The Higher Learning and the New Consumerism

Edward Gibbon wrote in the Decline and Fall of the death of the Emperor Gordian the Younger. He wrote, "Twenty-two acknowledged concubines and a library of 62,000 volumes attested the variety of his inclinations; and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that both the one and the other were designed for use rather than for ostentation."

That opposition between use and ostentation represents the recurrent theme of argument in trying to fit the higher learning to the public interest in our American tradition. My talk this evening is intended to offer some commentary on the general state of our research universities, especially the private university and its claim to attention of a sort that tends to dissipate in the prevailing winds of fashion and to remain unheeded sometimes among more strident conflicts of public policy.

We are at a time when public investment in private higher education is being seriously questioned and when economic contraction dictates difficult choices.

Much consideration has been given to the issues associated with federal support and its often troubling consequences and its often flawed objects and means. Less attention is sometimes given to other broad areas of public policy whose aims and effects are crucial to the freedoms needed for a vital academic environment in private institutions of higher learning.

Tax legislation, regulations pertaining to animal care and research, and laws dealing with age discrimination and retirement are only a few current issues that may have a profound effect on all private institutions.

I do not propose to deal directly with this whole range of questions and thereby keep you here all evening. I only mean to suggest the importance of reexamining the relationship between the private university and the public sector and of clarifying the basic purposes that should animate the private university and its contribution to the public interest.

In doing so I will suggest some criteria to frame that relationship. Their complex application in specific support and policy is yet another topic. But certainly one major assumption, not a surprising one at all, needs stating: however one may temper and reshape the means of support, however one may come to judgments about its proportions and appropriate objects, there will be, and there must continue to be, major public as well as private investment directed toward those who perform research. There must be similar investment in education aid directed toward the students themselves. In looking to the category of private universities and to the balance of private and public and the resources available to them, the measure of value must be determined by purposes that transcend short-term applications and that look to long-term investment and outcomes.

In thanking Mr. Dam for his generous introduction, I should like to express particular gratitude for his kindness in referring to me as a historian in the present tense. It is one of the pains of my present profession to be asked, with that careful and hesitant courtesy ordinarily reserved for those recently bereaved or incarcerated, "What did you used to be?"

The implication is that one has passed to the other shore, become academically déclassé, and forfeited all title to intellectual pretension. This, of course, ignores the possibility that the distance that separates a historian studying the politics of the Renaissance Italian city-state from an administrator dealing with academic departments and their politics may actually be negligible. The view that university presidents must be failed or recusant academics is a powerful one for all who see the calling of teaching and learning, quite rightly, as the defining vocation of a university.

Perhaps that was what was in the minds of the students who, in 1780, addressed the president of Harvard in the following words: "As a man of genius and knowledge," they said, "we respect you. As a man of piety and virtue, we venerate you. As a president, we despise you."

It may be added that he resigned. At any rate, there is a widespread perception that a president's time is not, perhaps should not, and very likely could not be devoted to thought in any serious way.

Today, it is asserted, the role has to do mainly with getting and spending--getting too little and spending too much, some might add--and with staying as far out of trouble as possible by saying as little and putting it as blandly as possible. Our role model might be Ramsay MacDonald as described by Winston Churchill, who said, "We know that he has, more than any other man, the gift of compressing the largest amount of words into the smallest amount of thought."


The prevalent view is that the age of great leaders and heroic prophets of educational philosophy is past, and with it the public influence and authority to which our universities might once have aspired. In their place, it is said, have come managers and mediators intent on the pursuit of safe objectives and institutions dependent on the whims of fashion, institutions that have lost a coherent vision of education and its direction.

It is sobering to listen to this lament of a distinguished professor. He said:

Unfortunately, very few of our college presidents have taken a preliminary course to qualify them for the position. Indeed, it must be confessed that ability to superintend educational work has not been regarded in all cases as the essential prerequisite. In some cases, that appears to have been thought less important than a supposed ability to collect money. But at the best no one man is able now to understand all the phases of university or even college work. . . . Discussion of purely business matters occupies so much attention . . . that discussion of other matters must be deferred. . . . The conditions in respect to the professor's relations to the community and to his work have undergone a change . . . at a cost to himself so serious as to impair his usefulness and to threaten that of the institutions themselves. Here lies, in the opinion of many thoughtful men, the secret of deterioration observable in the output.

