Ivy Guilt and Heartland Vice

by Patrick J. Deneen on October 15, 2009 · 5 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

Finally, a reckoning:  Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard, fesses up:

At this moment in our history, universities might well ask if they have in fact done enough to raise the deep and unsettling questions necessary to any society.

As the world indulged in a bubble of false prosperity and excessive materialism, should universities — in their research, teaching and writing — have made greater efforts to expose the patterns of risk and denial? Should universities have presented a firmer counterweight to economic irresponsibility? Have universities become too captive to the immediate and worldly purposes they serve? Has the market model become the fundamental and defining identity of higher education?

Since the 1970s there has been a steep decline in the percentage of students majoring in the liberal arts and sciences, and an accompanying increase in preprofessional undergraduate degrees. Business is now by far the most popular undergraduate major, with twice as many bachelor’s degrees awarded in this area than in any other field of study. In the era of economic constraint before us, the pressure toward vocational pursuits is likely only to intensify.

As a nation, we need to ask more than this from our universities. Higher learning can offer individuals and societies a depth and breadth of vision absent from the inevitably myopic present. Human beings need meaning, understanding and perspective as well as jobs. The question should not be whether we can afford to believe in such purposes in these times, but whether we can afford not to.

Nicely said, but then there’s something of a retort by the President of the University of Wisconsin (where I almost accepted a position over Georgetown), calling for an intensification of “more of the same”:

Taken together, the four pillars of better preparation, more graduates,more research, and better dissemination and commercialization constitute my “More Better” prescription for American higher education to address our society’s most pressing challenges.

The two pillars in the middle are at the traditional core of higher education’s mission. Educating and credentialing our students, and carrying out cutting-edge research, define who we are. On either side of these central functions stand two others that we have not embraced as fully as we now must. What we do to shore up the two “bookend” pillars – preparing youth for postsecondary achievement and leveraging the results of our research – will increasingly define our success as 21st century institutions of higher learning.

The quest for international competitiveness requires American colleges and universities to ramp up productivity in our core functions. To do that, we will have to get much more effective at positively influencing these “bookend” pillars. More in the core, better at the intake and output. I believe that’s what they want, and need, from us.

“Educating and Credentialing…”??  Calling George Orwell!!

“More Better” has been the mantra of higher education for some years now, a worldview that been an accessory to crimes that continue to be committed in the name of “growth”: what matters most is getting more, easier, quicker.   For once, I’d like to see Harvard actually lead a “Less, Harder” movement, but I think the horse is out of the barn.  Of course, “international competition” will continue to direct Harvard’s actions more than pieties from its President.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Arthur MacInness October 19, 2009 at 9:16 am

In response to the remarks by the President of the University of Wisconsin, I can only say — in an archaic yet in this case an apt vernacular — “Gag me with a spoon.”

avatar Matthew Gerken October 20, 2009 at 2:36 pm

Better than our beloved Yale president, who seems to think that education consists mostly in using science to impress the Chinese.

avatar D.W. Sabin October 20, 2009 at 4:40 pm

I Beg Your pardon, where I come from, the term is “Much More Better”.

Ahhh yes, President Faust questioning the Striver’s State…how sui generis but oddly deja vu. However, in comparing his gloomy reflections upon the epilogue of the film “Technocrats Gone Wild” with that of the Chamber of Commerce rhetoric of “credentialing” by the U. of Wisconsin President, we can at least say that somebody in the catacombs of the lost Athens of America might have just awoken from a night of terrors and is attempting to wipe the cobwebs out of the eyes and re-select reality for a change. This might last until the subject of that new edifice on campus comes up.

Where exactly did they find that unmitigated wanker in Wisconsin? Does his clubhouse on Lake Mendota include a speed-course on “Technolexiboosterism For the Information Superhighway Age” Does he “Tweet”? Why has not a single person stormed his office, smeared him with Nutella and set him afloat on a burning stack of Investors Business Daily while the gulls pepper him with the kinds of digestive bombs befitting that cheerful pean to EVERYTHING wrong with higher education he assaults us with?

Thanks though Dr. Deneen, his cheerful little doggerel cheered me up to no end.

avatar Arthur MacInness October 20, 2009 at 9:01 pm

They should rename Lake Mendota Lake Bendova in the UW President’s dishonor.

avatar EugenN October 23, 2009 at 10:31 am

There’s always a (moral) philosophy underlying our actions, right? And, of course, underlying institutions – which are a set of more or less formalized rules of action towards certain goals. And business (the holy market) has its own morals, and corresponding virtues – doesn’t it? (It’s true that, if you read Caritas in veritate…) Well, just as I was reading your post, I found this expression on a different site, different subject; yet it is so expressive! It goes: “a virtuous cycle of cost reduction.” Just think about the use of the word virtue, and note the whole, solid, systematic philosophy of morals that emerges in the background, as you utter that phrase… (http://www.thebigmoney.com/features/kindle-chronicles/2009/10/22/nook-doom)

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