10.7 The Role of the University

Many of the changes discussed here could have a dramatic effect on the modern university in the long run. The original premise of the university was that it was an educational gathering, in the sense used in this chapter. That is, its special concern was the development, examination, and transmission of ideas. Training in technique was done elsewhere--either on the job, in technical institutes, or as a by-product of some other form of schooling.

The ideal university was free from any constraints of technique or utility and it was free to question any idea, presupposition, or world view; it neither leaned upon nor was very much obligated to produce a specific product for the broader society. It did depend on that society for funds and students, but it was free to go its own way intellectually, even if it attacked the very structure that gave it birth. This "ivory tower" separation of intellectuals from ordinary life was not a bad thing, but a necessary one, for only through a relatively free detachment could objectivity be achieved.

Whether this ideal ever existed apart from theory, even for a short period, is debatable. The first universities were intimately connected with and dependent upon the church. Later, many had mandates deriving from a local ruler, and served the state--if in no other way, by loaning it intellectual prestige. The university has always depended on the broader society to supply it with a cultural context, a collection of scholars, and the resources to carry on its investigations even when there was no economic return. At the same time, the relentless pressure of the search for efficient technique, which has been a hallmark of the industrial age, has gradually re-created the university in a very different image from this original, perhaps never-achieved ideal.

Although some academics still attempt to maintain what they hope is a detached attitude from the broad culture, the university as a whole has gradually adopted the search for technique as its own mandate. Thus, university-trained scientists major in technique. In fact, today they study little else, for philosophical questions about the meaning and legitimacy of their discipline and its place in the whole spectrum of knowledge-gathering activities are of little interest to the person whose whole orientation is the empirical method or the economic survival of the department. The gestalt is one of barely suppressed excitement at the prospect of personally finding out something never before seen or touched; ideas are divorced from the asking of whys about the validity of what is being done and instead are limited to mechanical explanations of empirical data. The metaphysical studies are generally ignored as uninteresting or unimportant, or even dismissed as nonexistent.

At the same time, the prestige of the university has been borrowed for other technical studies, for it has also become the home of computing science, engineering, teaching technique, and the technical study of economics and other social disciplines in a manner that attempts to mimic the methods of the natural sciences. The humanities have also subjected their subject matter to technical analysis, with linguistics becoming more of a science than an art, and research on literature sometimes tending to concentrate on computerized dissection of the great works to discern the supposed involvement of many hands in the writing of them. Even theology has been invaded by such "higher criticism"--by which is meant a similar technical analysis of the books of the Bible. The fact that such efforts nearly always accomplish little other than to confirm the researchers' presuppositions about disputed authorship and content does not slow such work down. In fact, it increases the opportunities for learned scholarship, for it seems to be possible to develop a pseudo-technique to establish every possible hypothesis about a piece of literature. The older the work, the less likely there is to be any parallel material to corroborate its professed authorship or content, and the more freedom there is for a modern researcher to create and apply such techniques to the desired end.

Most universities have gone much farther with theology--they have dismissed it altogether from the curriculum as an intruder in the domain of technique--this discipline that was cornerstone to the original Western university movement. Theology, for its part, has obliged by removing itself to seminaries and schools of religion that are no longer associated with the unfriendly university, and for the most part, ignoring it altogether.

But theology is not the only embarrassment to the modern university; so is the whole historical and cultural context that gave it birth, and these too are now deprecated if not denigrated. Consequently, courses in Western culture, while they make an occasional reappearance, have been systematically removed from the broad curriculum, along with the study of philosophy and ethics.

Clearly, deconstructive scholarship is on all fronts destructive not only of the historicity, content, and meaning of the work studied, but also of the relevance of the discipline doing the study. Once the subject matter of a group of scholars has been deconstructed to that point, they themselves are easily seen as irrelevant to society and so to the school. If a discipline has no important ideas, why should people study it? If theology, history, philosophy, ethics, and the humanities all likewise have no answers to the meaning questions, why operate a university when technical schools are cheaper, more efficient, and more immediately useful? If students have no idea where there society has come from, how will they decide where to take it?

