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University in Crisis

Added: Thursday, February 23rd 2012 at 8:40pm by SAUSAGE-PANTS
Related Tags: politics

For those of you in higher education, this is an essay by Noam Chomsky. I found it revealing and I wanted to share :)

The Function of the University in a Time of Crisis (Noam Chomsky, 1969)

Writing 150 years ago, the great liberal reformer and humanist Wilhelm von Humboldt defined the university as “nothing other than the spiritual life of those human beings who are moved by external leisure or internal pressures toward learning and research.” At every stage of his life, a free man will be driven, to a greater or lesser extent, by these “internal pressures.” The society in which he lives may or may not provide him with the “external leisure” and the institutional forms in which to realize this human need to discover and create, to explore and evaluate and come to understand, to refine and exercise his talents, to contemplate, to make his own individual contribution to contemporary culture, to analyze andcriticize and transform this culture and the social structure in which it is rooted. Even if the university did not exist formally, Humboldt observes,“oneperson would privately reflect and collect, another join with men of his own age, a third find a circle of disciples. Such is the picture to which the state must remain faithful if it wishes to give an institutional form to such indefinite and rather accidental human operations. “[1]

The extent to which existing institutional forms permit these human needs to be satisfied provides one measure of the level of civilization that a society has achieved. One element in the unending struggle to achieve a more just and humane social order will be the effort to remove the barriers , whether they be economic, ideological, or political , that stand in the way of the particular forms of individual selffulfillment and collective action that the university should make possible.

It is the great merit of the student movement of the 1960s to have helped shatter the complacency that had settled over much of American intellectual life, both with regard to American society and to the role of the universities within it. The renewed concern with university reform is in large measure a consequence of student activism. A great deal of energy has been directed to problems of “restructuring the university”: democratizing it, redistributing “power” in it, reducing constraints on student freedom as well as the dependence of the university on outside institutions. I suspect that little can be achieved ofreal substance along these lines. Formal changes in the university structure will have little effectonwhat a student does with his life, or on the relation of the university to the society. To the extent that reform does not reach the heart of the university , the content of the curriculum, the interaction between student and teacher, the nature of research, and, in some fields, the practice that relates to theory , it will remain superficial. But it is doubtful that these matters will be significantly affected by the kinds of structural reforms that are now being actively debated on many campuses.

It is pointless to discuss the “function of the university” in abstraction from concrete historical circumstances, as it would be a waste of effort to study any other social institution in this way. In a different society entirely different questions might arise as to the function of the university and the problems that are

pressing. To one who believes, as I do, that our society must undergo drastic changes if civilization is to advance, , perhaps even to survive , university reform will appear an insignificant matter except insofar as it contributes to social change. Apart from this question, improvements in the university can no doubt take place within the framework of the presently existing institutional forms, and drastic revision of these forms will contribute little to it.

It is never an easy matter to determine to what extent deficiencies of a particular institution can actually be overcome through internal reform and to what extent they reflect characteristics of society at large or matters of individual psychology that are relatively independent of social forms. Consider, for example, the competitiveness fostered in the university, in fact, in the school system as a whole. It is difficult to convince oneself that this serves an educational purpose. Certainly it does not prepare the student for the life of a scholar or scientist. It would be absurd to demand of the working scientistthat he keep his work secret so that his colleagues will not know of his achievements and not be helpedbyhis discoveries in pursuing their own studies and research. Yet this demand is often made of the student in the classroom.

