In this 2000 lecture, Wilson Carey McWilliams prophetically pointed to the deepening of existing trends in higher education toward detachment and mobility. He described his task in this lecture thusly
Undergraduates in the year 2000, the products of both a new ethnic diversity and the age of the computer, will force American colleges and universities to readdress perennial questions in higher education. The enduring challenge to undergraduate education in a democracy is the task of developing citizens in whom devotion to equality is combined with a love of excellence. Democratic universities teach skills and convey knowledge, but only as a means to their higher goals, the enrichment of civic life and of the soul. In the year 2000, American colleges will need to struggle against the forces of fragmentation in American culture in the interest of a citizenship which, while respecting different heritages and personalities, will prepare students to play a role in the common life of the republic.
“The Undergraduate Learner: Challenges for a New Century”
The challenges faced by higher education in the Republic threaten to be overwhelming, and they call for all our foresight, craft, and courage.
In the first place, colleges and universities will confront a new ethnic diversity. Opening the academy to the excluded and disadvantaged has been the grand motif of American higher education, a goal which, in the last decades, has been focused on Blacks and Hispanics. Our gains have been inadequate: too few children from minority and working class families are attending college, and fewer still receive the quality of education they need and deserve.1 However, these continuing commitments should not obscure the new ethnic dimension of college and university life.
While the percentage of the foreign-born in New Jersey’s population is lower than it was in the heyday of immigration, the absolute number of the foreign-born is the largest in the history of the state. The new immigration also involves what are virtually new peoples: in 1980, of the 100,000 Asians in New Jersey, two-thirds had entered the state in the last decade, and the total is rapidly increasing. Unlike other immigrants (and immigration from Latin America is also rising), and unlike Black Americans, Asians have been shaped by cultures and experiences outside the religious and philosophic dialogue of the West. And colleges and universities increasingly will find it needful to articulate the argument between the East, in all its diversities, and the more familiar voices of the Western tradition.2
Of course, the politics of racial and gender equality has changed the way in which we pose and formulate such arguments. Until recently, confident that we were the favorites of progress, History’s chosen, American academia set out to assimilate the newcomer, bringing the light of the modern West to “the person sitting in darkness.”3 Today, we have become more circumspect, if not more humble, and colleges and universities are more inclined to ask how it is possible—or, more subtly, how far it is possible—to be a citizen without losing one’s ethnic heritage.
This question cannot be asked seriously without considering the possibility that there may be—are likely to be—significant or even fatal incompatibilities between one’s tradition and American citizenship. When all accommodations are made, American citizenship imposes choices as well as opportunities. The belief in equality—the teaching that there is a dimension of human truth which transcends the accidents of birth, culture, appearance, and time—is a founding principle of American politics. That doctrine may be a “myth,” as Carolyn Lougee argued in the debate over Stanford’s new curriculum, but American citizenship requires, at least, this that “myth” be accepted to the exclusion of others.4
Similarly, if we take non-Western cultures seriously, they cannot be presented as a travelogue’s cheerful introduction to foreign ways, a smiling venture into the exotic. We must help students to see the agreements and disagreements, the commonalities and conflicts, that make up the argument between cultures. If we take cultures on their own terms, we will discover that, contrary to relativism, they do not hold cultures to be incommensurable. In his study of Truk, Marc Swartz expected the islanders to be ethnocentric, proclaiming their own ways superior to all others. Instead, he found that Trukese often expressed admiration for American technology, finding fault with their own crafts. At the same time, Trukese were shocked by American family patterns, and especially by the fact that Swartz was not expected to spend some of his time working for his brother-in-law. Trukese reasoned that their own customs were more apt to avert conflict and to unify families (and probably, they were right). The Trukese, in other words, did not see cultures as monads, each locked into the island of its own uniqueness. They saw them, correctly, as more or less effective answers to the human problem.5
Great cultures instruct and challenge us precisely because, implicitly, each asks and offers an answer to the questions, “How is a human being to live?” And what is the best life?” The study of culture points toward philosophy, just as diversity is unity in motley, humanity in domino.6
In many ways, however, ethnic diversity is the easy, relatively familiar part of the problem of undergraduate education. Traditionally, American colleges and universities assumed that their undergraduates matriculated as fairly well-organized personalities with at least reasonably clear goals. Bright and minimally decent, these students were limited by prejudice and narrowness; they were somewhat naïve, very parochial, and filling with biases derived from their religious and ethnic upbringings. It could be taken for granted that American students were patriotic, since even those who criticized American conduct were convinced of the universal rightness and propriety of American principles. It was virtually a given, in other words, that the undergraduate’s soul rested on firm foundations, but needed an ampler, less confining superstructure.
