it that each group of dormitories adjoined a professor’s family home, and he provided that the youth would periodically dine there and be able to seek guidance in their anxieties. I have heard the legend that the student cells had two doors. Out the rear door, a student could keep his horse, his slave, or his prostitute without public note. When he emerged out the front door onto the green, he was supposed to dress well and learn deportment. “Avoid too much government, by requiring no useless observances,” said Jefferson, “none which shall merely multiply occasions for dissatisfaction, disobedience, and revolt.” This salutary advice applies eminently to the bewildering, yet uninteresting, variety of dormitory rules in most of the nineteen hundred American colleges.
The teachers are the only possible candidates for the role of campus parents, since only they merit authority through respectful acquaintance. Naturally the teachers do not want, or they fear, or they are embarrassed, to be cast in this role. That’s their problem. The students, on the other hand, certainly look hopefully toward them, but they are usually put off, sometimes coldly.
For the sake of maintaining appearances, administrative paternalism can, at its worst, come to cases like this: at a great university a young woman consults the medical center because she might be pregnant; the next week she is dropped from the school on a scholastic pretext. If this case is authentic, the outrage is not only the breach of medical ethics, which would make medical service impossible on the campus, but the smooth avoidance of the true issue by the Dean. She (or he) cannot openly say that pre-marital sex will be punished, for that would raise a derisive howl among the students. Yet the administration can hardly say uncharitably that it is punishable only if a girl becomes pregnant. The policy is to give no contraceptive advice; its effect is to drive young women to desperate illegal abortions.
Another case, involving faculty: at a freshman orientation weekend in the mountains, a professor of biology lectures on the usual subject of “The Nature of Man and Woman.” His theme is that many of our mores and taboos have no physiological warrant but are cultural. The details reach the ears of another professor, who throws a paranoiac fit and demands his colleague’s expulsion. How does the administration cope with this? By calling off future freshman orientation weekends! Naturally. Administration does not want another to-do like Leo Koch’s expulsion from the University of Illinois; it is easier to penalize the students who cannot retaliate.
In twenty-five colleges across the country, I have heard students say that their chief complaint is that there is no communication between students and faculty. The lack works both ways. The professors suffer by being isolated from the students, who, after all, are their reason for being there. Without contact, the teaching must necessarily become cut and dried. Let me repeat a poignant ancedote that I have published elsewhere. At a small prestigious liberal arts college in the East a respected teacher was not promoted (read dropped). The students who, by waiting at tables, etc., know everything, indignantly told me the details. But the professor said to me, “How did you find out about it? And did they really care? If I had known they cared, I should have put up a fight.”
The lack of communication is often built into the architecture. A new building will have a good cafeteria for the students and a sumptuous common room for the teachers, yet there will be no place on the entire campus where a professor can have his cup of coffee with the students, signaling by his presence that he is available to chat. At some places—e.g. Carleton in Minnesota—they have tried to institute a regular common coffee hour, but few attend, it is too stiff. Scheduled office hours also do not produce significant contact, because they are structured to “important questions,” something to justify taking the teacher’s time. (A student has remarked that he has to invent a “personal problem” if he wants an admired teacher to pay attention to him.) The worst abomination, though, is the English-type High Table, which subjects the faculty to being “with” the students during meals, without being with them at all.
Recent studies, reviewed by Robert Knapp (in The American College), show that to the student the excellence of a teacher depends on his “interest in students,” “fairness,” “sympathy,” “helpfulness,” “sincerity,” and “enthusiasm.” (What is noteworthy, but not surprising, is that such student ratings correlate highly with faculty ratings of one another in terms of “research” and “originality.”) Nevertheless, in our society, student-faculty relationships are inevitably embarrassed. Students are afraid of being rebuffed and “rejected.” Teachers are afraid of becoming “emotionally involved.” At its best, the teaching function is an erotic one; thus it always threatens to seem, or to become, sexual. So the reinforcement of the idiotic sexual mores of society by the academic necessities of self-defense makes the professors timid altogether. It is an unusual scholar who, like Milton Konvitz at Cornell, asks a fatherly question as a matter of course and follows up with practical concern. To be sure, young people are cannibals and will mercilessly devour the time and the attentiveness of their respected elders, who have family and business of their own. Yet apart from the needs of the young, and the graceful and grateful rewards that the young know how to give, there is not much in teaching at a college. Teaching is worthwhile if it is teaching a subject matter for someone, or if it is teaching someone by means of a subject matter. If it is merely lecturing on a subject matter or hearing lessons, it is better done by tapes and films and teaching machines (which is, of course, what we are coming to).
