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The Calling of Education: "The Academic Ethic" and Other Essays on Higher Education
The Calling of Education: "The Academic Ethic" and Other Essays on Higher Education
Edward Shils
University of Chicago Press, 1997
308 pp., 35.0

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Order of Learning: Essays on the Contemporary University
Order of Learning: Essays on the Contemporary University
Edward Shils
Routledge, 1997
396 pp., 62.95

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Carl R. Woodring
Columbia University Press, 1999
224 pp., 60.00

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Rethinking the Future of the University (Mentor Series)
Rethinking the Future of the University (Mentor Series)

University of Ottawa Press, 1998
180 pp., 26.00

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Edward E. Ericson, Jr.

The University Under the Microscope

There's hope for higher ed.

When freedom of speech is considered a patriarchal tool of oppression, when truth appears only within quotations marks, when Christian groups must accept non-Christian candidates for election to leadership posts, when academic freedom means trying out sex toys in workshops, and when tuition buys credit hours for watching surgically inflated actresses in filmed copulation, this is not your father's university. It is, instead, the university bequeathed by the turbulent Sixties and shaped (or misshaped) by insurgents then embarking on their promised long march through the institutions. Today only pensioners remember what the landscape looked like in the "good old days." Aging enthusiasts of the revolution continue to champion their youth in today's classrooms, and in the 2004 presidential campaign they re-fought the Vietnam War. For the last couple of decades—starting, some say, with Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987)—critics, most of them internal, have been raising alarums about goings-on in the academy. Now the young themselves are showing signs of disaffection toward those institutions that are their ticket to adult life in service or in gated communities; and, amazingly, they and their parents agree on something. Amid the endless roar of books about the academy, one can barely sample the volumes cascading by, but this is not the moment to let up. For society has universities under closer and more critical scrutiny than many academics seem to know—witness the uncomprehending response to Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons—and it is worth wondering whether the academy is approaching a watershed moment in its history.

This sampling starts, familiarly, with the 1960s. "Arms had come to Cornell, and nobody knew what to do." So writes Donald Downs, a Cornell student then and a Wisconsin professor later. More precisely, black student revolutionaries used guns to occupy a well-chosen edifice housing visitors to campus for Parents Weekend, and the persons in charge, starting with the president, knew only to react with pusillanimity. Downs, too, was at a loss for a solution then; after three decades of inconclusive mulling, he still suffers from terminal ambivalence. His massive research, though patience-testing, is good to have, because the Cornell '69 story is paradigmatic.

Not to be missed in Downs' book is the 16-page section of photos, among them "The Picture," as Cornell veterans came to call it, the most indelible emblem of campus unrest and a Pulitzer Prize-winner to boot. Students of the Afro-American Society bear rifles; one also has a bandolier of bullets crossing his chest and circling his waist. Looking on—and down and away—are administrators and a policeman. It is easy to tell the victors from the vanquished. For five days the latter looked on—and down and away. Campus members chose sides. Radical white students and some "progressive," mostly young, faculty members supported the occupiers; some of Cornell's most illustrious professors stood firmly opposed. Administrators announced disciplinary action, then nullified the decision.

The grave situation called for academic statesmanship. But President James Perkins, long on polish and short on gumption, approached the crisis as "one hell of a public relations problem." This heir of Rousseau and Dewey had sought to use the university "as a tool of progressive social change," never guessing how radical students would act out the same principle. Downs pitilessly recounts Perkins' every bumbling misstep, and the simple existence of this book demonstrates the fecklessness of Perkins' effort to "expunge the memory of the crisis from Cornell's memory." It's not easy to forget the death threat toward recalcitrant faculty broadcast by Tom Jones, a black student leader—not if yours was one of the families fleeing their homes for the anonymity of motels. Sheer fear became the chief motivation behind Cornell's craven capitulation. Perkins resigned in disgrace. Big-name professors resigned in exasperation. Ironically, Jones would later repent and ascend to presiding over TIAA-CREF, handler of the nation's faculty retirement funds. Professor Walter Berns, one of Jones' prime targets, quipped, "First he threatens my life, now he is in control of what happens after I die!"

