Our University?

by Mark Paschal

Editors Note: An earlier version of this text was delivered as a talk at the 2012 Edu-Factory Conference, “The University is Ours!”, which took place in Toronto, April 27-29.

Throughout the student movements that have swept the globe since the crisis of 2008, students and allies have repeatedly claimed that cuts to education and tuition increases cannot happen because “This is Our University.” This prompts the follow up that we, as students and “the public,” must “Reclaim the University” from the greedy bankers and financial raiders that have taken it hostage since the 1970s. While it is true that these statements are slogans and rallying cries for organizing, a truly radical student movement must also assert that the institutions of higher education we mobilize around are not now and have never properly been ‘Our University.” Since the inception of formal education, its content and function have been determined by the economic and political conditions that foster and encourage its existence. Reform of the university comes with the transformation of those economic and political conditions. Historically, however, the formation of alternative institutions of education have played a crucial role in the transformation of these conditions and the reform of existing institutions along new lines. This can best be illustrated by a rapid jaunt through the development of the institution of the university

As the Roman empire fell apart and the Church rose to dominance in the 6th century, the Church developed rural monastery schools to train its future leaders and legal minds in knowledge of two “books” that shed light on human possibility: the Bible and Nature. Through the trivium – grammar, rhetoric and dialectic – the Bible could be studied, while the quadrivium – arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music – opened an understanding of Creation. These schools were adept at canon law. With the rise of trading cities in the 9th century, urban cathedral schools emerged to displace the monastery schools. Writing in The University, an Illustrated History, Mariano Peset notes that these cities were “settlements of merchants who won privileges and freedoms from monarchs and feudal lords for their dealings and travels, and were entitled to elect their city authorities.” The cathedral schools came to specialize in recent works devoted to canon and Roman civil law as the merchants, popes and civil leaders sought to define their relationships. The development of the university out of these cathedral schools in the 12th century was closely connected to the rise of scholasticism and systematic theology and grew in conjunction with Civil leaders’ attempts to carve out spaces of autonomy from the church. It arose as an attempt to codify and suss the contradictory rulings of various popes, assemblies, church councils and other leaders regarding rational faith and civic conduct. Through the arts, scholars and their various backers hoped to determine the relationships between earthly rulers of all sorts: churches, kingdoms and city leaders. Because of the knowledge that universities held – and their ability to train highly skilled legal and theological minds – cities craved their presence, though student strife made for an sometimes ambivalent reality. (For instance, Christopher Lucas writes that during the brutal repression of the Parisian student strike of 1229, King Henry III of England encouraged the Parisian university faculty and students to relocate to England.) University charters, further, guaranteed a high degree of autonomy from Church and city leaders, making it the one place beyond the control of the authorities – it was a zone where controversial ideas could be debated and discussed. They also ended the monopoly that the Church had maintained on the development and codification of knowledge during the monastery and cathedral school years.

During the Italian and Northern Renaissance, young scholars fled the universities as they saw little hope for true reform of methods and governance in these already established institutions. Forming academies devoted to the knowledge flooding in from Arabic scholars, these Humanists aligned themselves with princes and noblemen seeking to displace the power of the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor. Where scholasticism had developed to give order to a mess of laws, decrees and texts, the Humanist could only see poor translations, outdated formal requirements and allegiance to a passing system. Martin Luther, teaching at an academy in Wittenburg, initially urged the destruction of the universities, but soon saw the usefulness of founding new institutions – his academy became the first of the new Protest Universities in Northern Europe. By reorganizing knowledge and the sources used, Renaissance and Reformation thinkers saw that they could found new institutions that could supplant the older. Following the Counter-Reformation, which also formed new universities to deal specifically with the new threat, the existing universities were made to choose which side they would support. The University of Bologna, among others attempting to remain neutral, slid into mediocrity.

In the British colonies of North America, settlers themselves founded Harvard in 1636, using Cambridge as their model. In the 1670s, a commencement speaker claimed that without Harvard, “the ruling class would have been subjected to mechanics, cobblers, and tailors, the gentry would have been overwhelmed by lewd fellows of the baser sort, the sewage of Rome, the dregs of society which judgeth much from emotion, little from truth… Nor would we have rights, honors or magisterial ordinance worthy of preservation, but plebiscites, appeals to base passions, and revolutionary rumblings.”1 By the revolutionary War, nine colleges had been formed to create a ruling class, with Princeton and its adherence to the Scottish Enlightenment a crucial development, that were on the front lines of agitating for Republican education.

Higher education was organized for a “Public Trust” constructed around the core ideals: first of Puritanism, then the Great Awakening anchored by the Scottish Enlightenment and then Republican democracy. Through an education in Renaissance art and literature, as well as the Bible, Greek and Latin, it was assumed that the colleges would produce men, from all classes, who would lead the colonies in a proper comportment. A conservative reaction to student protest, which shook Princeton and William & Mary in particular, and the general freedom of the colleges at the turn of the 19th century led to a cutback in support from denominations and the arrival of several seminaries in which the old Puritan knowledge could be reanimated.

