Taking Students Seriously

In March, 1965, two political scientists at the University of California wrote an essay for the New York Review of Books about the riotous events on the Berkeley campus weeks earlier. Student protest was still something of a novelty then, and it is fair to surmise that most onlookers—hatever their political bent—shared in the general alarm that a small group of students could and would paralyze such a distinguished university. Perhaps because they were on the scene, or perhaps because they were ahead of their time, the two political scientists John Schaar and Sheldon Wolin reached a number of prophetic conclusions about the wrangle that convulsed the Berkeley campus.

Students Without Teachers: The Crisis in the University, by Harold Taylor (McGraw-Hill, S7.95)
First, that most public accounts of the student movement at Berkeley would “distort its character,” and, by concentrating on one aspect of the demonstrations (such as the behavior of student radicals), “avoid the challenge of understanding.” They then noted approvingly Harold Taylor’s remark that “the mark of a true university is whether or not it takes its students seriously.”
Schaar and Wolin tried to show how Berkeley, the “multiversity,” failed in this regard, but seemed to equate “unseriousness" with the rudiments of multiversity life—endless bureaucracies, large lecture courses, the remoteness of teaching faculty, indifferent advising. And while hardly anyone defends these dismal characteristics of the large university system, a great many conscientious professors and administrators have gone to great lengths to justify the educational processes and assumptions which produced them— often on the very grounds of “seriousness” that Schaar and Wolin thought conspicuous in their absence.
The leader of a small seminar, in any case, can be fully as contemptuous of his students as the disembodied scholat who reads PMLA criticism of William Dean Howells to his captive audience of hundreds, baking students seriously, evidently, has more ambitious implications, and it is fail to say that Mr. Taylot’s new book is the most thorough, and sympathetic, attempt to come to terms with student aspirations published in the past several years.
One of the things Taylor takes seriously is the link between student rebelliousness and a deeper malaise affecting the taproots of American sotiety.
Somewhere in the middle of the iqbo’s . . . the texture and quality of the national life had altered in such a way that the institutions designed to support it—the universities, the government, the economic structure, the social agent ies. the political system had become incapable of responding to the deepest needs of its citizens.
This is a romantic view, and some will object that it too casually obscures the generous intention, as well as the accomplishments, of these same institutions, but the lads of hunger, poverty, bigotry in hiring and housing, militarism, and commercial gracelessness are before all ol us, it merely endured by most. What distinguishes student radicals, says Taylor, is that they will not allow themselves to endure what their elders have learned, uncomfortably, to live with.
Taylor’s criticism of the modern university system is complex, but it rests upon a number of key assumptions. One of the most interesting is the premise that our universities— for all their egalitarian sermons to state legislat in es tend nevertheless to gravitate toward the eldest model, in which ‘’academic excellence” (the ability to cope intelligently with abstractions, synthesize cultural phenomena, absorb great quantities of written and visual material, and so on) pays dividends, and indiHerent scholarship does not.
The educational system is . . . built for the best, that is. the most professionally qualified student with the greatest aptitude for academic work, The rest the average, the ordinary, the slower ones, the culturally deprived, the intuitive, the artists, among others—are thrown into a system which works against them, and, in the long run. against the system.
These ordinary students, Taylor points out, “constitute 95 to 98 percent of the student body,” and conceal “a wide variety of potential talents, interests, and conceal qualities ready to be liberated by an education sensitive to then condition.”
Anyone puzzled by the frequent assertion by black students that they want (demand) a curriculum “relevant” to their needs should read Mr. Taylor’ s explanation with care. For years, black students have been kept out of our universities on grounds that they did not meet the competitive, and rising, admissions standards set by the universities in older to improve, so to speak, their stock. Having magnanimously lowered, or artifically restructured, those admissions barriers, most universities and colleges find themselves saddled with increasing numbers of hostile black students who resist the notion that they are failures because they cannot always compete with better prepared white students. A university that took its students seriously, Taylor implies, would abolish the concept of failure, in this contrived sense, along with grading systems, fragmented class schedules, and all the remaining paraphernalia of the impersonal multiversity system. At the least, it would not impose upon its students a competition for which most of them were not prepared, and from which many will extract only a heightened sense of personal unworthiness.
What most distinguishes Taylor from other supporters of the student left is a profoundly nonideological confidence that students can manage their own affairs, and often the affairs of the university, quite a bit more sensibly than the bureaucrats, or industrialists, who manage them now. He does not suggest any radical transference of decision-making power from bureaucrat to student, but he does favor an explicit and serious consideration of student ideas and interests in the exercise of that power.
When serious consideration is given to the actual accomplishments of students in developing new educational programs and in accepting responsibility for administering student affairs and educational policy, it becomes natural to assume that they should he represented in the membership of boards of trustees, of administrative and faculty committees and in all the sectors of educational policy in the governance of the college and the university.