Downs recognizes that the political correctness that came of age in the 1990s had its genesis in the turmoil of the 1960s, but he is shy on helpful analysis: "It is interesting to ponder the relationship between educational principles and reaction to the [Cornell] crisis." Yes, one would think so.

Julie Reuben and Edward Shils (the latter in two posthumously published collections of essays) help readers do some of the pondering that Downs calls for but doesn't deliver as they turn attention to the pre-1960s academy. Reuben describes her historical study of 1870-1930 as "the first in-depth study of moral education in the American research university." (George Marsden takes religion as his guide in The Soul of the American University [1994], but generally Reuben's account is compatible with his.) This is the university that Shils, a University of Chicago man, loved and spent his best days in. Since all but one of his essays under review here come from the second half of his career, they contrast "the academic ethos" that he so cherished and the glory that departed even as he stayed on. Together, Reuben and Shils show that the difference between old academy and new is one of kind, not just of degree.

Reubens patiently explains the fusion in the American academy of two educational traditions: that of the old, "classical" teaching institutions established by churches, and that of the German research model which was grafted on in the 1870s. From the start, the import's ideal of value-free scholarship was in tension with value-laden instruction aiming to prepare students to live moral lives pleasing to God. The bedrock concept of the unity of truth supported relatively peaceful coexistence. But eventually tension turned into conflict. The resulting disjunction between fact and value led to ever-narrower academic specialization and was hard in the extreme on the academic cultivation of morality. What Reuben makes clearer than is generally recognized is how earnestly the new knowledge factory tried to keep alive the classical colleges' legacy of moral education even as it pursued the ideal of open inquiry.

What synthesizing stratagems didn't it try? If religion and science were rubbing each other raw, perhaps consigning them to distinct spheres could eliminate the irritation. Or perhaps the stiff letter of theology could be jettisoned and the malleable spirit of religion kept in some general harmony with science. Or perhaps the scientific method itself, as it sought to replace error with truth, could furnish an all-purpose "form of moral discipline." What about biology, with its "potential moral benefits" of clean living, sexual hygiene, public health reforms, and eugenics? If not biology, then perhaps the social sciences could serve as "secular substitutes for religion." Maybe the best move would be to sever goodness from truth (science) and ally it with beauty (the humanities). What about a refurbished core curriculum? Or did elective courses hold greater promise for moral training?

After ransacking curricular options to exhaustion, administrators turned to extracurricular arrangements to foster morality. Might not professors serve as inspiring models? Might the answer lie in the advising process? What about student organizations? What about replicating a "home-like atmosphere" in dormitories with clean, well-lighted rooms and wholesome food? Building community spirit would help, but let's trade in chapel for football. (Ah, "the moral value of college sports"!) As a last resort, let's admit only students who bring a strong moral character with them—end of problem. It had become pretty well settled that one could be good without God; what never became clear was how the university could improve the odds.

The university that was coming into its own by the end of Reuben's account is exactly the university that Shils loved. His university was "an autonomous center of discovery and transmission of the most advanced fundamental knowledge about important things." Indeed, its task of understanding "the world in its manifoldness" is close to that of the church—but not quite the same, since it can go only "up to the edge of the understanding of divinity." Shils is Exhibit A of an orderly, thorough mind displayed through architectonically elegant prose. Saul Bellow considered him one of the three intelligent people he knew in the city of Chicago, and Joseph Epstein's incandescent portrait of "My Friend Edward" (The American Scholar, Summer 1995) shows what nobility of character could be cultivated by a lifetime passed in the halls of academe.

For long years, Shils is at ease in his secular Zion. In his compendious essay "The Academic Ethic"—Shils at his magisterial best—respect for truth is "the unrenounceable obligation," and professors must always be ready to revise their judgments. He wryly notes that while the AAUP's committee on academic freedom remains very active, its committee on academic responsibility long ago stopped meeting. Colleagues and students honor the scholar-teacher; administrators heed the academic statesman's counsel; his reputation becomes global. Only gradually, starting in the late '60s, does Shils' ease fade into unease. Confronted with the "roaring wave of political passions" of the radicals, who are "faithless" to the academic ethos, his "sense of buoyancy" starts receding. And he sounds like one whistling past the graveyard under construction when he proclaims that "the universities are here to stay" and will stay "much the same as they have been"—his version of Zion then, now, and forevermore. Philip Altbach's introduction to The Order of Learning describes Shils as conservative; but an instinctual, rather than a principial, conservatism yields only nostalgia, the least effectual trait of conservatism. His counsel no longer sought, Shils is being shunted out to the margins, and he knows it. He embodies what more and more are coming to love to hate.

