Radix Redux


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Self-consciousness is a dicey thing. Arguably the sine qua non of human being, it also has negative connotations of discomfort and dislocation. The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson points out that the Indian hunting deer doesn't think of himself as engaged in an occupation but is focused on his quarry; Freud had a similar point in mind when he said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." And the French psycholanalyst Jacques Lacan systematically if cryptically enlarged on the dangers of mistaking verbalized constructs for authentic experience. Beyond the theoretically psychopathological, most of us have immediate knowledge of self-consciousness in the form of the discomforts of teenage dating, of hearing ourselves audiorecorded or of seeing ourselves videotaped. And doesn't all of this converge with the anthropological accounts of folk cultures in which being photographed puts one's soul or one's identity at risk? Besides, all that navel gazing has a connotation of self-indulgence. People engaged with life are too busy, too productively occupied to worry about their identities.

Despite these caveats, some individuals are prone to self-questioning, and there are some occasions upon which self-doubt seems almost inescapable. Not only are there Hamlets, but some social institutions and some occupations are plagued by uncertainty. Higher education seems to be one of those doubt-ridden callings. There is a body of literature that occupies itself with a struggle to articulate the essence of the university. It can usefully be taken to begin with Cardinal Newman's "The Idea of a University" and continuing with, among others, Veblen's "Higher Education in America," Hutchins' "The Higher Learning in America, Cameron's reevaluation of Newman, "On The Idea of a University," Getman's "In the Company of Scholars," Damrosch's "We Scholars," Allan's "Rethinking College Education" and a whole series of books and monographs sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation such as Boyer's "Scholarship Reconsidered and Berelson's "Graduate Education in the United States." Given my introductory comments about self-consciousness, I am not sure whether I am boasting or confessing when I say that it is with a sense of some urgency that I read each of these with some attention in the last couple of years.

The sense of urgency was generated by circumstances both local and national, personal and, I think, generic. Some of the circumstances are well known to most. Reports of an oversupply of Ph. D.'s with academic aspirations, cancellations of faculty searches, accounts of threats to academic tenure, the explosive growth of for profit universities (complete with publicly traded stock) staffed by piece work teachers offering vocationally driven courses, etc. Personally, approaching my fortieth year as a faculty person, I found myself developing an apallingly retrospective stance. I became uneasily aware that I was thinking less than was my wont about future objectives, spending a noticeable amount of time in a kind of golden autumnal reminiscence, punctuated by colleagial complaints about how terrible things were, and how grim the future. I would be strolling to class or to the library, books under my arm, nodding hello to passers by, relishing a sense of, well, privilege. And, increasingly, sensing a counterpoint: departmental supplies running out, funds for professional travel scanty, colleagues less eager to pursue "peripheral" concerns, in general, an increasing sense of shabbiness. On an even more personal level, I began to think about, not my future, but my daughter's . I was the first in my family to go to college, and to pursue a faculty career. My daughter is just completing her doctoral studies, I found myself wondering to what extent her experience of the academy would mirror mine. So I began to read and to reflect.

I have outlined the readings above. They have provoked a number of general questions, to which I will return, but they also provoked an uneasy awareness that the basis for my personal decision to lead an academic life had receded from my consciousness. Why had I chosen that route? What had I expected from a life in the academy?

The earliest vocational thoughts that I can remember are playful imitations of my father, a grocer and butcher, imagining myself cutting chops from a loin in pre-school years and, later, in grammar school times, working in a skidrow Omaha drugstore, admiring the pharmacist and thinking how wonderful it would be to wear, as he did, a clean shirt every day.

I realized that I could not recall a moment when I had decided on university teaching as a career. However, the words in which that conclusion were contained were meaningful. I had taken it to be a career in which teaching was central, although early in my academic career I realized that conducting externally funded research and publication were the royal roads to promotion. As I have already said, the family known to me did not include individuals who had gone to college, let alone undertaken academic careers. The first encounter with an academic that I can bring to mind took place in my high school years.

