by Jeff Polet
I’ll admit it: I’m biased. I attended a religiously-affiliated undergraduate college, and then went to a Catholic graduate school, and spent my career teaching at schools with religious missions. I’ve never studied or worked on a state university campus, although I’ve talked to friends who have. I have nothing against those schools, it simply was not the path I was going to take as a student who self-consciously wanted to work within and out of a Christian tradition of thinking and doing.
There is no shortage of jeremiads about the state of the academy in America. I’ve been known to preach a few myself. But surely one of the problems we face is when we apply the abstract noun — the academy — to what is really a disparate reality. “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” the church father Tertullian once wondered. Well, what does Berkeley have to do with Grand Rapids, or Ann Arbor with Holland? The landscape of American higher education is littered with schools whose main purpose was to serve a church and a community, and not to serve the interests of the state or “to create democratic citizens.” Their missions were both more narrow and broader than preparing students for life in the polity.
Walk around Harvard’s campus and you’ll walk along the old iron gates that have lined that campus for years, and on them you’ll see Harvard’s old shield and motto: Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae (“truth for Christ and His church). The motto serves a double purpose: not only does it identify the goal of education as the search for truth, but it also indicates that such a search is impossible apart from Christ and His church. Harvard abandoned the motto in 1836, thus cutting off the search for truth what previous generations had considered to be both its source and its end. (As an aside, go to Harvard’s website and you’ll see the history of the motto has been effaced from the record books.)
Some years ago I did a review of the mottoes and mission statements of many schools, including state universities, and identified that they had often had religious roots. The University of Kansas has retained their motto, a quotation from the book of Exodus, but virtually all state schools and many private schools abandoned theirs. There was an interesting rush on changing mottoes and mission statements after the collapse of the Soviet Union, typically replacing the ideas of serving the nation with ideas of serving the world. We were no longer preparing students to be American citizens, but global ones (ignoring the fact that “global citizen” is an oxymoron).
All this by way of background. It seems that the main fracture in American higher ed today are between those who believe the purpose of the academy is to solve social problems (and thus to provide students with a blueprint both of the problems and their solution; if you want trouble for yourself on a university campus today, suggest that racism is not as big a problem as people make it out to be) and those who believe that academic study ought to be a reprieve from the world and its concerns, an opportunity to spend four years of leisure dedicated to becoming a person who knows things. Practically speaking, the fault lines are often revealed by those who want schools to be inclusive and diverse and safe, and those who believe that protecting free speech is the best recipe for preparing students for the rough-and-tumble of life, especially in a democracy.
In many ways, these two points of view are closer than they appear. It seems to me that the “free speech” position is more of a middle position, for it assumes that protecting diversity of thought is the purpose of all schools. People on the right are talking about diversity of thought when it appears that the left is ascendant on most college and university campuses, and people on the left will see talk about diversity of thought as a stalking horse to steal away their authority on the same campuses. Progressive and conservative thinkers alike tend to view education as a means to fighting the culture wars, an approach that misconstrues the purpose of a liberal education altogether.
I can’t imagine what a campus that would allow every thought to find expression would actually look like, how it could hold together, and how it could provide students with anything representing a coherent education. Nor can I, in a world where liberal learning is made servile, imagine a school that can deliver on all the expectations placed on it (making students more empathetic, the world more just, the economy more vibrant, and so forth).
Surely part of the problem is that both approaches outlined above have a homogenizing affect on American education, often accomplished by endless pattering about so-called “best practices.” In a time when the educational landscape is being flattened, and thus made less interesting, the proposer response of any school should be to focus on its own tradition. That is to say, the search for truth has many components, and one of those components is confidence that the search has some sort of conclusion to it; put differently, that there is an object being searched for. Such confidence may not be given in the search itself, but is a matter of conviction or, in a different age, a matter of faith.
I’m arguing here for what I’ve called inter-institutional pluralism as opposed to intro-institutional pluralism, which is the approach of people who think encouraging “intellectual diversity” is a magic bullet. As I wrote some time back in the journal Local Culture:
The general claim I’m making is that American higher education is at its most interesting when schools pursue strategies of inter-institutional rather than intra-institutional pluralism. By this I mean that an interest in diversity ought to obtain among schools rather than within them. Each school should operate self-consciously out of a tradition and understand itself as developing and maintaining its tradition across generations. It should not try to be “all things to all people.”
This is a rather lengthy introduction to the essay that spurred this reflection, one written by Richard Garnett over at Law and Liberty. Garnett makes a more or less identical argument to the one I’ve outlined above, but focuses more directly on the equivocated meaning of “diversity.” Just as a healthy farm will engage in practices of biodiversity (playing a variety of crops), so too a healthy society will have a diverse array of institutions, the existence of which, and the conflicts between which, produce a healthier and stronger society. Any one institution must fit in, infrastructurally, with the whole. Garnett writes:
Our colleges and universities should not all look the same; they should (within reasonable bounds) have varying curricula and programs; they should develop different specialties and sub-fields; they should cultivate distinctive missions and aspirations; they may take on a range of characters; they should come in multiple shapes and sizes. Institutional pluralism means, among other things, that our colleges and universities may be public and private, big and small, research-focused or liberal-artsy. We can, and should, have land-grant institutions, historically Black institutions, single-sex institutions, and military institutions. Some can focus on music and the arts; others on engineering and technology. Some may be animated by religious traditions and aims, others by environmentalism or multiculturalism. An institution’s distinctive mission will shape its curriculum, its policies, its hiring, and its student body. And, these differences will, taken together, strengthen expressive freedom’s necessary infrastructure.
Garnett identifies the forces that tend to homogenize institutions, and argues that just as governments have an interest in biodiversity and an integrated plan for infrastructure, so too they should have one for higher education. The cost of higher education has made schools more alike rather than less so. In an environment where they are competing for increasingly scarce resources (not only funding, but available students), colleges will allow costs to dictate mission and purpose, driven as they are by the need to survive. Garnett again:
Sameness and standardization are, in many contexts, efficient. It is not, we might worry, only rising tuition expenses, but also a temptation for institutions to mimic and streamline—and, in so doing, to compete and survive—that is the pressing danger. And yet: Variations and diversity among American institutions of higher education are essential; the health of our democracy’s infrastructure depends on them. They should not only be tolerated and welcomed, but also encouraged and incentivized, supported and even subsidized. Those in positions to do so—lawmakers and citizens, teachers and students, scholars and employers—should take up the project of both demanding, and supplying, a healthy infrastructure for expression, research, learning, and flourishing.
- What is the central purpose of higher education?
- Is it consistent with higher education’s purposes that it serve the interests of the state, or form the right kinds of citizens? How do education proper and civic education relate to one another?
- How should government attend to the infrastructure of higher education? Other than land-grant colleges, is there a role for government at all?