A further embarrassment of relations between students and teachers is caused by the inevitable business of recommendations and placement. But this becomes an impossible rift when there is also interference from outside, as in the proliferating cases of questioning teachers about their students by security agents and business corporations. Let me quote a good paragraph by the American Civil Liberties Union:
Those who think of education primarily as the delivery of information by teachers to students will find no danger here. But if probing, sharing, and hypothesizing are regarded as essential; if education requires uninhibited expression and thinking out loud; if tentative and spontaneous ideas are to be encouraged as conducive to learning . . . then questions relating to the student’s loyalty and patriotism, his political or religious or moral or social beliefs and attitudes, his general outlook, his private life, may well jeopardize the teacher-student relation and become a threat to the educational process.
Among the students, the administrative mentality is not firmly fixed. (It is, rather, preluded by embarrassment, diffidence, and the need to one-up.) Most students are apathetic about the student government for the sufficient reason that it has no real powers. To run the dances, to decide which firm of jewelers will make the regalia, are not worth campaigning about. (Indeed, at Columbia this year the collegians suddenly voted three-to-one to throw out the government altogether and have anarchy.) Fortunately, on most campuses, the more conventional and popular students who like to make petty arrangements and who care about being big-shots are members of Greek-letter societies that are adequate political blocs. Student agitation for significant campus reform, on the other hand, is less likely to be constitutional and allowable.
It has been thought to give students more power by a national association of the student governments; that is, typically, by adding another story to the superstructure. My guess is that this does little for each community. Students are in college only a few years; their problems are local and transient. To be useful for growth, problems must be met on the spot and at once, as when recently the students at Oyster Bay struck and got rid of the new president who had taken away privileges, subdivided the divisions, and removed a beloved dean. (Significantly, that school had been run by its faculty, and there was exceptional contact between teachers and students.) But like Young Socialists, Young Democrats, or Young Birchites, national student associations tend to pass resolutions about China or Katanga, even though the members are too young to vote. Sometimes the national student action is relevant to youth, as in attacking segregation; nevertheless it avoids the hard task of democracy, which is to fight where the shoe immediately pinches, on the campus.
College newspapers commit the same mistake. Mostly, of course, their chief aim is to make like newspapers, with due sensationalism, lofty editorials, etc.; this is to be expected, the papers are play. But it has also become customary to print some national or world news, to avoid just covering Home News, which is “trivial.” The editors could not be more in error. Real home news is far from trivial. If the journalists would ferret out abuses and publicize ways to improve campus life; if they would smoke out the professors’ opinions and make them commit themselves or be quoted as refusing to commit themselves; if they would editorialize in order to have an effect, then the papers would be lively, and the editors would find themselves expelled. (Mutatis mutandis, the same could be said of the New York Times.)
By and large, administrations are liberal about the most controversial off-campus issues, including inviting Communist speakers or analyzing Operation Abolition. This is innocent debating and patently educational. Unhappily, the administration is then hit from the other side, by the American Legion and the State House.
If, however, the student organization or the press becomes very controversial about an issue on campus, one can be sure that before long they will be muffled not because of the content of what is said or done, but because something is in Poor Taste. And the conformist majority of the students will agree that it is in Poor Taste. If a professor takes part, he will be disapproved of as unmannerly and disloyal, washing dirty linen in public.
As throughout our society, the current social mobility disrupts community in the colleges too. Mobility is partly a result of necessary expansion, but it is also a matter of administrative policy. There is a game of musical chairs: the Berkeley Ph.D. becomes an instructor at Cornell, Cornell goes to Iowa, and Iowa goes to Berkeley. These first moves involve finding new houses and dragging the oldest child out of nursery school. Is this necessary? The question is not simple: academically, the incestuous staffing of departments can be deadly; a young teacher might learn something from new superiors. Yet there seems to be a fantasy that the new man will come wearing a golden crown; he is chosen by fallacious criteria, e.g., one recommends the departing son to strangers in rather more glowing terms than would be credible at home; and there is no use of new superiors if one never comes into intellectual contact with them. Further, the move is repeated at regular intervals—it may be seven, eight, nine years before one gets tenure—again camping in the new faculty housing, and the children dragged from higher grades in school. The wife adjusts as best she can.
