U.S. Intellectual History Blog

This Powerful Optimistic Myth

The following passage from Laurence R. Veysey, The Emergence of the American University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965; paperback, 1970), pp. 334-338, gets at a lot of the issues I am grappling with in my current chapter, and in my dissertation project as a whole, and in my on-again, off-again hope to continue to participate in the life of the university beyond the conferral of my PhD.  And I suspect that it might resonate with many of our readers here as well — though that could be wishful (or mournful?) thinking on my part.

Here Veysey is writing about the American university circa 1910.  But his overall argument (emphasized in the section immediately following what I have quoted below) is that “by 1910 the structure of the American university had assumed its stable twentieth-century form” (338).  Granted, he wrote that in 1965, and the question of just how “stable” the structuring logic of the American university as a social institution has remained since the mid-1960s (or the mid-1980s) is very much up for debate.  But even in times when “everything changes,” not everything changes.  And I’m very curious to know if Veysey’s take on how the university used to be bears any resemblance to readers’ understanding or experience of how the university is.

Anyway, here’s the (long) passage from Veysey:

For those who did feel compelled to attach themselves to the university, whether for four years or for a lifetime, the sense of personal maneuverability had its important limits.  These limits were likely to be reached at moments of frustrated expectation and to reveal themselves in undergraduate hedonism or in aggressive assertion of faculty privilege.  Major strains arose within a relatively homogenous social group, and did so despite the several built-in sanctions toward not taking matters too seriously.  For the institution was compulsory enough in its character that its internal conflicts could seem to threaten rather serious results.

Still more, then, needs to be said about why the university ‘worked.’ The cohesion of the university crucially depended on the incentives which the institution could uniquely provide for each of its component groups.  To each one of its disparate elements the university offered something sufficiently enticing to keep it where it was and, year by year, to attract its replacements.  For two of the three major components, the incentives are evident enough.  Students were moved by parental pressures, the prestige of the degree, and the prospect of a ‘jolly’ and relatively undisturbed life, so long as high academic standards were not insisted upon.  For the administrator, in turn, there were all the satisfactions of dignity and power, all the usual rewards of public prominence.  These gratifications are too understandable to require much comment.

The incentives which operated upon the faculty member, however, are less readily apparent.  To begin with, of course, the professor, like the academic executive, received a desirable though a lesser degree of prestige.  For some of the faculty, no doubt, the fact that they were earning a living in a respectable fashion constituted sufficient grounds for contentment.  But one suspects that had this been the principal motive, the ranks of professors would have been filled with lesser men.  To attract the kind of person who so often did serve at the prominent institutions – and at the same time to give him comparatively little power over the basic direction of the establishment – certain less tangible satisfactions were needed.  Doubtless, for some of the faculty, these were preponderantly the satisfactions required by an insecure personality.  For a minority of sometimes gifted individuals, the university offered a place of retreat.  It could be a haven for the shy, the temperamental, and the painfully sensitive.  There were undeniable instances of professors who could not possibly have earned a steady income in any other institutional setting, and for them the disjointed quality of the academic structure was its incomparable blessing.  It gave them the opportunity to steady themselves in an atmosphere of relative tolerance.  But again, the majority of the outstanding professors were not men of this sort.  The usual professor required a rather more ordinary incentive, although an incentive sufficiently uncommon to explain why, as an intelligent man, he did not seek the greater monetary rewards of some other endeavor.  Such an incentive he found in the belief that he was influencing other minds, either in the classroom, in his published investigations, or in both.

As we now know, only a handful of American professors in this period were as influential as they liked to think.  Most faculty researches stand unopened on the shelves of university libraries a half-century later, since in the interim nearly every field has turned its attention to newer problems for inquiry.  And as far as the classroom was concerned, one need only reflect upon the imperviousness of student mores and the defiantly non-abstract lives which the undergraduates led at the time.  As Randolph Bourne lamented in 1911, ‘Most of these young men come…from homes of conventional religion, cheap literature, and lack of intellectual atmosphere, bring few intellectual acquisitions with them [to college], and, since they are most of them going into business,…contrive to carry a minimum away with them.’

