The Nature of the University

 

Easy read summary for administrators and legislators 

            The University is a free marketplace of ideas, not a technical-vocational institute, social action agency or sports facility.  It’s faculty and students; all else is support.

 

 

 

 

Warding off pressures from the
outside community, especially political interests, to alter its practices has
always been a fact of life for the American university, which has mounted a generally
successful guard against such threats to its independence.  Now, however, the very nature of the
university is being challenged, as the proponents of new social trends have
allied themselves with sympathetic and often powerful elements within the university
itself.  The traditional understanding of
the university as an independent forum for the free examination of ideas is
being attacked in favor of a concept of the university as an agency for direct
social action, its prime concern no longer the search for truth, but immediate
social utility.

 

The university has long been seen as
an “ivory tower,” isolated not from reality, but from the constantly
changing political, social and economic winds of the outside world, from the
forces that constantly attempt to interfere with its central mission of seeking
the truth.  Its service to society has
been indirect: the discovery of truth and the creation of educated citizens,
who might then directly serve society’s interests.  In contrast, the new university is to serve
society directly, participating immediately and directly in the social and
economic developments deemed important by society and producing individuals to
fill specific community needs.
Curriculum is to be determined by social utility rather than
intellectual curiosity, and if need be, truth must take a back seat to that
utility.

 

In accordance with its traditional
mission the university has struggled, not always successfully, to remain
apolitical and independent of the surrounding society, which inevitably seeks
to impose its current vision of things.
Whether that vision revolves around Catholic theology, Nazi ideology,
anticommunism or multiculturalism is quite irrelevant; the university must be
free to chase ideas down whatever currently unpopular or offensive road they
might lead.  Nothing justifies the
abridgement of this independence, and if the university is a state supported
institution, the taxpayers and government must understand that claiming and
exercising any right to interfere is immediately harmful to the university’s
mission.  Apart from managing the
institution, the primary responsibility of a university administration is to
protect it from such outside interference, a task that most administrators are
not performing very well.

 

Current trendy visions of higher
education seek to turn this all on its head and render the university more,
rather than less, dependent on outside forces.
Such can not fail to politicize the university and limit its tradition
of free inquiry, making it increasingly a voice of the people or more likely,
government, rather than the voice of the truth.
This is pernicious enough, but such a dependent relationship can only
grow worse, as outside powers send in more tendrils, further undermining
institutional autonomy.  And a decade
down the line those outside interests may no longer seem as benign or
progressive, as the momentary concerns of a democratic society continually
change.

 

Free expression, that most delicate
and dangerous of basic rights, is central to the university, as it indeed is to
a free society in general.  But while
limits on free speech will certainly injure society, they will with equal
certainty kill the university.  It simply
can not survive strictures placed on the free examination and discussion of
ideas.  Regardless of what society wishes
at the moment, the individual on campus must be free to speak his mind, subject
only to the single prohibition of not creating an immediate physical danger.

 

To limit expression, as proponents
of the new university would do, on the grounds of offensiveness, psychological
injury, perceived or real damage to society or simply unpopularity is to kill
free speech.  That the perpetrators may
have the goal of improving society is irrelevant; whatever the motives, free
speech is still dead, which inevitably paves the way for those whose motives
are manifestly unattractive.  It is a
tiny step from prohibiting offensive expression to prohibiting politically
unacceptable expression, from banning criticism of a group to banning criticism
of the government.

 

Also vital to the university is
humanism, the assertion that human beings have a dignity and worth quite apart
from heaven, that they are free to shape their destiny and that the primary
purpose of society is to serve man rather than god.  And part and parcel of humanism is another
curious idea discovered by the Greeks: that of the individual.  This is the notion, in theory fundamental to
our society, that the individual has a value apart from the group and
consequently ought to be judged according to his individual characteristics
rather than those of the group.

