Education in America: 8. The Multiversity
MAY 01, 1969 by GEORGE CHARLES ROCHE III
Dr. Roche is Director of Seminars for the Foundation for Economic Education. He has taught history and philosophy in college and maintains a special interest in American education.
The proper goal of education is the development of the individual; and the great task is to bring the educational structure back to that purpose. Unfortunately, the trend continues in the opposite direction. The multiversity, to use the term coined by Clark Kerr, would appear to be a modern hybrid with a scale of values oriented toward everything but the individual student.
Formerly, the university was regarded as a sanctuary for original and independent thinking.
Many centers of higher learning today seem willing to prostitute themselves in pursuit of public funds. Indeed, the race for funds goes far beyond that; it also includes the development of a curriculum featuring the vocational training demanded by the professions and the business community. In short, many of our institutions of higher learning are directing themselves not toward independent inquiry and the development of inquiring individuals, but instead are providing the institutions of our society, both public and private, with the properly "prepared" (though not necessarily educated) graduates needed to staff our social structure. An "assembly line" is thus set in motion, as the demands of both public and private institutional giants shape the higher learning in America.
Traditionally, academicians have abandoned the market place to better pursue their work; but it has been suggested that "modern America has thrust its academicians back into the commercial arena." Clark Kerr, in The Uses of the University, has defined the modern university as "a mechanism… held together by administrative rules and powered by money." He adds that "it only pays to produce knowledge if through production it can be put into use better and faster." If everything within the academic community is for sale to the highest bidder, if concentrations of power, public and private, are allowed to establish all the criteria for what constitutes education, then we should not be surprised when bigness displaces the individual and "workability" replaces values.
Meanwhile, the multiversity grows by leaps and bounds. Administration is becoming one of the great academic problems of our times, as "specialists" are added to handle fund raising, public relations, purchasing, and the myriad other technical problems which we have insisted upon making a part of higher education. Under the banner of "public service," the giantism of the modern multiversity is becoming the commonplace of American education.
The severe impact of the multiversity upon the student is described by two Berkeley professors who have faced the situation firsthand:
The architects of the multiversity simply have not solved the problem of how to build an institution which not only produces knowledge and knowledgeable people with useful skills but which also enriches and enlightens the lives of its students…. By any reasonable standard, the multiversity has not taken its students seriously… to many students the whole system seems a perversion of an educational community into a factory designed for the mass processing of men into machines.¹
Often, the impact of the multiversity is equally severe upon the professors. As massive enrollments and expenditures have necessitated a great and growing educational bureaucracy, the traditional small "community of scholars" has gradually deteriorated in many institutions into a large group of salaried employees. The great and growing numbers which the multiversity attempts to serve impose great burdens upon student, professor, and administrator alike. And as they rush through their appointed rounds in an effort to keep the gigantic system in operation, they find that each new fall brings larger and larger crowds of students to be digested by the system. The tremendous numbers involved have forced many institutions to use IBM cards and other means of mass processing, further widening the gap between the institution and the individual. The impersonality beginning with registration is maintained in giant survey classes and concluded with anonymous graduations. In many cases students and professors never come to know one another — indeed, the products of such a system are not always worth knowing.
When any institutional framework deals with thousands of persons each day, it is not surprising if there is neither time nor resources for an individualized approach. Yet, can the development of independent judgment and a genuine insight into the human condition be accomplished without a close interaction of teacher and pupil? The answer is no. Thus, many students who are attending the multiversity in search of an education are being deceived. They find themselves neglected in an institution primarily directed toward the procurement of Federal and foundation research grants and the development of the proper institutional "image."
College and university alike seem to suffer from the same disease. As Robert Hutchins put the case:
The reason is that the students, who have been lured to the college by its proclaimed dedication to liberal education, find on their arrival that the reality is quite different. In reality, the college is, except in size, the same as a university, devoted to training and not to education…. Unless the American university is completely reorganized and reoriented it can only mishandle and frustrate the students who reject the mindless mechanism of the academic assembly line; the students, in short, are looking for an education.2
No Easy Solutions
A part of the problem, of course, is due to the sheer magnitude of our institutions of higher learning. Such giantism makes adaptation to change and to individual needs especially difficult. But merely escaping from the giant university to the smaller college is no guarantee of success. The colleges are becoming in many cases little more than satellites to the great universities. Their ideas and attitudes often originate in the large universities; their teachers are usually trained there.
Some institutions are attempting a so-called "cluster-college" approach for re-establishment of faculty-student contact. But the expense involved leads administrators back toward the "greater efficiency" of centralization. They argue that the savings in planning physical facilities for large blocks of students can then be applied in procurement of more and better personnel. In their view, large size becomes a solution to educational problems rather than a problem in itself.
