WASHINGTON -- What is your vision of a university?
Is it the classic vision, with profs walking the ivy-clad pathways, their books under their arms? Perhaps they wear tweed coats and smoke pipes -- not the lady profs, but the men. The ladies dress accordingly, and maybe they smoke pipes. All pore over their books for hours and impart their knowledge to a select body of students. Not the mob that today is forced -- rather cruelly -- to attend classes in remedial education to make up for what they missed in high school, very elementary things, such as reading and the rudiments of writing.
No, not at all -- the profs are indistinguishable from the students today. Most are disgruntled. Some are furious. In years gone by, they felt superior because of their learning. Today they feel superior because of their ontological existence and because they are tabernacles of certain mysteries. The mysteries are to be found in feminism, African-American studies, gay studies and matters too obscure and tedious for ordinary Americanos to grasp.
As for a vision of the university most Americans hold, think of a football team or a basketball team. The athletes are uncommonly large. They attend classes, but mostly they attend practice. Some fight criminal charges for fracases in which they have involved themselves. I am told that the football coach and the basketball coach have an informal budget for criminal lawyers just to keep the athletes out of jail. Or the athletes are fighting drug charges or are in rehab. To be really expert, the coach of the football team or the basketball team on most campuses has to be versed in pharmacology and possibly in mental health. For all intents and purposes, the athletes are preparing themselves for a tryout with a professional team. Those who fail to make the pros disappear. Tom Wolfe drew a vivid portrait of what goes on in college in his masterful book "I Am Charlotte Simmons."
Yet that is only one vision of the university. The other is ceaseless demonstrations on behalf of radical politics. Every campus with any claim to seriousness has whole sections of the faculty constantly on the alarm for some pressing political crisis -- the environment, world peace and, more recently, Muslim rights. Most faculty members do not regularly attend church, synagogue or yoga studios, but for some reason, they are very concerned with Muslim rights, possibly because Muslims -- at least a significant majority of them -- are very anti-Western. I believe that if the fascists were around today and they had their wits about them, they would be forthrightly anti-Western civilization. That would assure them the sympathy of the university. I can see it now, a department of fascist studies on every great university campus.
These thoughts are engendered by a very challenging omnium-gatherum of ideas about the university, Herbert London's "Decline and Revival in Higher Education." London has been following the university for three decades from the inside. He was dean of the Gallatin School at New York University, "an experimental college." He deposits many of his reflections, going back to the early 1970s, in his book. He is particularly cogent on the fate of tenure and, even more poignantly, the fate of the athletes who do not make it into the professional ranks. They are the majority of the athletes, and once they have failed to make the pro ranks, there is nothing for them. They are blanks. They shuffle off to obscurity, the lucky ones to find work of a menial nature, the unfortunate to rehab or the slammer. As I read this book, I thought of the legendary former basketball coach of Indiana University, Bob Knight. He insisted his athletes graduate. Naturally, he was driven from the university by one of higher education's all-time frauds, Myles Brand.
I put the book down amazed that the athletic departments and the politicized faculties apparently have cut a deal. They will not inhibit each other. They have nothing in common save their insouciance to the true mission of the university, learning. London says that learning, for the most part, should involve the great books of our civilization. He tried to make that work at New York University and failed. He eventually left, frustrated by the politicians on the faculty and the administration.
He has hope for a revival of the university. Yet I am dubious. The powers arrayed against a teacher like London or against a coach like Knight are too powerful. Knight should have gone into the pros and forgotten his idealism, though his charges were lucky he stayed awhile. London has gone into the world of think tanks. He is at the Hudson Institute. Now the role for him is clear. He should make his think tank into an academy and teach the great books. So should other think tanks. Learning is only for the few, and the think tanks have plenty of room for growth.