I was working as a soda jerk in a more upscale Omaha drug store. Once every week or two a couple would come in for a dish of ice cream. Two scoops, ten cents. One dish, two spoons. While ordering they would sometimes engage in an an amiable argument about whether to have topping added for an additional nickel. Somehow I learned that he was a faculty member at the University of Omaha. I understood that they were, like my family, of limited means, partly because of the nature of their order and partly because of their dress, which was obviously well worn and in no way natty. I know that I admired them and had a sense that they were genteel. One of the roots of my decision must lie in that encounter and those feelings.

I went off to college at the University of Chicago without clear vocational aspirations. Married and having earned my BA after two years there, I found my self taking graduate courses in English and thinking of Medical School. As my four year scholarship ran out, I decided had to take advantage of the GI bill, which I erroneously took to be in danger of expiring with the winding down of the Korean conflict (we didn't call it a war, I suppose to circumvent congressional objections). On the basis of an unquestioned and wide-spread belief that the moment one left school and forfeited one's student draft deferment, the draft board would almost instantaneously snaffle one up, and not wanting to volunteer for the minimum three year enlistment period (as opposed to the two year draft tour) I dropped out of school and took a dishwasher's job in a research lab run by the Nobel prize winning Carbon 14 dating chemist, Willard Libby. Libby pushed me to take more and more responsibility in the lab. He had told me early on, "We play for keeps at Sunshine" (the lab's code name), and that he had decided that if I did well he would make me a successful chemist. And I suppose I was beginning to acquiesce in that plan. I knew little of Libby as an academic, but I was learning a lot about doing high pressure wet lab research. After a year I began to wonder why I hadn't been drafted and learned that Libby (who was also a member of the Atomic Energy Commission and whose lab was doing highly classified research on the fallout hazard associated with atomic bomb testing) had declared me essential to the non-war. I was furious at Libby's presumption that he could control my life and Libby was furious that I didn't recognize the importance of his agenda. After a stormy exchange, Libby said that he would establish another laboratory in Washington and have me, as a soldier, assigned there. I thought that was a good deal, and spent almost two years at the Walter Read Army Institute of Research.

Unfortunately, I began to find quantitative radio chemistry boring, and decided to apply to graduate programs in psychology. Why psychology? It must have had to do with another early experience. When I was twelve or fourteen a favorite aunt fell prey to a psychotic involutional depression. She came to stay with us until a psychiatric bed became available. I was terrified and fascinated by the change in her...a transformation from a carefully coiffed, carefully made up, warm Southern (born in Kentucky, not an immigrant like most of my family) charmer who fed me oatmeal cookies to a slovenly, pop-eyed, witch like creature hissing her suspicions at me. Once hospitalized she had a course of electro-shock treatments, and, said by all to be cured , struck me as feverishly gay and emotionally inaccessible. An appalling mystery about which I rarely thought and never spoke, but which nagged at me.

The only graduate psychology program that would honor my Hutchins BA was that at the University of Chicago. I arrived there with my nascent reseach identity still intact and sought an advisor on the basis of the names indexed in a history of experimental psychology. I worked briefly for Ward Halstead, famous for his work on the biological bases of intelligence and tests for organic brain damage, leaving because of disappointment when I learned that he didn't plan to spend much time with me. I turned to a brand new faculty member who was in the early stages of a multi year NIMH funded project studying schizophrenia, Loren Chapman. Quite unlike Halstead, Loren was generous in the time he spent working closely with me, and explicit and unambiguous in the salience of research activity in his academic career. He pushed me to publish early and often. But also, and it is a cherished memory, he shyly asked if he could walk with me in the academic procession when I was awarded my doctoral degree. I was aware, but didn't think seriously about the fact that he had named his first child after his major professor, Janet Taylor, and that, years later, when I met Professor Taylor, I introduced myself to her by saying that I was her grandchild. On a conscious level I was becoming more clear about the role of research in an academic career; on another level I was moved and impressed by Loren's personal involvement in educating me, and in an unspoken way begin to feel myself his descendant. And without the moment being marked, I had decided to become a university professor.

