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Message in a Bottle
Why a 19th-century critique of higher education remains timely

By David L. Kirp


 
   
Across the landscape of higher education, a debate rages over the impact of the market ethic. In broad-brush terms, the argument pits those who urge greater reliance on marketplace norms, with their promise of greater efficiency and productivity, against defenders of the community of scholars, with its promise of discovering, sharing and transmitting knowledge. It sets those who believe in the workings of Adam Smith's "invisible hand," the notion that the public good emerges from individuals' pursuit of their own selfish interests, against those who argue that public purposes can best be served when universities are able to carve out a space where money values cannot intrude.

Like so much in higher education, these are ancient quarrels. Nearly two centuries ago, in 1828, the governing board of Yale College appointed a committee to explore "the expediency of so altering the regular course of instruction...as to leave out of said course the study of the dead languages." The committee's report reached far beyond its mandate to encompass the entire "nature and object" of higher learning. In its time, it was the most influential American analysis of the issue.

Most histories of higher education dismiss the Yale report as a reactionary tract, a last-gasp defense of the old guard. That misses the mark-the report speaks so directly to the current controversies over money and meaning that it could almost have been written yesterday. The nurturing of superstar professors; the use of adjuncts; the place of the "practical arts" in higher education; the money-making potential of extension programs; the temptations and pitfalls of "branding"; the integrity of the liberal arts curriculum; the importance of developing the character as well as the minds of undergraduates; the defense of higher education as a public good; most broadly and basically, the necessity for any college or university worth the name to be attentive to contemporary concerns while preserving the integrity of the institution. All these themes find a home in this fascinating document.

In the early years of the republic there was considerable clamor for Yale, as well as other colleges, to take a more populist approach-to provide greater access and to pay more attention to what, then and now, are called the "practical arts." In New Haven the controversy was of sufficient gravity to engage the attention of the governor of Connecticut, as well as local worthies and "the academical faculty."

Be more business-like, the critics were urging, or risk becoming obsolete. "From different quarters, we have heard the suggestion that our colleges must be new-modeled; that they are not adapted to the spirit and wants of the age; that they will soon be deserted, unless they are better accommodated to the business character of the nation." Although this was the Jacksonian age, it might as well have been the internet age. The big difference lies in how Yale responded to the "suggestion." While nowadays faculty and administrators are prone to dithering, the 1828 report rejected "accommodation" out of hand.

The bedrock purpose of a college education, the committee concluded, is to "form the taste and discipline the mind." That's why the study of classics should remain a requirement: Far from being a "dead" undertaking, it "lays the foundations of correct taste" and provides "the most effectual discipline of the mental faculties." In the wars over the "dilution" of the undergraduate curriculum, the same argument, dressed in different rhetoric, is still being made.

The report wasn't resistant to the idea of change. On the contrary: "Salutary reform," change that solidifies the "higher principle," was welcome, for the curriculum must be updated to reflect advances in knowledge. Yale in 1828, with courses in chemistry, geology and political economy, was a far better place than it had been in 1714, when the only subjects being offered were "the scholastic cobwebs of a few paltry systems, that would now be laid by as proper food for worms." Similar claims for the beneficence of change were made on behalf of the "multiversity" a generation ago, and are advanced now by for-profit institutions.

The balance between teaching and research requires recalibrating as well, the Yale committee argued, in ways that today's superstar professors would appreciate. The report urged that senior professors be largely freed from classroom responsibilities and permitted to concentrate on research. Tutors, the nineteenth century's adjuncts-probably better than senior professors in the classroom, the report surmised-should teach the basic subjects.

What liberal arts schools, fighting to hold onto a diminishing share of undergraduates, hail as the "campus experience" was also regarded as critical to an undergraduate education. Yale, the report noted, ought to be appreciated as a "family founded on mutual affection and confidence," whose mission included the shaping of students' "character."

Because Yale is a private university, its leaders weren't as vulnerable to the whims of state politicians as their counterparts at the then-new "Catholepistemiad (a place of universal learning), or University, of Michigania"-or, nowadays, at public universities everywhere, which are as likely to be state-molested as state-funded. Still, public opinion mattered in New Haven; that's presumably why the governor of Connecticut was appointed to the committee.

While the report gave a nod in the direction of populism-"the public are undoubtedly right, in demanding that there should be appropriate courses of education, accessible to all classes of youth"-it concluded that Yale College wasn't equipped to deliver such instruction. Professional schools, trade schools, quick-and-dirty exposure to the liberal arts were all worthy ventures (indeed, schools of law, medicine and divinity were already part of the university). However, those narrower, more specialized subjects had no place in an undergraduate liberal arts education.

