Around nine in the evening on the night of August 11, 2017, over three hundred torch-wielding white supremacists marched two by two across my backyard, chanting “You will not replace us” and “Anti-black.” As our children huddled in our darkened house, my wife and I followed the khaki-clad men and women as they marched away from our house, onto the Lawn, and up the steps of the Rotunda. Eventually they assembled around a statue of Thomas Jefferson, the founding father, the slaveholder, and the architect of the grounds of the University of Virginia, where I teach and, since just August 1, live with my family.
As an epithet for the university, “alma mater”—nourishing mother—has proved unfortunately apt. Like modern-day mothers, universities are subjected to impossible expectations and draconian judgment. Professors assiduously avoid administrative work but rail against the overhiring of administrators and encroachments on faculty self-governance. Students expect expansive support services and state-of-the-art recreational facilities but express outrage over the fees that help pay for them. Politicians wax indignant over everything from professors’ teaching schedules to admissions policies and the university’s defining pursuits, such as inquiry not tied to practical aims. Journalists proclaim that resistance to change has made our universities obsolete, when they’re not complaining that they’ve changed too much, too fast. But as long as the American university has existed in its modern shape, one lament has stood out—that of the melancholy mandarins.
In 1637, René Descartes recounted a “fable” of how he came to think well. From his youth, he had read the books of the ancients, exercised his rhetorical skills, and observed the debates of philosophers and theologians. But in all this learning he found no rest or certainty, only endless disputes and puffed-up opinions. “Nothing solid,” he concluded, “could have been built on such unfirm foundations.” Once he escaped the control of his schoolteachers, he abandoned the “study of letters” and resolved to seek no knowledge other than what he could find in “the great book of the world”—collecting experiences and testing himself “in the encounters that fortune offered me.”
Ten years ago, the Higher Education Funding Council for England decided to “assess” the quality of research in universities across Britain by putting in place a new system, the Research Excellence Framework. In 2014, the Council and its institutional partners released a report that included evaluations of almost 200,000 “research outputs” — including journal articles, books, and conference proceedings. Since then academics on both sides of the Atlantic have ridiculed the REF, as the framework is known, as a bureaucratic boondoggle that values quantity over quality.
In 1917 a group of German university students invited the renowned sociologist Max Weber to Munich to participate in a lecture series entitled “intellectual work as vocation” [geistige Arbeit als Beruf]. The students met weekly in the backroom of a bookstore as the Bavarian chapter of the National Federation of Independent Student Groups, a loose association of students established around 1900 to make sense of the radical changes German universities had undergone in a matter of decades.
Around 9 p.m. on Friday, I opened my kitchen door to chants and flickering lights. After telling my kids to stay inside, I scrambled over a stone wall and down a brick stairwell to find torch-bearing men and women clad in white polo shirts and khakis, chanting “You will not replace us” and “Anti-Black.” They marched in cadence, two by two, as far as I could see.
The modern research university is under intense scrutiny. Some critics argue that with student debt at unsustainable levels, it is ripe for “disruption” by new digital technologies and the Internet. Some state legislatures seem eager to remake public research universities as institutions whose sole focus is teaching— the teaching, that is, of preprofessional and vocational fields. And within the academy, the professorial critique of the university has become a distinct genre. Continue reading