The professor's name was John James Stevenson. He was writing eighty years ago, in 1902. In an era of singular leaders and builders and of extraordinary growth in American higher education, he saw that the institution of the university had developed to a point of activity, ambition, and strength that required or allowed the fuller development of academic governance and shared responsibility, of the conditions of academic freedom essential to independent inquiry and a genuine institutional autonomy.

There is a maxim, somewhat ambiguous in tone, to the effect that "a true university can never rest upon the will of one man." A true university always rests upon the wills of many divergent-minded old gentlemen who refuse to be disturbed but who growl in their kennels.

Universities are generally pictured as the most conservative and ponderous of institutions, given unwillingly to minor movement and almost invisible change through tortuous paths of endless discussion, subtle resistance, simple anarchy, and complicated compromise.

The old gentlemen in their kennels might be repeating the impassioned utterance of the Wisconsin state legislator who declared himself "in favor of letting the status quo stay as it is." He may have been related to the mayor of Chicago who said that nepotism was perfectly all right so long as it was kept in the family.

Or I like to think that they are muttering Ogden Nash's inspired verse, "Progress might have been all right once, but it's gone on too long."

Yet it is astonishing to note the remarkable changes that have, in fact, marked the history of our universities. For the American research university, that history has been a short one, a hundred years at most, and for its contemporary form, perhaps forty years.

If we take as a convenient starting point the opening of the Johns Hopkins University in 1876 or that of the University of Chicago in 1892, both institutions distinguished by their concentration on graduate study and research, and if we take with those the university movement, which gained force at that time, we can trace the emergence during the succeeding quarter-century of the distinctive form of the American research university, that is, the combination of collegiate, graduate, and professional education with research and scholarship.

If we take World War II as the second most decisive period, not only do we see the expansion of research at our universities, research associated both with the mission of the institution and with the new connection to federal support and to national security objectives, but also we see the broadening of public attention to educational opportunity and the goals attached to it.

There were, of course, many colleges before the later nineteenth century and many colleges that were called universities. For a time, early in the life of the Republic, some had even dreamed of a federal university that would cap the country's educational system and train at the highest level men who would become leaders of the new society.

Six consecutive presidents, beginning with Washington, favored the creation of a national university and made that recommendation. Other Founding Fathers also favored a national university. An interesting one, Benjamin Rush, drew up an entire plan for a federal university, and he said that after thirty years of its existence, a degree from that university would be a requirement for political office, whether elective or appointive. This was his rationale. He said:

We require certain qualifications in lawyers, physicians and clergymen before we commit our property, our lives, or our souls to their care. . . . Why then should we commit our country, which includes liberty, property, life, wives and children, to men who cannot produce vouchers of their qualifications for this important trust? We are restrained from injuring ourselves by employing quacks in law; why should we not be restrained in like manner, by law, from employing quacks in government?

The impulse to centralization and uniformity stimulated by the desire to build an identifying sense of nationhood and a unifying and practical national culture faded before the greater emphasis on decentralization and pluralism. It was to be local, state, and private initiative that shaped the changing face of higher education and ultimately the growth of universities, both private and public, including those that became, in a different way from that originally envisaged, truly national institutions.

At the same time, of course, the history of our universities was and is embedded in a larger context. This context contains conflicting currents of public expectation and a spectrum of outlooks on the utilitarian, cultural, and civic purposes that might justify the university itself and on the benefits and consequences of education in a democracy.

Within that history is to be heard the resonance of incessant dispute over the nature and value of academic institutions, over the proper directions and ends of higher education and of research and scholarship.

Faith in the power of education and of learning has gone hand in hand in our tradition with a deep mistrust of all that might not be tangibly and directly useful or immediately productive of given objectives of public policy. The bright hopes vested in the ideal of the discovery of knowledge and its products have been darkened by the fear that these will be abused or rendered impossible of control, by fear of the unknown and hence of the process by which knowledge and significant understanding may, indeed, occur. These restless and warring tendencies are very much with us, challenging the public value placed on universities, on their purposes, on the essential conditions in which they thrive, and on the longer-term contributions to which they should look.


The language frequently invoked today in describing the current state and future outlook for our universities often suggests the erosion and deterioration of a once flourishing enterprise, a threatened failure of the convictions and accomplishments that made it succeed, an overwhelming uncertainty as to the effects of external events on its health and continuing vitality, and a critical confusion over the relationship of the private university to the public interest.