In the view which shaped our institutions and our instruction, higher education had two basic aims. In the first place, it was our business to eliminate prejudice, following Locke’s description of his ambition, “removing some of the Rubbish that lies in the way to Knowledge.”7 An undergraduate college could count itself successful if, like Henry Adams’ Harvard, “it taught little, and that little ill, but it left the mind open, free from bias, ignorant of facts but docile. The graduate had few strong prejudices. He knew little, but his mind remained supple, ready to receive knowledge.”8
Second, having set students free from prejudice, it only remained for universities to offer them training in the skills necessary to fulfill their goals. Higher education was a “parenthesis,” as Tom Hayden called it back in the ’sixties, a period separate from the community’s life, set aside for acquiring the techniques and ornaments necessary to successful adulthood. Colleges and universities trusted that, for better or worse, their students already had goals, ruling and guiding principles; it was the task of higher education to advance the soul, not to help it find its way.
Our students are not like that, of course, and have not been for at least twenty years. Contemporary students have little if any boundedness, and they trust few guideposts. Their souls are more likely to be lost or lonely than confined.9
In fact, for our students, the fear of commitments is an early and continuing lesson. Mobility shapes and environs their lives. One-fifth of Americans move every year, teaching all of us the risk of becoming attached to places or persons. Children learn early the likelihood that friends, won through a difficult and intricate social minuet, will be suddenly and arbitrarily lost. A recent television advertisement shows a child, being driven away from her home and old friends, having her tears dried by a super-soft tissue, which offers its weak consolation to a now nearly-universal memory of impotence and pain. Each move and each loss makes us warier, more inclined to narrow our attachments: there is in New Jersey a firm of interior decorators which advises its clients how to design homes in which they will cathect only small, moveable objects. That experience affects higher education in the most direct way. In the film, American Graffiti, the protagonist spends the night of his graduation from high school asking the question, “Why should you have to leave the people you love?” But as we know, and they know, and he knows in the morning, he will board an airplane and fly off to college, just as we all know the probability that he will never again live in his home town.
Mobility affects those who remain more than those who leave. Cyril Connolly reminded us of the phenomenon of angoisse de gares—the anguish of railroad stations—in which those who leave are allowed at least the illusion of being in control, but those who are left behind confront helpless bereavement.10 In a sense, life itself requires that friendships be kept relatively superficial: in Wisconsin, two 15-year-old best friends, separated when one family moved, ended a weekend reunion with a double suicide because they found the disjunction unendurable.11 Increasingly, experience prods Americans toward the ultimate self-protection of remaining safely unbound, wholly within the self.
After all, even a rootless and mobile household is no safe haven. Our most intimate relationships have become disturbingly formless and insecure. Divorce has become ubiquitous, witnessed and experienced through the media and the lives of one’s friends if not in one’s own family. I know this firsthand: my daughters’ favorite afternoon show is “Divorce Court.” For children, the lesson is a powerful one: even people as wise as parents, seen through children’s eyes, can make terrible mistakes about a basic relationship, one which is vital to a child. This emphasizes, thunderously, the danger of strong commitments to any person. The resulting hesitancy is only strengthened by the fact that so many newer relationships—more egalitarian families, for example—have little or no support in custom or in law.12
Social relationships are permeable as well as fragile. Television is now regarded as a necessary element of a normal home, and computers are becoming an equally familiar furniture. In a new and potentially decisive way, contemporary generations are being shaped by the electronic media, and the school of the media catechizes detachment.