Whatever the academic merits of the policy of mobility, for the community of scholars it is an unmitigated evil. It is impossible for loyalty to develop, whether to the welfare of the school, or of the younger men to the seniors, or of the seniors to one another. For a faculty to be strong and fight an issue to the end, it is necessary for the members to be able to count on one another, and this requires an acquaintanceship of many years. Likewise, a teacher will not befriend students if he is going to leave next year, and this year and next year make two out of the student’s term of four.
Conversely, those who stay, get tenure and seniority, and become chairmen of departments, will often be precisely the safe and the amiable who get on with the other chairmen and the administration. Thus, in a devolution by artificial selection, the voting senior professors become adjuncts of the strong administration, whose opinions and disposition they share. Both mobility and stability conspire to weaken the community. Of course, some of the oldsters who have no fight left in them are simply tired; e.g., they cling to the rules of the Association of University Professors although new issues might demand new means of action. But most of the established seniors were company men to begin with; and further, the increasingly abundant technologists—and even some of the scientists—are morons about community affairs. The wanderers, the great men, have more vitality, but they care nothing about the college.
In a great school, then, we might see as fragmented forces, a band of young instructors and assistant professors intent on planning revisions in curriculum, methods, and community, because they are still fired by the adventure of teaching and are trying desperately to make their life-work worthwhile, though they see everywhere portents of vacuity. They are separated by a chasm from the older faculty, who are either independent great men or are with the administration, and are either maintaining the status quo or revising it in the direction of image, efficiency, and expansion. (These top-down revisions, by the way, have recently been occurring with increasing boldness, bordering on effrontery.) Except for some of the graduates, the students do not mix with the lively instructors who are recently married and have the young-married social life; they are isolated from the middle-aged faculty by mutual embarrassment and because the professors are busy; and the more fatherly older faculty are likely to be squares. To this isolation from the grown-ups, the young react with their famous sub-culture. Last but not least, each member of every group may be competing with and one-upping the others.
To sum up: in the interests of its image, and busy with buildings and grounds, contractual research, syllabi, policing, and prestigious personnel, the administration of many colleges continues to disrupt the community of scholars and students. Fifty years after Veblen described the nefarious effects of bureaucracy and business methods, we see that the colleges, like the rest of America, have succumbed to the familiar style of the Organized System, smooth, rationalizing, bold, and vacuous.
The administrator cunningly protects his institution like any top manager, hardworking, faithful to the firm, and competitive to aggrandize it. He does no deliberate damage except in personal issues, but of course it is just in its persons that a community exists. By weakening the community, he avoids conflict. Trustees and donors have special interests; parents are panicky and legislators are stupid; many professors and the organizations of professors are prestigious and vocal, and anyway they have tenure. It is the students and the reality of teaching and learning that are the easiest sacrifices.
Return now to the truism with which I began this essay, that the schools are a chief means of socializing; and let me raise again the problem that I discussed in my book Growing Up Absurd: the situation of youth when the system of society makes socialization impossible. In the colleges as everywhere else there is a strong polarizing between the majority who conform, resignedly or cynically, and an increasing number who are disgusted and cannot or will not do the work. (My guess is that young “conservatives” are not conservative at all, but nihilists of the right, youthful fascists.)
Nevertheless, even at their worst, colleges are not impossible societies. All of them have a hum of life and a pain of frustration still felt; most of them are far prettier than any other neighborhoods in America. And this explains, in my opinion, the pervasive complaint of the students that there is no contact with the teachers. It is a persistent hunger for the real college, as a normal institution of growth.
Let us consider the process of socialization rather more philosophically than is usual. When there is a rigid system of society, with impersonal “objective” aims, youth at once becomes an exploited class. It must give up its own genius to provide replacement and labor for the dominant system. The liberi, the sons of the freemen, become effectually slaves, and instead of a liberal education there are various kinds of apprentice training. The idea of a liberal education is to bring up the young to be new centers of initiative; they will identify with, take over, renew, and transform the adult society and culture. In an important sense, the liberally educated make their careers. (Liberal education is, of course, easier when social change is slower and the career choices are familiar and traditional.) Illiberal training is, instead, teleological. It stamps the young for predetermined uses.
