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Decline of Learning

"The American University: How it Runs, Where it is Going," by Jacques Barzun (Harper & Row), $7.95.


UNTIL RECENT essays by George Kennan and Sidney Hook, the academic right wing had not contributed much literature to the debate on higher education. Most of their points had already been made by J. H. Newman in lectures on "The Idea of a University" in 1859. What has followed are variations on two platitudes: that "liberal knowledge" should be sought for its own sake and divorced from practical ends; secondly, that intellect is best protected in a community of intellectuals. These ideas are almost simplistic. That they are worth repeating in 1969 comments on the decay of the modern university.

In The American University, Jacques Barzun lambasts the big colleges for betraying the cause of liberal education to money, prestige, and product oriented research. The new "multiversity" is not a university at all, but a large "industry, suitably diversified, whose members honestly believe it gives good service and should go on forever as it is. Teaching as an art has almost disappeared on campus. Infatuation with research has perverted the meaning of education. "Students do not act like students," Barzun writes, "because adults have confused them about what education really is." Barzun admits, however, that he shares the resentment of the student protestors. The worst desecrators, he maintains, are the old men with faculty, business, and government.

Part of his book tries to describe in clear English the administrative routine, the departmental politics, the board of trustees, the foundations and the multiple demands made on the school by the neighborhood, big business, and government. Before he attempted this outline, Barzun apprenticed for twelve years as Dean of Faculties and Provost at Columbia. Since the "hero" of the book is naturally Columbia, his remarks on violence and student conceit have more than routine interest.

Mr. Barzun considers the transmission of culture from one generation to the next a highly laudable occupation. But neither business leaders nor student leaders should expect the university to save the world, or even the community. "It is sufficient if it removes a little ignorance"--and, in the days of Nicholas Murray Butler, it did just that. America did not bother its universities, and vice versa. After the Depression and World War II, when a college education became the property of the middle class, so paltry a goal as the removal of "a little ignorance" would no longer do. Colleges had to justify themselves with "newer" ideas and "newer" research. Since the professors had all the answers, let them fix up society. So began the government contracts and the ties with business--in short, the philosophy of "activism," Barzun writes, which persists on campus today.

CRITICS ON the outside conceived the "Utopian University" as an answering service for every social and scientific problem. That concept, according to Barzun, has destroyed what limited good the university could do by distracting its energy from teaching. And the notion that higher education should be open to all has skyrocketed the budget, drastically increased the teaching load, and made classroom chores doubly undesirable. The faculty responded by giving up and withdrawing to their offices or laboratories to write books and "do original work." The prevailing belief among scientists, agency heads, business vice-presidents, philanthropists, college publicity directors and tax-payers is that only research gives justification to the enterprise. The old tradition--love of knowledge for its own sake--is not the active principle these days. As a producer of research, the university wants only productive scholars, which means specialists who specialize. The teacher has become the director of research. Society has created, without knowing it, a "mandarin system of learning."

I mean by this that in order to achieve any goal, however modest, one must qualify. Qualifying means: having been trained, passed a course, obtained a certificate. . . The young in college were born into this system which in this country is not much older than they, and they feel, quite rightly, intense claustrophobia. They have been in the groove since the sandbox.

The undergraduates suffer. As the exploited outsiders in a system which encourages "research on the artificial flowers of learning," they have the right to feel neglected. They have the right, and yet they don't have the right. Mr. Barzun refers testily to "their arrogant pretensions and airs of holier-than-thou." If put into effect, their egalitarian slogans would destroy what remains of the teacher-student relationship.

He ignores the radicals to attack the "sensible students" who request participation in making curriculum, promoting instructors, setting fees, and vetoing investments. According to Barzun, their secret will is not so much to run things as to toss them around. Most of their half-baked reforms are "reactionary," already anticipated and found unworkable by administrators. Often the next class of student activists would decide to reform the reforms or bring back the status quo. He does not cite any examples in support of this view, but goes on to conclude that a large establishment like the American university cannot change itself at the wish of every college class every year.

Students have been brainwashed by their culture, Barzun writes, into supposing that education should be exciting and relevant. Not so, says Barzun. The well meaning professor who tries to sensationalize his subject matter is catering to the basest instincts of his students. When a teacher is "exciting" instead of informing, "time goes fast and real thought blurs." Course work should discipline, not entertain, and Barzun waxes eloquent on the pleasures of drudgery. Nor do the liberal arts need to be relevant to modern problems. Such relevance he calls the fantasy of instant utility. Relevance for whom, he asks, and for how long? What excites one generation will probably bore the next and transform whatever remains of the university into a "weekly journal published orally by aging Ph.D's." To speak of "relevance" and "experience" in the same breath with education is to play on words. One can be very experienced and not educated, he argues.