These were unpleasant facts.  Numerous arguments could be used to soften them or drive them out of existence, and it is not surprising that most American professors at the turn of the century did not care to see the academic picture in this light.  It was far more flattering to assume that higher education was reasonably effective in penetrating the minds who experienced it.  This assumption led to another optimistic inference: that formal education constituted a remedy for the important problems which society faced.  Only to a few men did it then occur to question these beliefs.  William James was well aware that he spoke out heretically against the essential faith of President Eliot and most other educators when in effect he denied the malleability of the young mind to virtue as it was then being inculcated in the classroom.  ‘We see college graduates on every side of every public question,’ James pointed out.  ‘Some of Tammany’s staunchest supporters are Harvard men. Harvard men defend our treatment of our Filipino allies as a masterpiece of policy and morals.  Harvard men, as journalists, pride themselves on producing copy for any side that may enlist them.  There is not a public abuse for which some Harvard advocate may not be found.’ More directly, and in the same vein, J. Franklin Jameson wrote in his diary in 1884: ‘You may think you are going to exert great influence over a considerable body of young men, wake them to enthusiasm, and greatly contribute to their political education.  But the fact is, that you exercise no influence over them, [and] they have no enthusiasm.’ In an age when the power of ideals to realize themselves progressively through education was taken for granted, James and Jameson had uttered blasphemies.  Such doubts as theirs struck so deeply at the root of the entire academic enterprise that they could only be ignored.

Yet as one glances over the whole range of the academic structure which had developed, noting the disparity of the motives which cemented it from top to bottom, it is difficult to avoid concluding that the institution would have fallen apart had not this powerful optimistic myth captured the minds of its middle [i.e., faculty] ranks.  The same myth, to be sure, could be found at the top and at the bottom and among the students’ parents.  But for those who stood at both ends of the academic hierarchy, there were sufficient inducements of a more tangible sort.  Only in the middle was belief in the myth an absolute necessity for producing the result.

The success of the American university, despite its internal incoherence, is best explained as the product of a working combination of interests, only one of which (the faculty’s) was inescapably linked to values which the university could uniquely promise to realize.  The combination of interests worked, it might be further hazarded, because the various participants were sufficiently unaware of the logic of the total situation in which they found themselves.  The fact that students were frequently pawns of their parents’ ambitions was meliorated by the romantically gregarious tone of the undergraduate.  The fact that professors were rarely taken as seriously by others as they took themselves was hidden by their rationalistic belief in the power of intellectual persuasion, direct or eventual, and was further concealed by all the barriers to frank dialogue which are stylized into courtesy.  Those at the top, in their turn, were shielded by a hypnotic mode of ritualistic idealism which will be explored in the next chapters.  Tacitly obeying the need to fail to communicate, each academic group normally refrained from too rude or brutal an unmasking of the rest.  And in this manner, without major economic incentives and without a genuine sharing of ideals, men labored together in what became a diverse but fundamentally stable institution.

The university throve, as it were, on ignorance.  Or, if this way of stating it seems unnecessarily paradoxical, the university throve on the patterned isolation of its component parts, and this isolation required that people continually talk past each other, failing to listen to what others were actually saying.  This lack of comprehension, which safeguards one’s privacy and one’s illusions, doubtless occurs in many groups, but it may be of special importance in explaining the otherwise unfathomable behavior of a society’s most intelligent members.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. LD,
    Thanks so much for sharing this passage with us, both for its intrinsic pleasures as a piece of writing, and for the way it presses us–or me–to reflect.

    I wonder, have you (or any readers?) come across the novel Stoner, by John Williams? It’s a campus novel, but despite the title, definitely not a comedy, not even about drugs! (Stoner is just the protagonist’s surname.) Not only does it feature the only appropriately blood-curdling scene from an oral comprehensive exam that I’ve run across in fiction, but it addresses eloquently and movingly precisely these same kinds of questions, for generally the same time period.

