The End of the University

The weight of this pseudo-literature oppresses both teachers and students

“Within college walls the adolescent is granted a vision of the ends of life; and he takes from the university the one thing that the world does not provide, which is a conception of intrinsic value. And that is why the university is so important in an age of commerce.”


Universities exist to provide students with the knowledge, skills, and culture that will prepare them for life, while enhancing the intellectual capital upon which we all depend. Evidently the two purposes are distinct. One concerns the growth of the individual, the other our shared need for knowledge. But they are also intertwined, so that damage to the one purpose is damage to the other. That is what we are now seeing, as our universities increasingly turn against the culture that created them, withholding it from the young.

The years spent at university belong with the rites of initiation studied by the Victorian anthropologists, in which those born into the tribe assume the burden of perpetuating it. If we lose sight of this, it seems to me, then we are in danger of detaching the university from its social and moral purpose, which is that of handing on both a store of knowledge and the culture that makes sense of it.

That purpose has been central to the educational tradition that created Western civilization. Greek paideia regarded the cultivation of citizenship as the core of the curriculum. Religious practice and moral education remained a fundamental part of university studies throughout the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance ideal of the virtuoso was the inspiration for the emerging curriculum of the studia humaniores. The university that emerged from the Enlightenment did not relax the moral reins but regarded scholarship as a disciplined way of life, whose rules and pro­cedures set it apart from everyday affairs. However, it provided those everyday affairs with the long-term perspective without which no human activity makes proper sense. Even the boisterous student life of the German universities during the nineteenth century, when dueling became part of the university culture, was contained within formal uniform codes of behavior and collegiate domesticity and devoted to that ­peculiar synthesis of moral discipline, factual knowledge, and cultural competence that the Germans know as Bildung.

During the course of the nineteenth century, however, the universities suffered a rapid change in their public reception. The decline of the religious way of life, the rise of the middle classes eager for social status and political power, and the demands for the knowledge and skills required by an industrial economy all put pressure on the universities to change their curriculum, their recruitment of students and teachers, and their relation to the surrounding culture. New universities were founded in Britain and America, one of them—University College London, dating from 1826—with an explicitly secular curriculum, designed to produce scientific minds that would sweep away the theological cobwebs in which all university subjects had previously been wrapped.

Despite those changes, however, which forced educational institutions into a new consciousness of their mission, the university retained its status as a guardian of high culture. It was a place where speculative thinking, critical inquiry, and the study of important books and languages were all maintained in an atmosphere of studious isolation. When Cardinal Newman wrote The Idea of a University in 1852, it was largely to uphold the old conception of the university, as a place apart, a quasi-monastic precinct opposed to the utilitarian mindset of the new manufacturing society. For Newman, a university exists to mold the characters of those who attend it. Immersing its students in a collegiate environment, and impressing on them an ideal of the educated mind, helps to turn raw human beings into gentlemen.

This, Newman implied, is the true social function of the university. Within college walls the adolescent is granted a vision of the ends of life; and he takes from the university the one thing that the world does not provide, which is a conception of intrinsic value. And that is why the university is so important in an age of commerce and industry, when the utilitarian temptation besieges us on every side, and when we are in danger of making every purpose a material one—in other words, as Newman saw it, in danger of allowing the means to swallow the ends.

Much has changed since Newman’s day. To suggest that universities are engaged in producing gentlemen is more than faintly ridiculous in an age when most students are women. Newman’s ideal university was modeled on the actual universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Trinity College, Dublin, which at the time admitted only men, did not permit their resident scholars to marry, and were maintained as quasi-religious institutions within the fold of the Anglican Church. Their undergraduates were recruited largely from the private schools, and their curriculum was solidly based in Latin, Greek, theology, and mathematics. Their domestic life revolved around the college, where dons and undergraduates had their living quarters, and where they dined together each evening in hall, robed in their academic gowns.

Only a small proportion of those who attended the old British universities in Newman’s day regarded study as the real purpose of being “up” at the alma mater. Some were there to row or play rugby; some were biding time before inheriting a title; some were on their way to commissions in the army, and were meanwhile rioting with their chums. Almost all were members of a social elite that had hit on this unique way of perpetuating itself, by coating its power with a veneer of high culture. And in this protected and beautiful environment you could also take culture seriously. With money in the bank and time on your hands, it was not so hard to turn your back on utilitarian values.

Today’s university differs from Cardinal ­Newman’s in almost every respect. It recruits from all classes of society, is open equally to men and to women, and is very often financed and provisioned by the state. Little if anything remains of the poised domestic life that shaped the soul of Newman, and the curriculum centers not on sublime and purposeless subjects like ancient Greek, in which there hovers the entrancing vision of a life beyond commerce, but on sciences, vocational disciplines, and the now ubiquitous “business studies” through which students supposedly learn the ways of the world.

Moreover, universities have expanded to offer their services to an ever-increasing proportion of the population, and to absorb an ever-growing amount of the national budget. In the state of Massachusetts, university education has the largest revenue of any industry. There is at least one university in every major British or American city, and American state universities may have, at any one time, upward of 50,000 students. Higher education is offered as a right to all who pass the French baccalauréat or the German Feststellungsprüfung, and European politicians often speak as though the work of educational reform will not be complete until every child is able in due time to become a graduate. The university is no longer in the business of creating a social elite, but in the rival business of ensuring that elites are a thing of the past.

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