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Commager On Colleges

December 2023
5min read

Of the nearly fourteen hundred senior colleges in the United States, more than eight hundred were founded in the nineteenth century. Considering that there were only two colleges in existence in the seventeenth century (Harvard, 1636; William and Mary, 1693) and but thirty-one more were established in the whole of the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century represented a tremendous leap forward in higher education. And throughout, the American college remained a unique institution. When unrest erupted a few years ago on campuses across the nation, Professor Henry Steele Commager of Amherst (founded 1821), a member of our advisory board and a frequent contributor, saw in that uniqueness the origins of modern student discontent. He described it in an essay, “The Crisis of the University,” which appeared in the Long Island newspaper Newsday in June of 1969. The professor’s perspective is as pertinent today as it was then, and so we are herewith reprinting an excerpt with his and Newsday ’s kind permission.

The phenomenon of student dissent in America has two clear dimensions, though the students themselves are aware of only one of them. Vertically it is rooted in some two centuries of American experience with colleges and universities, experiences quite different from those of Old World nations. Horizontally it reflects the pervasive frustration, outrage, and despair of the young at the Vietnam war, the draft, the armaments race, the destruction of the environment, racial injustice—at all that is implied in that epithet “the establishment.”

It is that heritage that largely ex- plains why the revolt of youth against the establishment is directed toward the university rather than toward government, or parties, or the military, or Dow Chemical or Chase Manhattan or the Automobile Workers of America; it explains, too, why students who revolt against the university claim special exemption because they are part of the university, and demand that it protect them and care for their every need.

The university, as it emerged out of medieval Italy, France, and England and developed over the centuries, had three clear functions. The first was to train young men for essential professions: the church, the law and medicine, and perhaps teaching. The second was to preserve the heritage of the past, and pass it on to future generations intact. The third—first clarified by G’f6ttingen and her sister universities in Germany in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—was to expand the boundaries of knowledge through research. The two ancient universities of England added a fourth which was never quite clear: to train a social elite to the tasks of governance.

Because the American colonials were unable to establish genuine universities, they created instead something quite new: the college—and the college remains, to this day, a unique American institution, occupying a twilight zone between the high school and the university. As American students were very young —boys went to Harvard or Pennsylvania or Yale at the age of twelve or thirteen, though a really bright lad like John Trumbull could pass the entrance examinations to Yale at the age of seven—they had to be treated as children: hence the early practice of in loco parentis and its persistence through the years and even the centuries. As they came from simple middle-class households, without (for the most part) learning or sophistication, they had to be taught elementary subjects, and the plan of study had to be laid out for them with utmost circumspection. Thus the long tradition, still very much with us, that the college is a kind of extension of the high school, that students must be taught everything in formal courses, and that students are intellectually, as well as socially and morally, in statu pupillari .

These characteristics of the American college persisted into the nineteenth century, and when, in the 1860’s, Americans created their first universities, they established them not as substitutes for the colleges, but as continuations of the college, and adapted them, very largely, to collegiate rather than to university standards.

Just as the antecedents of the colleges had been Cambridge and Edinburgh, so the antecedents of the university were Göttingen and Berlin and Leipzig. But this could not last, or, where it did, it produced a kind of academic schizophrenia. Actually the university was bound to develop differently in a democratic and equalitarian society than in an aristocratic society. Because the United States did not have the scores of other institutions to carry on much of the work of science and research, or even of ordinary cultural activities (as did most Old World countries), almost everything that society wanted done in these areas was handed over to the university. Thus the schools of agriculture, of engineering, of library science, of nursing, of hotel management, of business administration, of almost anything that society or government wanted. Thus, too, came the multiversity, the university that did not confine itself merely to four faculties, nor to the traditional functions of professional training and research, but took on the most miscellaneous activities, academic and otherwise.

Thus by the twentieth century the special character of higher education in the United States was pretty well fixed. It was an education that was to be open to all, that was dominated by the collegiate idea, that inevitably took on the habits of in loco parentis . It was required to teach everything that society wanted taught, or that special-interest groups in society were strong enough to get taught; it was expected to acquiesce in the democratic notion that all subjects were equal; and it was expected to respond to all the demands of government or society, to serve these masters in every way that it could serve—as a sanctuary for the young, as a moral training ground, as a social and matrimonial agency, as a social-welfare center, as an agency for entertaining the community, as a center for research in all fields, and as a handmaiden of government. Some of the private institutions escaped the most onerous of these demands, but even they fell easily into the habit of accepting them.

This pattern of the college-university worked well enough as long as almost all elements in the community agreed on the basic assumptions that were implicit in it: that the uni- versity was to “reflect” American life (the current formula is that its student body is supposed to be a reflection of the whole of American society), that it was to train character as well as the mind, that it was to inculcate all the going “values” of American life, that it was, in short, an integral part of the establishment, and that the establishment itself was sound, just, and enlightened. …

But it is not the business of the university to be relevant in the way that a newspaper or a television station is relevant. It is not the business of the university to allow itself to be captured by the immediate, the momentary, the sensational. The university has other relevancies. It is—or should be—relevant to the whole of the past and the whole of the future. It finds a place for scholars who think classical archaeology or the civilization of the Incas is relevant. It finds a place for those who are sure that there can be nothing more relevant than art, music, philosophy. It has, too, another very special function. It must create an atmosphere in which students can discover what is relevant to them, and provide the facilities for them to enlarge that relevance. For relevance is essentially subjective. It is something that happens to an individual as a result of experience. That experience may be hearing a Mozart trio, or solving a difficult problem in mathematics, or getting to know Voltaire or Goethe; it may be falling in love, or having a child, or writing a poem. Do the young really suppose that only Professor Herbert Marcuse or Stokely Carmichael are relevant, only sociology and black studies? All experience is against them, including their own.

The university is the most honorable and the least corrupt institution in American life. It is, with the church, the one institution that associates us with the past and the future, the one institution that has, through all our history, served, or tried to serve, the interests of the whole of mankind and the interests of truth. No other institution can perform the functions that the university performs, no other can fill the place that it has for so long filled, and with such intellectual and moral affluence. If we destroy the university, we will destroy a unique institution. As the integrity of civilization depends in part on the university, we will be dealing an irreparable blow to a civilization now in moral peril.

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