In later life, collective effort with sharing of discovery and mutual assistance is the idea; if it is not the norm, we rightly interpret this as an inadequacy of those who cannot rise above personal aggrandizement and to this extent are incompetent as scholars and teachers. Yet even at the most advanced level of graduate education, the student is discouraged by university regulation from working as any reasonable man would certainly choose to do: individually, where his interests lead him; collectively, where he can learn from and give aid to his fellows. Course projects and examinations are individual and competitive.The doctoral dissertation not only is required to be a purely individual contribution; beyondthisquestionable requirement, there is a builtin bias toward insignificance in the requirement that a finished piece of work be completed in a fixed time span. The student is obliged to set himself a limited goal and to avoid adventuresome, speculative investigation that may challenge the conventional framework of scholarship and correspondingly, runs a high risk of failure. In this respect, the institutional forms of the university encourage mediocrity. Perhaps this is one reason why it is so common for a scholar to devote his career to trivial modifications of what he has already done. The patterns of thinking imposed in his early work, the poverty of conception that is fostered by too-rigid institutional forms, may limit his imagination and distort his vision. That many escape these limitations is a tribute to the human ability to resist pressures that tend to restrict the variety andcreativity of life and thought. What is true even at the most advanced levels of graduateeducation isfar more significant at earlier stages, as many critics have eloquently demonstrated. Still, it is not evident, even in this case, to what extent the fault is one of the universities and to what extent it is inherent to the role assigned them in a competitive society, where pursuit of self-interest is elevated to the highest goal.

Some of the pressures that impoverish the educational experience and distort the natural relation of student and teacher clearly have their origin in demands that are imposed on the school. Consider, for example, the sociological problem defined by Daniel Bell: “Higher education has been burdened with the task of becoming a gatekeeper , perhaps the only gatekeeper , to significant place and privilege in society;. . . it means that the education system is no longer geared to teaching but to judging.[2] Jencks and Riesman make a similar point: “College is a kind of protracted aptitude test for measuring certain aspects of intelligence and character.” The result: “Reliance on colleges to preselect the upper-middle class obviously eliminates most youngsters born into lower-strata families, since they have ‘the wrong attitudes’ for academic success.”[3] The effect is that the university serves as an instrument for ensuring the perpetuation of social privilege.

The same, incidentally, holds for later life. To achieve the Humboldtian ideal, a university should be open to any man, at any stage of life, who wishes to avail himself to this institutional form for enhancing his “spiritual life.” In fact, there are programs for bringing corporate executives or engineers from industry to the university for specialized training or simply for broadening their cultural background, but none, to my knowledge, for shoemakers or industrial workers, who could, in principle, profit no less from these opportunities. Evidently, it would be misleading to describe these inequities merely asdefects of the university.

In general, there is little if any educational function to the requirement that the university be concerned with certification as well as with education and research. On the contrary, this requirement interferes with its proper function. It is a demand imposed by a society that ensures, in many ways, the preservation of certain forms of privilege and elitism.

Or consider the often-voiced demand that the universities serve the needs of the outside society , that its activities be “relevant” to general social concerns. Put in a very general way, this demand is justifiable. Translated, into practice, however, it generally means that the universities provide a service to those existing social institutions that are in a position to articulate their needs and to subsidize the effort to meet these needs. It is not difficult for members of the university community to delude themselves into believing that they are maintaining a “neutral, value-free” position when they simply respondto demands set elsewhere. In fact, to do so is to make a political decision, namely, to ratifytheexisting distribution of power, authority, and privilege in the society at large, and to take on a commitment to reinforce it. The Pentagon and the great corporations can formulate their needs and subsidize the kind of work that will answer to them. The peasants of Guatemala or the unemployed in Harlem are in no position to do so, obviously. A free society should encourage the development of a university that escapes the not-too-subtle compulsion to be “relevant” in this sense. The university will be able to make its contribution to a free society only to the extent that it overcomes the temptation to conform unthinkingly to the prevailing ideology and to the existing patterns of power and privilege.

