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Increasingly, the university becomes the servant of the public desires of the hour, and correspondingly neglects its old duty of waking the moral imagination and disciplining the liberal intellect…

The American University: How It Runs, Where It Is Going by Jacques Barzun (356 pages, University of Chicago Press, 1993)

As C.E.M. Joad put it, “decadence is the loss of an object.” By that definition, most American universities and colleges are thoroughly decadent. One might have discerned early in this century the beginning of such decay; it has proceeded in vertiginous speed ever since the Second World War.

Professor Jacques Barzun does not actually call our institution of higher learning decadent, but that implication runs through his pages. When this reviewer was less than eight years old, Barzun already was publishing essays on education. For twelve years, until the middle of 1967, he was Provost at Columbia University—leaving that office shortly before things fell apart. In his House of Intellect and other books, he has been one of the shrewder and more candid critics of American college and university. Though his accustomed perceptivity is evident in this new book, The American University, a certain weariness—almost despair—seems to afflict Jacques Barzun today. At best, the American university runs creakily; and it may be the road to Avernus.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, I stood on Morningside Heights, where the stone steps lead down through Morningside Park, the predator-haunted cordon sanitaire that separates Columbia University from the chaos and old night of Harlem, far below. How long would it be, I wondered, before “Sansculottism, many-headed, fire-breathing” should scale these Heights? Well, the first wave of the Invasion broke upon Columbia early in 1968. To borrow terms from Arnold Toynbee, the “external proletariat” from the decaying city joined with the “internal proletariat” of Columbia’s discontented radical assistants and students to plunge into anarchy this famous university. It is not yet certain whether Columbia ever can recover wholly from that shock. Something called a university will continue to exist upon Morningside Heights, probably—although removal of the University to a site outside Manhattan is just conceivable now—but it may not be anything resembling Newman’s idea of a university, nor even the latter-day Columbia that Jacques Barzun served.

Columbia’s plight is very like that of the University of Chicago, also hemmed in by slums; Yale and the University of California at Berkeley have been nearly as distressed in their present physical situations. Yet the proximity of poverty and social disorder is not of itself fatal to a university: the University of Paris endured such conditions for centuries (though it may be impossible for the Sorbonne and its allied colletes to survive in the heart of twentieth-century Paris), and Glasgow University held out for a long time amidst urban decay, until in the nineteenth century the colleges were removed to the suburbs. Only when a university’s present policies are inconsonant with the original purposes of the institution, and only when the mass of students—nay, perhaps most of the staff—are hostile or indifferent to the real object of the higher learning, does academic decadence overwhelm old foundations.

The external barbarians may be constrained; but when proletarianizing of a community’s citizenry has occurred, there follows rapidly a decline of leadership and a destruction of voluntary assent and co-operation. Professors and students are citizens of the republic of Academe. When academic ends and academic standards give way before the degradation of the democratic dogma in the Academy, when the humane scale of learning is forgotten, then the “internal proletariat” of an educational establishment—alternately torpid and violent—attains dull domination, and the whole academic corporation steadily sinks lower. By definition, we need to remember, a proletarian is one who gives nothing to the community except his own body.

In 1945, when Barzun published his book, Teacher in America, and when I first stood on Morningside Heights, Nicholas Murray Butler still was master of Columbia University. But already the Second World War was transforming Columbia, as it was the vast majority of American universities and colleges. Reform and reinvigoration were needed urgently; they did not come at Columbia in time. Black Power, Students for a Democratic Society; and a profound apathy or confusion at the heart of Columbia University, therefore, did their work.

At Columbia since 1945, the liberal climate of opinion—sometimes approaching that doctrinaire and enfeebled latter-day ideology called “ritualistic liberalism” by Sidney Hook and “disintegrated liberalism” by Gordon Keith Chalmers—provided neither sufficient imagination nor sufficient strength of will to bring about through reform—not yet to resist effectually the ignorant democratism that today assails the American academy from without and from within. Grayson Kirk, Jacques Barzun, and a few others at Columbia had some understanding of what needed to be done, and so far as they could they rose superior to the general enervating climate of opinion, achieving certain administrative improvements—though not enough. Yet Dr. Barzun himself, despite conservative inclinations, had been at once a member of the board of Partisan Review and a power in the mass-culture of the book clubs: One could look to him for much sound sense, but perhaps not for the bold affirmation which arises from some belief stronger than an attachment to humane culture.

