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Edward H. Levi served the University of Chicago for most of his professional life, as a professor, dean of the law school, provost, and eventually president. Gathered here are fourteen talks he delivered between 1963 and 1969 that include such topics as the role of the university; the purposes of undergraduate and liberal education, professional training, and graduate research; the relations between the university and its surroundings; and the causes of student unrest. Throughout these talks, the reader will find...
Edward H. Levi served the University of Chicago for most of his professional life, as a professor, dean of the law school, provost, and eventually president. Gathered here are fourteen talks he delivered between 1963 and 1969 that include such topics as the role of the university; the purposes of undergraduate and liberal education, professional training, and graduate research; the relations between the university and its surroundings; and the causes of student unrest. Throughout these talks, the reader will find expressions of Levi’s essential belief that “the university must stand for reason and for persuasion by reasoning.”
I welcome the opportunity to talk about the kind of university the University of Chicago is, the conditions of life which affect it, and the response which the university should make to the modern condition.
Quite simply and to begin with, the University of Chicago is a small university. With about 8,500 regularly enrolled quadrangle students, it is one-third or less the size of the standard unit of a single campus of a state university. Moreover, two-thirds of the students are graduate students in the graduate divisions or professional schools. With more than one thousand faculty, the faculty-student ratio is about one to eight. The College, with only 2,600 students, is one of our country's smallest top colleges; yet it has the intellectual resources of the university. The result has made it possible for Chicago over the years to be judged as one of the three universities giving the most significant leadership to the undergraduate curriculum. Between 70 and 80 percent of our undergraduate students plan to go on to do graduate work. Two-thirds of the graduate students who receive the doctorate at Chicago go into teaching. A recent survey of fifty-two universities and colleges in the East, West, and Midwest shows approximately 2,500 Chicago graduates teaching on these faculties. The professional schools-Medicine, Law, Business, Education, Social Service Administration, Divinity, Graduate Library-are centers of research. Today, as throughout its history, the university's influence is to be seen in the professions, including the profession of business, and in the universities and colleges, where Chicago is a teacher of teachers.
Some of the most important problems our country faces today are problems of mass education. A popular position holds that it is the obligation of all colleges and universities to grow to accommodate the greater numbers. Indeed, in some areas, as for example the Illinois handling of federal funds, governmental assistance for undergraduate facilities has been tied to a showing that more students will be accommodated. The University of Chicago has increased in size. Between 1954 and 1964, the student numbers grew by 18 percent: the undergraduate body went from 1,350 to 2,147-an increase of 59 percent. In the last three years the College has grown by 21 percent more. But Chicago is still small. And for the kind of university it is, smallness in size is an essential characteristic.
The university is heavily research-oriented. This is not a new development. It does not arise from the availability of corporate funds for research, the interests of the foundations, the possibility of government grants, or the desire to attract faculty. It arises because the essential purpose of the university from the start has been to discover what we can of the nature of man and his universe. A great deal of the research has been trivial. Some of it, as for example the creation of the first self-sustaining nuclear pile, has been frightening. A large part, witness the work of Dr. Charles Huggins, has been lifesaving. Much of it has rediscovered for our own time the conditions of older cultures and given us a greater awareness of our own. To the work of the scholars of our university, we owe a considerable amount of mankind's knowledge of the nature of matter, the earth, the planets, and the stars, and much of what we know-although we know too little-about the forces within our society. The first basic work in urban sociology, the widely known Chicago school in economics, the Chicago school in literary criticism, the seminal work in the learning process itself are illustrations from the humanities and the social sciences.