It is true that effective higher education requires fine intellect and scholarship in its teachers, and such teachers are difficult to attract to the small campus when all the money and most of the prestige lie in the great multiversities. In either case, it remains extremely difficult for students to contact fine teachers. Many of the small schools cannot attract such men, and many of the large schools who can attract them are so beset with vast numbers that teacher and pupil seldom have personal contact.
Size introduces a further complication. Many people recognize that a proper background in the so-called "liberal arts" is essential to the development of the whole man, whatever his profession might be. Attempts have been made to mass produce such education through the use of the universal survey course. The result often is a student who knows something about everything and nothing about anything.
Each professor and each department want the whole time of the student so that he can be thoroughly trained in the professor’s or the department’s specialty. Since it is obviously impossible for the student’s whole time to be spent in this way, the course of study is determined by a process of pulling and hauling and finally emerges as a sort of checkerboard across which the bewildered student moves, absorbing from each square, it is hoped, a little of something that each professor or department has to offer him.3
Not all of our problems should be laid at the door of mere size and numbers. Higher education labors under other handicaps as well. The pressures of the system drive the good teacher toward such increasingly narrow specialization that the information ceases to be readily communicable to students. Our highly technical modern world demands specialization. But vocational specialization without understanding of the humanities and liberal arts affords a limited perspective on life. Narrow specialization tends to dehumanize. A man’s work is a vital part of his life; but unless that work is kept in touch with the realities of the human condition and in contact with a higher purpose, all difference between man and automaton will have been removed.
Specialized knowledge in the Western world has accomplished miracles through increasing human control over physical environment. Man has achieved power in the process, a power being concentrated in the governmental and private institutional giants of our time. Rewards are high for the specialist. In such a process, however, we run a grave risk of losing the capacities which make us human. A young student of great ability easily may pass through his entire education without encountering the reality of the human condition or establishing his self-identity. Instead, he moves from one superficial consideration to the next, always dependent upon "expert" and "fashionable" opinion, "objectively" studying nothing but the "facts."
Super specialization further requires a seemingly infinite variety of course offerings in the curriculum. It is true that men are different, but surely there are features of the human condition which are universal and which override all specialization.
Only by maintaining a balance between our experimental bent and our loyalty to the ageless wisdom of our tradition can we hope to remain culturally in the Western orbit. The distinguishing mark of the educated man is his sense of continuity and the awareness of his heritage. As Professor Josef Pieper has the courage to affirm in an age of specialization, a man must be able to comprehend the totality of existence.4
Specialization also serves as a shield for many within the educational community who do not appear primarily concerned with education. There are some who pursue erudition for its own sake, divorced from any meaning in human existence. They conceal their lack of a philosophy of life behind an endless search for facts. Educational bureaucrats often seem to reflect the victory of the modern specialist over the universally educated man.
But this creates an extraordinarily strange type of man…. With a certain apparent justice he will look upon himself as "a man who knows." And in fact there is in him a portion of something which, added to many other portions not existing in him, does really constitute knowledge. This is the true inner nature of the specialist, who in the first years of this century has reached the wildest stage of exaggeration. The specialist "knows" very well his own tiny corner of the universe; he is radically ignorant of all the rest…. Previously, men could be divided simply into the learned and the ignorant…. But your specialist cannot be brought in under either of these two categories. He is not learned, for he is formally ignorant of all that does not enter into his specialty; but neither is he ignorant, because he is "a scientist," and "knows" very well his own tiny portion of the universe. We shall have to say that he is a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, as it implies that he is a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with all the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line.5
At least a portion of the excessive specialization of our time must be blamed upon the fetish of the doctoral degree. But a research degree is far from an assurance that a man is a qualified teacher. In fact, as Irving Babbitt warned forty years ago, "the work that leads to a doctor’s degree is a constant temptation to sacrifice one’s growth as a man to one’s growth as a specialist."
The super specialization demanded in our times often leaves the individual, as Ortega says, so specialized that he is ignorant in many facets of human existence, so ignorant that, outside his specialty, he reacts as an unqualified mass-man. Is it possible that professors who speak with such authority in areas outside their disciplines sometimes reflect that lack of training — proving themselves unqualified to exercise leadership outside their narrow specialization?
