Institutions of higher education are again under public attack, urged to justify and reform themselves, but this crisis is neither extraordinary nor new, writes historian and former University of Chicago president (1978-1993) Hanna Holborn Gray in “Searching for Utopia: Universities and Their Histories.”
From time to time, higher education requires a re-examination and restatement of first principles, and Gray bravely provides this in a way that is largely successful. “Searching for Utopia” is at once a contemplative “pep talk” urging colleges and universities to rediscover a sense of both mission and individuality and a ringing endorsement of protecting the academic freedom to explore truth.
The origin of this slim but dense volume is her 2009 Clark Kerr Lectures on the Role of Higher Education in Society at the University of California at Berkeley. It was former President Kerr who was best known for articulating in 1964 his notion of the “multiversity,” the great, research-based modern university driven by powerful professionally oriented departments.
The most distinctly articulated alternative to this twentieth-century vision was that of Gray’s own predecessor at the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, who believed all students should first be grounded in a “common core” of liberal education that presumed that all knowledge is linked and associative. In Hutchins’ view, the great university is teaching-based.
In practice, these views are not necessarily mutually exclusive but seem a matter of emphasis; however, Gray writes, “American universities, from the outset, tended to view themselves as endowed with more than a single purpose. In essence, the multiversity was born already with the universities of the late nineteenth century.” (This would seem to have included William Rainey Harper’s “new” 1891 University of Chicago.)
Gray aptly summarizes Kerr’s and Hutchins’ notions and then reaches all the way back to medieval and Renaissance Europe, where in the former the “university was essentially an institution of professional training and advanced scholarship. The liberal arts provided a means to the higher learning, not an educational ideal valuable in its own terms.”
Meanwhile in 1516, Thomas More’s “Utopia” expressed his ideal of a higher education grounded in the humanities; Renaissance humanists sought to educate an “individual of general competence, the thoughtful citizen, the cultivated person,” in Gray’s words.
Fast forward to today, when public financial support for higher education is waning as its efficacy as a teacher of prospective employees, professionals and technicians is severely questioned, and as students themselves are rebelling against tuitions spiraling upward to help cover shortfalls in funding. At the same time, activist departments on many campuses resist backing off from what they see as the broader public social obligations of universities trumpeted ever since the 1960s.
In this sea of change, Gray sees opportunities, but believes that the instinctive reactions of universities are carrying them in the wrong direction. In order to woo the best students, they overstretch resources and overbuild but then find themselves constantly retrenching and reorganizing, threatening their own very educational integrity.
Gray instead believes that institutions should realize that they cannot do everything—including and especially in the social sphere—and work to distinguish themselves from their competitors. There is much merit, she believes, in what she calls the “stripped down university.”
Rather than bowing with shifting political winds, the greatest value of higher education to society may be in adherence to values of independence and integrity. She seems in consonance with Thorstein Veblen’s resistance to universities “falling prey to destructively corporate and commercial values.”
At the same time, she sees hazard of increasingly specialized (and elitist) humanities disciplines with “arcane language(s)” out of touch with the “perennial questions of life and history.” Against this, Gray offers her own view, which includes abandoning the “political correctness” whose practice obstructs a clear-eyed view toward the path of truth, wherever that may lead.
“My own belief,” she writes, “is that an introduction to some of the seminal ideas that characterize our culture is an essential part of a liberal education and not an act of political indoctrination. I do not believe that this ‘privileges’ Western culture above others or asserts a stance of moral superiority. I do not imagine that to insist on studying Western civilization means adherence to one narrative or to one group or to one way of thought.
“I would certainly require the study of another culture once the student has learned something of, and therefore been able to achieve some distance from, his or her own. For a liberal education must seek to engender a mental framework and spirit in which one can to some degree overcome the limitations of one’s own location in time and place and ways of thought to gain some understanding of other minds and worlds.”
If you hear the sound of hands clapping in the wings, surely it is the approval of the ghosts of Messrs. Harper and Hutchins. (Martin Northway)
“Searching for Utopia: Universities and Their Histories”
By Hanna Holborn Gray
University of California Press, 130 pages, $40