The earlier media were socially mediated. Books and newspapers were accessible only if they are read to us or if we learn to read, and either entails social intervention and education. Children are taken to the movies by adults or older children, and while we can enjoy music without words, radio’s messages fundamentally presumes listeners who have already learned to speak. By contrast, television addresses children before they have learned to read—in many cases, in fact, it teaches them to read—and it attracts them before they have learned speech. Television increasingly forms and frames the basic imagery of the mind. In fact, we may be witnessing the fading of the ancient culture of children, the oral tradition of games stretching back to immemoriality.
It is part of the power and danger of television that it weakens or dissolves the boundary between fantasy and reality. Of course, motion pictures have a similar tendency and power, amply reflected in Ronald Reagan’s politics.13 Yet the movie is a special activity, one which takes us outside the home to a special place: it marks off a sphere for fantasy, from which we emerge into normal life, just as books create their own special sphere by requiring pictures in the mind. Such demarcations sharpen and intensify experience, and television’s blurring weakens reality’s force and fantasy’s charm.
Television’s viewers are encouraged to be receptive and reactive, responding rapidly to changes of image and mood. Video and computer games emphasize quickness and dexterity, not reflection or depth. The electronic media elicit an engagement which is superficial rather than profound, a matter of feeling and not longing.
In television’s treatment of political life, these shortcomings are starkly apparent. News coverage moves quickly from major world events to banter between members of the “news team,” just as it shifts abruptly from human tragedy to light-hearted discussion of the weather. In order to avoid being jarred by such discontinuities of affect, we learn to avoid any strong involvement with what we see. Similarly, political speech and argument are routinely trivialized. Apart from certain presidential messages and the principal speeches at the nominating conventions, the media never broadcast a fully developed political argument.14 Political statements must be reduced to “sound bites”; at the beginning of the 1984 campaign, Walter Mondale was rarely quoted on T.V. news because his sentences were too long (in 1988, Senator Lloyd Bentsen had similar problems early on.) And presidential debates are question and answer sessions in which no answer must run longer than two minutes.15 The media promotes leaders—and citizens—who are facile but superficial, waterbugs skittering on the surface of politics.
Linked by weaker conviction, speech and conduct seem to be diverging. Speech escapes the test of action: a militant defender of traditional values, Ronald Reagan, our first divorced president, never attended church and had only a nodding acquaintance with his grandchildren. This is not confined to our leaders: in 1984, the American Butter Institute screened an advertisement, eerily similar to Republican campaign materials, that depicted a young man returning to the family farm, being welcomed by his mother, who hands him a biscuit slathered in butter. “America’s coming home,” ran the text, “to the good taste of butter.” Yet neither the young man nor America plans to return to a traditional way of life: we know that, when the reunion is over, the young man will return to the city. In other words, traditional values are viable only as a taste, something we can indulge without interference without modern life. “Values,” in this view, are lines in a political performance, as real as they need or can be merely by being spoken.
The force of technology, after all, sways our lives more evidently than the power of ideas, and Americans feel buffeted by social currents they cannot control or even affect. Long ago, Tocqueville observed that individual Americans felt impotent amid the crowd of mass opinion, but the scale of this “tyranny of the majority” has now reached global proportions. Until recently, Americans enjoyed the sense of being independent, certain that we did not need others, but contemporary Americans must walk more humbly. Every day’s news testifies to our dependence on distant others and on developments dimly comprehended.