Then as now, money was the institution's life blood. If the "treasury were overflowing, if we had a surplus fund," the report conceded, then "there might perhaps be no harm in establishing a department for a brief and rapid course of study." Still, the "higher principle" should rule the day: the mission of the college, "the discipline and the furniture of the mind," must not be compromised. Such a venture needs to be "as distinct...as the medical or law school."

The committee was really proposing an extension program, though it did not recognize what is now well understood-that such ventures can replenish the treasury handsomely. Teaching short-term students and regular college students together, in an expanded institution, was rejected because it jeopardized the value of a Yale degree. "It is a hazardous experiment, to act upon the plan of gaining numbers first, and character afterwards."

The brand matters. How often, if less elegantly, has that argument been made in recent years by university administrators?

A liberal arts education, the report said, promotes self-interest, the private good, by giving students the tools and the credentials they need to prosper as doctors, businessmen and lawyers. But it moved beyond this market-driven analysis in making the Jeffersonian argument that such an education also promotes the interest of the commonweal, the public good, by molding students into citizens of the republic. "Let the value of a collegiate education be reduced and the diffusion among the people would be checked, the general standard of intellectual and moral worth lowered, and our civil and religious liberty jeopardized, by ultimately disqualifying our citizens for the exercise of the right and privilege of self-government."

While at almost all colleges the classics have long since vanished from the core curriculum, that's not the essence of the Yale report. The undergraduate curriculum, as the committee pointed out, had been in flux since the founding of the college; junking the classics requirement simply represented another step in that continuing process of change. (Meanwhile classics professors, attentive to student tastes, have been reinventing themselves as classical studies professors, offering history-and-literature courses in translation, with a touch of Indiana Jones archaeology thrown in.)

What is pertinently different is that American colleges eventually surrendered control over the design of the undergraduate curriculum. Because there's less certainty about what must be part of the shared "furniture of the mind"-what belongs in the canon-the common core has generally been abandoned in favor of innocuous "distribution requirements" that turn liberal education into a bazaar.

While this development makes both students and professors happy, for both are set free to pursue their short-term interests, its impact on liberal education is another matter entirely. Students of an earlier generation were seen as acolytes whose preferences were to be formed; today's students are increasingly viewed as consumers whose preferences must be satisfied.

Much like Swiss watchmakers, liberal arts professors offer what's often regarded as a luxury item to an ever-shrinking proportion of undergraduates. Those who teach these subjects typically consider their value to be self-evident, not something that needs to be explained anew; in these precincts, Cardinal Newman still lives. But career-minded students have steadily shifted their allegiance to such "practical arts" as business administration, recreation management and law enforcement, fields in which the tangible benefits of credentialing and training are more obvious. They have been offered no good reason to regard such behavior as short-sighted.

Is it possible to reinvent the academic commons, to reinvigorate the culture of the academy, to find persuasive ways of explaining to a new generation the enduring values of a liberal education?

This incoherence about what knowledge matters most is pervasive. Whether the topic is the nature of scholarship, the criteria for selecting and supporting students, the methods and modes of instruction, or the relationship between the university and its patrons in industry, clarifying voices of authority are rarely heard.

When he delivered the Godkin Lectures at Harvard in 1963, Clark Kerr, then president of the University of California system and formerly chancellor at Berkeley, knew "the direction [universities] were swinging." Those lectures, published as The Uses of the University, describe the emergence of the bustling intellectual metropolis that Kerr labeled the multiversity.

The nineteenth century university "was a village with its priests" and the early twentieth century university was "a town-a one-industry town-with its intellectual oligarchy," according to Kerr. The new "multiversity" was "a city of infinite variety...a whole series of communities and activities held together by a common name and...related purposes...neither entirely of the world nor entirely apart from it."

This was "a period of euphoria," Kerr wrote, an era marked by universal access to higher education as well as the postwar decision to house scientific research within universities, and its accompanying influx of resources. The tone of the lectures reflects this optimism. Kerr had glimpsed the future and liked what he saw.

Thirty-eight years later, in 2001, nonagenarian Clark Kerr sat down to write a new last chapter for what has become a classic. He was far less confident, and less positive as well, about what the future might hold. The second half of the twentieth century had been a "grand century for the cities of intellect," he wrote, but that time "is now past, never to be replicated." Money is in short supply, and so are ideas. University administrators possess "no great visions to lure them on, only the need of survival for themselves and their institutions."

The 1828 Yale report exudes a bracing certainty about the university's mission. It is clear about what the college is-and what it is not. Such clarity is what's most anachronistic about this message in a bottle.


David L. Kirp is a professor of public policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, at the University of California at Berkeley. This article is adapted from Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: Higher Education Goes to Market, which will be published in November by Harvard University Press.

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