The list of ills and symptoms suggested by the diagnosticians of the private university nowadays is alarming, and it will be very familiar to you. It includes the consequences of negative growth and demographic decline, of financial pressures produced by insistent inflation, of increasing educational costs and diminished endowment values, of shifting patterns in support for basic research and student aid, and of a downward drift in basic research capacity, investment, and future potential. It includes a difficult and pervasive regulatory environment whose unseen inroads, gradually expanding, may be still more threatening than the more visible and dramatic instances that allow for open debate and open resolution. It includes the painful decrease of opportunity for younger teachers and scholars to enter the academic profession, with all that this might portend for the future of learning and of its institutions.

To all of this we may add the malaise that has grown out of the reversal of expectation with which the now-dominant generations in the academic world embarked on their calling, the dimming of confidence in what they might achieve, the apparent decline of public regard for the worth of education and research, and the fear that the tides of excessive specialism in the disciplines of learning and of a narrow vocationalism among its students are pounding at the foundations of the university and its proudest hopes.

These issues have been around for quite a while, and they will persist. They are exacerbated by the tendency of public discourse to treat universities as though they represented a special interest or a single issue group and not to demand sustained discussion of the larger interests to which the special character and work of the university might relate. Yet, at the same time, universities are treated--and all too often act accordingly--as entities that should carry out every function and respond to every concern or problem that might be of interest to citizens in general. They have become overburdened by a multiplicity of expectations, which they cannot or should not try to fulfill if they are to do well what they should aim to do best.

It is not fashionable to point out that a private university is and must act as a special-purpose institution, however broad and deep that purpose might be. The further a university permits itself to depart from that purpose, the further it is from making the difference that is its own and that is in the larger interest. Correspondingly, it diminishes its claim that serious public attention be given to the basic guarantees and support entailed in the realization of its special purpose.

A university is, by definition, given to the pursuit at once of preservation and of discovery, to the task of securing the past and of cultivating its heritage while questioning and reinterpreting inherited assumptions and encouraging the search for new knowledge and understanding to their furthest limits.

A university seeks constancy and continuity in its purpose of the preservation, creation, and dissemination of learning and in the integrity and autonomy of thought and process these require. But, of course, universities always exist in an environment of diverse, competing, and even contradictory demands and of incessantly changing circumstances. Hence, they participate in a complex dynamic that stimulates the unceasing need to renew their enduring purposes and to reinvigorate the institutional conditions that will best fulfill those purposes.

All thinking about education is, to some extent, a commentary on the present and its dilemmas, an expression of hope or interpretation of need or possibility for the future. It is a way of articulating a sense of the priorities that will or should obtain in the future and of the forms of human competence required to meet them, a way of reflecting on the powers and limitations of human intelligence and educability and on the directions that the human commonwealth might or might desirably assume. In the current state of things and with regard to universities, those pictures of the future have become often strangely concretized. We imagine the future as a kind of extension, on life support systems that we are urgently exhorted to create, of the present.

With that fallacy of present-mindedness comes not only an intensified preoccupation with narrowly instrumental views of the higher learning but also what we may term a new consumerism as its offshoot.


My attention was caught, indeed riveted, by the opening words of an article in last month's Chronicle of Higher Education. It began, "The higher education industry can take some lessons from the recent change in the condition of our domestic automobile industry." Later it went on, "Comparisons between higher education and the automobile industry can go only so far. Colleges," said the author, "are not selling cars." Real insight. "They are educating young men and women, but the fact that the institutions will have to redesign, repackage and sell their products does herald a new era for higher education, and the challenges equal the one that confronted the auto industry a decade ago."

The means to this renewal or shift toward the marketplace was described as follows: "Sacred though the cow of a liberal arts education may be, it may no longer be of relative value in the consumer's mind when he or she is making the choice of how to spend money for education. Recent trends have produced a job oriented consumer of higher education. The economy now demands technicians who are specialized and who have the practical skills to make an employer's investment pay off. . . . Higher education must respond to shifting consumer priorities. "

This description of a higher education industry can be easily caricatured as a market analysis of higher education in general. It has, of course, its elements of truth; and, of course, the author may well have great respect for the higher learning as well as for his allegiance to telling it like it is. Nevertheless, his version of the industry has nothing to do, it seems, with scholarship or research, let alone with the development of some power to think or to know, whether for its own sake or for that of an enhanced citizenship or heightened humanity, those values traditionally associated with or invoked in favor of the sacred cow of the liberal arts. The idea seems totally foreign to him that there might be institutions of higher learning whose main purpose is to take an independent stance and a long-term view, and in that way play a more important role, even for industry.