The American founding coincided with the vogue of the theory that human beings, through science, can master nature. By the 19th century, however, the forces set in motion by that desire to conquer nature appeared more powerful than their human initiators. Theorists conceded supremacy to history, now seen as a set of inevitabilities ruled by elemental forces, although they held out the hope that historical and social science could discern the winning side. Now, however, change seems to outreach prediction and imagination. In the more radical historicism of our times, all thought is regarded as historical, the product of its times. In this view, human beings cannot expect to understand history, and still less can they hope to control it. They can only adapt to the current, “go with the flow,” taking technology’s transformations as facts to which they must adjust.
Prevailing theory and practice urge us—and school undergraduates—to submit to the tyranny of the present. In Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Gordon Comstock, the protagonist, works in a used book store. He notices that the eye-level shelves are preempted by recently published works. Older books, regardless of quality, are relegated to upper and lower shelves. And the pace of intellectual obsolescence is controlled simply by the rate at which new books are produced. If this, like so much of Orwell’s work, is best read as a cautionary tale, it still indicates the forces that discourage contemporary undergraduates from investing themselves in ideas. Quantity appears to overrule quality, and the up-to-date seems safer than wisdom as a standard for intellectual life.
Public life has come to seem a theater of indignity, in which the individual’s only part is to submit to overwhelming impersonalities. Americans resent this, but they despair of changing it, and most are disposed to barricade themselves in private life, where they find a measure of significance and control.16 Turning away from the constraints of social and political life, Americans yearn to believe in inward freedom. Individualism dominates moral theorizing, and the “distinction between facts and values” has become a popular dogma, adopted not as a philosophic argument, but as a prayer for the moral autonomy of the soul.17 The private and inner lives of young Americans, however, are not safe havens, but places of turbulence and choice, and all too many of them turn to the terrible privacies of drugs and suicide.
Despite our vaunting, we know how vulnerable the soul really is to the powers of the age. Traditional myths were engrossed with the likeness between human beings and animals. Concerned with our ability to control what is beastly, they were preoccupied with the line between human and animal nature, and they invoked the extraordinary powers of the soul—magic, love and courage—to maintain the right order of nature. Our contemporary myths, however, are increasingly caught up in the likeness of human beings and machines. Lindbergh’s “We” yields to the Bionic Man and Woman, and to apparent human who are really robots in disguise: the human soul, in our new vision, is less and less distinguished from its own artifacts.18
In one sense, such myths reflect a very modern pridefulness, the conviction that the soul is itself an artifact, something that human beings make or shape. For contemporary Americans, however, the more forceful implication is that we ourselves are plastic, subject to molding by technology, by mass persuasion and by towering bureaucracies.
Experience forces us to see the dark side of our political heritage. The great commercial republic, the Framers’ creation, is always threatened by the market, its central social institution. The republic holds that our rights—and the equality from which they derive—are invaluable. The market, by contrast, teaches us to see all virtues and goods, and all allegiances and loyalties, as so many “values,” prices set by and shifting with the vacillations of the market and of opinion. “The Value or Worth of a man is, as of all other things, his Price, that is, so much as would be given for the use of his power, and therefore is not absolute, but a thing dependent on the need and judgment of another.”19
In that tradition, the great civic virtue is circumspection, a certain detachment and moderation in one’s commitment to ideas or persons. In our times, that ethic survives in the belief that it is desirable to be “cool,” preserving one’s dignity by keeping one’s rage and longing to oneself. And in social and political practice, there is something to be said for such restraint, even in its debased, contemporary form.
Yet behind their imperfect concealments, Americans know rage and yearning and discontent with indignity. Our undergraduates live intimately with such feelings, if sometimes inarticulately, because they are so engaged in the effort to discover their true identities, searching the boundaries of the soul. The challenge to undergraduate teaching is to step beyond the effort to free students from prejudice and to help them in discovering the principles and qualities of soul which are worthy of ruling life.
