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 . 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.