Our doctor of sociology probes institutions thoroughly but worldviews little. Maybe there is more linkage than he allows between the modest modern secularism within which he breathed freely and the aggressive postmodern secularism within which he suffocated. (This is the continuity signaled by Thomas Oden's term hypermodernism.) Maybe what he diagnosed as mere faintheartedness among the "elderly admirers" of the budding "emancipationist antinomianism" was instead an inchoate sense that the proper grounds for replying to the incipient postmodernists had been ceded away long before. Maybe the fork in the road that matters most came not in the '60s but back during the time surveyed by Reuben. Maybe it just doesn't work to settle for knowledge only up to the edge of divinity.

Meanwhile, among the books about the academy in crisis, some of the most interesting are lamentations by emeritus English professors, in whose departments ideologically driven scholarship bit deepest. The most forceful of these is Literature Lost (1997) by John Ellis, a theorist who shows how much Theory is bad theory and how much damage ideological critics have done to the humanities and to humanity. Alvin Kernan's The Death of Literature (1990) has a certain nobility, too, though its elegiac mood might prompt one to ask why he didn't speak up earlier. Did the old gents (exempting Ellis) think that these radicals they were hiring wanted deep down, despite their proclamations to the contrary, to become just like their liberal mentors when they grew up?

Joining the line of mourners is Carl Woodring, sounding martial: Literature: An Embattled Profession. He stands with those who regard "most of the victories of theory" to be "unfortunate for literary study"—a promising enough posture to allow the old liberal a pass as he ritually denounces the academy's conservative critics. But one's guard goes up as early as Woodring's second paragraph: "Few have questioned that the humanities are capable of preserving values that enhance human life." For three decades many have questioned what Woodring says few have questioned. All hope fades in the mush of paragraph three: "I propose that the practitioners of literary study in colleges and universities, who have accomplished much of national and human value, now join their detractors in allowing literature once more to have its way with the public, to permit literature to work its cure." The subsequent absence of references to today's leading names in literary theory confirms that the old boy is lost in a time warp. One who writes about the embattled profession should know where the battle lines have been drawn. Woodring is Shils minus the insights, style, and class.

Pain and embarrassment mix as one follows the maunderings of an establishment man trying to sound not much bothered by the noisy demolition crew dismantling the house in which he sits writing. As the walls come down, the inhabitant pecks away at imagined apothegms: "Most college teachers of English are neither one eyed nor binocular, but bifocal or cross-eyed." (Don't ask.) To aphoristic aspirations are added recommendations for the university future. Second in this list is the recruitment of aging and aged students; for one sage thing, "Returning adults will not greatly increase the parking problems." There, the university is being fixed. Late in the book, while on the question of whether composition teachers should mark up errors on student themes (but it really doesn't matter what the particular topic), Woodring asseverates, "My own answer, as a reader who has come this far would expect, is to have it both ways." Yes, and a reader who has come this far wonders why he has. This book is to be recommended strongly to one group of readers, namely, those who have never been able to understand what drove the insurgent politicizers of the humanities to rebel against an effete establishment.

In stark contrast to Woodring, several papers by Christian scholars gathered from a lecture series at the University of Ottawa are first-rate contributions toward Rethinking the Future of the University. Practitioners of what George Marsden has dubbed the outrageous idea of Christian scholarship are in the process of gaining their place at the table precisely because their marginalized status requires hard thinking about first things. As enough of them gather to produce enough valuable work, they qualify as a movement, and the Big Academy is taking some notice. The volume at hand merits greater attention than its out-of-the-way venue may generate.

