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All the Essential Half”Truths About Higher Education
By George Dennis O’Brien
University of Chicago Press. 243 pp. $19.95

Dennis O’Brien is well entitled to publish a presidential memoir. The great college presidents used to do it: Willam Jewett Tucker of Dartmouth, Charles Eliot of Harvard, David Starr Jordan of Stanford, Robert Hutchins of Chicago. O’Brien, a Chicago-trained philosopher now recently retired, first learned administration at Princeton, and later served both Bucknell and Rochester as president. He is considerably less famous than these great men, but in this reviewer’s opinion, a greater than they may be he.

The “half-true” clichés he gnaws on include such as “The faculty is the university,” “Tenure is a necessary condition of academic freedom,” “The liberal arts curriculum aims at distribution” (or, “at diversity”), “Low-cost education benefits the least advantaged,” and other old bones.

Consider his commentary on low-cost education for the disadvantaged. The commonplace belief is that middle-and upper-class students are enrolled in the high-ticket independent schools, while the more affordable state institutions provide for those of more modest means. Wrong. In general, O’Brien finds that while the actual cost of educating a student on either campus is about equal, the highly subsidized public campuses attract the well-to-do and the private campuses are educating many of the poor. Family income on state campuses is typically higher at State U. than at Old Siwash. In New York, for example, despite affirmative action the SUNY campuses have chosen the students with better secondary school records, and this produces student bodies that are predominantly white, wealthy, and suburban. To a large extent, the private colleges in New York have been a haven for those pushed out of SUNY by the odd economics of the system (though CUNY has historically followed another path). At the World Bank, O’Brien learned that this inversion repeated itself internationally: low-price (but high-cost) state education is largely utilized by the local urban elites, not by the disadvantaged (usually rural) poor. In Puerto Rico, for instance, the wealthier gentry attend the University of Puerto Rico while Catholic colleges serve the lower-income sector.

O’Brien is similarly restive in his commentary on what passes for a “liberal arts” curriculum, on tenure as the ultimate sinecure, and on the unstable relations between faculty and administrators. Most of this mildly muckraking memoir is well illustrated from his experience, and pluckily argued.

But that is not the heart of this book. Alongside his reportorial critique, the standard stuff of presidential memoirs, O’Brien deploys a deeper and more resourceful argument: not against another half-truth, but against a grand deception.

As his bolder purpose began to emerge, I was reminded of G. K. Chesterton’s hastily written and unresearched St. Thomas Aquinas, which brought medievalist Etienne Gilson to exclaim with appreciative envy: “I have been studying St. Thomas all my life, and I could never have written such a book.” O’Brien’s appraisal of the modern university, so modest in size, is as fascinating an exposé as Chesterton’s Aquinas. And just as Chesterton’s final three chapters offer the most compact and powerful insight into Thomism that I have ever studied, so O’Brien’s ninth and tenth chapters are a clear and convincing diagnosis of how contemporary higher learning has been hamstrung.

O’Brien begins by describing the predecessor institution in the nineteenth century, which he calls “the denominational college.” Staffed largely by clergy and beholden to the dogmatic imperatives of the sponsoring church, this modest institution had an uncritical self-confidence in its hold on the truth, and asked of its students only that they be able to recite it back to their teachers. The mentors at these denominational colleges thought of themselves as acting in loco parentis, and believed that the transmittal of sound moral insight to their students was congruent with their intellectual task, and ultimately more important. Indeed, character was more important than intellect, and its reliable guardian.

All that is gone now, says O’Brien: not just from the several score of billionaire universities, but from virtually all our more than three thousand postsecondary institutions that have adopted the ethos of the twentieth century “research university.” The consensus now is that the natural sciences offer us the ideal form of learning: empirically verified and objectively reliable. (O’Brien deals carefully with the newer multiculturalists who, of course, are not at home in the consensus.) This conviction has created a radically new paradigm of higher education. Intellectual goals displace moral aims. Truth is no longer to be recovered from an old heritage; it is a new goal to be discovered. Interrogation replaces recitation. The old colleges had all the answers; the new universities have nothing but questions.

