America Remakes the University
by JAMES BRYANT CONANT
THE University of North Carolina was the first of the educational institutions chartered by one of the thirteen states to open its doors. It started as a state university; it has remained such to this day. The history of the colleges or universities which were already in existence at the time of the American Revolution took another course. Even those incorporated into the framework of the new sovereign states harked back to the independence of a chartered seventeenth-century corporation and gradually ceased to be formal agencies of the state.
For example, the college in Cambridge was ambitiously designated as The University in Chapter V of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780; and a century and a half ago I doubt if the President of Harvard would have thought of his institution as being of a different type from the university just opening in the State of North Carolina. In those days Harvard was as much a state university as any that were planned. Only toward the middle of the nineteenth century did the distinction now current between state universities and privately controlled or privately endowed universities come to have significance in educational thinking. Perhaps a century hence this distinction will again have disappeared. Universities are among the most persistent of human organizations — they outlive many political and social changes.
I mention this bit of history not in order to enter my own horse in competition for the priority prize, but to emphasize my belief that in interpreting the past record of American universities and forecasting their future, the less said about the differences between state universities and others the better. A hundred and fifty years ago, or even one hundred years ago, no one could have foreseen that the university tradition as imported to this continent in Colonial times was to undergo a significant mutation. No one then could have predicted that exposure to the social and political climate of the United States, to alternate blasts of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy in particular, was to bring about an academic revolution and that the state universities were to play a leading role in the transformation; but such was in fact the case.
Only in the last fifty years has the reality of the change in species become apparent to all observers, and only in the last twenty-five years has the true significance of the alteration been widely understood. Even today there are those who regard the change as a mere temporary and extremely regrettable aberration to be attacked by drastic surgery — pruned or cut back, as it were, to conform to the older European model of a perfect university.
But what is this university tradition which has undergone a revolution in American hands — a revolution equivalent to a biological mutation? Indeed, what is a university? How shall we define the genus? For well on a thousand years there have been universities in the Western world; to understand the present institutions, we must therefore comprehend something of their history. For while there have been several clear and distinct changes in the pattern, the essence of the university tradition has through all these years remained constant. We can describe a university, it seems to me, as a community of scholars with a considerable degree of independence and selfgovernment, which is concerned with professional education, the advancement of knowledge, and the general education of the leading citizens. To accomplish these three ends, it has been found desirable often — but not always — to incorporate into the community of scholars a community of students. Thus arose what has been termed the “collegiate way of living.” Thus came about the emphasis on what we now call the “extracurricular” educational values.
As the university tradition came to America, it was based on four ultimate sources of strength: the cultivation of learning for its own sake, the educational stream that makes possible the professions, the general educational stream of the liberal arts, and lastly, the never failing river of student life carrying all the power that comes from the gregarious impulses of human beings. According to my view, universities have flourished when these four elements have been properly in balance; on the other hand, when one or more of these same elements have diminished or dried up, the academies of advanced instruction have failed signally in performing a relevant social function.
The cultivation of learning alone produces not a university but a research institute; sole concern with student life produces in these days either an academic country club or a football team maneuvering under a collegiate banner; professional education by itself results in nothing but a trade school; an institution concerned with general education, even in the best liberal arts tradition, divorced from research and education for the professions is admittedly not a university but a college. Therefore, to my mind, the future of the American university depends primarily on keeping a proper balance between these four traditional elements of strength. These four elements were the basis of the properly balanced plan in a time when universities were flourishing; they must continue to be in balance if institutions of advanced instruction are to fulfill their proper functions in the times that are to come.
BUT what is there new, one may ask, about the American university, and how does the novelty (if any) affect the prospects for its future? The mutation, I believe, occurred in two of the four historic elements of which I speak: namely, professional education, and general education of the leading citizens. The first was a change in content, an enormous growth; the second, a change in type of student. Both represent a vast broadening of the educational goals; both present us with problems still unsolved. The changes have been to a large degree unconscious responses to social forces, and often the rationalization of the transformations has been in other terms than I shall use.
As public secondary education expanded in the last decades of the nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth, the colleges and universities likewise expanded. Not only were the applicants more numerous: they were much more heterogeneous as to backgrounds and ambitions. Furthermore, the political, social, and economic development of the United States vastly altered the way in which the public regarded education. As the years went by, it became more and more evident that in our complex industrialized society mere ability to read and write, added to native wit, was not enough. With the passing of the frontier, the pioneer spirit was turned away from new lands toward new industries. And to manage modern industry requires more than a high school education — at least for all but the very exceptional man.