From the 1820s-1870s, the US entered into a prolonged period of experimentation and polemics regarding education. ‘We need Discipline and Piety’ (to use Laurence Veysey’s term). ‘We need openness and choice.’ ‘Students are adults;’ ‘students are children,’ ‘etc.’ The challenge fostered by the integration of German universities into the state, further, hastened the demise of the older forms of higher education. As the manufacturing and landlord class – the bourgeois owners of property – began to assert their hegemony, existing institutions implemented small reforms. Throughout New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin, however, several new institutions were founded that offered a rejection of the older Northeastern establishment, basing their curriculum on usefulness and science.

John William Draper, in arguing for the mission of NYU in 1835, laid out the new tone: “Mere literary acumen is becoming utterly powerless against profound scientific attainment.”2 He followed this by asking, “To what are the great advances of civilization for the last fifty years due – to literature or science? Which of the two is it that is shaping the thought of the world?” The Old Colleges disagreed, however. The Yale Report of 1828 offered their clearest statement: “The two great points to be gained in intellectual culture, are the discipline and the furniture of the mind; expanding its powers, and storing it with knowledge.” The mind, like the body, should be exercised daily. Knowledge to be taught should be that “best calculated to teach the art of fixing the attention, directing the train of thought, analyzing a subject… for investigation; following… the course of argument; balancing… evidence presented to the judgment; awakening, elevating and controlling the imagination… [and] rousing and guiding the powers of genius.”

Following the global recession of 1837, People had less money, needed family labor, and were not particularly interested in a classical education anymore. This only increased the fervor to found institutions: by the Civil War, there were more than 250 colleges and universities in the US. In 1850, the state of Ohio, with three million people, had more than 30 institutions. The country of England, meanwhile, with a population over 23 million, had four institutions for higher education.

In the Mid/West and South, especially, attacks on the old schools mounted: in 1858, the superintendent of California schools declared that the graduates of the old colleges were more or less useless individuals. A newspaper in Georgia declared that, “We are now living in a different age, an age of practical utility, one in which the State University does not, and cannot supply the demands of the state. The times require practical men, civil engineers, to take charge of public roads, railroads, mines, scientific agriculture.”3 Henry Tappan – a professor at NYU and soon to be president of the University of Michigan, declared that, “The commercial spirit of our country, and the many avenues of wealth which are opened before enterprise, create a distaste for study deeply inimical to education… The manufacturer, the merchant, and the gold-digger, will not pause in their career to gain intellectual accomplishments. While gaining knowledge, they are losing the opportunities to gain money.”4

According to the historian Laurence Veysey, by the 1870s, two dominant modes of instruction – Utility and Research – had relegated the Discipline & Piety model of education to the dustbin of history. While these emerged based on German models, the US was seeking something new: Edward Channing of Harvard told President Eliot that, “The question for us to consider is not whether the Harvard student is on a level with that of Berlin. The question before us is: ‘How can we give as many American boys as possible as good an education as possible’.”5 Part of that meant that the lower classes, to avoid revolution, should be given access to a utilitarian education. Utilitarian knowledge birthed applied sciences as well as the Social Sciences. Even in what becomes the Humanities, philosophy, literature and history were undergoing small revolutions as some faculty began to embrace research rather than idealism or right culture.

Utilitarian education was driven by the recently founded Midwestern schools that sought to distance themselves from the older elite universities and from some of the elite universities (especially Harvard) that sought to mitigate the rebelliousness of this attitude. Stanford President David Starr Jordan claimed in the 1890s that university education was moving “toward reality and practicality.”6 A professor at NYU in 1890 declared that, “The college has ceased to be a cloister and has become a workshop.” They were interested in the day to day realities of life: William James, at Harvard, claimed that this education was the, “the fighting side of life… the world in which men and women earn their bread and butter and live and die.” Not yet ready to compete with apprenticeship in training waged workers, the early strength of the schools was in the Social Sciences. According to Veysey, they saw in university training three ends: 1) each graduate would feel themselves obliged to civic virtue, 2) they would train national, state and municipal leaders in correct governing principles rather than of graft and corruption, and 3) replace community accountability with rational methods.

The other ideal for the university was disinterested Research. This ideal believed in non-utilitarian learning and investigation  – knowledge for its own sake. Basic Science: discovery of natural laws, through investigation. In 1894, a JM Barker summed up the difference between utilitarian and research driven visions of the university: “On the one hand, there is a demand that the work of our colleges should become higher and more theoretical and scholarly, and, on the other hand, the utilitarian opinion and ideal of the function of a college is that the work should be more progressive and practical. One class emphasizes the importance of… making ardent, methodical, and independent search after truth, irrespective of its application; the other believes that practice should go along with theory, and that the college should introduce the student into the practical methods of actual life.”7 The Graduate Program was the ideal for both models; their preferred method of training was the recently developed laboratory and seminar.