Nearly everything in his latest book is just and prudent; still, somehow one is reminded now and again in Barzun’s pages of those nineteenth-century liberals—J.S. Mill, the Grotes, Henry Reeve, even Tocqueville—sardonically described by Henry Adams: “As a class, they were timid—with good reason—and timidity, which is high wisdom in philosophy, sicklies the whole cast of thought in action.” Gentlemen and scholars like Grayson Kirk and Jacques Barzun have stood head and shoulders above the more typical “leaders” of the higher learning in America, these past several decades; even so, there come to my mind the lines of Yeats:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

To examine Columbia as the microcosm—rather an inflated microcosm—of the American university in general, what reforms the Barzuns and the Kirks might have effected were delayed by the genus I call President Boomer (to borrow a character from one of Stephen Leacock’s spoofs). The Boomers in charge of the universities, during the period from the end of the Second World War to this year, were interested passionately in quantitative expansion, bricks and mortar (resulting, usually, in hideous and shoddy architectural gigatism on the campus), training as related to the nexus of cash payment—and little else. Columbia’s President Boomer was General Eisenhower, abruptly translated from his post of mediator among chiefs of staff to the headship of the biggest private university. A political innocent, Eisenhower also was an educational innocent; and perhaps I may be indulged in one anecdote, to suggest the deficiencies of academic leadership during a period in which we needed imaginative university presidents as never we had needed them before.

While General Eisenhower presided vaguely over Morningside Heights, the Metropolitan Museum of Art conceived a grand project for which the cooperation of Columbia University was necessary. Letters from the Museum to President Eisenhower received no reply; telephone calls did not reach that dignitary. Deciding that an intermediary was required, the Metropolitan people besought Professor Carlton Hayes to approach Eisenhower on their behalf. As a distinguished historian, with high seniority at Columbia, and as former ambassador to Spain, presumably Dr. Hayes could speak some words to President Eisenhower’s ear.

With his usual kindly civility, Professor Hayes agreed, and strolled across the campus to the president’s office. He had not been there before, during Eisenhower’s incumbency; and as matters turned out, he never went there again. For Dr. Hayes encountered difficulty in penetrating even the outer defenses of General Eisenhower’s redoubt. Just who was this caller, various secretaries inquired. He was a professor, he said. At Columbia? Had been there some years? The faculty directory was consulted, and Professor Hayes’ assertions were verified. Oh, he had been ambassador to Spain, too? Actually? Well, then, it might be possible to arrange an appointment with President Eisenhower. Dr. Hayes was passed on to the inner defenses. There a high functionary consulted the appointment book. Let us see: It is November now. Yes, an appointment might be arranged for some day in April.

“No, thank you,” said Professor Hayes, and withdrew. The joint project with the Metropolitan went glimmering. Carlton Hayes presently became one of the more ardent advocates of Senator Robert Taft for the Republican presidential nomination.

Here we glimpse the depersonalized, bureaucratized, swollen university-machine, with King Log in the presidential office. Is it any wonder, if Carlton Hayes could not secure audience, that in the fullness of time there should start up the student Sansculotte, crying, “What think ye of me?”

Dwight Eisenhower is mentioned by name nowhere in Barzun’s pages; nor are the other Presidents Log and Presidents Boomer, whose academic ignorance or academic imperialism have done much to bring the universities to their present pass. They have served their time—that is, they have been time-servers.

One of the least attractive and more influential of the lot of Boomer presidents has been John Hannah, president of Michigan State College (now University) for three decades, and serving simultaneously in numerous governmental and commercial posts of honor and profit. (Like the Furies, the SDS zealots are on Mr. Hannah’s heels now, in his declining years of power, particularly because he made himself a millionaire by land-speculation in the vicinity of his campus.) President Hannah has built unto himself an educationist empire, the sun never setting thereon, which extends from the cow-barns of East Lansing to “universities” in Nigeria and Okinawa—all of these foundations anathema to Jacques Barzun, to judge by Barzun’s principles.

