In late 1891, John D. Rockefeller, the founder of the University of Chicago, received a telegram asking him for another $2 million for more buildings and more teachers. “It is of course quite a surprise,” the reluctant Rockefeller replied, but he soon sent the money, helping to build one of the first great modern universities in America. Rockefeller—and the University of Chicago’s first president, William Rainey Harper—saw their venture as nothing less than an “American renaissance,” one that would reconnect biblical faith and American individualism, modern scholarship and education for self-government. It was a bold—and largely successful—endeavor, an institution for its time.
In the past century, the American university has experienced a series of upheavals and transformations: the introduction of the elective system and the decline of the classics; the rise of modern science; the great influx of students taking advantage of the GI Bill and the corresponding rise of the mass university; the influx of research dollars after World War II, which re-focused the university on large-scale R&D and social problem-solving; and finally, the student revolts of the 1960s, which began as a zealous defense of free speech and moral liberation, and eventually became the reign of sensitivity and group identity regularly derided by conservative critics as “political correctness.”
Depending on one’s point of view, American colleges and universities today are either in the midst of a golden age or an age of flagrant crisis. On the one hand, this is the age of the great American university—the age of Harvard and MIT, Stanford, and Berkeley—which are admired and copied around the world for their ability to create wealth through new ideas and technologies. On the other hand, American college students are more ignorant today than ever before—about American history, geography, literature, politics, culture, and especially the written word. More and more students take remedial courses, even at elite universities, while academic requirements wither in the face of unbridled consumer choice.
Meanwhile science—especially computer science and biotechnology—marches forward, recreating the world in its image, while the humanities and social sciences are more hollow, more trivial, and less studied than ever. More and more students are going to college; but the idea of the university education has become so open-ended as to be all but meaningless.
So where is the American university heading? What will the 21st century university look like? How are philanthropists, state legislatures, and the federal government spending their academic dollars? Is the university an impressive engine of the new economy or a soulless institution whose graduates are unprepared for the responsibilities of American citizenship and leadership?
The Kept University
A recent cover of the Chronicle of Higher Education captures quite succinctly the spirit and direction of today’s university. The cover included a story about high-tech professor-entrepreneurs; a story about Yale’s plans to spend $500 million improving its science and engineering facility; a story about North Carolina’s planned bond issue to expand access to universities, modernize campuses, and build university-centered research parks; and a story about how more and more college students are embracing paganism and witchcraft.
Clearly, the most important and perhaps most radical development in the university in recent years is the rise of the new “academic capitalism.” A recent cover story in the Atlantic Monthly (“The Kept University”) described how universities are beginning to behave more and more like for-profit companies—making exclusive deals with corporate partners; establishing for-profit divisions to market distance-education courses; selling “course content” to new for-profit companies that have launched “virtual universities;” setting up campus “incubators” where students and professors can launch new high-tech businesses, with universities owning a large portion of the fledgling companies’ stock.
Last year, Columbia collected more than $144 million from patents, royalties, and industry partnerships. Nearly every major research university now has a “patent management office” and a “venture-capital fund” to invest in student and professor businesses. Departments of science, information technology, and even medicine increasingly base their hiring decisions on whether or not a candidate’s area of research will be profitable in the marketplace. Administrators channel alumni and foundation gifts into these “high-value” fields—most notably, a recent $350 million gift to MIT to create a center for brain research, genetics, and biotechnology—and find eager donors among the new class of dot-com millionaires and billionaires, who live and breathe technology and entrepreneurship.
Not so long ago, the university was the most animated front in the high-octane culture wars. The battles continue, but far more significant today is a new consensus on the “wealth university”—the idea that the central task of universities is to gather together smart, ambitious people who invent the “new new thing” and to prepare workers en masse for the new economy. On the state level, Republicans and Democrats basically agree that universities need to have more partnerships with industry, more public “accountability for performance,” more investment in high-technology fields, and more public scholarships and tax credits to make college more affordable. Likewise, Congress, with bipartisan enthusiasm, is committed to doubling by 2003 federal funding for “basic” research.
“The future clearly belongs to those communities that can match innovative ideas that drive technology forward with educated workers who can make something, literally, of those ideas,” writes Zell Miller, the former governor of Georgia and a renowned national expert on higher education. “Both need the research and education that only universities can provide.”
In the same article, Miller goes on to say that the university has another “calling”—an educated citizenry. Yet on this front, American universities, far from entering a golden age, are failing miserably. In a recent survey of seniors at 55 top colleges and universities, 81 percent earned a D or F on a basic high school American history test; only 22 percent could identity “government of the people, by the people, for the people” as a line from the Gettysburg Address; and only a third knew that the Constitution establishes a separation of powers in American government.
One is understandably skeptical of these “gotcha” type tests, which often equate “civilization” with civilization-related trivia. But the routine and deep-seated ignorance they reveal is real and disturbing. The best and the brightest have no sense of American history. They neither love America nor know her enough to criticize her wisely—both equally frightening prospects for a nation at the apex of its power in the world, and at a time when the blazing fire of American invention needs the stewardship of statesmen. Even those students who maturely pursue serious subjects—like history and philosophy—often encounter a curriculum in tatters, with no sequence of courses and an exaggerated, often obsessive emphasis on race, class, and gender as the most important categories of human self-understanding. Should it surprise us, then, when more and more students embrace paganism and witchcraft as new-age alternatives to the old, now out of fashion, intellectual life?