 

Defending the individual and
resisting the group judgments that are fundamental to tribalism and social
oppression is an unending struggle and is being bitterly fought on the American
university campus.  The individual,
whether student or faculty, is the basic unit of the university, the single
mind that examines and debates ideas, and the group must suppress that
individual in order to create a common voice for itself.  As history amply demonstrates, subordination
of the individual to the group inevitably generates falsehoods, smothers new or
different ideas and generally injures the pursuit of truth that is the prime
directive of the university.  Mr. Spock
notwithstanding, in the context of the university the needs of the one far
outweigh the needs of the many,

 

The university is a collection of
individuals, not groups, and each is free to sing his own song, regardless of
whether any harmonies result.  It is by
definition a contentious place, and a university where “consensus”
reigns, even concerning the nature and mission of the university itself, is one
that has to some degree failed.  And a university
that requires universal agreement with any idea has become its own
antithesis.  The university must defend
the examination of all ideas, even those that threaten it, or the free
marketplace of knowledge will become a company store.

 

Insofar as the university
constitutes a forum for the examination of any idea it is democratic, but the
institution itself is not a democracy.
It posits a basic inequality between the two groups that constitute it,
faculty and students. and on the basis of that inequality assigns authority to
the faculty.  Students are free (and in
fact should be encouraged) to challenge any idea propounded by the faculty and
even challenge the competency of the professor, but they are nevertheless subordinate.  Students or faculty may organize themselves
as democratic entities, but the classroom can only be an autocracy, albeit one
in which the individual is free to demonstrate that the emperor has no clothes.

 

The university is not so much a
thing or a place as a concept, that of the free exchange of ideas.  The campus, with its classrooms, libraries
and laboratories, is not the university, but simply a support structure.  The staff – presidents, provosts,
secretaries, librarians, custodians, etc. – are not the university, but only
its attendants, convenient for its functioning.
Insofar as the university is a physical entity at all, it is the students
and faculty, and all others serve the single purpose of facilitating the
dialogue between these two groups.  When
Peter Abelard, fired from the 12th century University
of Paris, lectured students on his
own in an open field across the Seine, he and they constituted
a kind of minimalist university.

 

Unfortunately, for most Americans,
especially politicians and businessmen, the university is simply an
institution, another business in which society invests resources in the
expectation of a product.  The university
does create a sort of product – education – but understanding it as just
another business leads inevitably to the demand for the immediate utility that
is at odds with its essential nature.  If
we serve the university with our tuition, taxes and gifts, the argument goes,
then the university ought to serve us by training new workers, creating jobs
and contributing to the economic and social well-being of the community.  The inevitable result: the university becomes
more of a technical-vocation institute and less of a university.

 

The university does of course serve
society and provide a return, but in an indirect and long-term way, by
examining ideas and by producing educated citizens.  Whether those ideas or that education has any
immediate or obvious utility to society is unimportant.  To demand otherwise may create a socially
useful institution, but one that is no longer a university.

 

Though most generally a free
marketplace of ideas, the specifically recognized purpose of the university is
education.  Exactly what
“education” means is of course a matter of intense debate, since the
term can reasonably cover everything from forced political indoctrination to
training a physicist to learning to survive on the streets of America’s
cities.  Most would agree that the first
and last of these are not proper parts of a university education, but they have
appeared in the form of sensitivity training and various outreach
programs.  Graduate schools and the
training of professionals in the arts and sciences are certainly a facet of the
university education, but the prime focus must be the undergraduate student.

 

The traditional core function of the
university is providing the undergraduate student with a liberal  education, that is, a general education that presents
the individual with a basic understanding of the universe, of the human
experience and of himself.  It will also
provide the intellectual tools for further exploration and the satisfaction of
the basic urge that ultimately lies behind the university and in fact the very
discovery of rationalism: curiosity.  It
is not too much to say that the university is a monument to curiosity, the
drive to question and figure out why, all to the dismay of the ignorant, the
complacent and the defenders if the established order.

 

Thus has the university helped to
create and then to serve the free and progressive society.  It is our great misfortune that this
understanding of its nature is fading away.

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