5 min read
Mission statements these days seem almost as “flexible” as a politician’s principles, changing to suit political or personal aspirations. Think back to two generations ago and answer this question: what was the mission of the public school? It may even be shocking now to think that it might well have been to serve our children, to help them grow up to be knowledgeable, perhaps even wise, able to make their way in the world, and steeped in the history and culture of our country. The central concern of the mission then was the education of children, intellectually and morally, with an eye toward their future development as men and women and, particularly, as citizens. In many ways, it seemed that the unmentioned aim of the school was the view of philosopher/educator/diplomat Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835), whose understanding of the flowering of the individual (or, as he put it: “'the ultimate task of our existence is to give the fullest possible content to the concept of humanity in our own person”) lent itself well to the neo-Enlightenment proclivities of the designers of our educational theories, popularly associated with John Dewey.

Is there anyone so blind today who would call this mission statement applicable to the present-day school? In the first place, we likely recognize that the proletarianization of the public school has resulted in the teacher, not the student, becoming the center of the modern public-school mission. Students are largely seen as members of groups, to be “served” rather than taught, some with favor, some with disfavor, but all with the notion that the school’s purpose was not a student’s flowering but his usefulness. To whom is the student useful? All kinds of answers are possible: to the teacher, the future employer, the popular culture, the seller of all manner of goods, the state.

Both of these concepts (teacher-centered education and individual flowering), I believe, are flawed, but we must first recognize that they exist. We must recognize that in today’s world, we are attempting to be the world leader with a second-rate education system, that dumbing-down the secondary school has led to at least a slowing-down of college, as the first year or so spent there is often remedial (we never say that, of course), with our students catching up with their peers in Europe and Asia. It is not the culture alone that has caused the prolongation of adolescence and the now-interminable delay to adulthood. So many nowadays fail to complete the love-marriage-parent steps that every previous generation for millennia followed (or to put it off for so long that one of the steps is harmed or the order of the steps confused). Part of the blame must be with what the student has gone through in his or her education.

Now to my point (you did think I had a point, right?), which concerns the place of the university in this depressing reality. The university, you might well think, is the institution that we have called upon to fix this state of affairs. It is the one that takes our undereducated children and helps them catch up (“yes, we have a second-rate school system, but the best university system in the world,” it is said), to train them and to civilize them in the hopes that they will become successful in a modern technological age.

But right away, you can see that these nevertheless important roles were never part of the mission of the university. At one time the university (really, the college) was not meant to do anything but educate an intellectual elite and make them fit for leadership. Teaching was the sole duty of the professor, learning the sole duty of the student. In some wonderful colleges today, this still exists, but prestige, in this age of science, is not with the humanities, which were the principal, if not the sole, course of study of such colleges in the past. Prestige now lies with science or what can be passed off as science or what can imagine itself as science, and this means the research university.

The research university is not a place away from the madding crowd to learn and grow, as colleges were formed to be, but the very hub of society, a busy and dynamic place for planning and executing rather than contemplating and wondering. It is a veritable city unto itself, with all the good and all the bad that the city brings. But what the city was never intended to bring is the quiet necessary for reflection and a guide to aid the student in searching for the good that is the object of reflection.

There are certain necessities of the research university that a college was never created for: connections between departments and the government or large industries; professors who never teach but do research only; whole departments that are higher-grade trade schools meant to train rather than educate; programs meant to aid professors in their own advancement -- to help them publish, lest they perish; to get them grants to escape the university; to train a legion of graduate students to take their places in the classroom.

Do you see something of what we saw in the changes that have taken place in public school, the transfer of concern from the student to the teacher? It is everywhere to be seen at the modern research university. More and more, the faculty is the de facto power at many universities, and anyone who has been around research universities for a long time will recognize that the faculty may well be the worst group of people on earth to run an institution that is rapidly becoming one that serves the faculty’s interests over all others.

Among the important, though perhaps little noticed, necessities of the modern research university is the university press. Liberal-arts colleges do not have book-publishing entities on campus, but, until recently, virtually all research universities do. The press serves several important roles in these institutions: it is an outlet for university research; it projects the concerns and achievements of the central output of the university (not educated students but research); it is a leading attraction for fine faculty to come to university; and it represents the intellectual (as opposed to the social) corner of the university.

Recently, however, there has been an ominous trend to downgrade the university press in favor of other entities that may project the university in a more efficient light (efficient for what, we may well question). Nearly all university presses lose money and are in need of some subsidy from the university. In this, they are like many other entities at the universities, from departments to centers to (gasp) sports teams.

The football program may be a profit center for the university, not only directly in sales and marketing income but also with alumni development, but in favoring what could only be considered an ancillary part of the university’s true mission for the central part (or the sufficient over the necessary), the modern university is fast on the way to selling its birthright for a mess of pottage.

Many modern universities are under financial duress these days, but almost all of their problems can be laid at the feet of their own planning, their own willingness to transfer centrality from the student to the professor, resulting in an incessant need for more and more funds, even as tuition increases 5–7 percent yearly. And nowadays, with universities administered by accountants and fund-raisers, it is no wonder that they have little understanding what their bosses, the faculty, really need.

In the past two years, four university presses (Eastern Washington, Scranton, Southern Methodist, and now Missouri) have all closed, and several more can be expected to close. There have been a variety of reasons given for closing the press, although usually centered on cost. A strong case can be made, however, that closing the press was an act of abandonment of the mission of a research university. I imagine that something like this was the first step in our public school decline, perhaps needing to scrimp on books and materials for the sake of personnel salaries and benefits.

Yet a mighty oak is still dependent on tiny acorns.

1 thought on “The necessary and the sufficient”

  1. Karen says:

    We just had a tree expert come and view our 250 year old maples. The mother has many dying branches; some small that are easy to pick up when the fall in a storm. Sadly, it has been slowly dying for many years. Larger branches hang on, but could damage the house or mortally wound someone. The tree is past its prime. The danger it poses is greater than its current value. The memories make it hard to accept. Our children swinging under its canopy. Branches shaded patio picnics and draped lights for wedding receptions. We can’t make it what it no longer is. It must come down. We will miss it. Something new will take its place. A tree that will provide others with shade and memories for the next 250 years. So to with our universities.

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