Editor’s Note: This piece by Russell Kirk appeared in the December 7, 1955, issue of National Review. (You can dig into NR‘s archives anytime here).
Is higher education in America fit for human beings? That question, I think, will have to be asked with increasing seriousness throughout the next ten years; for we are confronted with the prospect of a gigantic and indiscriminate expansion of university and college enrollments and “plant.” And one of the principal dangers in this development is that our educational institutions will become nothing but “plant” What Juenger calls “the triumph of technology” may so engulf our universities and colleges that they will depart altogether from the human scale. The present pressing need is for what Professor Bestor calls “the restoration of learning.” A part of that restoration must be the return of the processes of higher education to a human scale, as well as to the humane disciplines.
In most of the present agitation about academic freedom–and much of this discussion is cant — the postulates upon which the real theory of academic freedom rests are quite neglected. Those postulates are two: first, that the Academy must include a body of learned and earnest professors, intent upon conserving and extending the Truth; second, that the Academy must include a body of genuine students, well grounded in the fundamentals of the academic disciplines, who really desire to learn something. If the professors are quarter-educated doctrinaires, sedulous to engage in secular indoctrination rather than in a real search for Truth, then they have no right to academic freedom, and are sure to lose it. And if the students are so ill-prepared for the higher education that they cannot really form independent judgments, but must take for Holy Writ whatever their professors say, then the reason for academic freedom has vanished, the Academy having degenerated into a custodial institution where the immature are exposed to “socialization” and indoctrinated in “approved social attitudes.” Dr. Robert M. Hutchins, with whom I have had some profound disagreements over questions of academic freedom, recently said something very pertinent to this thesis:
It is true that the academic body has been in serious danger of losing its independence. The reason is that nobody can understand why it should have it. And the reason why nobody can understand this is that the colleges and universities of this country have, in their desire for popularity and money, gladly responded to every pressure and every demand. They have insisted on their dependence; they have become folk institutions reflecting the whims, no matter how frivolous or temporary, of those whose support they hope to gain.
Now “academic freedom,” as a formalized and legalized concept, first got its name in the early years of the German Empire, when it was found necessary to guarantee the professor some degree of limited freedom of expression and research in a state-dominated university system. More and more, here in America, with the triumph of the state educational institution over the private college, we are confronted with the same problem. It is heartening, therefore, to find that some few attempts are being made to face this difficulty and to lift our state universities and colleges above the level of a dreary intellectual mediocrity and the status of “folk institutions.” Neither real intellectual attainment nor academic freedom will survive much longer among us unless our huge state institutions begin to make provision for the professor who is a real scholar and the student who really wants to learn.
Perhaps the most interesting and encouraging of these new experiments at state institutions is the University of California at Riverside. Until two years ago, this was simply the citrus-fruit experiment station of the University of California. But now a very different institution is opened there: a College of Letters and Science, under the direction of a distinguished historical sociologist, Dean R. A. Nisbet. Quality, not quantity, is the aim or this college. I think it will succeed. At present, the College of Letters and Science, University of California at Riverside, has a faculty of eighty-nine members and a student body of 714. The administration of the college is glad that enrollment is not growing rapidly, and hopes that some maximum- enrollment may be fixed eventually by the Regents. The faculty is a distinguished group: it includes, for instance. Dr. J. W. Olmsted, a Rhodes scholar, who is chairman of the Division of Humanities; and Professor Philip E. Wheelwright, the well-known critic. Some of the departments are remarkably original in their approach: the department of education, for example, promises to fulfill some of Dr. Arthur Bestor’s suggestions for the reform of the teaching of pedagogy, and contents itself with offering about a dozen courses, in contrast with the proliferation of vacuous courses in “methods” by most educationists.
Most heartening of all, perhaps, is the projected program of honors courses, as distinguished from the program for ordinary students. This system, now taking form, is founded upon the example of the British universities; and it is intended to recognize and encourage the talents of the superior student, without separating him arbitrarily from the rest of the undergraduate body. In both ordinary and honors programs, department specialization to the exclusion of a liberal breadth of view is avoided; but the scheme of “general education” appears to stand head and shoulders above most such plans for general studies at state universities.
The great problem of the age, Newman said more than a century ago, is the education of the masses. That still is the great problem of the age. Possibly the best way to work toward a solution, in our present confusion, is to devise means for leavening the masses: certainly the application of Deweyite doctrines of mass-education has only lowered the whole tone of American higher education. Deweyism no longer is “progressive” in any real sense. But the Riverside experiment, intended to conserve the elevation and freedom of the intellectual disciplines, has the chance of making genuine progress.