"Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire."
-- Homer Bannon, the old rancher in the movie "Hud."
We'll know there's still hope for what Thorstein Veblen called "The Higher Learning in America," low and overpriced as it may be, when the appearance of a great new work of scholarships gets as much attention as the weekend football scores. Or the passing of a great scholar-educator merits as much coverage as the death of another Hollywood celebrity from an overdose.
The full title of Herr Veblen's 1918 broadside, which remains as scathing and relevant as ever, is worth citing: "The Higher Learning In America: A Memorandum On the Conduct of Universities by Business Men." For the trends that so disheartened (and amused) Professor Veblen in his time have grown into standard academic operating procedures. Until, today, our universities may be run like any other factory churning out interchangeable widgets.
These days, the emphasis of The Higher Learning may not be learning at all but the sheer number of graduates rolled off the assembly line, the economic stimulus provided the surrounding community, and anything and everything but what used to be known as liberal education.
The strenuous life of John Silber, educator and fighter, stands as an admirable exception to the sad decline of higher education in this country and deserves more than a moment of recognition. Greatness in a teacher, in a scholar, in an educator has little to do with how crowded his classes are, or how many politicians-on-the-make call him for advice. It has everything to do with an old-fashioned quality called integrity, which is not just a synonym for honesty, but means a wholeness, a oneness, a constancy of vision and purpose and character. None of which have anything to do with the bubble popularity. Quite the opposite.
See the adventures of Robert Hutchins, who presided over the rebirth of liberal education and the rediscovery of the Great Books at the University of Chicago. Or the controversy that swirled around a young, idealistic president of the University of Arkansas named J. William Fulbright long before he became a U.S. senator and whited sepulchre, and started signing his name to Southern Manifestoes.
Some of us would much prefer to remember the young educator rather than the political opportunist, for politicians may affect only current policy, while teachers can shape generations. Does anyone remember the names of the Thirty Tyrants who ruled Athens in Socrates' lifetime, but who has not heard of Socrates?