The Squeeze on the Liberal University

Can the liberal university survive in our current climate of bigness, diversity, and specialization? This question has been of increasing concern to educators, among them DEAN J. DOUGLAS BROWN of Princeton. Mr. Brown has been an economist on the faculty of Princeton University for forty years and dean of the faculty for the past eighteen years.

IN THE climate of bigness and diversity which pervades America today there is danger that we may lose sight of those values in our society which size and complexity do not automatically enhance. In fact, there is reason to believe that bigness and diversity make it ever more difficult to reinforce in the minds and purposes of the multiplying numbers of persons and groups in our society the values which should motivate the whole.

This danger of attenuation of a sense of values in an organization peculiarly responsible for enhancing such a sense is clearly evident in the evolution of the American university. A university bears a name which embodies its purpose of resolving diversity into a unity centered in enduring values. However, the name carries such a tradition of dignity and distinction that it has come to be applied to what are, in fact, complex state systems of higher education held together largely by the control of funds and the veto power which such control affords.

By assigning the name “university” to an aggregation of professors, students, administrative staff, and structures, the American people have come to believe that a marvelous combination of operations can result:

1) An almost limitless number of our youth can be developed into business and professional leaders in their communities.

2) The salaries of the great majority of these young people can be raised by an imposing lifetime total.

3) Courses can be given on any subject on which a textbook is available or for which a class can be gathered, either voluntarily or by requirement.

4) Knowledge can be subdivided into smaller and smaller packages related to any special use, so that, for example, the offering of seventy-two courses in educational psychology is an evidence of progress in assuring effective teaching.

5) Ph.D.’s can be produced by the thousands by some magic of mass production to service the insatiable demands of education itself and ol industry and government.

6) Knowledge or know-how of almost any kind can be obtained by “research” and supplied on order for a price.

7) A “livery stable” of specialists can be made available, on call, to government, industry, and community agencies with no impairment of the university’s normal activities.

8) Thousands of people, ranging from eighteen years of age to eighty, can be provided adult education in all flavors and package-sizes, and at all hours and locations, to satisfy the citizen-taxpayer or, at least, those willing to pay a tuition fee.

That the American people believe all these results to be possible is not surprising. It is but a reflection of our national assumptions that bigness and diversity are goals in themselves and that division of labor and specialization will assure success in any difficult endeavor. It is incumbent upon those who question these assumptions in their application to the age-old concept of the university to speak out. Perhaps it is already too late!

TO RECOGNIZE a university of the kind which has made the term meaningful over the centuries, it may now be necessary to call such institutions “liberal” universities. The adjective is useful not only to distinguish such universities from their vast and diversified counterparts, but to reassert the true function of the traditional university in the reinforcement of a sense of values in society. For want of a better term, and for purposes of discussion, it may be appropriate to call the newer aggregations of educational, research, and service instrumentalities “multi-versities,” as President Kerr of the University of California has done.

In addition to a climate of bigness and diversity, America has inherited a drive toward pluralism. This is a source of great strength. It would be a serious error of arrogance to assert that America should have but one kind of institution of higher education. It would likewise be fatalistic and most discouraging for many if it were held that the “multi-versity” is on the wave of the future and that the “liberal” university is an obsolete hangover of the past. Each type of institution reflects the traditions and environment of the people and communities which give it support and leadership. But it is important to consider the differences in goals and assumptions of the two types of institution. To distinguish these goals and assumptions, the following comparisons are purposely stated in more positive terms than can be illustrated in particular institutions. While institutions at both ends of the spectrum exist, many others have attributes of both types.

To put the comparisons all too simply, the multi-versity appears to emphasize useful knowledge; the liberal university emphasizes humane values and the personal development of the individual student and scholar. The multi-versity assumes that values and dedication are a man’s own business; the liberal university assumes that knowledge is but a means to attain wisdom and that the university should, through its way of life and example, enhance the values and dedication of those participating in that way of life. The multi-versity accepts an attenuated sense of personality largely limited to prestige and easy visibility; the liberal university strongly maintains its sense of personality in the continuity and relationships of its trustees, alumni, faculty, and student body. The multiversity tends to consider its undergraduate colleges as but one part of its general assignment and not necessarily the most important; the liberal university continues to place its undergraduate colleges at the center of its interest, as an integrating factor in institutional personality and purpose.