The American University contains no direct reference to Michigan State; but in his chapter on “The Higher Bankruptcy,” Barzun wryly comments upon a certain Department of Effective Living at an unnamed institution—which, actually, is Michigan State. (That department, I am happy to report, has been abolished since, in part because students referred to it as “Effective Loving”; yet the undergraduate curriculum there has not been improved appreciably.) Barzun’s passages concerning “Effective Living” lie at the heart of his description of the decadent American university, “bankrupt in mind and purse”; so I set them down here.

“Relevance,” Barzun writes, is in the mind; and when students declare that their studies are not relevant, they do indeed touch—however confusedly—upon the central failure of the American university. The Presidents Boomer—the Hannahs by their shallow sloganizing and appealing to youthful cupidity, other presidents by their attitude that liberal education is an impertinence—have misled the mass of college undergraduates, and even graduate students; they have mistaught students that their needs are identical with their wants.

“Misled likewise by the phrase ‘preparations for life,’ students never suspect how indefinite this criterion of life is,” Barzun remarks.

College should prepare for what life and whose life? The life of the mind and emotions? There are fifty careers in a class of fifty and a dozen facets to each life; where is LIFE? Business executives and professional leaders know better; they keep saying to the colleges: ‘don’t try to prepare your graduates for our techniques and routines, which may change overnight. In-service training will teach the tricks; you teach them to use their brains, work hard, and be adaptable. Of course, B.A.’s should know something, but you’ll attend to that.’

In this confidence they are mistaken. The ‘needs’ theory, coupled with the social and preprofessional intention, has overlaid what might have been, with suitable variations, a curriculum, a course, a program. These terms imply: a form and a point. Form and point are now obscured and nullified by innumerable ‘majors’ in journalism, home economics, communication, arts, creative writing, real estate, and ‘effective living.’ All are worthwhile activities, especially the last; they require ability and training, but they are not educational subjects. They are vocational and professional subjects, the difference being set not by tradition alone, as some would like to believe, but by their nature: first, these subjects cannot be reduced to theory and principle; second, they look inward, not outward—they end in a delicious muffin or a well-drawn lease; they do not look out to the great network of topics and questions about which the mind feels a permanent lust to know.

It would be easy to show from history that when the cry of Relevance is heard, it is because the spirit has gone out of whatever is being taught. And the spirit in education means also spiritedness….

“The concentration on experience in all these partial definitions is the great flaw. Because ‘values,’ ‘creativity,’ ‘living and giving’ lie in the realm of experience and are good, it is supposed that they can be ‘given’ directly, taught as experiences, and that the college is the institution to contrive all this: having a syllabus on effective living, take a course on effective living, and then say, ‘I’ve had effective living.’ This is but a slight caricature to light up the deepest rooted errors in American education: for thirty years we have inverted the sensible order of things. We have tried Instruction to instill Virtue, and Experience to remove Ignorance. I contend that Ignorance is best removed by Instruction and that Virtue is best instilled by Experience.

Courses in Effective Living, it may be argued, are characteristic only of such institutions as Michigan State, which became a university by the abrupt grace of the state legislature, rather than by cultural growth; matters are not so sorry at Columbia. Yet increasingly the former land-grant colleges and former normal schools train the large majority of young people aspiring to bachelors’ degrees. In a footnote, Barzun sketches the state of the higher learning at many such establishments:

Here is the head of the Social Science Department in the midwestern teachers college enlightening a widely attended workshop in his putative subject: ‘Social Science is defined as more than a collection of facts but as effective and harmonious social living. Or, still another way of putting the same idea: social science is the art of gracious living. Those steeped in the social sciences can live this dynamic idea better than those not so steeped’ (Report of the CHSCCI, 1959). That teachers college has since become a state university.

And if Columbia and Chicago and other great universities do not descend so conspicuously to bathos, nevertheless the violence of some of their students, the obvious alienation of many more students, and the sour temper and ideological infatuations of not a few among their professors, suggest that though there may be less silliness on such campuses, there exists neglect of the real ends and methods of higher learning. Barzun’s book analyzes these afflictions, which I merely suggest here.

