Subversion is at the heart of the academy


“A university,” wrote Robert Maynard Hutchins, “must stand for something, and that must be something other than what a vocal minority, or majority, demand at the moment.”

As president of the University of Chicago, Hutchins was pretty sure of what his university should not stand for. A prime example was big-time intercollegiate sports. In axeing them, he remarked that they had nothing to do with education – adding mischievously that had he not acted, the Humane Society would have had to be called in to carry out the task, given the record of lopsided losses incurred by Chicago’s intellectual football players.

During his tenure, which stretched from 1929 to 1951, he also pushed back against narrowly specialised scholarship and the shallow college curricula that he dismissed as preparing students merely for social conformity and material success. His views on educational reform were highly debatable and provoked lasting controversy (as well as New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling’s comment that Hutchins’ university was “the biggest magnet for juvenile neurotics since the Children’s Crusade”). His determination to act the enfant terrible of the academic universe, moreover, was often tiresome. But I can only applaud his central convictions in support of academic freedom and freedom of expression – principles he defended with a measure of courage and skill not always visible in today’s anxiety-ridden world of universities and colleges.

America’s love affair with higher education has flickered out. It ignited after the Second World War, fuelled by an optimistic faith that education could create a more meritocratic and democratic society, enhancing social mobility, and promoting civic virtue. The post-war era of growth – in institutions, students and resources for both education and research – began to flatten in the 1960s, when other governmental priorities emerged and the turmoil of the decade began to create scepticism about the claims made for the outcomes and wider social benefits of higher education.

Relations between universities and government were often strained over a range of issues. One was the influence of the Cold War in setting federal priorities for research and training programmes – and the government’s insistence on classifying certain kinds of research funded by the defence establishment. Another was the government’s imposition of conditions, such as loyalty oaths, on eligibility for fellowships and other federal grants – and other uses of the power of the purse to enforce compliance with federal regulations.

In the present day, after the impact of recession, mounting costs and doubts about the value and quality of higher education, the romance has entirely given way to a marriage of convenience. American higher education is an expensive investment, increasingly subjected to scathing criticism in the public world. Consumerism has loomed very large and no institution wants to offend the customer or provoke unfavourable publicity, even as degrees have come to be increasingly necessary for making one’s way in the world. In current discourse, institutions’ role in providing a passport to careers, influential networks and comfortable incomes can appear greater than that of instilling knowledge or respect for the achievements and life of the mind.

Also underappreciated is universities’ role in developing the qualities of intellect and judgement that can shape success and elicit greater contributions in professional, civic and personal life. One reason for this is that such qualities and outcomes are difficult to assess. A degree is generally regarded as a costly investment that needs to provide returns more immediately in measurable – hence, quantitative – criteria of success.

Competition among institutions has often come to seem a matter of boasting about rankings and hyper-low admission rates. It has come also to focus not on the comparative strengths among a group of differentiated institutions but on the ambition of every leading institution to have what every other one has: every possible programme and facility, every service and amenity.

At the same time, the expectations placed on universities have become ever more ambitious. Most commentary on higher education treats the topic as though it had to do exclusively with undergraduate education – and mourns the greater prestige assigned to graduate training and research over bachelor-level instruction in university environments.

Yet an apparent indifference to the essential roles of universities in the discovery of knowledge and in the training of future scholars goes hand-in-hand with a widespread respect for the scientific and other accomplishments of academic scholarship, combined with frequent calls to better harness them in the interests of economic health and social problem-solving in the “real” world.

These tensions and contradictions in thinking about higher education are scarcely new. Almost for as long as universities and colleges have existed, questions have been asked not only about the issues Hutchins raised but also about the appropriate balance between teaching and research, pure and applied inquiry, and between scholarship for its own sake and attendance to the problems of the public environs from which institutions draw their privileges.

In different contexts and at different historical moments, universities come recurrently to face the same basic challenges to their institutional and intellectual foundations. These relate to the definition of their missions, the strength of their corporate autonomy and their support for academic freedom. Those challenges may assume differing forms while, at heart, posing the same basic conflicts. The dangers they present are above all those of politicising institutions whose highest purpose is, first, to be centres of independent thought, learning and investigation, and, second, to preserve subjects, ideas and sources of knowledge that may not be fashionable or immediately “useful” but are part of a living inheritance that speaks to the understanding of the world’s civilisations and their cultural traditions.