The decision to emphasize research was made more than seventy-five years ago. William Rainey Harper was opposed to the original idea to build only a college. "It is not a college, but a university that is wanted," he wrote. Harper wanted a college as part of a university and in the Middle West. He faced the opposition of many who felt that to combine a university with a college would be to create a "mongrel institution" which was "neither fish, flesh, nor fowl," and who thought that in any event the city of Chicago in the uneducated Middle West was decidedly not the place to put a university. Harper himself was that kind of researcher who was for that very reason an enthusiastic teacher. His plans provided at the outset "to make the work of investigation primary, the work of giving instruction secondary." This was to be implemented by making promotion of younger men "depend more largely upon the results of their work as investigators than upon the efficiency of their teaching, although the latter will be by no means overlooked." Beginning with this early statement of what is now often erroneously reduced to the label "publish or perish," Chicago has welcomed the opportunity and the strains inherent in an institution dedicated to both research and teaching.
The emphasis on research was a declaration of faith in the power of the individual mind. It carried with it a profound conviction of the importance of freedom for the mind to inquire, to know, to speak. John D. Rockefeller set the tone through a policy of noninterference. As one commentator has recently written, "No contrast could be greater than that between the early years at Stanford and the beginnings of the University of Chicago." The results in the early days showed the difference. The sharing of the new learning gave Chicago its interdisciplinary stamp and its sense of unity. It was one university. Even though Harper had all the inclinations of an empire builder, the wholeness of the university and its dedication to research evoked a concern for what was basic and not only vocational. The test was whether a new enterprise could truly contribute to the knowledge of the whole. This was the test imposed when the Law School was founded in 1902. The Law School was not to be separated either by location or by spirit from the university at large. It was to be an organic part, in close touch with the other divisions, embodying the spirit and purpose of university life and in turn contributing to that life. A scientific study of the law, it was thought even in those days when Harvard was preaching the law "pure and simple," involved the related sciences of history, economics, philosophy-the whole field of man as a social being. The same test was applied to all parts of the university. It is the reason all the professional schools are centers of research; all are interdisciplinary and all are leaders in the training for their professions.
There are two other qualities of the University of Chicago. First, the university conceives of itself as dedicated to the power of the intellect. Its commitment is to the way of reason. It stands, as Robert Hutchins said, in perpetual agreement with Cardinal Newman that the object of a university is intellectual, not moral. This is not to say that adherence to reason, the self-criticism and discipline which this imposes, does not itself partake, indeed it requires, the highest morality. Second, it must be admitted the university has a mixture of traits, lovely and unlovely, arising out of the sense of its own importance and of its uniqueness. Perhaps this is the free-swinging enthusiasm of the Middle West-a response to those who thought this was an unlikely place for a university. Perhaps this arises because the university knows that its reason for existence is to be a model of excellence. Perhaps it arises out of the confidence that those who founded the university had in the overwhelming importance of knowledge. However objectionable these traits at times may be, they have given the university its willingness to innovate, to stand alone, and to endure.
There is a problem of endurance. The university and its friends struggled greatly for its existence. The early days had their problems. Harper was tortured by the institution's financial worries. After one particularly difficult budget period, with no funds to pay the deficit, Harper, the Hebrew scholar, remarked wryly that he thought of introducing a lecture on life after death among the Hebrews since he had spent two weeks in hell and could speak realistically. He was moved in a convocation address to ask: "Do the friends of higher education in this western country appreciate what higher education costs? Do they realize that the University of Chicago, with all its millions, is not half-equipped even in the departments which it has undertaken to establish?" In each generation and in fact more frequently, the university has had to be refounded both in terms of financial resources and in its ability to pass the tests of character, will, and ability. Its dedication to freedom of thought at times has been costly. Its insistence on the basic purposes of this kind of university often has been unpopular. In our own time it waged a fight for its existence, surviving the blight of the cities from which others have fled, recreating a community into a cultural civic asset. At all times, whatever the other distractions might be, it has had to meet the test of the reality of its commitments to intellectual integrity and ability-commitments which welcome no compromise.