    But what I think Stoner shows so well and that runs counter to Veysey is that optimism about persuasion had really a very small role in the recruitment of professors, at least in the humanities. That is, Veysey’s idea here that the faculty mostly bought into a myth that their position would give them access to malleable students and to a persuadable public may have applied quite well to scientists or social scientists (with no mean chance that they were right at least some of the time, as Jewett shows). But humanists, Stoner argues, were generally much more interested in the reproduction of their ideals through training selected students already much like themselves rather than in persuasively affecting the entirety of either the student or the general population.

    • I agree that discussing “universities” the focus is likely to be on humanities and the private universities, the Dink Stover at Yale sort of thing. There’s a whole other area of technical/scientific training, represented in the land grant universities, which had a different student body and faculty with different expectations and different career options. (My father and uncle graduated from the U. of Minnesota in the 1910 decade.) 🙂

  2. Thanks for posting this passage. It seems that Veysey is using a overly reductive logic here: either professors think they are going to change the world by molding their students in their image or they would pick some other career to maximize their earnings. This seems to leave a lot out: perhaps some profs think they individually are unlikely to change the world, but over time, the university has an essential role to play in shaping it; or perhaps they are interested in the therapeutic role of dispelling false thought; or perhaps they simply value intellectual stimulation above monetary reward. In short, it seems like Veysey is invoking a homo economicus model of man: the superior type is going to make as much money as we can unless some powerful other factor diverts him.

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    I don’t think Veysey is being narrow in his conception of motivation here — nor narrow in his conception of what is meant by “the university,” btw. Throughout his text, he’s not talking about “elite” schools, but about the underlying sensibility (sensibilities, really) characterizing this new kind of institution in various configurations/regions. He addresses range of “purposes” with which higher education was imbued following the Civil War — utilitarian training, liberal education, formation for citizenship, etc. — and talks about how universities in the aggregate ended up being places that could additively accommodate those multiple motivations and at the same time resist the centrifugal pull of these competing aims and interests. He divides the professoriate not so much along disciplinary lines — scientists versus humanists, say — as along purposive lines (e.g., research v. teaching).

    Anyway, in the passage above, he’s not saying, I think, that he can’t figure out why smart people would have chosen the university as a profession over more lucrative careers. This book is his revised PhD dissertation, so maybe when he wrote it he was thinking more along the lines of, What is it about the university that makes people willing not just to earn slightly less than they could, but to actually sacrifice to be a part of it — to put up with truly straitened material circumstances sometimes, and take on some heavy emotional burdens and ethical obligations. I do think Veysey is trying to understand the same beliefs, commitments, faith that Jewett takes up — the moral purpose, the ethical stance, that inspired men and women (though mostly men at this time, at least in these books) to put up with the “blood-curdling” ordeals of academe and pour themselves into their university work in hope and in faith that it was worth a lifetime’s effort. Faith in what? Hope for what? How? Veysey suggests that this hopeful faith was possible because the professoriate did not (does not?) perceive “the logic of the total situation in which they found themselves.” But Veysey’s very purpose is to understand that total logic and to explain it to his readers without, I think, shattering their faith (or his own) in the value(s) of the work to which they — we — are devoting the best years of our lives.

    Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.

  4. LD and Bill,
    I think there was some misunderstanding about the book I was citing: Stoner is a 1965 novel about the University of Missouri across the first half of the twentieth century, and is actually about land grant universities. Stover at Yale is a 1912 novel about an undergrad’s adventures in New Haven.

    The distinction I was trying to draw was less about the kind of schools we’re talking about here, though, but about the social positions and prospects of different disciplines. A few humanists from the land grant schools, like Stuart Pratt Sherman, certainly pursued a dream of affecting the general literate discourse of their time (though he ultimately left the University of Illinois to do so), as did a slightly larger number from elite eastern schools (e.g., William Lyon Phelps, the New Humanists), but I think that in either case these figures were mostly anomalous within the humanities in their desire to shape broad literary tastes and engage in moral instruction on a large scale. So I wasn’t really trying to say that Veysey’s understanding of the importance of optimism generally is wrong, just that I think he’s misidentified–for humanists–the locus of their optimism. Optimism was necessary, but not optimism about persuasion. Sorry for the confusion!

