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Is Knowledge Good?

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The Teresa Sullivan saga seems to have reached its conclusion. Sixteen days after being removed as president of the University of Virginia by the board of trustees (or “Visitors,” as they are quaintly called), Sullivan was reinstated toward the end of June. In faculty circles, Sullivan’s ouster was seen as a coup d’etat by political appointees and big donors. Her restoration, therefore, was hailed as a rare victory for academic values (read the comments, especially).

The implications of the reversal continue to be discussed (the blogs at the Chronicle of Higher Education are a good starting point). One consequence, which has attracted relatively little attention, is the exposure of divide among conservative commentators on higher education. Several organs, including the Wall Street Journal editorial page, took sides against Sullivan, whom they regarded as an apparatchik of the academic establishment. As Matthew Patterson points out at Minding the Campus, however, the most visible conservative professors at UVA actively supported her.

Two opposed visions of higher education lie behind this disagreement. According to one view, which I’ll call managerial, the traditional idea of university is an anachronism, or even a delusion. Universities like to present themselves as residential communities of students and scholars, engaged in an autonomous practice of teaching and learning. In fact, managerialists argue, they are enterprises little different to business corporations. Some corporation sell cars, others laundry detergent; universities sell credentials. They should therefore market their products to as many customers and for the lowest price possible.

The other view defends the older understanding of a university. Although they acknowledge that universities take in and spend a great of public and private money, traditionalists deny that their activities can be understood in economic terms. On their view, education is a good but not a product. This is especially true when it is focused on the liberal arts as they were widely understood until the 1960s:  transmission of the treasures of Western civilization. At UVA, academic traditionalists were particularly offended by rumors that the Visitors removed Sullivan, among other reasons, because she rejected proposals to close the  Classics Department, which includes many expensive professors but few tuition-paying students. And this at Mr. Jefferson’s university!

Although they are easily caricatured as philistinism and romanticism, respectively, each view has intelligent advocates and is worth taking seriously. In right-leaning circles, where the difference has not always been clear, the debate between them should be brought into the open. Here are some observations intended to contribute to that debate. They build on a previous post, in which I tried to distinguish between the  missions of college and higher education.

1. There is little that’s “conservative” about the managerial view. By conceiving it in primarily economic terms, the managerialists deny universities the literally conservative function of preserving the ideas, languages, and texts we have inherited from the past. The historical roots of this position are found in the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham. Its contemporary adherents are, for the most part, libertarians whose main interest is the alignment of costs and benefits rather than the defense of humane learning.

2. The traditionalist view makes sense at our great colleges and universities, including UVA. But it’s probably out of place at the institutions attended by the vast majority of students: the vast archipelago of part-time, non-residential, and semi-vocational programs that I’ve described as “higher ed”. At least since Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, some traditionalists have argued that the great books, however, conceived are for everyone. I’m inclined to agree with Jefferson, who saw liberal education as the privilege of a natural aristocracy.

3. It’s important to distinguish between what colleges and universities are and what they ought to be. Traditionalists have read their Newman and tell great story about the idea of a university. But the managerialists have a more accurate account of what’s actually happening on most campuses.

4. Despite these differences, traditionalists and managerialists occupy some common ground. Here are few possible points of agreement:

a. The main (not only) job of the university is the education of students, especially undergraduates, rather than faculty research.

b. The main (not only) job of students is learning. It isn’t socializing, drinking beer, playing sports, or engaging in community service.

c. Education, at least as provided by the university, happens primarily (not exclusively) in the classroom, the library, and the lab, etc., or perhaps their online equivalents. It does not require extensive non-academic facilities or lavish creature comforts.

d. Academic freedom protects teachers and scholars in the performance of their jobs. It does not imply a professional commitment to political activism.

These are some possible points of agreement among conservative commentators on academia, broadly speaking. There are probably others: I’ve said nothing about the tenure issue, for example. It’s worth the effort to figure out what they might be. As the price of a degree continue to rise, the future of the American university may depend on it.

about the author

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, where he has also taught writing. In addition to The American Conservative, Goldman’s work has appeared in The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and Maximumrocknroll. Follow him on Twitter.

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