Resisting such pre-formation, the young sometimes become class-conscious of themselves as exploited, and they develop their own rebellious ideology. French Romanticism after the Congress of Vienna is a good example; or the flocking of the bohemians to Mazzini and Garibaldi in Rome. The principle is that the enemy are the grown-ups who have power; the problem is to find one’s own grown-ups, in order to learn something. In this light we can make sense of the American student attitude toward Castro. A pretty good reporter like Theodore Draper cannot find the class basis of the Cuban Revolution; he shows that it was not the industrial workers, not the farmers, not the middle class. But perhaps it was just the youth, rallying to this leader. (Castro makes not a bad Garibaldi, he is even younger; the bother is that there is no Mazzini, only Che Guevara.) Whether or not this was importantly the case in Cuba itself, there is no doubt that among the Beats and on our American campuses, Castro had this meaning. The youth were not much interested in Cuban economics, and not at all in civil liberties, nor that Castro broke the University, but they were enthusiastic over a young fellow with a beard who licked the old squares, and our own squares had better observe “Fair Play.” They were enraptured by every display of uninhibited personal contact between Castro and the people that defied protocol and public relations. (May I point out as a warning that our own illiberal society is open to trouble if a youth-demagogue appears who “pays attention”?)
Mary Bunting, the president of Radcliffe, makes the same point in another way when she says that at present the youth of the world regard one another as an international class, and do not take their separate intervening governments with equal seriousness. If only this is so, we shall get rid of nuclear war.
In simple conditions, the young grow up among men and women, model themselves on men and women, are included in adult activities, and become adult. But if today—and for good reasons—they dissociate themselves from the grown-up world, they are faced with a peculiar problem. In order to learn something and finish growing up, they must find and attach themselves to grown-ups who can be respected because they know something or have some other value, who pay attention and let themselves be attached to, and who play an exemplary role in the world that youth can learn to share. These are the needs that express themselves, in the colleges, as the complaint that there is no contact with the teachers. The first requirement can be met; most of the teachers know something and are not bad on their home grounds, in the classroom; and the students are touchingly respectful—except for the conformist cynics who regard the teachers as ill-paid butlers. The second requirement is harder, for, as we have seen, it is just as concernful communities that the colleges are poor; guidance comes from impersonal administration; sympathetic clarification of the students’ own ideas comes from nobody; and the teachers brush off attention to themselves.
But it is the third requirement that is most necessary and most unavailable. Most necessary, because it is only if the ideals and wisdom of the classroom make a difference in the intramural community and in the world, that the student can understand that college is about something, it has a connection, rather than being merely a way to get ahead when getting ahead isn’t much worthwhile. The student must learn that the intellectual virtues are active virtues. But this learning is unavailable in colleges because it is just the confrontation of reality, whether in the community or the world, that is vehemently discouraged by administration. We have given many examples in the community. Conceive now of a few possibilities of the scholars playing their appropriate role in the world, as loyal opposition and watchdog of society. The physics department would notify the government that competition rather than cooperation in exploring space is quite incompatible with science as taught in the classroom and laboratory. The school of architecture would not be bashful in its criticism of public housing in cities like New York. The departments of physiology and psychology would have a lot to tell the police and the legislators about the drug and sex laws, laws which will never be changed unless informed professional opinion intervenes. The department of English and the school of journalism might cooperate in criticizing the inadequacy of the New York Times and the insulting and nauseating tone of the advertising.
The community of scholarship is the amicus curiae of society. Who else? Young people would then be proud of their elders and their school.
But what is the effect of scholarly behavior as it is? The students see that their teachers’ knowledge and idealism end in nothing or, worse, in empty smirking no different from the slavish griping of soldiers against their officers. They are confirmed in their suspicion that college is entirely organized into the system and there is, in learning, no exit.
1 Veblen is here talking about graduate work and explicitly contrasts it with college work which “being task work, may be reduced to standard units and enforced by a system of accounting and surveillance.” But he is in error. For different reasons, business methods will not work in either case.