As Taylor points out, a great deal of this is already under way, and although few, if any, universities have given full trustee power to undergraduates, several of the more adventurous (and prestigious) universities have made full use of student opinions and recommendations in devising new patterns of instruction, disassembling obsolete living arrangements, and so on.
No American college has gone as far as Berlin’s Free University, where the admission program is almost entirely in the hands of undergraduates, but the idea isn’t a bad one. Such a system would not, to be sure, make the scientifically controlled distinctions now applied to high school students seeking access to our grandest institutions. But these institutions are undermining the logic of their own system of selection by conceding that there are social values at stake so important that they justify the admission of black or other distinct minority groups who do not meet typical admission standards. Anyone familiar with the elaborate staff structures and vaguely scientific rationalizations embraced by most sophisticated university admissions offices must wonder if the system hasn’t created—and now fights to preserve—its own self-interested momentum.
What is worth noting about the university’s reviving interest in “underqualified” candidates for admission is that it meshes so smoothly with the principles of the Morrill Land Grant Acts of 1862—which provided public funds for the construction of vocational colleges in every state, and has sustained, through the years, such universities as California, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Cornell. If we really believe in the value of education pr all, Taylor’s arguments strongly imply, then we can hardly justify an educational system that is imitative of the elitist university systems of nineteenth-century Germany (the Humboldt model), or aristocratic Britain (the Oxford and Cambridge model). An imitative tendency, one might add, that I applies as well—though with lower standards and expectations—to large state universities as to privately endowed outposts of privilege. And while it is true that rejection of the elitist model has been accepted most enthusiastically at small, innovative institutions like Reed, Antioch, Bard, Sarah Lawrence, or St. John’s (Annapolis) , it is significant that “internal,” or experimental, colleges of the type Taylor most strongly recommends have been attempted at some of the largest universities— Michigan, Wayne State, Berkeley, and elsewhere.
Those who defend the modern university against the bruising attacks of student rebels seem invariably to fall back upon this elitist tradition, and in doing so unavoidably miss the point of the protest. Even the evidence provided by the Stanford psychologist Nevitt Sanford, that student radicals tend to be highly motivated, above-average students, fails to sway the defenders of academic dignity from their conviction that universities are, and must remain, protected sanctuaries of reflective enlightenment, free from the impulse to action and the impetuousness of bohemian rehcls.
For all his energetic proselytising on behalf of student initiative, Tayfor is no fool about the political and educational dynamics of student radicalism:
That die new breed of militant blacks and whites among the students is difficult to educate and is often disruptive is not in question. Among other things, many of them are intolerant of all views contrary to their own, contemptuous of the democratic process when it is applied to then place in the soeiety or in the university, lint until some better procedures than those presently in existence are made for students to take part in the decisions of university policy, whether in matters of curriculum, social action, or political freedom, it is impossible to arrange an educational program which can accommodate itself to their militancy while providing for their education. The test of the worth of radical ideas, outside or inside the university, lies ultimately in their power to generate change. II university policy is made through a series of unilateral acts by the faculty and administrative officers, or by boards of trustees and regents, either as a way of placating militants or as a way of repressing their efforts to effect change [italics added], the ideas themselves have little chance to be considered on their merits.
Taylor penetrates shrewdly through the tactical maze that is now a familial pattern on many university campuses.
If student action is a way of seeking out and testing the authenticity of belief and honesty of motive in the response of educators, the educators who proclaim no principles other than those of law and order become vulnerable to continuing attack, since they do not understand the nature of their test. Conciliation cm then pail is seen by the tactical militants as a sign of weakness. So is the use of police power, The rest of the students and the faculty, whose decent opinion the militants must have it their actions are to be successful, then become the judges and final arbiters of the conduct of the educators.
The Taylor approach is humane, sensible, and above all serious. But what, depriving himsell of either conciliation or police power, is a university administrator to do, with a howling mob smoking his cigars, manning his telephone switchboard, occupying his offices, and declaring his building a monument to the wisdom of Che Gucvata? The dilemma, Taylor would say, is the price of indolence. And there is probably no way to escape it without bruises all around. The students, faculty, and administrators at Berkeley, Columbia, Chicago, Wisconsin, Cornell, artel San Francisco State would surely agree.
The disturbing question that remains is whether the best and proudest of out universities can contain this explosion of virtuousness, or whether the “bruises all around ‘ will permanently damage the potential for humanist progress in these institutions. Taylor is more sanguine than many of his contemporaries, and he will no doubt be accused of foolishness In critics who object to the revolutionary style as impious and offensive to the tradition of liberal democracy.
There will be other objections to his book, which is earnest, often drastically overwritten, uupredictably organized, and occasionally unfathomable. But no one has written in such detail, or with such shrewdness, about what it means to “take students seriously,” in the American university today.