My first job was as an assistant professor at the University of Michigan. Having seen Ronald Coleman starring in the movie, Goodbye Mr. Chips, in some corner of my mind there was a picture of myself teaching undergraduates on a small liberal arts campus; however that picture was much less salient than my observations of the status accorded graduate teaching and success in obtaining external funding. For the next thirty-five years on four campuses, these activities were my focus, until an unexpected teaching award and the realization that my career was in its autumnal stage led me to an "if not now, when?" involvement in undergraduate teaching and general education. And there is where I am situated today, feeling reflective and a bit dislocated. Dislocated in the sense of being personally involved in undergraduate activities at a university where research and graduate students are where the action is, a bit disappointed by my failure often to recreate with students or with colleagues the closeness that I experienced with my own major professor and, while recognizing the differences of privilege and indulgence in the life I lead in contrast with the economic struggles of my parents, feeling uneasy about the future, perhaps about my daughter's future.

So much for the personal context of my quest. What about the uncertainties generic to the profession? The steady stream of writings from Newman to Allan attests to a perpetual state of soul searching, an ongoing identity crisis in higher education. This angst appears to have two sources, shifts in the social context, and contradictions inherent in the enterprise. In the United States, higher education has changed shaped and adopted new priorities in accordance with the shifting need of the times. Colleges designed to educate a Protestant leadership elite were reshaped to educate the citizenry of a democracy. With the industrial revolution, colleges and universities accepted responsibility for putting technology and science to work and public service. The Second World War and the war against Communism that followed recruited universities as research institutes that would contribute to victory on both fronts. To complicate matters, these varied missions did not succeed one another, but partially interpenetrated, turning universities, descendants of small self governing guilds of scholars, into what Clark Kerr call multiversities, characterized by a gaggle of unrelated and sometimes competing responsibilities, labeled in the jargon of tenuretalk, "teaching, research and service," recently recast by Boyer in a synthetic attempt as "the scholarship of discovery, of integration, of teaching and of application." Despite Boyer's attempt the varied purposes of today's university are a collage, examples of opportunistic growth, unrooted in principle. What makes that situation acutely problematic is the circumstance of today's university, after well over half a century of increasing growth, facing the prospect of declining resources. It is a time that our faculties and our leaders, schooled in the milieu of opportunistic growth, not prepared for. We don't know the baby from the bathwater.

In addition to the changes in societal context, higher education in America is beset with internal contradictions. The first of these arises from the circumstance that American university professors live in two worlds: the world of the campus that rewards them and the world of scientific and professional organizations that generate and maintain the academic reputations on which reward is based. Because scholarly work has become increasingly specialized and because of the dangers of bias arising for the need to compete for internal resources campus administrators and faculty committees depend heavily upon the opinion of kindred specialists on other campuses in evaluating their colleagues. And that reputation is largely driven by publication is highly specialized scholarly journals. Hence, the need to publish or perish. Time spent in the classroom, time spent pursuing interdisciplinary interests unlikely to impress fellow specialists is time poorly spent from the point of view of earning tenure, promotion and raises.

A second and related tension flows from the relationship between the American college and the American graduate school. Unlike the British model of independent colleges committed to liberal education forming a university to share critical resources or the German model of the research university, the American university is the result of a shotgun wedding between education-oriented colleges and research oriented graduate departments. With income a function of undergraduate tuition and endowment, often, a function of undergraduate alumni loyalties, even those few American universities originally committed purely to research and graduate training quickly developed large undergraduate programs. Though undergraduate teaching generates income, faculty rewards are based on publication driven reputation, as remarked above. The result is a system increasingly driven to move toward a slave economy in which necessary but unrewarded work is performed by an underclass: once junior faculty, today, increasingly, piece work faculty and graduate students. The inequities of such a system are a far cry from the notion of universitas, a community of equals, and lead, I think, to the unavoidable instabilities of a society of classes that compete.

