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David Brooks’ Omniversity

New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks has another nifty idea. This time it’s about how to save the University. America’s Moralist is concerned that universities have lost their way as a cultural force, and he may well be right. But his solution would only make matters worse.


Brooks urges universities, and those who run them, to return to their original mission, to “cultivate their students’ spiritual and moral natures.” Immediately two problems with this attractive-sounding prescription become evident: first, was this what universities were originally set up to do? And second, even if it was, is it something universities should do aspire to do today?


Brooks contrasts the institution’s original purpose, as he construes it, with one of its major purposes today: to connect graduates with jobs. But this is a bit ironic, since the earliest European universities were distinctly careerist: their mission was to train students for jobs in prestigious and essential fields: the ministry, medicine, and the law. Required courses in what today we call the humanities and sciences were designed to enable students to rise in those fields (the social sciences did not yet exist).


Universities, then as now, had other functions, some recognized explicitly by their societies, others more covert or even unmentionable. Wealthy families packed their sons off to a university to get them out of the castle so they would not impregnate the maidservants and otherwise disrupt the social order. While there, the young males unsurprisingly tended to act boisterously, but at least Mater and Pater didn’t have to know. Nobody imagined that the kids were there to acquire knowledge for its own sake, much less cultivate their spiritual and moral natures.


Universities took very little responsibility for the physical or emotional well being of their students. Students found grubby lodgings in town and frolicked with one another and the townie maidens. It was not considered the university’s business to act in loco parentis.


Over the millennium that universities have been in existence, society’s understanding of their roles and functions has naturally changed, as with practically every other human institution. Government, the law, medicine, business, and the rest are not expected to work as they did 1000 years ago. But today it seems to be the unique burden of the university to be subjected to close scrutiny about what it is, how it works, what’s wrong with it, and how to fix it.


There are many reasons to worry about all of the above. Universities of late are more and more merging their functions and structures with those of other institutions, always a risky proposition, and too often without much thought for the likely consequences. The argument is that these other institutions work better and are more useful to modern American life than is the university. Particularly problematic is the merger of institutions of higher learning with business (and the idea that business works so extremely well is fascinating in itself, but generally goes unexamined).


This unification of the university with commerce appears in several disturbing forms. One is a new understanding of college education as primarily designed to provide students with guaranteed high-paying and prestigious jobs upon graduation. Yes, parents have always hoped that their children would emerge from their educations as employable; but it is only recently that that has become the summum bonum and principal justification for their expenditure of huge sums of money (and it is not unreasonable that there is a connection, in the minds of parents and others, between the expense of the college experience and the expectation that it will concretely pay off).


Another is the preference by high administrators for those departments, schools, and programs that most directly and generously aid the university’s bottom line: the university itself is seen as a business in which the CEO (i.e., the president or chancellor) justifies his or her employment by attracting juicy government or corporate support, and therefore increasingly favors the medical school, the business school, and the department of computer science. The humanities and social sciences – the means by which universities teach students how to understand human beings and become more fully human themselves — get short shrift financially and public expressions of contempt.


Maybe the new re-perception of the university brings it back to its origins. But more recently the university has reorganized itself and justified its increasingly important societal status by defining itself as the institution that permits the existence of the others, and the society as a whole, by being its educators: like elementary and high schools, but more so, the university educates a society’s future citizens by inculcating in them the knowledge, practical and seemingly “academic,” that the culture requires to remain cohesive, meaningful, and coherent: first the humanities, then the physical sciences, and finally the social sciences. Leaders of government, business, and other necessary institutions went to college in order to acquire the knowledge to lead, and increasingly, and even those who did not become leaders went to college to become Americans, Jeffersonian citizens, enabling our society to function effectively and democratically.


That goal seems to have become less important in recent years, judging from the critiques and commentaries of our national leaders and, too often, our public intellectuals. President Obama – a well-educated man – has created a set of guidelines for ranking universities and awarding them government support based significantly on the earning capacities of recent graduates. Other leaders are even more contemptuous of old-fashioned values.


Still another merger of business-think and university-think is the institution’s leaders’ increasing tendency to see students as customers who must be catered to and are always right. Hence universities build expensive and expansive athletic facilities and luxury dormitories. The “student=customer” framework also encourages administrators to put pressure on faculty to make the learning experience as fun and painless as possible – that is, as nonexistent as possible. Here, too, belongs the current concern about reading and class discussion that might result in “triggering” – forcing students who have undergone traumatic event to re-experience them. In the past, students were encouraged to see such situations as way stations on the road to full adulthood – with the sheltered environment of the classroom helping the student to learn to deal with past traumas on her own. But if the student is a “customer” or “consumer,” the “business” has no business giving her something she does not want. The result is exactly what we should not want our college graduates to achieve: permanent adolescence. But the customer doesn’t want to be pushed into adulthood.


Nor is the university the only institution to engage in questionable mergers. The work of governmental leaders seems to have been confused in the popular mind with that of corporate CEOs, as if the latter could directly transfer their business successes (actual or purported) to good government functioning: hence, of course, the fact that the three most successful Republican presidential candidates have no prior experience in government at all, and two have been (allegedly) successful CEOs. But the way in which a good CEO runs a business is necessarily very different from the way the President of the United States runs a country whose constitution sets up checks and balances making it impossible for the president to make unilateral decisions.


Another cherished institution is merging with others: the church. In theory, the establishment clause of the first amendment precludes the favoring of one religion over others, or the bringing of the beliefs of that religion into the running of the country. Yet, increasingly, a particularly dangerous form of Christianity is becoming de rigueur, making it impossible for our media commentators to point out that we are not (constitutionally) living in a theocracy. To say that would risk being castigated as anti-Christian. A couple of candidates argue against electing a Muslim president; what would they do, one wonders, if a Jew became one party’s nominee?


The evidence seems clear that it is dangerous for America if institutions allow themselves to be contaminated by the belief-systems and purposes of other institutions. Yet here’s David Brooks offering his recipe for saving the university: commingle its functions with those of the Church. What’s wrong with today’s university education, according to Brooks? It doesn’t inculcate in students “moral ecologies.” Undergraduate education should be about the acquisition of “moral and spiritual development.”

Problem Number One: whose moral and spiritual values? One or another particular religion or political party? The University must proselytize: “Teach new things to love,” suggests Brooks. Ugh. Meaningful education is about finding your own love, not having someone else’s foisted on you, even with the best intentions. That is just another way of keeping adolescents from achieving adulthood. So Brooks’ thoughts about how to save the university actually represent a good way to undermine its mission and effectively destroy it.


Every institution has its own reasons for being, closely linked (if it is working properly) to its ways of working. Mixing institutions commingles those assumptions, often without much consideration of how the new omni-institution is supposed to function. If the university merges with our traditional moral and spiritual institution, the church, how will that mega-institution work? The knowledge offered by a serious university is forward-looking: it moves the next generation toward a future they will have to create. The church is necessarily backward-looking, toward ancient precedents, justifications, and practices. Mashing them together will not create a vibrant and functional new university.


Yes, I think the university needs to save itself; I just don’t think it can do it Brooks’ way.