Perhaps it would be fairer to outline the case for the survival of the liberal university in a great democracy and to permit the exponents of the more recent development, the multi-versity, to make their own case. It is difficult to present fairly an approach to education for which one lacks the enthusiasm gained from personal experience. One’s philosophy of education is likely to be autobiographical. Also, one’s interpretation of social forces reflects one’s environment. Henry George developed his concept of the single tax on land while living in San Francisco at a time of great land speculation.

To the exponent of the liberal university, the obligation of a university transcends the development and distribution of knowledge, no matter how useful. As a perpetual and self-perpetuating institution — a corporate personality — it must stand for those basic civilizing concepts and values which free men from ignorance, superstition, prejudice, arrogance, hatred, tyranny, greed, insensitivity, and cynicism, and which strengthen in men their sense of dedication to the dignity of their fellowmen and their self-fulfillment in all things good and beautiful before God. A liberal university is not neutral in these matters; nor does it believe, corporately, that knowledge is an end in itself. It is concerned with producing responsible leaders in all worthwhile activities in its society and time, and with preserving its capacity to provide these and other leaders with the bases in knowledge, values, and wisdom to advance our way of life and enhance the intellectual, moral, and spiritual qualities of our people.

In sum, the liberal university is not neutral. It is not merely an enterprise manufacturing and dispensing knowledge. Knowledge is neutral, and those who believe that obligation stops when it is distributed over the lecture desk or through the printed page should recall the impotence of the German universities in counteracting the obscenities of Hitler. The extremes of prejudice and hate in our own country and in our own time do not speak well of the influence of our universities.

It may be countered that this exposition of the nature and functions of the liberal university is old-fashioned and out-of-date. It may be argued that the inculcation of a sense of values is the job of the church or of the family, and that universities and university faculties should not tamper with such personal concerns. Students and faculties alike, it is said, appear self-conscious when personal values are discussed.

But this is a narrow, unreal, and peculiarly recent notion about higher education. The communication of values goes on, whether overt or not, in an institution in which young men and women spend years in intense intellectual and emotional activity. The university cannot take responsibility for providing the environment for four years or seven years of the most impressionable period of a man’s life and claim it is neutral in influencing the value system of that man for life. The church and family may preach. The university communicates by assumptions. These are the most effective means of developing values. It has always been so. The influence of higher education in the dedication of leaders in a wide spectrum of American life, public and private, is all too evident. Our precious tradition of this basic purpose of the university goes back to Great Britain far more than to modern Germany.

It is not easy to maintain the traditional role of the liberal university in a century of exploding knowledge. The multi-versity allows itself to ride with the forces toward increasing differentiation which are ever present in specialized scholarship and research. The harder task of assuring a counterforce toward the integration of fundamental truth receives far less emphasis. But the liberal university, which faces the same forces, must, if it is to fulfill its proper function, strive vigorously to bring order and relationship to expanding knowledge as a means to human understanding and fulfillment. By so doing, the liberal university serves to orient both scholarship and the scholar in a time of widening tangents of interest and increasingly difficult intercommunication.

The integrating function of the liberal university is of great importance not only to society but to the advancement of knowledge itself. With increasing specialization there comes an easy assumption of arrogance and of intolerance among the competing areas of learning. There result not merely the two worlds of science and the humanities, but scores of little worlds, of more manageable size but even further apart. Not only do areas of specialization lose valuable contact, but they also lose reasonable proportion. The counting of this or that may become a discrete end in itself in any line of research. Knowing more and more about less and less is not an empty quip. It can become a way of life of a scholar who has removed himself from the integrating influence of relationship with scholars in other disciplines, or even in his own, in a university which does not encourage the mutual reinforcement of learning.

