Three Ideas

December 30, 2010

It’s one of my favorites. Tom Wolfe’s  June 8, 1970 New York Magazine article “Radical Chic: The Party at Lenny’s” is a dazzling piece of writing that never fails to alternatively enrage and inspire as layer by painful layer the dangers of “integrating new politics with tried and true social motifs…” are laid bare.  More than an essay, it’s a universal metaphor.

Everyone from the Black Panther anarchists who were guests in the Bernstein house (but apparently thought that his was the BERN-STEEN residence)  to Peter Duchin’s wife Charay (who bubbled “I’ve never met a Panther before–this is a first for me!”) comes away excoriated and diminished. Including Tom Wolfe.

My favorite passage is the brief exchange between Leonard Bernstein and Panther field marshal Don Cox:

“You can’t blueprint the future,” says Cox. “You mean you’re just going to wing it?” says Lenny.

It’s that way with every revolution, I suspect.  Events are set in motion. If they are dangerous enough, they attract attention and sometimes even smug support from fashionistas who cannot quite believe that outcomes are uncertain. Edupunk is like that. It’s an idea that sounds dangerous but somehow containable.  Flying close to that flame might actually be fun.

At least that’s what University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan probably had in mind when

In a bow to the “Edupunks,” Sullivan explained that Virginia is incorporating student habits into its pedagogy.

“Radical Chic” came immediately to mind when she explained that a bow can be as cheap and impersonal as a $500 check at Lenny’s dinner party.   It’s  not exactly the  Jeffersonian embrace that you might expect from an institution like Virginia:

“flash seminars” alert students to an edgy topic — no examples of how edgy — that will be discussed in a professor’s living room. To raise the hype level, only the first 25 students who show up are allowed to participate in this non-credit-bearing activity.

A colleague of mine put an even finer point on the comparison:

“bow”,”hype level”, professor’s “living rooms”, “edgy topics”– the academy domesticates  the “bizarre acts” of flash behavior, clueless to its naffness.

It should come as no surprise to those of you who saw last week’s announcement or have been following the plans that Richard Barke, Bill Rouse and I have for an open seminar on “Transforming Academia” at Georgia Tech’s Tennenbaum Institute that that I am winding up the year thinking about big ideas in higher education.

In fact, right after Georgia Tech announced the creation of a Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U), I started getting phone calls and email. “What’s the point?” one writer said. “Won’t universities change over the next 40 years or so?”  “What’s your vision for the 21st Century?” asked one reporter. “Here’s an idea that you have to look at,” said a colleague.  “It will change everything.”  The whole point of C21U is that over a hundred years, everything will change, and–from our vantage point at the start of the century–we have no way of knowing which ideas matter.

There is one thing that history teaches us: the ideas we think are important and radical  and chic today have almost nothing to do with how things turn out. I thought it was fascinating that the first questions I got about C21U were the ones that Arthur Miller and Barbara Walters were asking at the Lenny’s the night that Cox, Miller, and the other “funky, natural, scraggly, wild…” representatives of a new order stepped into polite society.

Would a turn-of-the-last-century gathering of influencers actually recognize the ideas that would shape higher education over the next hundred years? The New Year is an occasion for lists, so here’s one: What are the three ideas that shaped higher education–for better or worse– in the 20th Century?

Why only three? After all, higher education went through massive changes from 1901 to 2000.  But I would argue that these changes were consequences of three big ideas.

  1. The University as a Factory: The first massive increase in funding for higher education came from John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. They transformed American universities, but the great philanthropists were also industrialists.  They demanded that the chaos and debris of 19th century experimentation be swept away and replaced by fiscal and administrative discipline. The chaos was tamed, but the price was the creation of an institution that took in raw materials of a measurable grade and under the watchful eyes of managers and boards of directors produced graduates of a certain intellectual size and shape. Everything from standardized admissions testing, an obsession with measuring inputs, and a focus on classroom efficiencies to the layers of bureaucracy for administering an unwieldy system of accreditation stems from the demand of  philanthropic foundations that universities operate with factory-like discipline.
  2. The National Science Foundation: Before Vannevar Bush convinced Roosevelt and Truman to create a  taxpayer-supported, national version of the Carnegie Foundation, sponsored research played essentially no role in university operations. Over the next sixty years, the rate of  federal spending on university research rose nearly three times faster than the economy as a whole. NSF led the first explosion in federal funding, and it cause a shift in values at the nation’s universities that forever coupled scholarship with sponsored research.  The very idea of a research university was transformed in the process, and it soon engulfed the social sciences and the humanities in a new  multi-billion dollar industry that–in addition to the elite research universities–now reaches into the thousands of regional and community colleges whose missions have expanded to include research.
  3. The Multiversity: It was legendary University of California president Clark Kerr who observed in his 1963 lectures at Harvard that universities were no longer single communities, but had become the sometimes inconsistent homes to stakeholders who did not always share the same goals but needed to be supported and nurtured if the university in the 2oth century was to play the same national role that railroads did in the 19th century. Graduate and undergraduate education had to survive and prosper with medical and other professional schools, athletics, the arts and others. The idea of a multiversity coincided with the second great influx of money into higher education. Some say it was instrumental in the decline of the great public universities and the creeping missions of all institutions. At least in was the cause for abandoning forever the idea that money spent in the nation’s colleges and universities should end up in the classroom.

Nobody would have recognized these as the great ideas of the coming decades.  There would have been no Edupunk thrill in rubbing elbows with the bureaucrats who defined the “Carnegie unit ” or a future MIT dean who believed that scientific talent was a national treasure. The great institutions were as likely to be state universities–which were still small and wealthy–as private colleges.  Not one of the public universities on Raymond Hugh’s 1925 list of top 20 research universities is at the top of the  current U.S. News and World Report ranking of graduate programs. They were displaced by universities that did not even exist in 1901.

Before pulling out their checkbooks to support the new politics of higher education,  radical chic party guests would have wanted to know what the plan was. Clark Kerr would have told Lenny, “You can’t blueprint the future.”

Lenny would have been incredulous: “You mean you’re just going to wing it?”


2 Responses to “Three Ideas”

  1. […] been on a wrong track for the last fifty years or so.   I have mentioned some of them here and here for example.  As I discuss in my book, current thinking about how to manage a university […]

  2. […] been on a wrong track for the last fifty years or so.   I have mentioned some of them here and here for example.  As I discuss in my book, current thinking about how to manage a university […]

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