That author's description is the exact opposite of Alfred North Whitehead's description in 1925 of his age as one in which "an individual human being, of ordinary length of life, will be called upon to face novel situations which find no parallel in his past. The fixed person for the fixed duties, who in older societies was such a godsend, in the future will be a public danger." Whitehead wrote that "the modern professionalism in knowledge . . . produces minds in a groove. . . . But there is no groove of abstractions which is adequate for the comprehension of human life. . . . The specialized functions of the community are performed better and more progressively, but the generalized direction lacks vision. . . . [W]e are left with no expansion of wisdom and with greater need of it."

Let me return to the institution of the private research university. Its distinctive character is, of course, lodged in bringing together collegiate, liberal education with graduate and professional education, in combining research and scholarship with teaching, in undertaking to train the educated person and thoughtful citizen together with the lawyer, doctor, theologian, businessman, professor.

It may not work as well as it should, but we have assumed that the research university offers a true--which does not mean, indeed should not mean, comprehensive--universe of learning. Its different neighborhoods, whether they be called English or medicine and however discrete their centers of discipline, enrich and are enriched by the larger community, and each would be poorer without the other. We believe that research and teaching belong together and that their alliance significantly enhances both educational quality and academic vitality. The effort of integrating these disparate parts often seems fragile, especially by light of those constraints and contractions that have overtaken higher education and intensified inherent tensions.

We see, too, that tendency to look back and to devise exemplary images of a past when things were better, better because harmony reigned or specialization was not yet born, better because money flowed and all things seemed possible, better because government abstained from support and hence intrusiveness, better because there was a consensus on a scheme of academic values and because universities knew what they were about. Those are some of the images of the past that are now invoked, but as Thomas Fuller sagely remarked, "The golden age was never the present." After all, if things were so rosy back then, whenever "then" was, why were the Professor Stevensons so regularly upset?

The strains that have coexisted with and that have tempered the attempt to weld universities with their weight of disparate tasks into genuine communities of shared purpose were surely not unknown in our earlier history. We have only to think of the more recent past to recognize that the new consumerism is, in some respects, an old phenomenon writ large.

It is obvious that the 1980s confront the fact that earlier anticipations of uninterrupted growth and steadily increasing abundance have given way to the reality of constraint and of competing claims on scarce resources. The research universities of the 1980s share precisely in those concerns, and on the energy and imagination to address them will depend both the quality and the creativity of academic institutions and also, therefore, in important respects the productive capacities of our society.

Their essential role has to do with establishing the standards of education and of the pursuit of knowledge, with the preservation, assimilation, and extension of our cultural heritage, with stimulating criticism and new ideas, with sustaining an environment of free and rigorous inquiry, with maintaining the quest for intellectual competence, informed judgment, and respect for truth. That role is equally crucial for the worlds of business, government, and the professions, for creating genuine choice and diversity in a democratic society, and for the fuller realization of a civilized existence.

The great universities represent national resources and centers. They cannot be permitted and they cannot permit themselves to concede to a narrow present-mindedness or to nostalgic evasion.


Since the period of expansion that began with World War II, our universities have seen in the past decade a difficult transition. Driven by confident assumptions of continuing growth, that expansion was founded on the conviction that education, both graduate and undergraduate, and research conducted in a university setting would advance the nation's interest, its social objectives, its technical and productive power, its prosperity and security, and its institutional and economic strength. There was a time after the war of exceptional development in the traditional fields of learning as well as in wholly new specialties and programs. It was a time, too, of extraordinary growth in federal support for research and in the range and scope of research activity. The college-age population was increasing, and with it grew also the emphasis on educational opportunity. Graduate programs proliferated, and the numbers of graduate students increased dramatically in response to a perceived need for more entrants into professional careers of teaching and research.

Such, in highly simplified form, were the features of an age of growth, a time, indeed, as we look back on it, of excessive growth. "Higher education," wrote Malcolm Muggeridge in 1966, "is booming in the United States. The Gross National Mind is mounting along with the gross national product."

Our universities must now work to make the necessary adjustments of scale and balance while reasserting their primary academic mission and strength, aiming above all for quality and the momentum and flexibility of choice and risk taking that alone can justify and extend the promise of the research university in the future.