Universities are – indeed, they are intended to be – subversive, in the sense that at the centre of their purpose is the work of supporting those whose questioning and criticising are likely to move them beyond common beliefs and assumptions to experiment with new ways of thought.

To be non-conformist in this way is to pose a danger to any authoritarian society. Democracies can find such stances difficult, too. We have been well schooled to recognise the threads of anti-intellectualism that can be and have been exploited by “democratic” politicians. But while universities provide a counterweight to demagoguery, they can also be the source of awkward truths that enlightened elected politicians find bothersome.

Irving Howe put the case well. “Serious education,” he wrote, “must assume, in part, an adversarial stance toward the very society that sustains it – a democratic society makes the wager that it’s worth supporting a culture of criticism. But if that criticism loses touch with the heritage of the past, it becomes weightless, a mere compendium of momentary complaints.”

Political pressures and political oppression have taken many forms. In my own lifetime, as the child of academic refugees, I was aware of the range of destructive consequences fostered by the Nazis’ seizure of control of German universities in the name of ideological and ethnic purity.

Now, in my late years, I observe what appears an international epidemic of regimes (Turkey being an extreme but by no means an exclusive example) seeking to capture their countries’ universities for ideological and political ends, suppressing the expression of ideas and erasing the boundaries between the state and the spaces of freedom essential for independent scholarship and teaching.

In the intervening years, I have encountered the blatant assault on dissent launched by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and Senator McCarthy in the 1940s and 1950s – and then, in the 1960s, the turmoil ensuing from radical movements that asserted the goal of reforming universities in order to remake them into instruments of sweeping social and political change.

We tend to think of academic freedom as something that needs to be protected from outside interference and external authority. That is certainly so, but it is also clear – and seems very visible today – that internal pressures can be equally erosive, perhaps the more so, because they can develop quietly and over time, lacking a single motivation or maybe any conscious intention at all. The result of insisting on or creating an atmosphere that expects and instinctively assumes conformity, whether in conducting scholarship or carrying out university responsibilities, is surely destructive of academic freedom even when it is exercised and accepted in the name of an idealistic and virtuous purpose.

That observation is particularly apposite at the current time of increased sensitivity to matters of race, ethnicity, class and status – and in this age of extreme divisiveness over issues of politics and perceptions of political motivation.

There prevails a generally sympathetic attitude towards making the campus a place of harmony, virtue and carefully protected comfort, rather than one designed, through its educational and scholarly activities, to create and accept a certain level of discomfort along the path of learning and of intellectual effort.

But one potential effect of pursuing this goal is to silence vigorous dissent and argument, or to induce caution and perhaps silence in order to avert conflict. We have witnessed, both at home and abroad, the outbreak of debates over the rights and limitations of free speech on campus and over the issue of tolerance for speakers who represent distasteful pasts and views, or whose points of view are regarded as opposed to the professed norms of the community they are addressing.

In a new interpretation of the concept of free expression, there are those who proclaim that disruption of speakers is itself a form of such expression, or even of academic freedom. In their view, the appeal to open and vigorous debate – and a degree of civility in its practice – is no more than a rhetorical tool for repressing those excluded from power.

The desire that the university be an ideal community, a Garden of Eden from which the serpent has been banished, a model for bettering the social order beyond its borders as well: this can only be attained at the expense of a university’s underlying raison d’être.

The same can be said of the demands that institutions direct more and more of their time to economic development and concentrate their resources on the urgent need to find ways to mitigate the many problems of the world. Such calls have intensified the pressures that universities have always experienced to take up tasks that they are not well equipped to perform. Of course universities should contribute, but in ways that arise from their distinctive strengths: from what they can do better than other institutions.

So while the university world has undergone a profound transformation in my long lifetime, the same basic struggles of self-definition endure. The crucial truth that universities should be, above all, the homes of searching and critical intellectual vigour needs recurrent reaffirmation. We are once again at a moment that calls for our universities to stand for something other than “what a vocal minority, or majority, demand at the moment”.

Author Bio: Hanna Holborn Gray was president of the University of Chicago between 1978 and 1993.