A third tension arises from the ambiguities inherent in our concept of higher education. The issue is whether we are preparing businessmen or employees for businesses, on the one hand, or, on the other, engaging students in a life of the mind. The strain of pragmatism runs deep in America, and with it, an arguably healthy skepticism directed at eggheads and bookworms. As government has withdrawn its support for higher education, there is an increasing tendency to see corporations who hire graduates as the university's customers who, by definition, must be right. Given that perspective, the role of the university is to contribute toward an efficient and productive workforce. But this view is contrasts with a strand of thought that stretches all the way from Newman through Hutchins to Allan. The idea that the essence of higher education, at least at the undergraduate level, is to cultivate, not work skills but an intellectual perspective rooted in an understanding of history and an encounter with varying world views.

Need I say that the unease generated on our campuses by these tensions, especially in the unfamiliar fiscal reality of declining resources, is likely to be transformed into outrage or terror or despair at the astonishingly rapid emergence and growth of the "new" for profit universities, staffed entirely by part-time piece work teachers whose students are employees seeking job advancement. Perhaps the best known is Phoenix University, now said to be the largest private school in the country with 60,000 or more students; its stock is traded on the NASDAC and has gone up forty-fold in about five years.

What about the future? ? Is higher education more than the opportunistic outcome of Darwinian pressures? Does it have an essence, an identity we scholars should be obligated to protect or nurture? How are the dilemmas that confront higher education to be dealt with? I must confess I feel a bit like a novelist who has gotten his protagonist into an impossible scrape. I must confess also that I take some quite possibly rationalized satisfaction in the circumstance of my personal academic future being calculable in years rather than decades. But what about my daughter? Well, that's her problem.

If, however, I presumed to offer a suggestion to her and to her generation, it would be two-fold. If there is a solution to the dilemmas of the academy, it has to do with understanding the scholarship that nourishes universities not as accomplishment, not as the state of being accomplished or learned, but as the act of learning. Hutchins' ideal of the university as a community of scholars was of a universitas of learners. The professor or the student who is learning, whether that learning occurs in the laboratory or the studio or the library, is a worthy member of the guild. Second, we must struggle, personally and institutionally, to reestablish the community. Damrosch has described the lonely and centrifugal pressures of becoming an academic and establishing the specialist reputation that produces status, raises and promotion. These can be counterbalanced by centripetal learning relationships on the campus, especially across disciplinary lines. Why across interdisciplinary lines? I am not sure, but it has been my experience that within my own department, expertise is so specialized, and competition for increasingly scarce resources so urgent, that colloquy has been rare. My relationships with with faculty in other discplines have been much more mutually rewarding and unambivalently collegial. Perhaps regrettably, such relationships are difficult to predict and probably impossible to program, making them institutionally awkward; however, they are important for individuals to cultivate; the campus leadership must be careful not to permit them to be punished, and when they develop spontaneously, to reward them. Where this is done, I think islands of the universitas, the community of learners, will flourish.

Even if the University of Phoenix and its clones become the mode, some universities will retain a tie to the past. In some cases that tie will be a function of large endowments that are reflections of a history thus made valuable; in other cases it may be simply a stubborn institutional conservatism. But in either case, there will occasions to remember the glorious, the priceless part of that past that is the universitas, the scholarly community.


Allan, George. Rethinking College Education. University Press of Kansas: Lawrence, 1997.

Berelson, Bernard. Graduate Education in the United States. McGraw Hill: New York, 1960.

Boyer, Ernest L. Scholarship Reconsidered: The Priorities of the Professoriate. Carnegie Foundation: Princeton, 1990.

Cameron, James M. On the Idea of a University. University of Toronto: Toronto, 1978.

Damrosch, David. We Scholars. Harvard: Cambridge, 1995.

Getman, Julius. In the Company of Scholars: The Struggle for the Soul of Higher Education. University of Texas: Austin, 1992.

Hutchins, Robert Maynard. The Higher Learning in America. Transaction: New Brunswick, 1995.

James, William. The Ph.D. Octopus, in William James, The Essential Writings (ed: Wilshire, B.W.). Harper: New York, 1971.

Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University. University of Notre Dame: Notre Dame, 1982.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Higher Learning in America. Transaction: New Brunswick, 1993.


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