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"Nobody Screws With Me" The University: Sickness Unto Death

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After the Left University, What Then?

by Christopher Chantrill
September 27, 2005 at 11:00 am

IN AN IMPORTANT article in The Weekly Standard, James Piereson, longtime director of the James M. Olin Foundation, takes a look at The Left University and what to do about it.

American universities have gone through three stages, according to Piereson. The first stage was the British model: universities founded by Protestant denominations and designed

to transmit knowledge and right principles to the young in order to prepare them for vocations in teaching, the ministry, and, often, the law. Few thought of these institutions as places where new knowledge might be generated or where original research might be conducted.

In England, as in America, research and discovery were sponsored by nonacademic institutions like the Royal Society in London or the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, the latter founded by Benjamin Franklin.

It is significant to note that the great figures of nineteenth century America, businessmen like Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Pullman, not to mention politicians like Jackson and Lincoln, “had little formal education at all.”

But all that changed when the Germans invented the research university. Conforming to Kant’s idea that you could never know the thing-in-itself, they founded the University of Berlin, “based on the idea that truth is not something known and passed on, but the subject of persistent inquiry and continuous revision.” The research model placed the faculty, not the students, at the center of the institution.

The model of the German research university spread rapidly in the United States in the decades after the Civil War, inaugurated by the founding of Johns Hopkins University in 1876 as our first institution organized around graduate research studies. The late scholar Edward Shils referred to this as "the most decisive single event in the history of learning in the Western hemisphere."

The men of the research university brought a different culture to the public square, inspiring the Progressive movement at the turn of the twentieth century and bringing “experts and expert knowledge into the political process.” What we may call the liberal university grew in size and prestige until the 1960s.

Then, in a single tumultous decade, the liberal university was replaced by the left university. Suddenly, the open, tolerant liberal university, dedicated to an optimistic vision of progress through knowledge, was shattered and in its place grew an altogether different institution, the university dedicated to “identity politics, group rights, and diversity.”

Ever since, the university has been radically out of step with reality and out of step with America. It has been wrong about the fall of Communism, wrong about the convergence between the Communist and capitalist systems, wrong that “welfare programs were in no way implicated in urban poverty, crime, family breakup, and teen pregnancy.” And the university research that once fed into the political process during the age of the liberal university is now done by independent think tanks like the “Manhattan Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Hoover Institution,” and Piereson’s own Olin Foundation.

What is to be done? Piereson does not offer too much, except a recitation of reforms initiated by trustees and philanthropists. Which is fine, as far as it goes. But here is a more radical Three Point plan.

First, end university tenure. If there is one thing we have learned over the last half-century it is that people guaranteed a job are unhappy, cramped people, dogs-in-a-manger obsessed by their rights and utterly unlikely to serve the community. The university should be the great public square in which young people get to experience the great and the good as they visit the university for a season.

Second, prune back the research model. Some areas of the university lend themselves to the research concept, particularly in the hard sciences. But many do not. Is research in English literature a good idea? Research in law? It is probably not an accident that English and Law are departments that have been utterly vitiated by left-wing ideologies. The research model requires incumbents to do research in order to get tenure, money, and the glittering prizes. Some departments should be liberated from this burden.

Third, break up the “bums on seats” government education monopoly and its co-conspirator, licensure. Why are we putting children in classrooms for twelve years K through 12, apart from creating jobs for education professionals? And why do we legislate a forest of credential requirements? The postmodernists know why. Power. Instead we could, we should be educating our children to adventure, to creativity, to service, or to work. Parents, take your pick.

It goes without saying that reforms of this magnitude can only be advanced by the conservative movement and its political arm, the Republican Party. Liberals, lefties, and Democrats are too compromised by their economic and political interests to do anything but resist to the last dollar of taxpayers’ money the system that gives them a comfortable livelihood, status, and power.

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Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.  His Road to the Middle Class is forthcoming.


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©2007 Christopher Chantrill