But, it has become unnecessary for a university graduate to have a nodding acquaintance with the great thinkers and writers of the past; their view is considered inadequate merely because it is old. Also, a technically oriented society cares most about the day-to-day pursuit of what it regards as being practical, functional, and relevant; that is, doing rather than thinking. What matters is the development and analysis of ever more sophisticated technique, and such pursuits are expected to supply their own reasons and meanings. The modern university, by and large, has adapted the technical philosophy that apart from empiricism there is nothing, or at least, there is little of value, but at the same time it no longer questions what constitutes "values" in the first place.

Allan Bloom, himself a philosopher, argues most cogently (The Closing of the American Mind) that North American universities in particular have discarded their formative culture, for a nihilism and relativism in which there are no absolutes, no values, no culture, no religion and no education worthy of the name. He accuses them of blindly following popular culture and the latest trends in pseudo-intellectualism without pausing to examine the ideas they accept to see if they have any content. In his view, the universities have betrayed their intellectual heritage, debased culture, and are pursuing they know not what. He believes they have cravenly caved in to the nihilistic demands of "student causes" because they no longer had a purpose of their own, and the thing they offer called education has become devalued to the point of worthlessness. Only the domain of the sciences and technologies have escaped the abandonment of academic standards, because only they can measure the outcome of what they propose to do and only they have confidence in what they are doing.

He could have added that since what they primarily do is train in technique, science and engineering faculties cannot be expected to defend the traditional educational domain, or to believe that they have any common cause whatever with the rest of the university or its traditional educational goals. Bloom suggests that of all the humanities, only philosophy is left as the guardian of ideas, and its role has become much like that of a museum keeper, taking students on guided tours through the musty and discredited past of their culture--all the while fearing the wrath of the radical left that controls the university lest they permit their charges to touch anything there, much less evaluate it or embrace it. Any of the older writers whose works can be labelled as racist, sexist, or religious can be banned from the curriculum without further examination for content or validity, and if no such reasons can be discovered, they could always be accused of being irrelevant because of age alone. Not only do these attitudes tend to render the university as irrelevant, they also ensure that the control ideas of the dominant intellectual culture cannot be examined and will not be challenged. Thus, when authors such as Emberly--Zero Tolerance--complain about the systematic politicizing of the university, they may be discussing symptoms rather than causes.

Since it is always possible to discern cultural overtones in the most abstract and philosophical of work, and much of it cannot be understood without that context, it is always possible to bring culturally-based charges against the old writers and find them guilty of failing to support modern causes. Bloom concludes that North American academics have taken the same journey into an unthinking nowhere as their European predecessors before World War II, and are blithely unconcerned with where this nihilism may lead them, for they do not study history any more either. Such trends can be seen in modern fiction as well, for it often writes of the past not by holding up for examination the values and ideas people actually espoused in those times, but by projecting modern ideas and conflicts into characters who almost certainly would never have entertained them.

Bloom has his critics of course, and these believe that he has either misstated or overstated his case. Since he is a philosopher, his lament of the decline of his own discipline and his promotion of its revival could also be viewed as somewhat narrow self-interest. Moreover, his comments on the scientists of academia carry with them the flavour of one who is a distant observer, rather than a personal and professional acquaintance. Others undoubtedly think there is nothing wrong with either nihilism or the casting of the culture adrift from the past, and could easily welcome his observations while rejecting his criticisms.

But like Snow in the early 1960s with his "Two Cultures" critique of academia, he appears to have touched a raw nerve; to have stated what many people had come to believe or perceive even though they had not articulated it. Many academics, in common with the whole culture, have indeed discarded idea examination for technique. They have also separated themselves from the human aspect of their work, that is, from student contact. Retreating into the safety of their tenured sanctums, they have left the work of teaching undergraduates to graduate students and untenured temporary instructors. It has become too easy to redirect the university apparatus that was designed for the process of careful thinking about ideas into the pursuit of ways to make money, and to quote one another in an incestuous circularity that gives an appearance of learned scholarship without substance.

While he may be criticized at many points of detail, the broad thrust of his criticism is factually correct, for the modern university has become a creature of the technique-obsessed industrial age--after all it has only found a niche in the social and technical apparatus. Whether his suggestions about the consequences of all this are appropriate or not is another matter, but there is no denying the fact of intimate relationship between the modern university and modern technology.

