Thoughts about the public university (Emerson, Toqueville)

Anthropology, History, Psychology, Sociology and other related areas.

Thoughts about the public university (Emerson, Toqueville)

Postby Marshall on February 15th, 2016, 3:43 pm 

Excerpted from Harper's current issue, essay by Marilynne Robinson

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lecture “The American Scholar,” which he delivered in 1837, implicitly raises radical questions about the nature of education, culture, and consciousness, and about their interactions. He urges his hearers to make the New World as new as it ought to be, urges his audience to outlive the constraints that colonial experience imposed on them and to create the culture that would arise from the full and honest use of their own intellects, minds, and senses. Any speaker might say the same to any audience. Every generation is in effect colonized by its assumptions, and also by the things it re- veres. The future, in American experience, has always implied inevitable departure from the
familiar, together with the possibility of shap­ ing inevitable change. The historical circum­ stances of the country at the time Emerson spoke made vivid what is always true: that there is a frontier, temporal rather than geo­ graphical, which can and surely will be the new theater of old crimes and errors, but can and will also be an enlargement of experience, a region of indeterminacy, of possibility.

In his introduction to Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville says a striking thing about the world that was then unfolding:

"From the moment when the exercise of intelli­gence had become a source of strength and wealth, each step in the development of science, each new area of knowledge, each fresh idea had to be viewed as a seed of power placed within people’s grasp. Poetry, eloquence, memory, the beauty of wit, the fires of imagination, the depth of thought, all these gifts which heaven shares out by chance turned to the advantage of democracy and, even when they belonged to the enemies of democracy, they still promoted its cause by highlighting the natural grandeur of man. Its victories spread, therefore, alongside those of civilization and education.”

Tocqueville, like Emerson, stood at a cusp of history where literacy and democracy were as­ suming an unprecedented importance in the civilization of the West. Though not unambiv­ alent in his feelings about democracy, Tocque­ ville did see it as based on “the natural gran­deur of man,” and brought to light by education. Poetry, eloquence, memory, wit, the fires of imagination, the depth of thought: these are mentioned as rarely now as the object or effect of education as “the natural grandeur of man” is mentioned as a basis of our culture or politics.

Emerson was speaking at a moment when col­ leges were being founded all across America—my own university, Iowa, in 1847. At that time the great Frederick Law Olmsted was putting his aes­thetic blessing on our public spaces, and notably on college campuses. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “campus” as an Americanism. The conventions established in the early nineteenth century have persisted in the meadows and gar­ dens and ponds that celebrate, if only out of habit, these cities of the young, these local capitals of learning and promise. Olmsted, like Emerson, would have seen something like the emergence of brilliant individuality in unexpected places that Tocqueville describes. This individu­ality was strongly potential in Amer­ ican life, though as yet suppressed, according to Emerson, by a preoc­ cupation with the practical, with trade and enterprise, and suppressed as well by a colonial deference to the culture of Europe. Like Tocqueville, Emerson is proposing an anthropol­ ogy, proposing that there is a splen­ dor inherent in human beings that is thwarted and hidden by a depriva­ tion of the means to express it, even to realize it in oneself. The celebra­ tion of learning that was made visi­ ble in its spread into the territories and the new states must have taken some part of its character from the revelation of the human gifts that education brought with it. It is inter­ esting to see what persists over time, and interesting to see what is lost.

For those to whom Emerson is speaking, who have made a good account of themselves as students at Harvard, deprivation is the effect of an unconscious surrender, a failure to aspire, to nd in oneself the grandeur that could make the world new. We know these people. In fact we are these people, proudly sufficient to expectations, our own and others’, and not much inclined to wonder whether these expectations are not rather low. We have, of course, accustomed ourselves to a new anthropology, which is far too sere to accommodate anything like gran­ deur, and which barely acknowledges wit, in the nineteenth­century or the modern sense. Eloquence might be obfuscation, since the main project of the self is now taken by many specialists in the field to be the concealment of selfish motives. How do we define imagination these days, and do we still associate it with fires? Unless it is escape or delusion, it seems to have little relevance, for good or ill, to the needs of the organism. So, like character, like the self, imagination has no doubt by now been de ned out of existence. We leave it to a cadre of specialists to describe human nature—a phrase that by their account no doubt names yet another nonexistent thing. At best, these specialists would show no fond- ness for human nature if they did concede its existence, nor do they allow to it any of the traits that it long found ingratiating in itself. This is so true that the elimination of the pleasing, the poignant, the tragic from our self-conception—I will not mention brilliance or grandeur—would seem to be the object of the exercise. Plume-plucked humankind. Tocqueville and Emerson might be surprised to find us in such a state, after generations of great freedom, by the standards of history, and after the vast elaboration of resources for learning in every field.

Indeed, it is this vast elaboration, epito- mized in the American university, that proves we once had a loftier view of ourselves, and it is a demonstration of the change in our self-conception that our universities no longer make sense to legislatures and to “people of in uence”—a phrase that, in our moment, real- ly does mean moneyed interests. Traditional centers of in uence—churches, unions, rele- vant professionals—have lost their place in public life, or, speaking here of those churches that do maintain a public presence, they have merged their in uence with the moneyed inter- ests. From the perspective of many today, the great public universities (and many of them are very great) are like beached vessels of unknown origin and intention, decked out preposterously with relics and treasures that are ripe for loot- ing, insofar as they would nd a market, or con- demned to neglect and decay, insofar as their T cash value is not obvious to the most stringent calculation.

There has been a fundamental shift in American consciousness. The Citizen has be- come the Taxpayer. In consequence of this shift, public assets have become public bur- dens. These personae, Citizen and Taxpayer, are both the creations of political rhetoric. (It now requires an unusual degree of historical awareness to know that both politics and rhetoric were once honorable things.) An impor- tant aspect of human circumstance is that we can create effective reality merely by consent- ing to the phantasms of the moment or of the decade. While the Citizen can entertain aspi- rations for the society as a whole and take pride in its achievements, the Taxpayer, as presently imagined, simply does not want to pay taxes. The societal consequences of this aversion—failing infrastructure, for example— are to be preferred to any inroad on his or her monetary efdom, however large or small. Like limits on so-called Second Amendment rights, this is a touchy point. Both sensitivities, which are treated as though they were protections against centralization and collectivism, are having profound consequences for our society as a whole, and this without meaningful public debate, without referendum.

Citizenship, which once implied obligation, is now deflated. It is treated as a limited good that ought to be limited further. Of course, the de- gree to which the Citizen and the Taxpayer ever existed, exist now, or can be set apart as distinct types is a question complicated by the fact that they are imposed on public consciousness by in- terest groups, by politicians playing to constitu- encies, and by journalism that repeats and rein- forces unre ectingly whatever gimmicky notion is in the air. It can be said, however, that when- ever the Taxpayer is invoked as the protagonist in the public drama, a stalwart defender of his own, and a past and potential martyr to a cul- ture of dependency and governmental over- reach, we need not look for generosity, imagina- tion, wit, poetry, or eloquence. We certainly need not look for the humanism Tocqueville saw as the moving force behind democracy.

I will put aside a fact that should be too obvi- ous to need stating: that America has done well economically, despite passing through dif cult periods from time to time, as countries will. It would be very hard indeed to make the case that the Land Grant College Act, the 1862 federal law that gave us many of our eminent public uni- versities, has done us any economic harm, or that the centrality of the liberal arts in our edu- cation in general has impeded the country’s de- velopment of wealth. True, a meteor strike or some equivalent could put an end to everything tomorrow. But if we were obliged to rebuild our- selves we could not nd a better model for the creation of wealth than our own history. I do not mean to suggest that wealth is our defining achievement, or that it is the first thing we should protect. But since money is the measure of all things these days it is worth pointing out that there are no grounds for regarding our edu- cational culture as in need of rationalization—it must be clear that I take exception to this use of A the word—to align it with current economic doctrine.

All this sidesteps the old Kantian distinction—whether people are to be dealt with as means or as ends. The argument against our way of educating is that it does not produce workers who are equipped to compete in the globalized economy of the future. This has to be as blunt a statement as could be made about the urgency, currently felt in some quarters and credulously received and echoed everywhere, that we should put our young to use to promote competitive adequacy at a national level, to whose pro t or bene t we are never told. There is no suggestion that the gifts young Americans might bring to the world as individuals stimulat- ed by broad access to knowledge might have a place or value in this future, only that we should provide in place of education what would better be called training.

If all educational institutions feel this pressure to some degree, public institutions feel it most continuously and profoundly. A university like mine, founded almost 170 years ago, before Iowa even had much in the way of corn elds, gives unambiguous evidence of the kinds of hopes that lay behind its establishment and sustained it through many generations. From an early point the University of Iowa emphasized the arts. It was founded while Emerson was active, and at about the time Tocqueville was pub- lished, and can fairly be assumed to have shared their worldview. The same is true of many public universities in America. Accepting creative work toward a graduate degree—the M.F.A. as we know it now—was an Iowa innovation. My own program, the Writers’ Workshop, is the old- est thing of its kind on the planet. People do ask me from time to time why Iowa is in Iowa. For the same reason Bloomington is in Indiana, no doubt. If we were better pragmatists, we would look at the fact that people given a relatively blank slate, the prairie, and a pool of public resources (however modest) are at least as desirous of the wonderful as of the pro table or necessary. Atavism is a potent force in human history. The pull of the retrograde, an almost physical recoil, is much more potent than mere backslid- ing, and much more consequential than partial progress or awed reform. The collective mind can nd itself reinhabited by old ideas unwill- ingly, almost unconsciously. A word around which retrograde thinking often constellates is “elitist.” Liberal education was for a very long time reserved to an elite—whence the word “liberal,” be tting free men—who were a small minority in Western societies. Gradually, ex- cept by the standards of the world at large, Americans began democratizing privilege. As Tocqueville remarks, heaven shares out by chance those high gifts of intellect and culture that had previously been associated arbitrarily with status and advantage, which are now man- ifest as a vastly more generous endowment. We need only allow the spread of learning to see the potential for brilliance in humankind.

But the memory persists that the arts were once social attainments and that the humani- ties suited one to positions of authority. What use could this education be to ordinary people? What claim should something of such doubtful utility have on the public purse? Or, to look at the matter from another side, why should an English class at the University of Wisconsin be as excellent as an English class at Stanford University, for a mere fraction of the cost? The talk about “top-tier universities,” about sup- posed rankings, that we hear so often now creates an economics of scarcity in the midst of an astonishing abundance. And it helps to justify assaults on great public resources, of the kind we have seen recently in Wisconsin, under Scott Walker, and elsewhere. Public universities are stigmatized as elitist because they continue in the work of democratizing privilege, of opening the best thought and the highest art to anyone who wants access to them. They are attacked as elitist because their tuition goes up as the support they receive from the gov- ernment goes down. The Citizen had a country, a community, children and grandchildren, even—a word we no longer hear—posterity. The Taxpayer has a 401(k). It is no mystery that the former could be glad to endow monu- mental libraries, excellent laboratories, concert halls, arboretums, and baseball fields, while the latter simply can’t see the profit in it for himself.

There is pressure to transform the public university so that less cost goes into it and more benefit comes out—as such things are reckoned in terms of contemporary economic thinking. That this economics could be so overbearingly sure of itself ought to be remarkable given re- cent history, but its voice is magnified in the void left by the default of other traditional centers of authority. In any case, whether and how we educate people is still a direct reflection of the degree of freedom we expect them to have, or want them to have. Since printing became established in the West and the great usefulness of literacy began to be recognized, it has been as characteristic of cultures to withhold learning as it has to promote it. Many cultures do both, selectively, and their discrimination has had profound effects that have persisted into the present, as they will certainly persist into the future. In most Western cultures the emergence of literacy in women lagged far behind literacy in men, and in many parts of the world women are still forbidden or discouraged from reading and writing, even though limiting them in this way radically slows economic development, among other things.

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I think Harper's offers a limited number of articles per month to non-subscribers. It might be possible to use this link to get the whole article which has a lot more in it than this excerpt.
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Re: Thoughts about the public university (Emerson, Toquevill

Postby Paul Anthony on November 9th, 2016, 1:43 pm 

Has the grand experiment of educating the masses succeeded? An interesting op-ed today:
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