In 1904, while touring the eastern half of the United States, the German sociologist Max Weber encountered an institution that would intrigue him for decades: the American college. Between delivering lectures and finishing the final drafts of what would become The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Weber visited Columbia University, Harvard University, Haverford College, and Northwestern University, among others. On their pretty, well-kept campuses, he found, as he wrote to his wife, Marianne, a fascinating “wild muddle” (“ein wildes Durcheinander”) of education, religion, and socialization. The American college was neither a finishing school for the wealthy nor a training academy for professionals; it was a social institution that performed liturgies, cultivated character, and helped to sustain the culture of a uniquely American capitalism.
[Featured image: Harry Campbell for The Chronicle]
More than a century after Weber’s U.S. tour, the character of our colleges prompts polemical debate. A wave of student protests in 2015 at places like Yale, Middlebury, and the University of Virginia received national media attention. Scrutiny of the political activism and moral lives of American undergraduates and faculty members is an established genre of cultural criticism. From campus novels such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920) and John Williams’s Stoner (1965), which lampoon the pretensions of English professors and the high-minded lasciviousness of fraternity brothers, to the periodic reports in The New York Times on the latest campus crazy, America’s cultural elite keeps up with its alma mater. The four years spent at Middlebury, Yale, or UVa are, as Weber observed, the most “magical memories of youth”—compelling 40-year-olds to return for class reunions and to give money. This nostalgic attachment sustains the scrutiny of campus life. Reading about the latest outrage is like catching up on the family drama at Thanksgiving dinner—an experience of sometimes proud, sometimes repulsed, recognition.
More recently, some scholars have trained their expertise on other domains of campus life. One of the most prominent, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University and an advocate of what he calls “campus-viewpoint diversity,” recently warned that the string of protests in 2015 marked a turning point for higher education. Where previously they had pursued truth as their singular purpose, elite universities now embraced “social justice.” Vaguely appealing to Aristotle, Haidt asserts that universities can’t have two purposes, much less conflicting ones. They have to choose: truth or justice.
In fact, universities have never had just one purpose. They have always pursued multiple, often competing ends. For centuries, they have organized themselves around the maintenance of church doctrine and the education of the clergy and a confessing citizenry, the production of economic value, the formation of citizens (democratic and otherwise), the creation and transmission of knowledge, the maintenance of culture and class. In the 13th century, the University of Paris educated the clergy and sustained a scholarly community; in the 18th century, the University of Göttingen, in Germany, raised funds for the state coffers and created the first scholarly research library; in the late 19th century, the University of Chicago formed democratic citizens and produced scientific research for industry.
[This essay was published November 20, 2018 by The Chronicle of Higher Education as a slightly edited version of this essay first published by Aeon. Download a PDF here.]