With increasing industrialization went increasing urbanization, a higher standard of living and a vast number of services available for city and town dwellers, more and more new mechanical and electrical devices distributed widely among the population — automobiles, electric refrigerators, and radios, to mention the most obvious examples. All this industrial expansion required more and more men and women with a larger and different educational experience than would have been necessary fifty years earlier to run a farm, a store, or even a bank.
The pressure on the universities, therefore, to educate men and women for specific vocations both increased and diversified. Beginning with the Morrill Acts, the public had recognized the need for education in agriculture and the mechanical and industrial arts. Many a state in the Union made the significant step of combining the new agricultural and industrial arts colleges with an older state college of arts and letters. Perhaps one could say that from this union came the new American university. But, if so, the transformation rapidly spread elsewhere. Even before the great influx in numbers, the pattern had been set in publicly controlled and privately controlled universities alike; the mechanical and industrial arts (later to be known as engineering) and agriculture were recognized as being on a par (at least in theory) with divinity, medicine, and law.
As the twentieth century grew older, both the enrollments in our universities and the diversity of the training increased with each decade. The word “ profession,” in danger of being stretched beyond the elastic limit, was supplemented by the phrase “semiprofession.” But soon the voice of the critic was heard in the land. Able and distinguished citizens became alarmed at this transformation of the idea of a university in American hands. When you once abandon the concept of a university as a home of learning, a place where the life of the mind is to be cultivated at all costs, you have destroyed our centers of higher education, they declared.
But in spite of those outcries and lamentations, the development proceeded on its way. One of our oldest universities strengthened its school of business administration, another continued to give degrees in forestry and nursing, while privately controlled universities in urban areas were as catholic in their offerings as any financed by the state. One element of the ancient four — professional education — had received nourishment from the combination of democracy and industrialization. It was forced to proliferate in a way to shock the admirers of the ancient stem. All manner of new vocations were assimilated within the sacred walls of a university, and graduates armed with special training in a variety of skills stood on the commencement platform as proudly as the future members of the clergy or the bar.
In short, in the course of seventy-five years or so the forces of democracy had taken the European idea of a university and transformed it. The American university today is as different from the nineteenthcentury British or Continental universities as the Renaissance universities of Italy and the Netherlands were different from those of the Middle Ages. Personally, I think the basic philosophy which almost unconsciously has shaped the growth of the modern American university is sound, for it is none other than a philosophy hostile to the supremacy of a few vocations; it is a philosophy moving toward the social equality of all useful labor. But the implications of this philosophy are revolutionary and those who react against it have, if anything, understated the extent and radical nature of the change.
AS AN offset to this increased emphasis on professional training (for I regard all university vocational education as a derivative of the ancient professions), there came about a strong movement to make American universities centers of scholarly work and scientific investigation. This movement was not only to some degree a counterbalance to the educational forces associated with the agricultural and mechanical colleges, but also a response to a challenge to make of some of the older institutions something more than advanced boarding schools for a special group.
In the middle of the last century the head of one of the Oxford colleges, an eminent scholar and educational reformer, saw no evidence that the university tradition had ever taken root in the United States. “America has no universities, as we understand the term,” he wrote, “the institutions so-called being merely places for granting titular degrees.” Taken literally this harsh judgment is undoubtedly false; yet it probably is not a gross exaggeration of the situation which then existed. The new spirit moving within the educational institutions of the country had not become evident to those outside our academic walls.
It was not until the Johns Hopkins University was opened at Baltimore that the idea of a university as a center of advanced learning came to have a prominent place in the public mind. It was not until Gilman had boldly proclaimed that “all departments of learning should be promoted” and that “the glory of the university should rest upon the character of the teachers and scholars . . . and not upon their number nor upon the buildings constructed for their use” — it was not until then that scholarship came into its own again as part of the university tradition of this land.
From this development, as we all know, came the growth of the graduate schools of arts and sciences, the introduction of new standards of excellence in regard to original work by scientists and scholars, and the growth of what is now sometimes referred to as the Ph.D. octopus. All this was slow at first but, like the other changes in the universities of America, gained speed during the period just before and just after the First World War. As a consequence, the American university has been in recent, years something of a mental patient suffering from a schizophrenic disorder: on one day, or during one administration, the disciplines grouped under the banner of the arts, letters, and sciences represent the dominant personality; another day, or during another administration, it is the vocational procession led by law and medicine that sweeps all before it. As a reminder of this split personality, we have the Association of American Universities, which has been for years in reality an association of graduate schools of arts and sciences; even the most distinguished and ancient professions are scarcely mentioned. As another example, we see a wealthy foundation supporting a history of American universities which is in fact a history of the departments which award a Ph.D. degree.