In its relation to society, a free university should be expected to be, in a sense, “subversive.” We take for granted that creative work in any field will challenge prevailing orthodoxy. A physicist who refines yesterday’s experiment, an engineer who merely seeks to improve existing devices, or an artist who limits himself to styles and techniques that have been thoroughly explored is rightly regarded as deficient in creative imagination. Exciting work in science, technology, scholarship, or the arts will probe the frontiers of understanding and try to create alternatives to the conventional assumptions. If, in somefield of inquiry this is no longer true, then the field will be abandoned by those who seekintellectualadventure. These observations are cliches that few will question , except in the study of man and society. The social critic who seeks to formulate a vision of a more just and human social order, and is concerned with the discrepancy , more often, the chasm , that separates this vision from the reality that confronts him, is a frightening creature who must “overcome his alienation” and become “responsible,” “realistic,” and “pragmatic.” To decode these expressions: he must stop questioning our values and threatening our privilege. He may be concerned with technical modifications of existing society that improve its efficiency and blur its inequities, but he must not try to design a radically different alternative and involve himself in an attempt to bring about social change. He must, therefore, abandon the path of creative inquiry as it is conceived in other domains. It is hardlynecessary to stress that this prejudice is even more rigidly institutionalized in the statesocialistsocieties.

Obviously, a free mind may fall into error; the social critic is no less immune to this possibility that the inventive scientist or artist. It may be that at a given stage of technology, the most important activity is to improve the internal combustion engine, and that at a given stage of social evolution, primary attention should be given to the study of fiscal measures that will improve the operation of the system of state capitalism of the Western democracies. This is possible, but hardly obvious, in either case. The universities offer freedom and encouragement to those who question the first of these assumptions,but more rarely to those who question the second. The reasons are fairly clear. Since the dominantvoicein any society is that of the beneficiaries of the status quo, the ‘alienated intellectual” who tries to pursue the normal path of honest inquiry , perhaps falling into error on the way , and thus often finds himself challenging the conventional wisdom, tends to be a lonely figure. The degree of protection and support afforded him by the university is, again, a measure of its success in fulfilling its proper function in society. It is, furthermore, a measure of the willingness of the society to submit its ideology and structure to critical analysis and evaluation, and of its willingness to overcome inequities and defects that will be revealed by such a critique.

Such problems as these — which will never cease to exist, so long as human society continues , have become somewhat more critical in the last few years for a number of reasons. In an advanced industrial society, the linkage between the university and external social institutions tend to become more tight and intricate because of the utility of the “knowledge that is produced” (to use a vulgar idiom) and the training that is provided. This is a familiar insight. Half a century ago, Randolph Bourne noted that the world war had brought to leadership a liberal, technical intelligentsia “immensely ready for the executiveordering of events, pitifully unprepared for the intellectual interpretation or the idealisticfocussingof ends,” pragmatic intellectuals who “have absorbed the secret of scientific method as applied to political administration” and who readily “lined up in the service of the war technique.” Turning to the university, and taking Columbia University as the prototype, he described it as “a financial corporation, strictly analogous, in its motives and responses, to the corporation which is concerned in the production of industrial commodities.. . .The university produces learning instead of steel or rubber, but the nature of the academic commodity has become less and less potent in insuring for the academic workman a status materially different from that of any other kind of employee.” The trustees, he claimed, define their obligation in this way: “to see that the quality of the commodity which the university produces is such as to seem reputable to the class which they represent,” “Undertrustee control,” Bourne went on “the American university has been degraded from its old,noble idealof a community of scholarship to a private commercial corporation.[4]

Bourne’s characterization of the university can be questioned in many respects, but it nevertheless has an unpleasant ring of authenticity, today even more than at the time when he wrote. It will not escape the reader that the student movement of the past few years has , quite independently , developed a very similar critique, often with the same rhetoric. Again, one can point to exaggerations and even flights of fancy, but it would be a mistake to overlook the kernel of truth within it.

