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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

On "Educating the University"

Tangentially, Rick's guest stint is also an opportune time for my tardy response to Dan's post recommending this review by Peter Berkowitz of a recent book on free speech on campus.  Berkowitz writes in a fairly standard declinist vein (a genre profitably discussed in Posner's book on public intellectuals) about the "repression that the betrayal of liberal principles on campus has unleashed."  He suggests that this development calls us to "restore respect for, and indeed understanding of, the proper task of a university in a liberal democracy."  He proposes that a restored understanding would lead to: the establishment of meaningful core curricula; meaningful multiculturalism, especially including foreign language skills; and more courageous university leadership.

Fairly commendable, and unremarkable, recommendations, that I broadly share, although I don't think Berkowitz makes the case that the problem demands these particular solutions.  It's a fine and largely sympathetic essay.  But let me register two areas of disagreement with the article.  First, a more quibbling point: I think Berkowitz overstates the "ailing universities" narrative.  To say that one is concerned with "the damage that has been done to American universities over the past 20 years," or that "[t]he last 25 years have witnessed the return" of universities that see their job as conveying a specific moral and political agenda, is to treat those years as an undifferentiated mass in which the movement has been steadily downward.  I'm not sure this is right.  It seems to me the kinds of campus speech issues Berkowitz addresses hit their high-water mark in the early-to-mid-90s, although these issues still arise.  In describing the "crisis" of the universities (or the culture of disbelief, or the tyranny of the left or right, or lots of other descriptions of intellectual moments), we should remember that the ground shifts even as we conduct our debates, and we should not fall back too readily onto phrases or formulae whose  descriptive power may have been undermined by later developments.

A grander quibble has to do with an underlying assumption of Berkowitz's essay: that there is such a thing as "the university" -- a specific institution, with a specific role to play in liberal democracy and a set of core values, such as truth-seeking, that must define it.  Not all universities need look like Harvard, or like a standard public university.  Some may quite validly pursue a moral and political agenda.  Others may see their role as truth-seeking in the traditional modern understanding of the term.  But we needn't force them all into a particular formula of what it means to be a university.  Here as elsewhere, there is room for a multiplicity of approaches.  Moreover, even if we agree on what a university is or must be, we must also recognize that universities involve multiple fora -- classrooms, quads, public spaces, dorm rooms, etc. -- and that no one rule (even a rule of free speech) will suit each of these fora equally well.  There are universities, and I say let a thousand flowers bloom; but I'm not sure there is such a thing as "the university."  (What's the tangential link to Rick?  His blog has prominently featured very interesting and varied discussions and views on the role of the religious academic and the religious university -- an institution that is implicitly somewhat ignored by Berkowitz's piece.)     

Posted by Paul Horwitz on July 26, 2005 at 04:00 PM in Article Spotlight | Permalink


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PrawfsBlawg links to an interesting article reviewing "Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus". It presents an interesting perspective on the academic freedom wars. While scathingly (and justifiably) critical of campus speech codes, he is also f... [Read More]

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