But, as so often happens in the delightful chaos of American democracy, the various pressure groups to a large degree canceled out. Looking back over the history of this century, we can see that the American universities drew strength from many different sources. The fact that the forces making for the new developments were often not only totally unrelated but at times seemed to be working one against another made little difference; the expansion and strengthening of the entire institution continued almost without interruption. The nature of the typical American university had emerged; whether any given institution was state-controlled or privately supported made little difference in the pattern. In some states there was a comprehensive system comprised of several constituent members, as in North Carolina; in others all work was included in one academic institution.
As to the variety of the vocational training, one university or one university system might show considerable divergence from another; as to the strength of their faculties, there were, of course, wide differences; but as to their ideas of undergraduate education and their devotion to the welfare of the students, there was remarkable uniformity among them all. The significant fact was that no university which gave degrees in the ancient professions of medicine or law remained aloof from also giving degrees in such modern subjects as business administration, engineering, journalism, forestry, architecture, nursing, or education. And many were awarding the bachelor’s degree for courses of study in vocational fields very distant, indeed, from the traditional disciplines of the arts and sciences.
To complete this brief and inadequate account of the Americanization of the university idea, it remains only to discuss general education as apart from vocational education. I have earlier referred to the “general education of the leading citizens ” as one of those traditional elements in the university pattern which have remained constant through the centuries. A volume would be required to do justice to this aspect of the work of universities in different countries and in different periods of history. In a sense, this phase of university education is a by-product of the two main preoccupations of the scholars: the advancement of learning, and education for the professions — which includes, of course, the training of new scholars. In a sense, it is a by-product — yet a by-product which in the public eye (including the eye of future students) has often loomed as large as all the other functions of the university put together. And the larger it loomed the more emphasis we find put on student life, which has manifested itself in ways as different as the Oxford colleges, the German dueling clubs, and the American zest for intercollegiate athletics.
If we examine the role of the universities in the English-speaking countries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we find a fair proportion of the students preparing not for the church or the bar, but for public service or a career in letters. In England only slowly, in the Colonies more rapidly, the merchant families came to send their boys to a college or university in order to obtain the sort of general education required by the business positions they would later occupy. In terms of the total population, the number of young men who pursued this road, however, was small indeed. For the most part, only a special set of relatively wealthy families patronized the colleges and universities for this purpose; the poor boy entered only if he desired to become a scholar or a member of a learned profession.
The numbers were small in the eighteenth century and the first part of the nineteenth, because, except to those in the professions I have mentioned, the education thus acquired was of but little significance in later life. The fact that Harvard College was not available in the eighteenth century for boys of Benjamin Franklin’s social and financial status made little or no difference to either this genius or many of his much less gifted contemporaries who grew up in equal poverty. The same may be said of the situation throughout America as late as the middle of the last century. But then matters began to change. As part of the educational expansion of which I have already spoken, more and more boys began to enter colleges and universities not to study for the professions, but for a general education as a preparation for later life in the business world.
AN ACUTE observer reared in another culture might have seen at the turn of the century that American educational policy was steering American educational philosophy toward an ugly dilemma — a dilemma only now apparent and still often dodged. As long as education beyond the high school was a matter for a very small fraction of the population and, except for learned and literary men, of no great moment in terms of subsequent success, it mattered little who went to college. But as more and more doors of opportunity in an increasingly industrialized society became closed to the non-college man, the question of who went to college raised new social and political problems. Today we see — out of the corner of our eyes, at least — such awkward queries as: Have we real equality of educational opportunity at the college level? If not, what is the proper remedy? Is everyone to go to college? If so, what kind of college? If not, on what basis are some to be denied “the privileges of a higher education”?
Here we run into some of the thorniest problems in modern education. If we are to continue the expansion of public education so that the opportunity of formal instruction beyond high school is given to still greater numbers irrespective of financial status, what sorts of colleges and universities must we provide? To my mind, such phrases as “the privileges of a higher education” confuse the issue greatly. If we could eliminate the words “higher education” we could at least make a start toward thinking more clearly about the relation of our colleges to the structure of American society. For the adjective “higher” implies at once that those who do not go to a four-year college are forever on a lower plane. And any discerning teacher in our secondary schools will testify that the social implications of “going to college” weigh quite as heavily with parents and children as does proved aptitude for college work. Furthermore, any placement officer of a college knows full well that it is a rare holder of a bachelor’s degree who wants to take up as his lifework a trade or vocation for which he might have been trained in a technical high school.