We must expect, of course, that a great deal of undergraduate time will be spent in acquiring practical skills, especially because the scarcity of good jobs and honorable work bulks large in our students’ minds. Yet that very concern points toward the need for a ruling principle: what sort of work is honorable and desirable? And for what end? “If the laborer gets no more than the wages his employer pays him,” Thoreau wrote, “he is cheated, he cheats himself…” Getting a living should be “not merely honest and honorable, but altogether inviting and glorious, for if getting a living is not so, then living is not.”20
In the same way, contemporary students will need the skills demanded by the times: they will need, for example, at least a rough familiarity with the language of computers. Yet more than any language, they will need something to say. “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas,” Thoreau remarked, “but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” Thoreau knew technology well enough to suspect that the existence of the telegraph would make us seek things to wire each other; technology and skill create a demand for their own use, and can easily define rather than serve human purposes. So much more reason not to develop “improved means to an unimproved end.”21 American undergraduates know as much, although they may need to be reminded: Spielberg’s E.T. was vastly popular because it spoke to and for the conviction that home, friendship, and community are more important than the splintered affluences of contemporary life.22
This only emphasizes that colleges and universities themselves stand in need of a ruling principle. Clark Kerr’s influential formulation defined the university as a “handmaiden of individualism,” a notion which suggests that we shape students to be useful to predominantly private others. That teaching, however—witness Berkeley in the ’sixties—affords neither universities nor students a basis for self-rule. The higher vocation of American colleges and universities is as midwives of democracy, schools for a kind of citizenship which can enrich public life.23
Much of American higher education was urged and created for just that purpose, whether by conservatives, hoping to gentle the masses, or by ordinary citizens, aspiring to elevate themselves. In either version, it is a university’s job to teach vocational skills, but only because citizens need a competence sufficient to enable them to contribute to the common life. In fact, the greatest value of private well-being may be that it frees us from absorption in private life. God made us different, John Winthrop argued, to make it harder for human beings—so disposed to the sin of pride—to be blind to our need for one another, our involvement in a common task and life.24
The education of citizens calls for ruling knowledge, and hence for all our arts and sciences. I feel safe, however, in suggesting three essential elements of civic education in contemporary colleges and universities. In the first place, higher education must pose, as forcefully as it can, the great questions which, more than narrowly practical or specialized knowledge, attract the soul. We need to address those questions as puzzles for which there may be solutions, however difficult or unlikely such answers appear to be, serious riddles worthy of a life’s devotion.
Second, we need to help in recovering the alternative languages of the American tradition. Robert Bellah and his associates find that contemporary Americans have been reduced to the language of individualism, whether in its utilitarian or expressive form. That idiom does not allows Americans to explain or understand themselves when they are moved by a sense of duty, public spirit, or virtue. They need to recover the heritages of classical thought, biblical religion, and ethnic experience which have served as the second voices of America’s intellectual life.
Third, civic education requires colleges and universities to devote time and devotion to the great American mystery, the doctrine of equality. As Lincoln implied, equality is no easy teaching: it requires dedication. Human beings are not equal in appearance, attainments, or moral virtue. Equality points toward philosophy; it insists on the importance of the essential as opposed to the accidental, and it presumes a distinction between what is apparent and what is real. At odds with relativism, equality proclaims that one quality, our common humanity, outweighs all others. Moreover, equality links us to our fellows. We can be free alone, but we can be equal only in relationships, as parts of a whole.
As Chesterton realized, where freedom seeks to overcome obstacles, equality sets limits and duties. America, Chesterton wrote, turns on “the pure classic conception that no man must aspire to be anything more than a citizen, and that no man shall endure to be anything less.”25 That precept ought to guide us as we plan to educate undergraduates in the year 2000.
1 Robert Kuttner, “The Patrimony Society,” New Republic, May 11, 1987, p. 20.
2 Even defenders of a more traditional curriculum, obviously, are bound to respect the great texts of the East.
3 The phrase is taken from Mark Twain’s matchless attack on such notions (“To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” Charles Neider, ed., Complete Essays of Mark Twain, Garden City: Doubleday, 1963, pp. 282-296.) Even the ancient West was regarded as important only insofar as it “contributed to” its modern descendants. This depreciation of Western antiquity, unfortunately, has outlived our contempt for non-Western cultures.
