Has the mandate of universities gotten too broad?
By Jack Hanson
THE PARIS REVIEW recently ran a story about Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” which detailed the near-infinitude of references, allusions, and outright rip-offs of the poem’s many classic lines. Chief among these phrases is from the third line: with anxious resignation, Yeats writes that “things fall apart,” that the “the centre cannot hold.” If that dreary thought has become a cliché, so much the worse for us. Few institutions do not in some way deserve it, and many pundits are pointing to our universities as the most decrepit example.
For much of its history, academic life was the preserve of the very few: the religiously devout, the wealthy, or simply the very gifted. But at almost the moment of its wide-spread democratization, symbolized best perhaps by the 1944 GI Bill (whose success was marred by its predictably unequal effect for African Americans), the university pitched itself into turmoil, which has kept churning, with varied intensity, ever since. The 1960s saw the rise of campus protests, sit-ins, and occupations, as the Western world seethed over issues of race, war, and poverty, not to mention a full-scale cultural revolution. Naturally, not everyone was on board.
The next flare-up was in the late eighties and early nineties, now referred to as the “Culture Wars,” with similarly hostile (though less physical) exchanges—usually cast as between Right and Left, a narrow view—on topics like political correctness and the truth and purpose of the Western Canon. The participants who emerged most famous were against the former and in favor of the latter, notably Saul Bellow and the Blooms, both Allan and Harold (no relation nor even special affection).
And now, twenty years later (is this becoming a pattern?), the “Culture Wars” are back. This time, combatants are variously armed with legislation, a new sexual morality, the language of identity politics (from intersectionality to microagressions), social media platforms from which to launch rockets, and extraordinary student debt. This last bit is particularly troublesome for American students; as much as rising costs in Canada and the UK are worrying, we Americans really can’t help but shake our heads and chuckle, albeit grimly.
No one defends what is increasingly referred to as the ‘university bubble,’ but there are plenty who seek to maintain the possibilities of higher education, from the economic to the spiritual and beyond. And though some use these apologias as launching ground for their own attacks on academia, which range from reasonable to less-so, the general pushback against PC politics on campus is gaining momentum. From flagrant misuse of sexual harassment legislation to Jerry Seinfeld’s unwillingness to perform on college campuses, the fate of universities is no longer a one-sided conversation.
This kind of commotion distracts from learning and can potentially ruin the lives of students caught up in its murky corners. The problem is complex and requires long argumentation, but a starting point might be reflecting on the purpose of higher education. Why do students go, for education or for job training? Has the whole thing become too broad, too public? The name “Academy” comes from the place Plato (the Canon rears its ugly, marble head!) would instruct his students, just outside the city walls of Athens, in the highest of subjects. It was not for everyone, but, then, not everyone would want it, and certainly not everyone needed it to get a decent job. Only recently did this definition stop applying to our own academies. Is there any reason, in principle, that it can’t again?
JACK HANSON is a contributing editor for Partisan.