IF NEWMAN has already defined liberal education, Barzun means to expose its twentieth century impersonators. Both men would agree that the university cannot stoop to teach values, no matter how politically troubled the times or how loud the student demands. "Values (so-called) cannot be taught; they are breathed in or imitated. And here is the pity of the sophistication that no longer allows the undergraduate to admire some of his elders and fellows: He deprives himself of models and is left with a task beyond the powers of most men, that of fashioning a self unaided."

Does Barzun really mean to say that the young have no models? The statement reveals a proclivity to exaggeration that is the working method of the book. One cannot deduce the crises which Mr. Barzun deplores from a set of statistics. Attitudes are his material, and he often trusts his luck to pick out the signs of the times on campus. The footnotes he supplies are more in the nature of anecdotes, while an impressive bibliography refers readers to more factual (and timid) efforts.

His most offensive generalizations come at the expense of the students. They make up the coddled proletariat in the mismanaged world of The American University. Adults have made too many concessions, for society does not even require that they be willing to learn. This permissiveness extends to the notion that both students and their teachers are "equal partners in education" or that both are "exploring together" and "learn from each other." Nonsense, replies Barzun--no undergraduate has anything valuable to say to a Ph.D. about his chosen field which he has not heard already. Though many students are bright, he concedes, they are all inarticulate. They have "no responsibility to words or logic." Their writing is garble, their medium is sabotage, their ethos is rudeness, and their morals are those of a pig sty. They expect honesty from adults, but not from themselves. He points to the prevalence of cheating.

AS HISTORIAN, he fits the current campus violence into a long tradition of anti-intellectual gangsterism. The students of medieval universities composed "an army of tramps, spongers, and hoodlums." What distinguishes the violence of the present generation is the relative calm that immediately preceded it and the laxity, or cowardice, with which the faculty and administrators respond to it. Compared to the rebels of the thirties, who set out to reform society with a plan, the rebels of the sixties are aimless hedonists.

They cry for participatory democracy, but "true" democracy does not give a man the right to vote about everything that affects him. Students have the right of criticism, not participation. They make excellent negative judges of teaching and curriculum. Their opinions have influenced or reversed many departmental decisions, but to formalize that influence is "difficult." Mr. Barzun sees behind the protests no real desire for democratic processes, but the traits of the enfant terrible who does not know what he wants.

It might be worth speculating--an academic question, one might say--how former Dean Barzun would have treated last April's disturbances at Columbia. In a postscript dated May 3, he explains: "The completed typescript of this book was in the hands of the publisher six weeks before the student outbreaks of April 23-30 that disrupted the work of Columbia University. I have since found no reason to change or add to what I had written months earlier." Since the book was written in "a feeling of communion. . . with the chief officers of Grayson Kirk's administration," it might be looked on as a document of that crisis. If its hostility toward undergraduates reflected the attitudes of the administration, then the gulf of misunderstanding was wide indeed. One can suggest, though, that Grayson Kirk and the Deans took a milder view of the commotion than Mr. Barzun. In Europe and Latin America, he observes, students who threaten violence to the school are shot--and expect to be shot. Recent events in Barzun's native France would not confirm that observation, and he probably would not really call in the firing squad anyway. But a tougher stance like that of SF State's Hayakawa might have saved Columbia--that is, if it were worth saving.

THOUGH MR. BARZUN answers that Columbia and other American universities are worth saving, at least he asks the question. Not even the New Left surpasses for depth or length his attacks on the wasteful process of a Ph.D., the petrified curriculum, and the shabby teaching which disfigure higher education. For the most part, he suggests, the student's presence in school has no other purpose than a ritual one. The teaching university has become the training university, and, in its attempt to be modern, has lost the cohesion of a real institution. Bureaucracy and angling for promotion has replaced amiable chaos and ivy-covered isolation of the good old days.

Since there is self-criticism and the memory of better ways, perhaps the university can reform itself. Barzun is doubtful. The universities must reform together, but the competition for money and prestige has carried scholarly individualism out of control. The "new university" will try to get "newer and newer," larger and larger, until the parts drop off. Newman's vital idea, the spiritual necessity of a center, has failed. The university has become a crossroads, not a community. And even as a crossroads, Mr. Barzun predicts, it will soon have no higher function than a traveler's restroom. THOMAS GEOGHEGAN

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