If we substitute the word “ advanced ” for “higher ” we get squared away for a discussion of high school and college in terms of the basic premise of American society, equality of educational opportunity. Instead of raising the question, Who should be educated? we would then pose the problem, How long should be the education of the members of each vocation? Instead of asking who should go to college, we inquire, What types of education beyond the high school are needed by the members of each vocation? Considered in these terms, the answers can be given within fairly narrow limits. It is beyond argument that certain callings require longer periods of formal education than do others. Public health, being postgraduate to the study of medicine, now tops the list; medicine and the academic careers requiring a Ph.D. in arts or letters are next, with research in science not far behind; then come law and engineering, to name only a few of the well-recognized professions.
Since the major cost of advanced education, if the student is away from home, is board and lodging, one can argue that as far as possible the expansion of public education beyond high school should be provided locally. Otherwise we should have to envisage using public funds to provide two to four years of free board and room for a considerable fraction of our high school graduates.
But there are various types of professional and vocational education which can be given at only a few centers in even a very populous state. To tap the reservoir of national talent for these professions, we need a vastly expanded scholarship policy, because these students must for the most part live away from home. It is literally impossible, for example, to give adequate instruction in clinical medicine except in cities of sufficient size to support large hospitals. How are boys with little financial backing who come from other cities and towns to be financed if they are to study medicine? Similarly, advanced work in the arts, sciences, and letters can be done only where adequate libraries and laboratories are at hand. Is it not in the national interest to get all the latent talent available for the lengthy training that research careers demand? To establish research centers at every point in the United States where general education beyond the high school is desired would be not merely uneconomical, but impossible. The alternative, to strengthen our present universities and establish a national system of scholarships, seems the only answer.
The logic of events in this country and this century, therefore, leads to the conclusion that the undergraduate college in a typical American university must be closely integrated in its work with the other functions of the institution: advancing knowledge, and professional or vocational education. The pattern of such education may therefore have little relevance for the two-year colleges which provide locally for those who need no university training for the vocations they will enter. Those local colleges have the opportunity of providing a general education beyond high school, coupled with specialized types of vocational instruction.
I am not suggesting that the university divorce itself from the two-year colleges any more than from the high schools; quite the contrary. The university, because of its interest in professional education, in the advancement of learning in all fields, in the training of teachers, and because of its concern with basic educational problems, is in a position in every state to exert leadership in the whole field. But the methods by which a university provides general and professional education to its students may in detail be very different from what is desired in other institutions with shorter courses and different educational goals.
At the risk of being redundant, I return to my original proposition: the health of our universities depends on keeping a balance between the advancement of knowledge, professional education, general education, and the demands of student life. From time to time, every institution will be threatened by the overgrowth of one of these four elements or the atrophy of one or more. But by and large it seems clear that in the next few years it is the advancement of knowledge which will be in need of the greatest encouragement and support.
I say this in spite of the present public concern with supporting research in the physical and biological sciences. I say it in part because of this concern. I am afraid that there will be so many research institutes founded by industry and philanthropy for very specific purposes that the university faculties will be drained dry of their productive men. Few laymen seem to realize the simple fact that it is men that count, and that first-rate investigators and original scholars are relatively rare phenomena, and require long and careful training. That is why, to me, the spending of state and Federal money on a scholarship policy is fully as important as the establishment of a suitable Federal agency to support basic research in our universities.
Thus far I have spoken of the future of American universities largely in terms of their importance as measured by the subsequent performance of their graduates. Let me, in conclusion, emphasize another role of great significance for the nation. I refer to intellectual, educational, and moral leadership — leadership not only of a state but of an entire section. This leadership of a community of scholars, like the leadership of an individual, requires, first, capacity based on expert knowledge; second, broad vision; third, courage. And of these the last is by no means the least significant. More and more I believe that the nation and different groups within the nation (geographic, social, or economic groups) must look to the university scholars for guidance in handling basic social and economic problems. To this end the professors of these subjects must explore vigorously not only the fundamental aspects of man’s behavior but the applications of our present knowledge.
One condition is essential: absolute freedom of discussion, absolutely unmolested inquiry. We must have a spirit of tolerance which allows the expression of all opinions, however heretical they may appear. On this point there can be no compromise. We are either afraid of heresy within our universities, or we are not. If we are afraid, there will be no adequate discussion of the great questions of the day, no fearless exploration of the basic problems forced on us by the age in which we live. The door will be shut to the development of a culture which will satisfy our needs.
But we have no reason to be unduly apprehensive. The public has come to understand both the function of the universities and the necessary conditions for their health. Therefore I view the future of our institutions with the greatest confidence. I see the American universities as leading the way in the development of a unified, coherent culture, the expression of a true democracy in a scientific age.