The third ideal of higher education, continuing to follow Veysey, that animate the university developed in the 1890s as a response to the loss of Culture with the influx of immigrants and to the degradation of knowledge implied by those money grubbing assholes in utility or worthless knowledge mongerers in Research. The social conservatives who built the modern Humanities sought to update the Discipline & Piety model to awaken a democratic aristocracy – echoing Max Weber’s reasoning for supporting the growth of the bureaucracy. Paul Shorey, of the University of Chicago, claimed precisely this: “There is one great society alone on earth, the noble living and the noble dead. That society is and always will be an aristocracy.”8 This ideology has always been a minority in the university and its advocates, often in the Humanities, have been better at attacking utilitarian and research oriented education with wit and sarcasm. They were able, however, to take advantage of a conservative reaction in the early 1900s to bring structure back to undergrad education – advocating for at least two years of general ed or survey courses before students were allowed specialization and curricular choice. Ideally they would have liked to have seen four undergrad years spent in liberal culture followed by specialization in grad school, but no one would have gone to school!

By 1920 (when enrollment numbers for the 18-24 age group begin to near 5%) the basic structure of US higher education had come to exist: an administrative apparatus devoted to building the institution through prestige, public relations and management/procurement of resources. A faculty more or less loosely aligned to one or a mix of the three educational ideals. And a student body increasingly attracted to the university by a job market that not only rewards those who bring social and professional skills, but has, with the arrival of unemployment in the 1880s, begun to punish those without marketable skills. The large public and private universities of today were essentially all in existence by this time and represented the ideal to which education aimed. Elite (and mediocre) Colleges, specializing in a liberal arts undergraduate training followed behind. Normal Schools, long the realm of teacher’s education, were to become state colleges – poor mirrors to the elite liberal college. There were 248 Junior Colleges by 1927, educating more than 45,000 students, a 10 fold increase in just 8 years.

Junior Colleges are important because they give an insight into access: President Lowell of Harvard found something wonderful in these schools – One of the “merits of these new institutions will be [the] keeping out of college, rather than leading into it, [of] young people who have no taste for higher education.”9 JC’s, then, operated as a mechanism for giving the appearance of democratic openness of education while giving limited vocational skills to the growing industrial work force.

Since the crisis of the 1970s, which saw the trimming of critical Race and Ethnic Studies, Women’s Studies and Gender Studies departments that had been forced into the university in the late 1960s, the legal and juridical framework governing the university has further shifted to enshrine market logics throughout higher education (for a critical breakdown, see Slaughter and Rhoades’ Academic Capitalism and the New Economy). The 1972 Higher Education Act, which made students into consumers of education, the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed universities to patent knowledge produced in its hallowed halls, and University of Florida v KPB (1996), which saw the Florida Supreme Court uphold the university ownership of lectures given on university property are but three examples of a seismic shift in university activity – all of which has been dictated by the demands of neoliberal market dictums.

The “American Public University” – which should include private universities as a subset – is a fundamentally capitalist organization of knowledge and laborers that arose as the industrial capitalist class in the United States was coming to assert its hegemony over the US in the mid-19th century.  The “Public” that these universities helped call into being is now the Public “in crisis” – a Public now confronting the precarious life that has always haunted and sustained modern liberal capitalism. History teaches that universities, even before the modern era, act as a conservative influence – the inertia of their forms is such to dampen efforts to revolutionize them. It is through the founding of outside bodies that can apply pressure – in line with the development of knowledge associated with a rising class – that universities have had reform thrust upon them in the past. The modern public university is not, then, “Our University,” but rather the university of the capitalist class and must be met by both strong student and worker mobilization for resistance within as well as the formation of new bodies capable of physically and socially intervening into the property relations that constitute the neoliberal capitalist world.

Mark Paschal is a graduate student at UCSC; he is also on the editorial board of Viewpoint Magazine.


Notes :

1. Quoted from Brubacher and Rudy, Higher Education in Transition, 1997.

2. Quoted from Lucas, American Higher Education, 1996.

3. Quoted from Lucas, American Higher Education, 1996.

4. Quoted from Lucas, American Higher Education, 1996.

5. Quoted from Veysey, Emergence of the American University, 1965

6. Quoted from Veysey, The Emergence of the American University, 1965.

7. Quoted from Veysey, The Emergence of the American University, 1965.

8. Shorey, Representative Phi Beta Kappa Orations, 1915.

9. Quoted from Kemenetz, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, 2010.


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