4 Professor Lougee is cited in Richard Bernstein’s article on the Stanford debate, New York Times, January 19, 1988, p. A12. See also W.E.B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, New York: Schocken, 1968, p. 146.
5 Marc Swartz, “Negative Ethnocentrism,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. V, 1961, p. 79.
6 Michael Herzfeld observes that we cannot hope to understand the Cretan villagers he studies without comprehending their “folk theory,” the “principles by which they are able to recognize meaning,” including their idea of what is required to be a good man (or, more precisely, to be good at being a man), a good Greek, and a good Cretan. The superiority of the self or of the village, in these terms, is defined by putative excellence in fulfilling universal norms. (The Poetics of Manhood, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985, pp. xiii, xv, 16). In the same way, Greek villagers, by praising Greek hospitality, implicitly argue that hospitality is a universally applicable standard, at which Greeks—and their own village among Greeks—excel. (Ernestine Friedl, Vasilika: A Village in Modern Greece, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962, pp. 103-106).
7 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, P.H. Nidditch, ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975, p. 10.
8 The Education of Henry Adams, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961, p. 55; the position taken by Allan Bloom’s opponent in a debate at Cornell perfectly mirrors this view, one probably still held by a majority of academics. (The Closing of the American Mind, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987, pp. 42-43.)
9 In what follows, my analysis in many ways parallels Allan Bloom’s although my emphasis and my prescriptions differ from his (The Closing of the American Mind, pp. 47-137).
10 Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave, New York: Viking, 1960.
11 New York Times, October 18, 1988, p. A29.
12 Judith Wallerstein, “The Impact of Divorce on Children,” Child Psychiatry, vol. 3, 1980, pp. 459, 461-462.
13 Michael Rogin, Ronald Reagan, the Movie, and other Episodes in Political Demonology, Berkeley and Lose Angeles: University of California Press, 1987, pp. 1-44.
14Even those speeches are written with an eye to mass opinion and media coverage, consisting more and more of single-sentence paragraphs. (Jeffrey K. Tulis, The Rhetorical Presidency, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987, pp. 137-144, 173-204).
15 In 1960, by contrast, Nixon and Kennedy began with 8-minute opening statements.
16 Increasingly, the politicized ’sixties are presented by the media—and probably remembered, by a majority of Americans, as a mixture of folly and futility. Compare Arthur Levine, When Dreams and Heroes Died: A Portrait of Today’s College Student, San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1983.
17 See my essay, “The Discipline of Freedom,” in Sarah Baumgartner Thurow, ed., To Secure the Blessings of Liberty, Lanham, Md.: University Press of American, 1987, pp. 49-54.
18 Even apparent exceptions may prove the rule: a peculiarly dreadful toy/television combination, featuring “Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles,” in addition to boggling the mind, implies that human beings acquire magic, through “mutation,” only by becoming beasts.
19 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. X.
20 “Life without Principle,” in Reform Papers, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973, pp. 158,161.
21 Walden, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971, p. 52.
22 Similarly, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? expresses the wish that a new kind of leader—a detective who knows how to produce laughter—could undo the mad two-dimensionality of a society shaped by automobiles.
23 Frank Newman, Higher Education and the American Resurgence, Princeton: Carnegie Foundation, 1985.
24 “A Model of Christian Charity,” in Edmund Morgan, ed., Puritan Political Ideas, Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1965, p. 77.
25 G.K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America, New York: Dodd Mead, 1922, p. 16; Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985.
This Twentieth Anniversary Commemorative Lecture was presented at the launching of the New Jersey Board and Department of Higher Education Twentieth Anniversary Commemoration on October 27, 1987 at the New Jersey State Museum. It was published and disseminated by the New Jersey Department of Higher Education.