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Barzun and "The American University"


After Columbia, there was a carnival of books and magazine articles published by various publishers on your basic student unrest problem. Most of these were written by academic types, and most of them are indicative of the depths to which scholarship has plunged. These academics were anxious to publish, as they usually are; their literary agents told them there was a good thing going here and they should not miss out on it. Very few of them had any new ideas, but that mattered little. There they were, with more words in print. Along with the carnival came a book by Jacques Barzun, the former Dean of Faculties and Provost at Columbia. The Barzun book, called The American University, entered the carnival quite by accident. It was completed before the Columbia rebellion. Despite this lack of immediacy, or more likely because of it, Barzun's book is by far the best book on universities that has been published in the past (This judgment excludes Riesman and Jencks' Academic Revolution, which is a fine history of higher education in America, but which has some glaring commissions on federal influence and the rise of the multiversity.) Barzun's book was generally discredited by the liberals who read this sort of thing. He appeared to be too much of an educational elitist, and he made some nasty remarks about students. And he seemed to be against progress.

Barzun's analysis is that the university has become too much a servant of the outside world. It has become too new and too big. He sees its future as dim: ". . . the parts will being to drop off, as the autonomous professor has begun to do; or go into spells of paralysis, as the student riots have shown to be possible. Apathy and secession will take care of the rest, until a stump of something once alive is left to vegetate on the endowment or the annual tax subsidy. The change will be gradual enough for everything to adjust to it, and the versity, neither uni nor multi, will survive, in utility a vestige just next to the Electoral College. some will think the two are connected, as the names suggest."

Barzun believes that the university has become too heavily dependent on the federal government and foundations for its money. But the large donors have created more problems than they have solved: "So far, the new university desired by the nation has been stimulated by its suitors but not fed." The universities, now grown huge with little control over their parts, are forced into the business of business to make money--"the mirage of owning factories and handling patent rights." This gets the university into problems that SDS has recently brought to the surface at Harvard--should the university be a ruthless landlord? Or even a benign one?

The reasons that the university has gotten out of hand are not only financial. The university is expected to do things now, to perform services for society directly with its resources. To a great extent, that is how the university will directly serve the needs of society--the needs as the government sees them. The problem with the new university is that it has become relevant; it is doing things that it has not been equipped to do. The new function of service--no matter how much men like Pusey believe it is the modern thing to be doing--is tearing the university apart. Barzun writes: "Knowledge is power an its possessor owes the public a prompt application, or at least diffusion through the training of others. It thus comes about that the School of Social Work aids the poor, the School of Architecture redesigns the slum, the School of Business advises the small tradesman, the School of Dentistry runs a free clinic, the School of Law gives legal aid, and the undergraduate college supplies volunteers to hospitals, recreation centers, and remedial schools."

These are all very fine things to be doing, but should a university be doing them? If a university becomes a servant of society, a kind of social service arm of the government, then where will new and critical thought come from? Even thought come from? Even though the service are very fine, they essentially serve the status quo. And then there are problems of whom to serve. And then there is the problem of serving a particular war. And then there is the problem of ROTC. Like Barzun, the essay above argues for the old university, for the return of simplicity and commitment to learning and teaching--not to vast research projects and commitment to the "national interest" and the federal government. Like Barzun, the essay above argues that to serve society best, a university must produce and pass on knowledge that is irrelevant to society as it stands. J.K.G.

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