This relationship goes beyond the specific disciplines studied by it or ignored by it, for it is also expressed in its ties to the broader society. For example, what Eisenhower first termed the "military-industrial complex" in the early 1950s has become a military-industrial-university axis in the 1980s. As remarked in Chapter 2, a large percentage of the funding for technical research in the university comes from government defense projects. These are sometimes directed to basic science, but their major thrust is often the development of specific military hardware. The U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or "Star Wars" project of the late 1980s drew much comment and criticism, but is typical of much military spending on research, and is not by any means unique. For the sake of the research funds, its agenda was readily adapted by many universities. In such ways, whatever independence the university may have once had, it has come today to be tied very closely to government funding; its ability to pursue knowledge for its own sake has been severely curtailed, and its freedom to speak out largely ceremonial.

New connections are being made all the time to new industries. As economists and professors of commerce have found in joining with colleagues in engineering, physics and chemistry, there is much money to be made in selling consulting expertise, techniques, and products to the broad marketplace. They have been eager to meet such challenges, and the web of connections to outside interests has been woven ever closer in recent years. Their discipline has even been renamed, and is now the study of business; that is, it is now concerned about technique more than it is about people or even social institutions. Questions are occasionally asked by some traditionalists about whether the university is an appropriate location for the study of business technique, but such voices are drowned in the flood of applicants for places in such schools, and this creates a compelling economic argument of its own--it allows some threatened universities to survive what had been a declining enrolment.

Biotechnologists have followed suit, and begun marketing the products of their research labs via their own companies or in alliance with existing pharmaceutical firms. Their work too is frequently tailored to the marketplace, and borrows business techniques to enhance their prospects as vendors. Like the members of other disciplines, these are no longer academics in the old sense, trading in ideas; they have become entrepreneurs in generating and selling patents.

All this activity has made university administrators consider whether the institution itself ought to receive a share of the income. Thus, there are starting to be more joint ventures, profit sharing, and quid quo pro arrangements with industry that involve profits returning to the university. Reductions in public funding are increasing the pressure to find other sources of revenue, and business and industry need more than just a tax receipt for their money. It seems, therefore, that the existing research institutions, especially in the sciences, engineering, computing, and business, will be under long-term pressure to become more closely associated with industry all the time. This may be a good thing if it relieves the public purse, but it is sure to enhance the role of technique in the university and push it even more in the direction of training and away from education. After all, privatization of this type could be very hard on those university departments that have no commodities on which they can obtain patents, but whose stock-in-trade remains ideas.

However, as already noted in this chapter, there are other long- term trends pointing to a revival of the latter as well, because less time will need to be taken to learn technical facts, so more is available for a broad consideration of ideas. In addition, the more people with time available to think, the more thinking that could get done. However, there is no guarantee that this will take place, for many people may not want to be confused by ideas. After all,

You can lead a son or daughter to Horace, but you can't make one think.

Thus, while there may be a window of opportunity for the university to revive its traditional role as a forum for the enquiry into ideas, this niche could be preempted by other institutions or vanish altogether.

For example, electronic discussion forums are even now being conducted on the Internet, and are certain to be included in the Metalibrary of the future. These are much more open and free-wheeling than the university lecture hall, and though quantity dilutes quality in this medium, it is impossible for the possessor of a doctorate and chair, say, at Harvard to use paper credentials and position to bully acceptance of ideas upon the other participants. It is possible for a thoughtful janitor to participate with no formal education past the third grade, but with a big reading list. The slogan is "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." It is too soon to determine where this will lead, but it is possible that much larger groups of people will take over the philosophical roles of guardians and evaluators of ideas from the universities and exercise these independently of academia. This would require many changes from the late 1990s version of the Metalibrary called the Internet, for in the latter's news and discussion groups there is often little that passes for rational argument, and the bullying for politically correct views is cruder and more blatant even than in the universities.

Another candidate to take over some of the university's late industrial role is the new-style corporation that does much of its own training and re-training. Any substantial shift of training in technique to the business sector itself will leave the university without many of its industrial-age clients and groping about for a new identity.

Such trends are not likely to go unnoticed, however, and the universities may attempt to recover some of their traditional function. It is possible to make a case for an immediate and long-lasting return to a very broad form of liberal arts education in the universities, based solely on the observation that the day of the narrowly trained, fact-knowing technical specialist has passed, and that the future belongs to the fact-finding and integrating knowledge worker of much wider interests and adaptability. At any given time, such people could still be regarded as specialists because of the results they produce, but there will be an important sense in which they are actually generalists.