The American university suffers from doctrinaire democratism: It endeavors to admit nearly anyone who might think of enrolling—nay, it tries to lure him in by seductive brochures. This willingness, combining with the affluence of our time and the neo-Pelagian heresy that all men are saved by academic degrees, results in a vast overcrowding of campuses by young people of indifferent talents and worse preparation, whom the impersonal academic apparatus promptly reduces to business-machine numbers. That the same process has been at work in France, Britain, Sweden, and elsewhere, does not justify it.

At the very time of this indiscriminate expansion, the American university (ever since 1945) has gone over to the worship of applied science and technology, in considerable part because the federal government subsidizes such efforts. Increasingly, then, the university becomes the servant of the public desires of the hour, and correspondingly neglects its old duty of waking the moral imagination and disciplining the liberal intellect.

As universities are converted into degree-mills, the professors devote themselves to research, and actual teaching is left to graduate assistants. This may be lucrative for the professors; it is ruinous for the higher learning. The ill-taught undergraduate is left lonely and confused and often angered; the underpaid and overworked graduate assistant, whether teacher or researcher, becomes a victim of the system—even his doctoral degree being postponed, at vast expense of his time and money, to suit the convenience of the professors whose serf he becomes.

The university administration grows increasingly bureaucratic and aloof, attracting little loyalty from faculty or students. The whole idea of academic community is nearly ignored—let alone Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other end.

The university’s energies are diverted into the congeries of social-welfare projects, parochial concerns, technological contracts, publishing enterprises, and fiscal undertakings which drain away the institution’s funds and obscure the primary purposes of cultivating the individual intellect and bringing together a community of scholars. In seeking to satisfy every ephemeral demand of society, the university fails to serve either the person or the republic as it was meant to do. And it ends by displeasing everybody.

These are merely some of the ills which Barzun diagnoses from long experience and much reflection. He never exaggerates; indeed, often I would he were harsher. That we may take arms against this sea of troubles, he sets out sixty-eight specific proposals for reform, under six categories: I, “Teachers and Scholars: Education, not ‘Life’”; II, “Students: the Work in Hand”; III, “Friends and Fellow Citizens: Help with Understanding”; IV, “Officers of Administration: Educational Maids-of-all-work”; V, “Money, or Education Stricken by Affluence”; VI, “New Functions: Education in partibus.” Here, I can say only that I concur with all of his recommendations, of which I list below some of the most forceful.

Simplification and austerity must govern the university, Barzun says, if it is to be redeemed. Survey courses must be abandoned. Look at new projects with a suspicious eye. Place less emphasis on research. Improve the teaching of literacy, at every level. Separate teaching and research. Drastically reduce the number of courses offered. Give more “pass degrees” to “educationally motiveless people.” Confer upon every American at birth a Ph.D. (a recommendation long promulgated by this reviewer)—or, failing that, diminish educational snobbery and the “credentials” mania by awarding the Ph.D. immediately after the oral examinations, without a dissertation. Cease trying to be all things to all men: “If a youth feels a vocation for social work, let him either prepare for it through study or drop studies and go use his talents in the midst of life.”

Abandon the notion that students can be “full educational partners,” and the unhappy aping of political forms, “democracy,” in the university community—which is not a political body. Give up dormitories, if they become mere “convenient places of assignation.” Establish an ombudsman for student grievances. Reform the granting of honorary degrees. Rescue the university president from his multitude of petty labors, and make him once more the real head of the university. Sharply reduce the number of centers and institutes within the institution.

Shore up and reorganize university financing, and supplement federal and state scholarships by a cost-of-education grant payable to the university. Shorten the program for many students. Refrain from educationist cant, and from woolly talk of some latest “intellectual revolution.” Trust not the computer as a way to wisdom. And let the university recover respect for its own dignity.

If the university is not reformed, Barzun says in his concluding paragraphs, it must cease to elevate the whole tone and temper of the civil social order. Then we would sink into a mediocrity, at best, of intellect and imagination.

