The Perfect University

“Since the presence of young women on the campus is upsetting to young men, the perfect university will admit men only.” This and other puckish deliberations on the state of university education are offered by one of America’s most venerable humorists, now emeritus Kappa Alpha Professor of Romance Languages at Cornell.

by Morris Bishop

You ask, my young friend, what the perfect university would be like. If I had a few hundred million for good works, you say, what sort of university would I found?

We must first establish a few principles.

The perfect university will provide a pleasant life for its faculty.

It will provide a pleasant life, though not quite so pleasant, for its students.

It will provide pleasant diversions, in the way of full-dress academic parades, athletic spectacles, drama, and amusing lectures, for the general public.

It will possess beautiful buildings and grounds, in an agreeable setting. It will afford more than ample parking space.

It will build character in its students. Since character is built by the surmounting of difficulties, it will provide difficulties for the students to surmount.

Since the presence of young women on the campus is upsetting to young men, the perfect university will admit men only.

Since the presence of older women is upsetting to older men, the faculty will be celibate, and women, even of canonical age, will be barred from the campus.

Since unfettered research is rapidly making the world uninhabitable, the perfect university will not go out of its way to encourage research. It will not make research and publication a requirement for faculty promotion. It will not seek or accept government grants, from suspicion of government’s aims. It will not, however, forbid research, which is an agreeable diversion for the faculty. The administration will regard its researchers with amused, affectionate mistrust.

Since the public is always clamoring that a university must be useful, the perfect university will guarantee that its graduates possess the essential social skills (golf, the dance, chorus singing, a sense of comedy). It will cultivate in its students the qualities essential to directors of large enterprises. It will devote itself particularly to the training of young men for vice presidencies in family firms.

If, in scholarly fashion, we seek guarantees for the present in the past, we may find something approaching the perfect university in eighteenthcentury Oxford and Cambridge.

It is our custom to speak much ill of the eighteenth-century universities. We berate them for their sloth, self-satisfaction, withdrawal from the active world, and determined progress backward. But are these manifestations sins? May they not rather be regarded as virtues in excess?

The university professors, as distinguished from the college fellows, or dons, took their duties lightly. Less than half of the professors gave any courses at all. Dr. Newcome, the first Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, spoke his inaugural address and uttered no further words in public for forty years. The defense of the silent professors was that if they should offer a course of lectures, no one would attend anyway. Indeed there was not, and is not, any requirement of attendance at lectures by Oxford and Cambridge men. Nor will there be any such petty compulsion in the perfect university. The calling of the roll is an insult to the students. It is also an insult to the professor.

Had the eighteenth-century professors been forced to public exhibitions, many of them would have found themselves in a pretty pass. Mr. Richard Watson was appointed to the professorship of chemistry at Cambridge in 1764. He admitted that he knew nothing at all of the subject, that he had never seen an experiment performed. Nevertheless, he set to the study of elementary chemistry with a will, and became so competent a chemist that he was appointed Regius Professor of Divinity and Bishop of Llandaff.

The instruction of the young was mostly in the hands of the fellows, or dons, in the colleges, as distinguished from the universities. They are now the tutors. Almost the only obligation on the dons was that of celibacy. Their pay was small, but they dined very cheaply and well in the college hall, fattening on the fines for student misbehavior. Thus they turned naturally, and with every encouragement, to the monkish vice of gluttony. At Christ Church, Oxford, they dined at three, and sat regularly till chapel at nine. Said an observer of Oxford in 1726: “When any person is chosen Fellow of a College, he immediately becomes a freeholder, and is settled for life in ease and plenty. . . . He wastes the rest of his days in luxury and idleness; he enjoys himself, and is dead to the world; for a Senior Fellow of a College lives and molders away in a supine and regular course of eating, drinking, sleeping, and cheating the juniors.” The constant practice of epicurism led to even more horrid excesses. Mr. Ferdinand Smythies, a Fellow of Queens’, Cambridge, espied “a woman with her child in her arms, a fine boy, fresh and whitehaired. . . . He could not help crying out to his companion in the hearing of the mother: ‘Good God, how nicely that boy would eat, boiled with collyflowers!’”

Heavy drinking among the scholars was rather smiled than frowned upon. Gentlemen sat long over their potations. Dr. Johnson himself, visiting University College, Oxford, drank three bottles of port and was none the worse for them. About 1770 the Master of Oriel, Oxford, “was continually obliged to be assisted to bed by his butler.” Lord Byron remembered the famous classical scholar Richard Porson at Cambridge: “I can never recollect him except as drunk or brutal, and generally both.” Others report that Porson frequently settled philological arguments by threatening to split his opponents’ heads with a poker.

Encouraged by such examples, the well-to-do students devoted themselves to elegant dissipation. An Oxford “college-smart” was described in 1718 as “a Character which few perhaps are acquainted with; he is one that spends his Time in a constant circle of Engagements and Assignations; he rises at Ten, tattles over his Tea-Table till Twelve, Dines, Dresses, waits upon his Mistress, drinks Tea again, flutters about in Publick till it is dark, then to the Tavern, knocks into College at Two in the morning, sleeps till Ten again.”

The studies of these foplings were prescribed. Those who pursued law, medicine, divinity had their own courses. For the great majority, who aspired to the baccalaureate of arts, the requirement was Latin, Greek, mathematics, and logic.