A further reason why the problems of the universities have become a more urgent concern than heretofore is that the universities have, on an unprecedented scale, come to the center of intellectual life. Not only scientists and scholars but also writers and artists are drawn to the academic community. To the extent that this is true, to the extent that other independent intellectual communities disappear, the demands on the university increase. Probably this is a factor in the university crises of the past few years. With the depoliticization of American society in the 1950s and the narrowing of the range of socialthought, the university seems to have become, for many students, almost the only center ofintellectualstimulation. Lionel Trilling, in a recent interview, pointed out that he cannot draw on his own experience as a student to help him comprehend the motivation of the “militant students” at Columbia: “Like all my friends at college, I hadn’t the slightest interest in the university as an institution: I thought of it, when I thought of it at all, as the inevitable philistine condition of one’s being given leisure, a few interesting teachers, and a library. I find it hard to believe that this isn’t the natural attitude. “[5] This is an apt comment. In the past, it was for themost part thefootball and fraternity crowd who had an interest in the university as such. But in this respect there have been substantial changes. Now it is generally the most serious and thoughtful students who are concerned with the nature of the universities and who feel hurt and deprived by its failings. Twenty years ago [in 1949], these students , in an urban university at least , would have looked elsewhere for the intellectual and social life that they now expect the university to provide.

Personally, I feel that the sharp challenges that have been raised by the student movement are among the few hopeful developments of these troubled years. It would be superficial, and even rather childish, to be so mesmerized by occasional absurdities of formulation or offensive acts as to fail to see the great significance of the issues that have been raised and that lie beneath the tumult. Only one totally lacking in judgment could find himself offended by “student extremism” and not, to an immensely greater extent, by the events and situations that motivate it. A person who can write such words as the following has,to put it as kindly as possible, lost his grasp of reality: “Quite a few of our universitieshavealready decided that the only way to avoid on-campus riots is to give students’ academic credit for off-campus rioting (“fieldwork” in the ghettos, among migrant workers, etc.). “[6] Consider the assumptions that would lead one to describe work in the ghettos or among migrant workers as a form of “rioting,” or, for that matter, to regard work of this sort as necessarily inappropriate to a college program , as distinct, say, from work on biological warfare or counterinsurgency, which is not described in these terms.

Less extreme, but still seriously distorted, is the perception of the student movement expressed by George Kennan, who is concerned with what he sees as the extremely disturbed and excited state of mind of a good portion of our student youth, floundering around as it is in its own terrifying wilderness of drugs, pornography, and political hysteria.[7] Again, it is striking that he is so much less concerned with the “extremely disturbed and excited state of mind” of those responsible for the fact that the tonnage of bombs dropped on South Vietnam exceeds the total expended by the U.S. Air Force in all theaters of World War II, or with those responsible for the anti-communist “political hysteria” of the 1950s, or, for that matter, with that great mass of students who are still “floundering around” in the traditional atmosphere of conformism and passivity of the colleges and whose rioting is occasioned by football victories.

The irrationality which has been all too characteristic of the response to the student movement is itself a remarkable phenomenon, worthy of analysis. More important, however, is the effort to take the challenge presented by the student movement as a stimulus to critical thinking and social action, perhaps of a quite radical nature , a necessity in a society as troubled as ours, and as dangerous. Since World War II we have spent over a trillion dollars on “defense” and are now spending billions on an infantile competition to place a man on the moon. Our scientists and technologists are preparing to construct anantiballistic missile system [ABM] at an ultimate cost of many billions of dollars though they know thatitwill contribute nothing to defense, that in fact it will raise a potentially suicidal arms race to new heights. At the same time, our cities crumble, and millions suffer hunger and want, while those who try to publicize these conditions are investigated by the FBI. It is intolerable that our society should continue to arrogate to itself , in part for consumption, in part for unconscionable waste , half of the far-from-limitless material resources of the world. There are simply no words to describe our willingness to destroy, on a scale without parallel in the contemporary world, when our leaders detect a threat to the “national goals” that they formulate, and that a passive and docile citizenry accepts. It may appear to be an extreme judgment when a social scientist, a native of Pakistan, asserts that “America has institutionalized even its genocide,” referring to the fact thatthe extermination of Indians “has become the object of public entertainment and children’s games.[8] A look at school texts confirms his assessment, however. Consider the following description in a fourth-grade reader of the extermination of the Pequot tribe by Captain John Mason:


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