What develops then is a proletarian culture, by which I do not mean the culture of intelligent and cheerful workingmen exclusively, but one in which the prevailing tendency is to suspect height—standards of work and degrees of achievement, except in sports. Learning, the search for truth, and high art are then gradually discarded in favor of practical training, applied research, and consumption art. The full professor is intelligent and cheerful too; he responds to the common agitation, discontinuity, and excitement of the mass culture; he prides himself on not being an intellectual, though he enjoys the ‘finer things of lie’ in a widely shared attachments to ‘gracious living.’

This is no petty prospect, but it is imminent. Probably the present anarchy at Behemoth University—even as Dismal Swamp A. & M.—may compel the trustees and the administrators of university and college to think about Barzun’s proposals—indeed, even to initiate some of them. Despite all its expenditures upon public relations, despite all its eagerness to satisfy every whim of government, business, industry, and the indulgent parent, every demand of the radical ideologue or the student activists—why, clearly the American university is not beloved.

Loyalty is the child of love. Unloved by students, by members of the faculty, by legislators, by its urban neighbors, by its very alumni (who are asked only to pay for seats in the football stadium), the American university is decadent. Therefore it cannot obtain loyalty sufficient, in many recent troubles, even to maintain tolerable order upon its own campus or to conduct ordinary classes. Its feeling of community dissolved, today the university virtually is at the mercy of the instructor-ideologue and the student demagogue. Absorption into “today’s life” and “public service” has won for the university simply general contempt and the violation of its old immunities.

I am not at all sure that many of our overgrown and misdirected universities can be restored, even should most of Barzun’s recommendations take on flesh. For undergraduate studies, at least, I advise young people to enroll at such sound traditional liberal arts colleges as survive—the smaller, the better. Don’t go where the action is: Go where the academic leisure is—that is, the contemplation and the community. If Behemoth University is converted to a kind of devil’s sabbath of technological contrasts with government, mass-production of sham doctorates, and ineffectual vocationalism—why, abjure the illusory “prestige” of these establishments perverted from the principles upon which they were founded.

By John Henry Newman and some other men of vision, the true ends of a university are sufficiently described. The purpose of a university education is to develop right reason, and to furnish what Burke called “the wardrobe of a moral imagination.” Technological development, and even professional skills, could be attained quite outside the university. In our lust for educational imperialism, we have forgotten that the end of the university is not to arrange contracts with Washington; or to supply cheap graduate student labor for the fulfillment of those contracts; or to enrich senior professors; or to bestow a trifle of middle-brow culture and middle-class conviviality upon a mob of the ineducable.

No the university was created for the cultivation of your intellect and mine. It began with the premise that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom; and that there exists a Truth beyond fear which may be pursued through certain intellectual disciplines. Had Jacques Barzun and certain other gentlemen and scholars of strong intellect and good will been more ready to profess such first principles boldly, we might be less plagued by such preposterous figures as Tom Hayden and Mark Rudd. Intellectual relevance does exist, but it cannot be found in the multiversity. Only the community of scholars can reveal that relevance.

We need more drop-outs. Those who have no interest in philosophical questions, or in pure science, or in the moral imagination, ought to drop out of higher education altogether: They are but wasting their time and money, and even more the time and money of others, because university and college are meant for those who can apprehend abstractions, and for no one else. We ought to make it possible for young people whose talents are of another order to enter directly upon life, without the silly certification of a meaningless degree as a requirement for employment or for social acceptance.

And those who do possess the inquiring intellect ought to drop out of the multiversity, out of Behemoth University or out of Lagado Graduate School. They ought to drop into those surviving institutions that do not promise to make us rich, or powerful, or prestigious. They ought to find their way into such colleges and universities as still profess that wisdom is its own end. There they may learn what it is to be a man; and the republic will prosper proportionately.

Republished with gracious permission from the Intercollegiate Review (Spring 1969).

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2 replies to this post
  1. “and correspondingly neglects its old duty of waking the moral imagination and disciplining the liberal intellect…”

    Since when is that the job of universities? It should be the job of churches and parents, and if they haven’t done it by the time the student reaches college, it’s probably too late.

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