The countercultural force of these essays comes through from even brief sampling. In the first of the collection's three parts, "Where Did We Come From?", George Marsden counteracts the academy's amnesia about even its relatively recent history by recalling John Henry Cardinal Newman's idea of a university in which theology provided the context for other disciplines—a unifying meta-disciplinary function that later passed to philosophy and then passed out. In part 2, "Where Are We Now?", Jean Bethke Elshtain goes head-on against the phony tolerance of the politicized academy and points out that the contempt for norms and the "massive abdication of authority" by parents and educators put at risk our cultural heritage by not transmitting it to our children. (Yes, and the dereliction of just one generation can snap the tie that binds the generations together in a civilized order.) Also in part 2, David Jeffrey asks if humane literacy can survive without a grand narrative; his short answer is "probably not" (which means "no"). In part 3, "Where Are We Going?", Paul Vitz treats postmodernism as "really a form of late modernism, or what I call 'morbid' modernism," and hopes for something better ahead, which he lays out under the term "transmodern."

One good reader of the Jeffrey/Manganiello book would be Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of God on the Quad. This book appeared two months after the 2004 presidential election, just as blue-state elites, like imperial anthropologists peering from all angles at freshly discovered primitives, scrambled to break the code of red-staters. Riley's investigation of America's religious institutions of higher learning sometimes takes readers into terra even more incognita. Denizens of the more exotic of these institutions routinely chuckle as other scouts report out with visitor-to-Neptune incomprehension, but this outsider—Jewish, Eastern-seaboard, twenty-something—breaks from the norm. She does not mock those folkways that even some insiders find silly. Indeed, she allows some of the stranger places to work a little of their magic on her.

Riley visits twenty institutions, varying in religious affiliation and in size but of reasonable academic quality throughout. Her schools include seven Catholic (Notre Dame, Fordham, Thomas Aquinas, Christendom, Magdalen, Thomas More, Ave Maria Law School), seven evangelical (Baylor, Calvin, Wheaton, Gordon, Westmont, Patrick Henry, and Regent University; Baylor doesn't quite fit under this rubric but clearly belongs in the narrative), one fundamentalist (Bob Jones), two Mormon (Brigham Young, Southern Virginia), two Jewish (Yeshiva, Touro), and one Buddhist (Soka).

The heterogeneity of these institutions sets up comparisons and contrasts, but it limits generalizations. To compensate, Riley sometimes allows herself the liberty of generalizing about a given subset of institutions, and the ones that seem to have fired her imagination the most are those that are faithful to conservative religious and social values. She spends more time on, say, tiny Thomas Aquinas College than on Fordham University. The obscure schools are doing some important things right, and these are just the things that secular universities are most clearly failing to do. And that is why—this shouldn't be news, but it is—these religious colleges, most notably the ones widely deemed to be provincial and antiquated, are experiencing a surge in enrollments. Their students are academically capable and earnest, as well as committed to living virtuously and serving society. Their professors are—against Riley's expectations—equal and often superior to those at better-known secular universities, whether in terms of intellect, pedagogy, or the quality of their lives.

Of the book's 12 chapters, the first half are primarily reportorial, offering snapshots of six schools: Brigham Young, Bob Jones, Notre Dame, Thomas Aquinas, Yeshiva, and Baylor. Chapters in the second, primarily analytical, half explore six issues: feminism, race, student life, the treatment of minority religious groups, the integration of faith and learning, and political activism. The discussion is enlivened by illustrations from various institutions. Throughout, Riley uses her youth to advantage and shows an eye for the telling detail. She asks a student what the burning issue is at Thomas Aquinas. "The big controversy here is the Plato versus Aristotle controversy." Friends advise her not to mention at Bob Jones that she is Jewish or that her boyfriend is black. But the bju students she meets, while unswerving in their separatist identity, are as accepting and forthcoming as she, impress her with their sense of mission toward the world, and avoid trying to convert her (though a staffer, noticing her "Hebrew credentials," drops a tear for the Jewish nation). In sum, this young outsider is astonishingly successful at taking in the profuse impressions zooming her way at each destination and then imposing coherent order on the mass of miscellaneous information. True, a few small facts are wrong, and occasionally her judgments may strike insiders as askew, though some insiders are at least as likely to diverge from other insiders as from her. Riley is easy to read and too interesting to skim.

