Essay — From the March 2016 issue

Save Our Public Universities

In defense of America’s best idea

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Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lecture “The American Scholar,” which he delivered in 1837, implicitly raises radical questions about the nature of education, culture, and consciousness, and about their interactions. He urges his hearers to make the New World as new as it ought to be, urges his audience to outlive the constraints that colonial experience imposed on them and to create the culture that would arise from the full and honest use of their own intellects, minds, and senses. Any speaker might say the same to any audience. Every generation is in effect colonized by its assumptions, and also by the things it reveres. The future, in American experience, has always implied inevitable departure from the familiar, together with the possibility of shaping inevitable change. The historical circumstances of the country at the time Emerson spoke made vivid what is always true: that there is a frontier, temporal rather than geographical, which can and surely will be the new theater of old crimes and errors, but can and will also be an enlargement of experience, a region of indeterminacy, of possibility.

Illustrations by Lincoln Agnew

Illustrations by Lincoln Agnew

In his introduction to Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville says a striking thing about the world that was then unfolding:

From the moment when the exercise of intelligence had become a source of strength and wealth, each step in the development of science, each new area of knowledge, each fresh idea had to be viewed as a seed of power placed within people’s grasp. Poetry, eloquence, memory, the beauty of wit, the fires of imagination, the depth of thought, all these gifts which heaven shares out by chance turned to the advantage of democracy and, even when they belonged to the enemies of democracy, they still promoted its cause by highlighting the natural grandeur of man. Its victories spread, therefore, alongside those of civilization and education.

Tocqueville, like Emerson, stood at a cusp of history where literacy and democracy were assuming an unprecedented importance in the civilization of the West. Though not unambivalent in his feelings about democracy, Tocqueville did see it as based on “the natural grandeur of man,” and brought to light by education. Poetry, eloquence, memory, wit, the fires of imagination, the depth of thought: these are mentioned as rarely now as the object or effect of education as “the natural grandeur of man” is mentioned as a basis of our culture or politics.

Emerson was speaking at a moment when colleges were being founded all across America — my own university, Iowa, in 1847. At that time the great Frederick Law Olmsted was putting his aesthetic blessing on our public spaces, and notably on college campuses. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “campus” as an Americanism. The conventions established in the early nineteenth century have persisted in the meadows and gardens and ponds that celebrate, if only out of habit, these cities of the young, these local capitals of learning and promise. Olmsted, like Emerson, would have seen something like the emergence of brilliant individuality in unexpected places that Tocqueville describes. This individuality was strongly potential in American life, though as yet suppressed, according to Emerson, by a preoccupation with the practical, with trade and enterprise, and suppressed as well by a colonial deference to the culture of Europe. Like Tocqueville, Emerson is proposing an anthropology, proposing that there is a splendor inherent in human beings that is thwarted and hidden by a deprivation of the means to express it, even to realize it in oneself. The celebration of learning that was made visible in its spread into the territories and the new states must have taken some part of its character from the revelation of the human gifts that education brought with it. It is interesting to see what persists over time, and interesting to see what is lost.

For those to whom Emerson is speaking, who have made a good account of themselves as students at Harvard, deprivation is the effect of an unconscious surrender, a failure to aspire, to find in oneself the grandeur that could make the world new. We know these people. In fact we are these people, proudly sufficient to expectations, our own and others’, and not much inclined to wonder whether these expectations are not rather low. We have, of course, accustomed ourselves to a new anthropology, which is far too sere to accommodate anything like grandeur, and which barely acknowledges wit, in the nineteenth-century or the modern sense. Eloquence might be obfuscation, since the main project of the self is now taken by many specialists in the field to be the concealment of selfish motives. How do we define imagination these days, and do we still associate it with fires? Unless it is escape or delusion, it seems to have little relevance, for good or ill, to the needs of the organism. So, like character, like the self, imagination has no doubt by now been defined out of existence. We leave it to a cadre of specialists to describe human nature — a phrase that by their account no doubt names yet another nonexistent thing. At best, these specialists would show no fondness for human nature if they did concede its existence, nor do they allow to it any of the traits that it long found ingratiating in itself. This is so true that the elimination of the pleasing, the poignant, the tragic from our self-conception — I will not mention brilliance or grandeur — would seem to be the object of the exercise. Plume-plucked humankind. Tocqueville and Emerson might be surprised to find us in such a state, after generations of great freedom, by the standards of history, and after the vast elaboration of resources for learning in every field.

Indeed, it is this vast elaboration, epitomized in the American university, that proves we once had a loftier view of ourselves, and it is a demonstration of the change in our self-conception that our universities no longer make sense to legislatures and to “people of influence” — a phrase that, in our moment, really does mean moneyed interests. Traditional centers of influence — churches, unions, relevant professionals — have lost their place in public life, or, speaking here of those churches that do maintain a public presence, they have merged their influence with the moneyed interests. From the perspective of many today, the great public universities (and many of them are very great) are like beached vessels of unknown origin and intention, decked out preposterously with relics and treasures that are ripe for looting, insofar as they would find a market, or condemned to neglect and decay, insofar as their cash value is not obvious to the most stringent calculation.

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