  5. Veysey:
    It was far more flattering to assume that higher education was reasonably effective in penetrating the minds who experienced it. This assumption led to another optimistic inference: that formal education constituted a remedy for the important problems which society faced.

    I think one could make an argument that these assumptions have become attenuated but have not disappeared, certainly not from the official ideology or pronouncements of many universities when they turn to face the public and their alumni. In a recent article in Harvard Mag. about new humanities courses at Harvard, developed in response to recent precipitous declines in the number of students choosing to major in English and other humanities fields, Stephen Greenblatt is quoted as saying something to the effect of ‘we need to catch young minds when they are “fully molten” (“fully molten” — a somewhat odd phrase that made me think a second about what he meant, i.e., presumably, not yet cooled and ‘congealed’ — is a direct quote). If that doesn’t reflect an assumption that students’ minds are ‘penetrable’ and ‘malleable’, I’m not sure what would.

  6. Andrew and LFC, thanks for the comments.

    LFC, I had mentioned in comments on my last post that I’m paying attention to the way that distribution requirements distribute(d) instructional duties throughout the various departments/schools of the university, which assures that students will take x hours in the humanities, x hours in the natural sciences, etc. I can’t tell from the example above if the new courses being developed at/by Harvard are “competing on the free market” for student enrollment — IOW, courses designed to attract students to choose a humanities course over something else — or if they’re in fulfillment of some already-existing humanities requirement, and are instead concerned with attracting future majors from out of the crop of students who have to take humanities classes anyhow.

    But setting aside for a moment the image of molten minds, it’s interesting to me to connect Greenblatt’s very real and (it seems to me) substantially on-the-mark concerns about dwindling student “demand” for the humanities in general with his reflections on the role of MOOCs in the American university economy as a whole. Jonathan Rees wrote about this at his his blog today. The final sentence of Rees’s post is a key challenge to a dissertation like mine: why focus on debates over the curriculum at Harvard or Stanford, when the bigger, broader story is happening elsewhere? And I do ask myself that question. One answer that makes sense (most days) is that the revaluations/redistributions of curricular capital happening at the most elite institutions of the prestige economy of higher would (one expects) reverberate through the system as a whole. Whether the history I’m looking at would support such a theoretical formulation is another story.

    Andrew, you’re right to zero in on humanists in particular as being “of the faith” when it comes to higher ed — and I think that, despite the wording of the passage above, Veysey’s larger point wasn’t that most humanists thought their role was a persuasive one, whether that related to the culture at large, or their students in the classroom, or their grad student apprentices. To borrow a cliche, it seems that Veysey is saying that professors (and not just humanists) needed to believe more generally that they were “making a difference” — in the pragmatic sense, I guess, of a non-trivial difference. The “how” might vary — but the faith that one’s efforts mattered, that the work was not in vain, seemed (Veysey is saying, and I would agree) to be necessary for the university to work. Or that was how it looked in 1965. To critically examine such idealism while still holding to it was quite a feat, and I wish I could manage it half so well.

  7. I can’t tell from the example above if the new courses being developed at/by Harvard are “competing on the free market” for student enrollment — IOW, courses designed to attract students to choose a humanities course over something else — or if they’re in fulfillment of some already-existing humanities requirement, and are instead concerned with attracting future majors from out of the crop of students who have to take humanities classes anyhow.

    As I understand it, it’s (mostly) the second. Didn’t finish reading the article I referred to, but w/r/t three of the new courses, it says they’re “designed to attract freshmen and sophomores to the humanities concentrations [majors],” which have been losing students. (Can send you the link later, when I have a minute.)

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