The challenge for the university will be to find new ways to integrate education in ideas with training in technique. Their graduates must become evaluators and potential users of ideas and techniques in general, rather than be wedded to a small selection of both. This argument is even stronger if one concedes to the teaching machines and corporate sector some of the on-going training in specific techniques, but reserves education almost entirely for human teachers, for then the university must either integrate its traditional role back into its agenda or become little more than a small branch of the Metalibrary. This could happen quickly for some institutions who are unable to hire from the shrinking pool of potential computing science professors. There is too much money to be made elsewhere for people with such qualifications to settle in to academia.

How likely is such change? The momentum built up in the industrial age suggests that the trend to specialize in technique at the university will continue and that its relationship with industry will become closer. Information age paradigms, on the other hand, suggest that there will be a renewed need for education as well--one that could possibly be filled by the universities, but will not necessarily be. History seems to suggest that institutions have a tendency to allow their own inertia to resist even inevitable changes, and that not many of them survive radical social alterations. Whether this will be true of the university remains to be seen. Perhaps some of them will die slow and painful deaths, or become absorbed by the private sector, and new ones will be established that suit the new paradigms. One possibility is that universities will become private umbrella consortia of academic professionals offering their services electronically and with no physical campuses at all. An easy prediction is that the traditional tenure system will change radically or even vanish, for the universities will have to have flexibility in order to compete in a world characterized by rapid change. Moreover, their academics will have to involve themselves more personally with students if these institutions are to remain in the idea business at all.

It is also worth observing that the role of many private universities is in some doubt. While on the one hand, there is pressure to increase funding from private sources, there is also the tendency to employ the same "star system" that applies to sports and entertainment figures--established institutions with gilt-edge reputations receive the new private funding and the best students, while all others suffer cuts in public money and attendance. In addition, many private colleges and universities have merged or folded because they were unable to maintain a distinctive character sufficiently great to allow them a niche, and they were equally unable to compete on general terms. It seems likely that this trend will continue. Most of the smaller institutions cannot hope to compete with the larger ones in changing times, unless they have a clear distinctiveness that extends to their student population and to their constituency--including funding. In addition, there is little for small schools to gain by seeking support from the government, but they may have to seek it from the private sector.

For example, there are a large number of church-related colleges and universities in North America. To the extent that these maintain their historical ties to their founding constituencies and simultaneously offer sound academic instruction, they have the opportunity to grow and prosper. But if they sacrifice either scholarship or their traditional orthodoxy, they will lose their reason for being in short order. Identity problems in such cases cannot be kept secret in the information age; such an institution can vanish from the scene almost overnight if its constituency is caused to lose faith in it. The day when a distinctively religious school like Harvard could evolve in genteel fashion into a secular one without anyone taking notice has now passed. At the same time, if the world view of any university, whether public or private, remains mired in an inflexible pattern that relates to a bygone culture so that it has no basis to speak to the new civilization, it too will fail. Thus, the church-based school is faced with the task of remaining distinctive and separate in its world view, yet becoming able to speak relevantly to the new one in the culture around it. This is an especially daunting task, and the number of such schools that survive in recognizable form to make an impact on the fourth civilization may well be few indeed.

This need for a distinctive identity is not unique to religious or even private institutions. Like schools at all levels, and any other cohesive organization, universities must have an organizational purpose believed in and promoted by its members, and a sense of shared pride in its accomplishments. There are many strains on both of these, and only the schools that can maintain both will survive--even the currently public ones will be in trouble if they fail to convince their constituencies of their need for them. They will also be in trouble if they fail to flexibly re-organize to meet the new challenges and demands upon them, or if they discard altogether the old role of idea-brokers for the patenting of techniques.

In the long run, information age paradigms would suggest that the educational sector will become like the business sector in its new identity--more entrepreneurial, more accountable, and more people-oriented. There may be a greater realization that the people involved are the enterprise, and more teachers will actually own their place of employment. There may also be a greater emphasis on establishing a long-lasting relationship between teachers and students as they wrestle together with ideas. Some of these integrative ideas are discussed in a more comprehensive form in Chapter 12. In the meanwhile, the following conclusion is offered:

The proper task of the university is to analyse, integrate, and transmit ideas.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises