U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Thorstein Veblen’s rant à clef

I have been keeping company with Veblen.  He may wince not, but I sure do — that is, when I’m not laughing out loud at his mordant wit.  His savagely brilliant sarcasm has a bite far worse than its bark.  I would not want to be on the receiving end of such a scathing polemic as he delivers in The Higher Learning in America.*  This has been a fierce, fun read.
Given the new direction I am pursuing for my dissertation, it is especially helpful for me to read Veblen in order to begin to historicize the ideal of the ivory tower  — the notion of the disinterested pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, the community of scholarly inquiry, etc.  That idea is not timeless (none of them are!); it was new to Veblen’s time (or so he argued), and he wrote this polemic to contend for it.  Also quite helpful is Veblen’s speculation on the place of the American university following the War.  In a remarkable section near the end of his introductory chapter, Veblen suggests that the American university will occupy a “strategic position” with “command” of resources, materiel and personnel in order to defend the way of learning and serve as a “provisional headquarters for the academic community throughout that range of civilized peoples whose goodwill they enjoy” (52-53).  Certainly Veblen is borrowing his metaphor from his times, suggesting that the university will be on a war footing.  Nevertheless, his suggestion of the university as “strategic” points the way, I think, for both William F. Buckley and the Port Huron authors, as well as the cultural combatants of the 1980s and 1990s.  Veblen is staking out the ground of the culture wars right here, in 1918. 

Even in his own time, what Veblen meant by “the higher education learning” — what he wanted it to mean in the public mind —  was something altogether different than what “the university” had come to signify by the early 20th century in America.  By Veblen’s reckoning, the American university combined two different missions within one institutional framework:  undergraduate collegiate instruction and graduate training in scientific research.  “While it is the work of science and scholarship, roughly what is known in American usage as graduate work, that gives the university its rank as a seat of learning and keeps it in countenance as such with laymen and scholars,” Veblen writes, “it is the undergraduate school, or college, that still continues to be the larger fact, and that still engages the greater and more immediate attention in university management.” (100) His notion of what “the layman” understood a university to signify may not be correct — which is a big problem for Veblen’s argument, as I will explain below.  But his perception of where university administrators lavished their energies and attention is, I think, correct enough. 
The reasons that Veblen gives for what he considers to be this inordinate focus on “the perfunctory work of the undergraduate department” boil down to money and market share — money from donors, a market share in enrollments and in the “immaterial capital” (106) that in turn attracts donors and enrollments in an ever-expansionistic cycle.  “The motive to this inclusion of an undergraduate department in the newer universities,” he writes in his introduction “appears commonly to have been a headlong eagerness to show a complete establishment of the conventionally accepted pattern, and to enroll as many students as possible” (24).  He lays out his case in more detail in a chapter on “The Academic Administration,” where he gives the reader university presidents and administrators as “captains of erudition,” earnest epigones of the captains of industry who form the donor class that founded or funded the new American universities — Stanford, University of Chicago and the like.  Of course, Veblen was famously fired from both places, among others (and this is not even counting the places at which he was famously not hired), a bit of personal history to which he alludes only obliquely but which gives his text — and especially his footnotes — a great deal of vituperative power. 
When Veblen wants to cite a particularly egregious example of some more general tendency he is describing, he takes to his footnotes and regales the reader with the damning details, names redacted.  This practice, which accounts for much of the fun of the book, turns it into what I have called a rant à clef.  One would have to read this text in tandem with scholarly biographies of Veblen and institutional histories of the various major universities in order to know for sure exactly which scandal Veblen invokes in which footnote. 
Here’s a representative instance of Veblen’s passive-aggressive pique.  In his aforementioned chapter on academic administration, Veblen writes of university professors with no job protection, fireable at a whim by the university president. “They have eaten his bread,” Veblen says of the professors, “and it is for them to do his bidding….It is needless to remark on what is a fact of common notoriety, that this rule drawn from the conduct of competitive business is commonly applied without substantial abatement in the conduct of academic affairs” (91).  But this needless remark becomes the occasion of a half-page footnote, in which Veblen describes the administrative backlash against faculty who protested the “underhanded dismissal of a scholar of high standing and long service, who had incurred the displeasure of the president then in charge, by overt criticism of the administration.”  In this instance, it seems fairly clear that he is describing the firing of Edward Alsworth Ross from Stanford. 
More generally, for many of Veblen’s coolly enraged footnotes, it seems like a fifty-fifty shot:  he’s either talking about Stanford or University of Chicago.  However, he does allude to other incidents at other schools, public and private, but much of this telling detail is lost on this reader, at any rate.  I bet Julie Reuben knows exactly which incidents he is referring to; her study of the emergence of the American university from (roughly) the end of Reconstruction to the close of the Progressive era — The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality — is the indispensable guide to the history of higher education in this period.  However, as far as I can recall, Reuben does not spend any ink specifically discussing Veblen’s ideas and ideals of higher education. 
There is a stubborn idealism behind Veblen’s most savage critique, an idealism that dates even his most prescient observations.   To be sure, everywhere Veblen looks, he sees the marketplace encroaching on the academy — universities run as businesses, education commodified and mass-produced under Tayloristic principles for maximum profitability.  All this in 1918.  In good Pragmatic fashion — a fashion which Veblen, it seems to me, might not be altogether happy to sport, but which marks him nonetheless as exemplifying the style of his age — Veblen argues that due attention to the “incursion of business principles into the academic community” (95) might be able to hold back the tide of inimical change.  It might still be possible, in Veblen’s view, to do something about “the drift of things.”  But, as I said, that’s not idealism; that’s Pragmatism.
Where Veblen’s idealism shows itself is his conviction (but a conviction of believing, or of trying to believe?) that society will always place somevalue on what he calls “idle” knowledge — by which he means knowledge pursued for its own sake, knowledge that has no market value.  Veblen believed that there was something (almost?) timeless about the human quest for knowledge, something that would ultimately preserve it from total absorption by the market — he believed there was a broad communal conviction “such as will not enduringly tolerate the sordid effects of pursuing an educational policy that looks mainly to the main chance, and unreservedly makes the means of life its chief end.  By virtue of this long-term idealist drift, any seminary of learning that plays fast and loose in this way with the cultural interests entrusted to its keeping loses caste and falls out of the running” (42).  There’s the idealism: that persistent Arnoldian notion of “cultural interests” above the sordid business of “the main chance.”  Veblen was able to imagine a world in which the very highest reaches of the ivory tower were out of the market’s reach — which marks him off as a son of his own time, but not a seer of ours.
Thorstein Veblen, The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum of the Conduct of Universities by Business Men [1918]. Introduction by David Riesman (Stanford: Academic Reprints, 1954).  Page numbers for citations from Veblen’s text are given in parentheses in the body of this post.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Although he was not necessarily a representative thinker of the time, Veblen in many ways represented the Progressive Era tension between the idea that institutions of knowledge production should be protected from the market yet their products should be valued (by a society obsessed with markets). I argue that this is how we ended up with college athletics. Universities wanted to engage the popular culture marketplace at the same time they professed that the knowledge they created–and the people who did the creating–were located outside of that market. So they used the new departmental structure to get around this paradox. Athletic departments–unlike other departments–explicitly operated within the marketplace. College football’s appeal to the non-academic commercial marketplace, of course, was a big part of the reason why Veblen hated it so much.

    Shameless plugs for my book aside, I should note that E.A. Ross was fired from Stanford less because he critiqued the administration and more because he was reported to have said things in the press that were unfriendly to the political beliefs of the founder’s wife and then-sole trustee, Jane Stanford. Unfortunately, though, I cannot be constructive and say to whom or to what Veblen was likely referring in that passage quoted above!

  2. Brian, thanks for your insight.

    I find it very interesting that you suggest Veblen was “not necessarily a representative thinker of the time.” It seems to me that you’re not alone in this judgment. In mulling over Veblen, I decided to revisit some of the readings I’ve already done. Veblen doesn’t get a lot of play in either Livingston or Lears. On the other hand, Borus gives Veblen some sustained attention as one who challenged visions of unity and an economic order rooted in nature. As I mentioned in my post, Veblen’s participant-observer take on the emergence/mutation of the American university don’t make it to the page in Reuben’s brilliant study. So in the GA/PE literature I have looked at so far — and in other syntheses, like Cremin’s study of higher ed in the 20th century — Veblen is not only not a “representative thinker,” but he’s not usually even invoked as a foil for “representative” thought. So I find myself facing the problem that so many of Veblen’s employers and colleagues faced: what am I supposed to do with Thorstein? Not sure yet.

    And there’s the larger question: what do we mean by a “representative thinker”?

    On the dismissal…I thought Ross was canned for grousing about Leland Stanford’s reliance on Chinese labor (though not out of any love for Chinese labor, as I recall) — or maybe I have him confused with someone else, or the circumstances of his firing mixed up. In any case, I’ll try to find a googlebooks pagelink that shows Veblen’s full footnote. It may not have been Ross, or it may have suited Veblen’s purposes to re-frame the conflict as scholar v. administrator. But if it isn’t a Stanford story, it ought to be.

  3. Here is a link to the full footnote via googlebooks: page 91

    It probably isn’t a Stanford story, since Veblen calls the institution “one of the greater universities” — though of course that could be very tongue-in-cheek. But he usually gets in a dig at Stanford/UChicago by emphasizing their newness and their origins in the bequests of captains of industry/business.

    Anyhow, here is Veblen’s pique on display. I suppose his fellow academics would have known exactly what he was referencing.

  4. LD: Thanks for responding in so much depth. Regarding Veblen, you ask a good question about why we do not usually see him as a representative thinker. I am not sure if I have a good answer, other than to say that when you put him alongside some of the other prominent social scientists of his day–especially many of Richard T. Ely’s students, such as E.A. Ross, John Common, and Frederick Jackson Turner–he definitely seems out of the mainstream. I guess a good question to ask is whether he seems unrepresentative for a reason other than the actual content of his thought: such as his pedigree, his career trajectory, his reputation as a gadfly, or the cynical tone of some of his most famous writings. It could be that his analyses of society were really not all that different, but he was outside of the circle of more self-consciously “progressive” thinkers like Ross. Keep in mind, though, that I am coming at this topic from the perspective of having analyzed such thinkers’ writings on college football; Ross and others were *much* more positive about sport’s potential benefits for higher education than Veblen was.

    Regarding Ross, you are right that he was dismissed for purportedly critiquing Leland Stanford’s use of inexpensive Chinese labor (although Ross claimed he was misquoted in the press). However, the problem was more with Jane Stanford than with the university administration per se (I am using a narrow definition of “administration” here). David Starr Jordan, Stanford’s president, initially supported Ross but then backtracked and condemned him once he (Jordan) realized that Jane Stanford wanted Ross gone from “her” university. Then Jordan started spreading the notion that Ross was an immature, unprofessional scholar so that the university could emerge from the ensuing academic freedom debacle without too many scars. If you ever have the chance, check out the Ross Controversy Papers at Stanford. It’s fascinating. Josiah Royce even contributed to the discussion at one point.

    Finally, I looked at the footnote you referenced and without cross-referencing _University Control_, I would guess it is something that happened at Columbia, with Nicholas Murray Butler being the offending administrator. At first I assumed it was J. McKeen Cattell, but I don’t think he was dismissed before Veblen published _Higher Learning in America_.

    In any case, thanks for blogging on this topic. I don’t think _Higher Learning_ gets as much attention as it should. After all, even though Veblen worked on it for a long time, it didn’t come out until the twilight of his career, when the universities built during the Progressive Era were undergoing profound changes due to the first World War.

  5. Mystery solved! Thank you, Brian.

    On trotting out this under-discussed text of Veblen’s — you’re welcome. It’s on my exam list, which has been constructed not only to give me a good grounding in the field of USIH, but to lay the groundwork for dissertation research. It’s all about killing birds with stones.

    I’ll be reading _Theory of the Leisure Class_ in a few weeks for a seminar, so Veblen may make another appearance here on the blog. In fact, my reading between now and winter break will be mostly Gilded Age/Progressive Era — Adams, James, Addams, DuBois et al, along with Kloppenberg, Higham, R. Rosenberg. So maybe by the end of the semester I’ll be able to answer the question of whether and to what extent Veblen might rightly be considered a representative thinker.

    On that topic…

    On the one hand, whether someone is representative depends on what we are looking for a representation of. One could say that Veblen doesn’t represent the main current of thought on a particular topic. On the other hand, Veblen is very much in the currents of thought in his time, even if he is trying to swim across them, so I think you can see the pull of those currents in his work, as you suggested above.

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