Publish or Perish
The drive toward super specialization and the accompanying multiversity quest for "image," serving as means for reaping the appropriate financial rewards available through conformity to the pressures of the gigantic public and private institutional structure, have one of their most unfortunate manifestations in "publish or perish," the proliferation of research and publication for its own sake. One Stanford psychologist has suggested that
…before the turn of the century, it will be recognized that radical action is necessary to limit the outpouring of specialized and often trivial publications that even now all but inundate the offices of every academician…. The most prestigeful colleges will begin by making rules forbidding their professors to publish until they have been on the faculty five or even 10 years. They will thus create a campus culture in which publishing is considered not good form.6
Though the professor may have had his tongue in cheek, there can be little doubt that a mass of trivial research tends to contaminate the academic atmosphere and bring legitimate research into disrepute. It also interferes with teaching. So long as the high road to academic success is thought to lie exclusively in research, we can scarcely expect faculty members to be properly concerned with the teaching function.
Writing, to be worthwhile, should flow naturally out of scholarship, not be imposed upon it; otherwise this forced labor acquires the status of Christmas cards and is counted, not read. If university administrators were required in their purgatory to read all of the trivia which their policies have produced, they would soon crowd the Gates of Hell clamoring for surcease.7
It is to the everlasting credit of a number of American colleges that they have not bowed to the pressures for research, but instead have kept teaching as their primary goal. Many of our multiversity complexes could profitably note the comparative lack of student unrest in the American college as compared to the American university. An important reason for that difference could be an attitude in many colleges that teaching is a legitimate function of higher education. Independent scholarly inquiry and research are vital to our society and form an important part of our educational process, but we throw out the baby with the bath when we so overemphasize that function that we come to neglect the means for transmitting our increased knowledge to the rising generation.
Tenure and Promotion
The internal political situation surrounding tenure and promotion can also interfere with the educational process. The trustees of many educational institutions have yielded to faculty pressures until control of the institution is the prize to be won in an open contest between the professors and the administrators. Many administrative positions on campuses have fallen captive to faculty politics. Junior professors often depend for promotions upon senior departmental members whose self-interest leaves them poorly qualified to judge the merits of another professor.
Such forays into campus and departmental politics at the expense of teaching duties often are encouraged by the tenure situation. The tradition of tenure as a guarantee that the professor can conduct his research and publish his findings without censorship or fear for his job is a vital part of our academic heritage. But tenure was never intended as a protection for the lazy professor who read his last book while a graduate student; nor was its purpose to allow professors to engage in politics while neglecting teaching responsibilities.
Collective Judgment and The Committee
Inside and outside the American academic community, the committee mentality assaults us on every hand. The highest rewards seem to go to organizers and coordinators rather than to genuinely creative and original minds. Our worship of institutions not only gives us the multiversity, but also subjects us to nonthought by committee in the everyday conduct of our affairs.
One glance at pedagogical literature reveals the collectivistic preoccupation: "committee," "cooperation," "integration," "teamwork," "group-project," "majority-objectives," "peer-group," "group-process," "group-imposed regulations," "group-determined penalty," "group-acceptance," etc., etc., abound in articles, speeches, meetings, and school catalogues. Together with other ideological directives, they constitute the affirmation that God and individual man do not exist apart from the collectivity. Moreover, they imply that man’s adjustment to the collectivity is the supreme guarantee that he is not in error.8
Needless to say, committees are no better as teachers than as administrators.
The Quality of Teaching
University teachers can be and frequently have been vigorous educational forces. The really effective professors prove to be those with a full understanding that genuinely effective college teaching involves far more than lecturing before large survey classes and then quickly disappearing to the library or the faculty club. At least one aspect of the student uprising on campuses has been the teaching failure of the multiversity. In fact, the kind of student protest that emphasizes body English and mass movements in place of responsible individual thought and action demonstrates how little genuine education those students have received.
Students are more than great masses of IBM cards and administrative problems; they are far more than mere containers into which academic information should be dumped. Their value to society, their value to themselves, and their capacity for education are deeply affected by the capacity of the university to deal with them as individuals. If the many well-qualified and highly motivated administrators and professors within higher education are to be given an opportunity to reach their students, we must reverse the trend toward the multiversity with all its negative effects.
The next article of this series will ask "Academic Freedom for What?"
¹ Sheldon S. Wolin and John H. Schaar, "The Abuses of the Multiversity," Seymour Martin Lipset and Sheldon S. Wolin, eds., The Berkeley Student Revolt (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1965).
2 Robert M. Hutchins, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 31, 1966.
3 Robert M. Hutchins, The Conflict in Education, pp. 60-61.
4 Thomas Molnar, The Future of Education, p. 157.
5 Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, pp. 111-112.
6 "Stop Publishing or We’ll All Perish," The Stanford Observer, March, 1968.
7 A. H. Hobbs, "Sociology and Scholarship," The University Scholar (University of Pennsylvania), January, 1960.
8 Thomas Molnar, The Future of Education, p. 134.