Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Role of Academia in Tumultuous Times

The other day I found myself, as one does, reading speeches given 50 years ago by Edward Levi, who was then the president of the University of Chicago. Here are some thoughts from "The University and the Modern Condition," which was delivered to the University of Chicago Citizen's Board on November 16, 1967, and reprinted in his 1969 collection Point of View: Talks on Education (magically available via Google Books). It is both comforting and disheartening that many of his comments could be delivered essentially unchanged by a speaker a half-century later.
"Our society is flooded with communications. The acceptance of myths and aphorisms is not a new phenomenon, of course. But the increase in the printed word, the rise in literacy, the development of new means of communication all give rise to new burdens as well as opportunities. George Bernard Shaw had over his fireplace the motto, `They say. What say they? Let them say.' Instead of this skepticism, we ask: `How often do they say it?' and `How many say it?' The test of an idea becomes the frequency with which it is repeated. This is not a test which promotes rational discussion. It is a setting in which the waves and tides of popular thought, the acceptance of a false inevitability as to points of view, have magnified importance. It is a climate, and this is particularly true in matters dealing with education, where it is axiomatic that any poor idea will be catching. Popular discussion has never been enough, and it is tragic for a society if that is all the discussion there is.
"Rational discussion itself is suspect. Our society is fascinated with the manipulative techniques of persuasion, coercion, and power. The sense of injustice, which all must prize, is subject to manipulation. The devastating reality and complexity of the problems to be faced, the unattainability of goals, and, tragically, even progress made--all feed the sense of injustice. The solutions call for the highest intellectual powers of man, but the excitement of victories, the frustrations of defeat, the comradeship of belonging, question these powers. The concept of reason itself appears as an artificial attempt to separate intellectual powers from the frustrations, emotions, and accidents which cause events; the concept of reason is viewed as a facade to prevent change. ...
"The position has been taken more than once that the purpose of a university is to be in effect a launching pad for a variety of political movements. ... [T]he temptation to view students as an interesting resource is great. The response of universities to the characteristics of our era must take into account the purposes of universities and the kinds of contributions they can make. Universities are among the important institutions in our society, but there are other important institutions. ... The fact that there is an unmet need does not mean that a university is best equipped to take it on. ...
"Perhaps, then, one should ask, `What is the service of this university?' The answer is traditional and old-fashioned. Its greatest service is in its commitment to reason, in its search for basic knowledge, in its mission to preserve and to give continuity to the values of mankind's many cultures. In a time when the intellectual values are denigrated, this service was never more required. ...  The university's role is not based on a conception of neutrality or indifference to society's problems, but an approach to the problems through the only strength which a university is entitled to assert. It is a conservative role because it values cultures and ideas, and reaffirms the basic commitment to reason. It is revolutionary because of its compulsion to discover and to know. It is modest because it recognizes that the difficulties are great and the standards demanding."