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.