For the 1980s, our challenge is to achieve stability without adhering to the status quo, to counter a lessened confidence in the future of the academic enterprise by making the process of selective choice serve the possibilities of qualitative growth and of new direction, to seize the opportunity for the renewal of the university itself.

I believe that the pessimism that has clouded so much discussion of higher education today is both shortsighted and exaggerated. There is a new kind of building to be done as we affirm again the value of liberal learning, of educational quality, of the discovery and power of knowledge, and of the part private universities can play in expanding the scope of intellectual and institutional freedom.

But, of course, we cannot go forward in the belief that growth and quality are measured by growth in programs or numbers, nor can we go forward by reacting simply to present pressures and crises, by taking survival as our goal, by turning from longer-term goals to short-term panaceas and the nostrums of relevance. That is true in areas of curriculum, both graduate and undergraduate. It is true in the need for the sustenance of an effective structure for training the scholars and teachers of the future. It is true for the criteria by which the choice and pursuit of major areas of research should be carried on.

Universities exist to keep alive and to create subjects and ideas that may not be fashionable and may never be popular and to educate others to understand how and why those things are important. This fundamental sense of the nature of the university needs greater reassertion and continuing attention. In the second century of the research university, its institutions have reached a stage of maturity and have arrived there burdened by too many tasks and demands, by the consequences and distortions of excessive growth and excessive dependence on sources of support that may exercise too great an influence, by the illusion that comprehensiveness is necessary for institutional distinction, and by a widening gap between a style of striving and the resources that can support that style for a long time to come.

Some of these problems are the result of the very success that may have been achieved and of the accomplishment that has transformed our universities into their present institutional maturity, with all the strengths and resilience that implies. The need, therefore, to redefine those academic values that give meaning and life to the university's mission goes hand in hand with the opportunity for speaking in the service of the fundamental truth which all teaching and learning and discovery must strive to express. That truth is the primacy of knowing that we and those whom we attempt to educate must venture into the unknown, that we must come to terms with ambiguity and complexity, and that no question worth asking or judging is simple or clear-cut or isolable from other questions. The critical stance, the long-term look, the will to explore and to identify the difficult relatedness of issues in the imperfect attempt to come to understanding and to choice--that is ultimately what we are about.

It is well to remind ourselves of other words of Whitehead when he said that "the task of the university is the creation of the future, so far as rational thought and civilized modes of appreciation can affect the issue."

If this is not the best of times, it is surely not the worst; for the foundation we have to build on is strong and can be made stronger, and the work to be done in renovating and maintaining the houses in which scholars and students can flourish is infinitely interesting and worthwhile. That work demands the restraint of a considerable humility, and it demands the exercise of integrity in setting out the standards and following the precepts of the higher learning. It requires the principled sustenance of a responsible autonomy for all academic institutions, the refusal to accept conditions that would distort or compromise this overriding requirement, a consistent willingness to undergo the tests of competition without conceding to the consumerist impulse.

It would be pleasant to think that our society, too, has arrived at a point of maturity at which it values the higher learning not simply as an amenity of existence or as a practical tool for producing one or another social good, but as a thing pleasurable and valuable also in itself; namely, the expansion of thought and understanding that carries with it consequences both socially productive and fruitful for the deepened life of a civilized world in aspects both private and public.

Hanna Holborn Gray is the recipient of the AEI Francis Boyer Award for 1982.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine

What's new on AEI

Making Ryan's tax plan smarter
image The teacher evaluation confronts the future
image How to reform the US immigration system
image Inversion hysteria
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 01
  • 02
  • 03
  • 04
  • 05
Wednesday, September 03, 2014 | 9:00 a.m. – 10:30 a.m.
From anarchy to Augustus: Lessons on dealing with disorder, from Rome’s first emperor

We invite you to join us for two panel discussions on how Augustus created order from chaos 2,000 years ago, and what makes for durable domestic and international political systems in the 21st century.

Event Registration is Closed
Wednesday, September 03, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Multiple choice: Expanding opportunity through innovation in K–12 education

Please join us for a book launch event and panel discussion about how a marketplace of education options can help today's students succeed in tomorrow's economy. Attendees will receive a complimentary copy of the featured book.

Thursday, September 04, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
How conservatives can save the safety net

Please join us for a luncheon event in which our panel will discuss what conservatives can learn from how liberals talk and think about the safety net and where free-market economics, federalism, and social responsibility intersect to lift people out of poverty.

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled today.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.