The analytic chapters, while still journalistic rather than scholarly, are quite insightful as far as they go. Religious-college students have internalized much feminist ideology but have moved on to develop a "third way," which blends their teachers' feminism in with their parents' more traditional views. Religious institutions are better-positioned than their secular counterparts to bridge the race gap, because their teachings emphasize common bonds across race lines and do not define persons primarily according to their race. While not Pollyannish about sex on religious campuses, Riley nevertheless concludes that the "vast majority" of religious-college students "live by a strict code of sexual conduct."

Riley is at her independent-minded best in the chapter entitled "The Classroom as Chapel," which deals with the integration of faith and learning, a principle central to the identity of all her evangelical colleges and of some of the others, too. She hears the case against integration at Yeshiva, and Soka seems included largely to serve as a contrast here, since it flatly rejects this concept. Riley ends up siding with institutions engaged in the integrative project; these are the heirs of the long history of education in the West that accepts the compatibility of liberal learning and religious beliefs. Thus, she challenges the view that religious colleges indoctrinate, a piece of conventional wisdom held by well-educated, right-thinking people who know little of evangelical colleges and less of the historical record. In a provocative reversal, she turns the charge of indoctrination back against the secular university. Also, she boldly offers a sharp warning to evangelical-college professors who—in response to peer pressure, she thinks—blur their "Christian perspective" by importing some postmodernism. "But one might well wonder whether …. the historicist denial that we have any access to a reality that transcends our particular perspectives does not undermine the notion of religious truth itself."

In conclusion Riley suggests, again provocatively, that today's religious colleges may be part of a story larger than their own. Turning on its head the widespread assumption that these schools are "intellectually backward," she places them in "the vanguard of a more conservative generation." Their conservatism will not be that of their parents and grandparents, but this reformist generation will put its imprint on the academy. As religious colleges gain in self-confidence, visibility, and influence, they will be seen not as providing secure bunkers protecting the young from the surrounding culture but—as their mission statements typically proclaim—as producing agents of renewal and transformation. Perhaps Riley can see the forward-looking role of religious colleges because, in the largest terms, she is not an outsider after all but part of the same shift in sensibility.

But is Riley right? The recent explosion of articles criticizing the academy provides evidence of turbulence ahead. Chapter-and-verse coverage of cases of the academy's decay, especially as regards intellectual diversity, can be dismissed as merely anecdotal for only so long, until public disapproval reaches the boiling point. Students increasingly view their school not as their beloved alma mater but as alien terrain to be traversed with survival kit at the ready. Fewer and fewer of the best and brightest feel the tug toward their professors' career path, though they would gladly fall in line if the academy approximated their ideal vision of it. Perhaps the surest sign that the end of an era looms is to be found in the attitude of academics themselves. The bubbling excitement of the Sixties has run its course for all but the diehards, who are themselves now nearing retirement. Energy and high-spiritedness have given way to joylessness, sourness, brittleness. Proclaiming nihilism has led to experiencing exhaustion. Sloganeers cry out "diversity" as the meaning drains out of the term. More broadly, signs abound that the liberal hegemony over American culture and society is breaking up. Further left, all is devastation. No, all the action is to the establishment's right. Republicans are in the ascendancy. Conservative religionists are reasserting themselves. Of the two social institutions most strongly identified in the public mind as liberal strongholds, the mainstream media are fading as alternative media surge. Is there any reason to expect that the other one, the academy, will evade similarly major alterations?

Those who hope that the nation's conservative turn is temporary may be proven right. But if not, those who identify with the current establishment will, like the old guard heading into the maelstrom of the Sixties, be among the last to know. And then the academics among them—and most academics are among them—will have to play the conservative role of defending their version of the university's good old days against those they consider the new barbarians at the gates. Plenty of others will cheer when transformation comes to the currently unlovable university. If Riley is right, the times are already changing.

Edward E. Ericson, Jr., professor of English, emeritus, at Calvin College, is currently collaborating on two books about Solzhenitzyn for ISI.

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