There is much reason to believe that true creativity in scholarship, as well as in the arts, docs not flourish in a climate of overspecialization. The steady accumulation of detailed findings, significant and insignificant, may be the result of isolated and unrelated efforts, but the powerful conceptions and hypotheses which underlie great advances in knowledge appear to arise in the minds of individuals who are stimulated by more than a microscopic view of their field of investigation. Creative ideas appear to result from some subtle process of association, deep in the mind of the scholar. The elements of thought which come together in creative combination may be derived from diverse experiences in time and area. They do not seem to be confined to a single discipline or even to a single major area of learning. In the creative mind, there may be the interaction of mathematics and music, of physics and philosophy, of biology and sociology, of psychology and literature. It should be the purpose of the university to enhance the climate which supports creativity even though the process of creative thinking remains a mystery.

There is need at this time for the liberal university in America to encourage integration as a counterforce to the pressure for differentiation in scholarship and research. An impressive proportion of the significant conceptual contributions in recent years has been contributed by scholars educated abroad. The supply of such scholars will soon run out unless we keep on tapping Europe, which needs them for its own progress. It seems unlikely that America will produce the creative scholars it so greatly needs if specialization is permitted to flourish at the expense of integration and the reinforcement of disciplines.

Large-scale methods of education play down the precious influence of teacher upon student, of various teachers upon the particular student, and of neighboring disciplines and general cultural environment on the individual striving to attain a degree. Most serious of all, highly differentiated programs of instruction emphasize the accumulation of knowledge to pass an examination set by specialists, rather than the total obligation of the student to become a learned and learning man. There is a subtle difference between the student who studies to acquire the bits and pieces ol knowledge considered important by older specialists and the student who is challenged by the vast complexity and interdependence of knowledge and its function in human affairs. The one student may plod up the foothills with his eyes on the trail. The other may take occasional sights on the mountain peaks and thereby gain strength to proceed. It is the function of a liberal university to help men look upward and beyond their special tasks. By so doing, it will help provide creative and dedicated scholars who will retain humility while seeking mastery, and who will remember that knowledge is not an end in itself.

Whether the liberal university can survive in America depends upon the support of several key elements in our society. In our climate of bigness, diversity, and specialization it is not likely that such universities will receive widespread popular support. Their goals appear too visionary for many to accept. For others, there arc overtones of emphasizing an elite stream of students and scholars rather than a wide cross section of generally useful citizens. America as a democracy needs leadership in a vast range of activities, but the institution which dedicates itself to producing them must almost apologize for such a presumption. Who are the people who must support the concept of the liberal university?

First, in their immediate responsibility for the future of their institutions, are the administrations and trustees of liberal universities. To sustain the nature and personality of such universities requires great self-restraint. The pressure for differentiation and atomization of schools, departments, and programs must be carefully controlled, and the counterforces for integration must be constantly encouraged, by heavy expenditures for high talent and facilities if necessary.

Second, an even harder task falls upon the faculties of liberal universities. They face the pressures toward greater and greater specialization in their daily activities. Recognition, especially for younger faculty members, comes more readily if one publishes highly erudite books and articles in an area known only to a few. The teaching of undergraduate nonspecialists appears to be less rewarding than that in advanced courses in a narrow field. Participation in interdisciplinary programs may delay scholarship or cause more specialized colleagues to discount one’s progress in the “inner mysteries” of one’s discipline. To assure the mutual reinforcement of scholarship and instruction, the faculty members of a liberal university must acquire mutual tolerance and respect, and sustain a belief in the need for mutual interaction, despite an unfavorable external climate.

Third, the alumni and friends of a liberal university must recognize their special obligation to sustain a vital concept in American higher education. Governments, state and federal, by vast appropriations, will support the multi-versity in both the education of large numbers of students and the prosecution of specialized research. But it requires the understanding gained by personal involvement in liberal education and in liberal learning, for social rather than personal use alone, to encourage men to support a liberal university by their wealth, wisdom, and work. The appeal of the liberal university is to men of vision, those very leaders it seeks to produce. Without their sustained support, it will gradually become another multi-versity, big, useful, and impersonal.