And what, you will say, was the outcome of this dreamland education, wherein light-minded students pursued unpractical studies under the glazed eye of obese, besotted, incompetent teachers? What happened to the graduates of Oxford and Cambridge in afterlife?

I will tell you. They made the British Empire.

Long years after, under the pressures of grubby modernity, Oxford resolved to be practical, to fit itself to the modern world. In 1920 Oxford abolished compulsory Greek. And look what happened to the British Empire.

THE precedent of the eighteenth-century English university may somewhat serve in the planning of the perfect university. Oxford and Cambridge each dwelt in a beautiful home which impressed itself insensibly on the students. Our university will likewise be beautiful and comfortable. Its architecture will suggest ease, spaciousness, permanence. It will not try to outdo its rivals in modernity. It will avoid the use of steel, concrete, glass, and other cruel, cutting, abrasive materials. Its chapel will not be contrived of old automobile bumpers and discarded plumbing. Its beauty will derive from balanced proportions and shapes, suffused with recollections of uplifting periods of history. Its beauty will then be largely traditional. My own preference would be for the French Renaissance style, the one best designed for comfort and elegance.

Our university will be set in a blooming but not unduly dramatic countryside (for a certain vapor of bad taste hovers over snow-capped peaks). The climate will, of course, be temperate. What about Asheville, North Carolina? We might take over Biltmore for a starter. Or possibly San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst’s California château?

The enforcement of faculty celibacy, however authorized by Oxford precedent, may be regarded askance in some quarters. It will be charged that we are imposing an abnormal life on our teachers. But not at all. The present laudations of sexuality are largely literary, and will pass. Celibacy is just as normal as matrimony; indeed, monogamy has been classed as a sexual perversion. Biology, anthropology, history indicate that continence is customary in living creatures. Look at the Christian and Buddhist monks; look at the vestal virgins; look at bees. The celibate is the ideal teacher. Lacking the duties and discomforts of home, he transfers his concern to his college and to his students. He has a good chance of becoming a great teacher. Abelard was a great teacher until he fell in with Heloïse. And look what happened!

Let us then strike a blow against overpopulation! Let us do something by resolutely doing nothing!

The exclusion of women students from the university will no doubt evoke sharp criticism. It will be charged that we are reverting to medievalism, that we are rejecting the principle of coeducation, now universally accepted, that we are depriving young men and women of the opportunity to grow up together, to experience youthful romance, to marry and beget. Certainly; and a very good thing too.

The celibacy of the faculty and the exclusion of women will promote faculty-student contact, a privilege for which students in a hundred universities are now clamoring, demonstrating, and intrepidly sitting down with placards.

It will be charged that the perfect university is very offhand about the business of teaching, about the perfect curriculum, which has been anxiously sought so far and so wide. We dare not return to Latin, Greek, mathematics, and logic. But anyone who has sat on curriculum committees may be cynical about the pursuit of the perfect curriculum, that academic Grail. He knows how the curriculum is likely to result from a balance of departmental pressures. He knows how each committee member seeks to impose his own faith, generalizing from his own case. The professor of English insists that no one can be called educated without a knowledge of English. And a course in laboratory science, says a professor of science. And economics — and American history — and biogeochemistry — and weight-lifting cry many voices. These demands are not prompted by mean interest; they are professions of faith, implying that I am admirable, that others should be like me, that what has made me should be imposed to make others like me.

The traditional university strives to communicate knowledge from the teacher to the student. Knowledge? Is knowledge actually the greatest good? Our world is drowning in knowledge. One of its chief present activities is known as Computerized Information Retrieval. We must devote ourselves not to knowledge, but to the problem of how to find it, or even how to find how to find it. We can possess only a minute portion of knowledge, and the possession of that minute portion is a matter of lessening importance. The aim of the perfect university will then be to develop commanders of knowledge. For this end qualities of character are necessary: curiosity, courage, originality, tenacity, gaiety, social charm. It would no doubt be ridiculous to offer formal courses in curiosity, courage, and so forth. However, to some extent we do so already. A survey of civilization, an introductory physics, is or should be a course in curiosity. Football is a course in courage. Creative writing is or pretends to be a course in originality, although crabbed English teachers assert that creative writing is just a composition course in which the spelling is not corrected.

The perfect university will not be so presumptuous as to present courses in mental and spiritual attributes, but in fact it will not fall far short of such a practice. It will oppose pre-professional training, which often misses its mark and encourages the higher incompetence. It will develop the most useful skill of all, which is the habit of command, of executive ability. This, not special knowledge, makes the officer type, in distinction to the rankand-file type. The graduate of the perfect university will possess the graceful and unconscious arrogance of superiority, the quality of the world’s masters.

It will be inquired if the perfect university will include a graduate school. I presume that this is inescapable. We shall accept the current formulas for the making of the Ph.D., with one addition. After the required courses and investigations, after the submission of the doctoral dissertation, the candidate will be examined by his committee in full academic regalia. If successful, he will be proclaimed doctor and hooded, in accordance with the apt ancient symbolic rites. The participants will then march to the center of the campus, where the dissertation will be solemnly burned.

You are restless, my young friend. You protest that this perfect university is sadly imperfect, that it is backward-looking, not forward-looking. Is then forward morally superior to backward? You say that this university does not assure success in life. And what university does, pray? You complain that this scheme expresses the obsolete, undemocratic ideal of the education of a gentleman. Egad, boy, you are quite right.