What We Can Expect
The “new economy” is here to stay, and so is the university created in its image. But that image is still working itself out; this is the beginning of the high-tech revolution, not the end—and so it is the beginning of the age of the high-tech university. But we have already seen glimpses of what is to come: the rapid increase of “distance learning” and “virtual universities”; the transformation of traditional universities into wealth-creating, wealth-seeking institutions that are increasingly indistinguishable from private companies; a wave of new for-profit universities, like the University of Phoenix, which is now the largest private accredited university in the country, that compete in the “education marketplace” against traditional institutions; and more university-corporate partnerships that combine the academic know-how and prestige of traditional colleges and universities with the marketing ability, management expertise, and flexibility of the private sector. Taken together, these developments, combined with the continuing problems of American high schools, which send more and more students to college who are barely literate, will undermine the idea of the four-year degree. The premium instead will be on continuing education—probably a combination of shorter and more frequent courses in current techniques and technologies. At more elite institutions like Harvard, the four-year degree will probably continue as the norm, but it will involve less coursework and more research, less classroom time and more hands-on entrepreneurship.
Moreover, at the best institutions, the non-scientific, non-technological disciplines will remain—but there will be continuing pressure on classics, philosophy, history, literature, and religion departments, whose low enrollments in the age of “all electives, no requirements” make it harder to justify keeping these departments at all, especially as universities become more and more integrated into the new economy. These disciplines may eventually be collapsed into a single, small “humanities” or “civilization studies” department, dwarfed by comparison by the goliath information technology, biological sciences, and psychology departments. Or, more likely, the humanities and social sciences—what’s left of them, that is—will be split up into more and more “identity-based,” faddish departments—such as gay and lesbian studies, and women’s studies. At many institutions—perhaps eventually the majority—there will be pressure to eliminate such departments altogether, especially as universities have to compete more and more with private universities that are “unencumbered” by “impractical” things like American history.
Furthermore, once the present age of budget surpluses is over, states may be forced to reconsider how they fund their universities. As the higher education marketplace develops, it may become clear that the private sector—especially the new for-profit universities—are better equipped to educate the rising generation for the world of new-economy work than the old universities, which were built for a very different purpose and which still contain endless other obligations and purposes that make them less “efficient.”
The Wisdom We Have Lost in Knowledge
But what, if anything, has been lost in the age of the high-tech university? Will there be consequences for American ignorance—ignorance of its own history and civilization, of its government and ideals—in an age when America is the unchallenged world power? How will American civilization and the new American university be judged by history?
To answer these questions, one must consider the next frontier of university research: biotechnology and genetics, which by all early accounts promises to be the most profound technological revolution in human history. This revolution—the “new new thing” of the American capitalist university—demands of us a wisdom about human nature and human history, a moral sense and deliberative habit of mind, that a true university education should provide—but, for the most part today, does not. Instead, the university is ruled by practical knowledge—often brilliant—and impractical trivialities—like courses on trash, trans-sexuality, and business golf. Neither one alone or together prepares Americans for self-government—or for stewardship in the age of American civilization.
So what can we hope for? To the extent that the new ways of university education—including distance learning, for-profit universities, and incubators—give more Americans mobility and opportunity, they should be embraced. And to the extent that the new role of the private sector makes public universities more efficient in areas where efficiency is a virtue, this is progress. But in the end, technological education alone cannot answer all the questions raised by technological progress; self-government requires something more—a civic education—and especially an able class of leaders who understand the meaning of American civilization in the high-tech age, and who can help America redeem its permanent values in an age of constant reshuffling, remaking, and reorganizing.
The American Founders—including all of the first six presidents—believed that the nation would benefit from a national university that educated future leaders in the “science of self-government.” Now may be the time to revive, in some form, that old idea—an education that appeals not to the self-interest of student consumers but to the duties of citizenship and leadership in the high-tech, post-Cold War, American age. Most likely, this restoration of the university idea would not take the form of a massive government initiative so much as a series of small, creative foundings—mini-American revolutions against the current spirit of the American academy.
There are some small signals on the horizon that this is starting to happen: Patrick Henry College, a college for home-schoolers focused on education for governance, opened its doors this year; as did Ave Maria School of Law, a Catholic institution that restores the place of religion and philosophy in modern legal education. New foundings are possible; and it is clear from the high quality of students that these schools have already attracted that a large segment of America’s rising generation longs for something different, for an education apart, for a restoration of the life of the mind and the life of service.
The need for such new institutions can perhaps be crystallized by the following question: If the times demanded a refounding of America, who would do it and on what principles? Are the present universities preparing individuals who are up to this task? It is to this great purpose that the new colleges and universities should be dedicated—the education of a generation capable of refounding America.
There is no better inspiration for this sacred duty than Abraham Lincoln, who guided our nation through its greatest crisis. Though we may hope never again to face a crisis of such magnitude, Lincoln took care to remind the nation that the threat to self-government is never fully extinguished, and that the breakdown of American institutions and the corruption of the American character is most likely to come not from foreign enemies but from a failure of self-understanding. As Lincoln put: “The scenes of the revolution were the pillars of the temple of liberty; and now that they have crumbled away, the temple must fall, unless we. . . supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason.”
It is time—past time—to build these new temples and to restore the old ones. America has wealth to do it; all it requires is the vision and the will.
Eric Cohen is managing editor of The Public Interest.