With so much modern development depending upon technology, information, and sophisticated skills, academics are inclined to think of the university as the strategic institution of modern society. O’Brien disagrees: “To be foundational for society, an institution should have the inherent capability to assess, sort, prioritize, and commend the Good.” The contemporary university has no competence or even ambition in this field of knowledge, and has only primitive and emotional dealings with the Good. As the basis for modern society, O’Brien believes, the research university is likely to be surpassed eventually by ethical, political, or religious institutions.

Moral insight functions quite differently from empirical knowledge, since it does not begin with rational principles and proceed with research. It begins with experience, cumulative and personal, which we call tradition. Thus it is rooted in history, and this makes it entirely unlike empirical knowledge. In this it resembles the arts and not the sciences. Science discards its past; art keeps its past. “The modern university, if it justifies itself by its own inner logic of science, may assume that Copernicus surpasses Ptolemy. But the proper model for the university tradition would be to note that Stravinsky did not finally eliminate Bach from the musical canon . . . . Morality, like music, is essentially a tradition of performance that develops its own reflective reason.”

Moral excellence, unlike that of science, must grow out of what is already known, out of historical tradition and inculcated habit. Moral habit must then grow into moral philosophy (in opposite fashion from growth in the sciences, where reflection must precede performance). Morality is “sectarian” in that it can begin nowhere but in an already inhabited and particular tradition. But to go forward it must be open to critical comparison with other traditions, and then to both emulation and contradiction of what it studies.

It is not impossible, O’Brien thinks, for a university to master both intellectual and moral inquiry. The sectarian colleges of the past failed by being unwilling to submit either their intellectual or their moral convictions to the challenge of open engagement. But his book is an appeal for a university reform that would enlarge, not crimp, the ambition of modern higher education.

This reviewer is more skeptical, and his doubt is stirred by two historical oversights in O’Brien’s fascinating account. First, the author is too kind to the denominational colleges of the past. In fact, they were not actively even trying to develop a learned belief or a critical moral tradition. Their religious beliefs figured almost nowhere in the curriculum; they were sequestered into worship, social service, and the extracurricular study of Bible or catechism. The course of formal study made almost no room for intellectual cultivation or even consideration of what they claimed to be their reason for gathering on campus: a shared faith. Ironically, the moment when these denominational colleges finally developed both the resources and the desire to mingle faith and learning was the very moment when they began to lose their faith in faith as a suitable sponsor for their institutions.

O’Brien’s second oversight is not, I think, something he would deny, but it is something he needed to notice: that there is no live tradition which is not the possession of a lively moral and intellectual community. To accomplish what he so convincingly prescribes a university would have to claim a sponsoring community whose tradition it both identifies with and criticizes, and it would have to acknowledge that tradition as an advantage and a privilege, not unlike the way in which the contemporary university regards the scientific method.

The modern university, however, does not seek sponsorship; it seeks subsidy. If, for its intellectual integrity, the modern university needs to be engaged also in the scrutiny and grooming of its moral insight, reflection, and performance, then it would need to claim a sponsoring community and tradition. That community might be political”say, the United States of America, or the State of Missouri, or the City of Chicago”or it might be religious”say, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter”Day Saints, or Orthodox Judaism.

The general assumption has been that political sponsorship rules out serious moral inquiry and that religious sponsorship rules out serious intellectual inquiry. But the problem is more complex. One would be foolish to suppose that civil sponsorship would entail a more generous moral tradition than religious sponsorship. One would also be foolish to expect a religiously sponsored university to elaborate a moral wisdom which would make easy sense to a civil community.

O’Brien, in any case, helps us to understand better why this twofold undertaking of moral and intellectual education has so inveterately failed. He certainly stands at a far distance from President Hutchins of his alma mater, who had this to say in 1938:

Some three hundred college and university presidents recently answered a questionnaire in which they were asked to list, in the order of importance, what they regarded as the purpose of their institutions. Mental discipline, which ranked first sixty years ago, according to a recent analysis of the college catalogues of the day, now ranks twenty-second among the twenty-five avowed purposes of our institutions of higher learning. It is preceded by such objects of higher education as good manners. “Good manners” have no place in the program of higher education. “Character” has no place in the program of higher education. College develops character by giving young people the habits of hard work and honest analysis. If it tries to teach character directly, it succeeds only in being boring.

James Tunstead Burtchaell, C.S.C., is the author of The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches (Eerdmans).