I had begun writing something on Baruch Kimmerling's rather tedious and factually challenged piece in ‘Dissident Voice' attacking everyone involved in the Columbia situation, except of course the faculty, who are to be given absolute autonomy and complete freedom from criticism.
But somewhere between trying to understand whether Kimmerling was invoking the ‘vast right wing conspiracy' meme, or merely asserting that any criticism of the Columbia faculty would instantly crush "genuine academic freedom," I lost interest. And no, Campus Watch is not "also known as the "Israeli-Academic Monitor," an operation that has no relationship with ours whatsoever.
Suffice it to say that Kimmerling's vision of the university, despite his rhetoric about free dialogue and common public space, sounds rather forced and is reminiscent of Talmon's notion of totalitarian democracy. It deploys the language and mechanisms of democracy and the open society to disguise ideological and practical domination.
Far more interesting is a piece by Stanley Katz of Princeton in Chronicle of Higher Education on the lamentable state of liberal education in America. He reviews the history of thinking on liberal education in America, which has lurched from the general to the specific and back again:
"Should the core curriculum offer common knowledge? Or a way of learning? Should it require set courses, or provide student choice? Focus on big questions, or on specialized exploration in a variety of disciplines?"
The short answer is, yes.
Katz's sketch is useful in that it shows that there is nothing new under the sun, except for the fact that senior faculty are less interested in teaching undergraduates than ever, driven on by their research imperatives, and that the universities, knowing the buttered side of the bread from the other (the very dry, very butterless side), have been dragged along.
Are universities to educate citizens in a common culture, or prepare them to become professionals? Core curricula have come and gone. Great books are put on the shelf and then thrown back in the basement. Moral reasoning is righteously invoked one day only to disappear the next. And as universities have grown larger and more specialized the effect has been to diffuse not only knowledge and institutional goals, but to create an immense smorgasbord of courses. Students can gorge themselves silly, or nibble on exotic imports, depending on their inclinations, the institution, and whichever transient educational paradigm is ascendant that year.
Meanwhile the whole business became more expensive, and the faculty managed to slip away from the table leaving the students and their parents with the bill. Katz is remarkably frank. Intellectual questions aside, its money that matters:
"We all know that faculty members in those fields teach more, get paid less, and have fewer resources for research than their colleagues in the natural sciences and hard social sciences. They have less leverage in the institution to get what they want, from secretarial services and office space to computers. They are also, on balance, the faculty members most likely to be concerned with undergraduate education, but they are in a weak position to influence decisions within their universities."
Katz concludes that values are back – "aesthetic, civic, moral." But we may fairly worry about whose values are being spoken of, those of society, which values democratic politics, consensus, incrementalism and tradition (even Western tradition)? Or those of the ideocracy, which are frequently less democratic, more authoritarian, occasionally revolutionary, and not infrequently hostile to the Western tradition (except of course when it comes to their own prerogatives)?
What is a university for anyway? Are universities tools for social engineering or vessels for the transmission of ‘timeless knowledge?' Both extremes are undesirable, but what is the current, and proper, balance between the two? Who decides anyway? Besides which, no new balance is likely to be stable or defensible for very long anyway. The miracle has always been that anyone comes out of a university with even a passing resemblance of an education in the first place. And society lumbers on.
We have to agree with Katz that we need to put "reimagination of liberal education near the top of our agenda for education in our research universities." But as Katz implicitly acknowledges, creative destruction of the universities has been taking place whether anyone is bothering to imagine it or not. Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.
The irony is that faculty members like Kimmerling, or Jonathan Cole, who demand that every aspect of society be subjected to ruthless criticism are suddenly shy about the same being done to universities. Maybe shy isn't the right word. Reluctant. Screaming bloody murder. But the double irony is that it is they (‘progressive' and all that) who now appear to stand athwart history yelling stop.