Our university must meet the tests imposed by the modern condition. Our society is flooded with communications. The acceptance of myths and aphorisms is not a new phenomenon, of course. But the increase in the printed word, the rise in literacy, the development of new means of communication all give rise to new burdens as well as opportunities. George Bernard Shaw had over his fireplace the motto: "They say. What say they? Let them say." Instead of this skepticism, we ask: "How often do they say it?" and "How many say it?" The test of an idea becomes the frequency with which it is repeated. This is not a test which promotes rational discussion. It is a setting in which the waves and tides of popular thought, the acceptance of a false inevitability as to points of view, the use of meretricious tests to determine truth, have magnified importance. It is a climate, and this is particularly true in matters dealing with education, where it is axiomatic that any poor idea will be catching. Popular discussion has never been enough, and it is tragic for a society if that is all the discussion there is.
Rational discussion itself is suspect. Our society is fascinated with the manipulative techniques of persuasion, coercion, and power. The sense of injustice, which all must prize, is subject to manipulation. The devastating reality and complexity of the problems to be faced, the unattainability of goals, and, tragically, even progress made-all feed the sense of injustice. The solutions call for the highest intellectual powers of man, but the excitement of victories, the frustrations of defeat, the comradeship of belonging, question these powers. The concept of reason itself appears as an artificial attempt to separate intellectual powers from the frustrations, emotions, and accidents which cause events; the concept of reason is viewed as facade to prevent change. The sense of injustice, concerned with the problems of equality, questions the standards of excellence. It asks whether the intellectual and artistic attainments of mankind -greater knowledge, discovery, skill, or understanding-have their own values and can really be separated from the culture which defines them.
Artists and writers have helped stamp upon our age the self-conception of mankind caught in a machine. This stems from a somewhat older tradition in American life. Steam and paper money were once the symbols of oppression. The implication is that man's powers will cease to be personal and choice will be gone. We have a tradition also of reciting how the wonders of science have accelerated, as indeed they have, with the implication that in a few years, if not now, life will be automatic and predetermined. The computer revolution is joined with older populist notions giving rise to new symbols, vastly helped by the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security number. Viewing the vast powers and reach of government, the conception which emerges is of the individual caught in the grasp of a union of the welfare state, the corporate enterprise, the machines of science, and, one regrets to say, the university, which is described as a knowledge machine-a part of the educational-industrial power complex.
In a recent speech, the commissioner of education demanded that American universities be more than centers of learning and enlightenment and more than centers of research. They must become part of the action, he said, turning "all their resources and facilities to the problem of the survival of the communities of mankind-whether the community embraces a particular localized area or a state or whether it encompasses the nation as a whole or is world wide." "The university can and must become a catalyst," he declared, "an integral element, with government and industry, in the battle for survival of the cities." He mentioned the University of Chicago. "Like the University of Chicago," he said, "encircled by increasingly decayed neighborhoods plagued with crime, juvenile delinquency, and filth, we must join in a concerted effort to rehabilitate our neighbors." He spoke of the universities being great resources for these social purposes, and suggested that if the universities remain uninvolved, they could not expect the populace to give them support and freedom.
A recent letter to the Chicago Daily News from the secretary of the Illinois Commission on Automation and Technological Progress calls upon the educational institutions in Illinois to "concentrate now upon developing manpower resources to meet" the needs of the Weston accelerator project. For years, sociologists, economists, people who inhabit offices of education, and even fund raisers for colleges have emphasized the greater earning power of college graduates.
The uses of a university under these views then appear to be vocational and social, including as urban redevelopers, but there are other uses as well. A recent article by a political scientist from New England, repeating a hodgepodge of popular notions about higher education, suggests that the purpose of a university is to be "a kind of curiously exempt institution that our society has fortunately created, in which it is possible for people to try out a whole set of new roles, to deal with deviant behavior that the society in general would frown upon." Whatever this means, and happily it is not entirely clear, the New England professor who wrote the article makes it plain that the university should not carry on as a kind of imaginary debauch for the alumni. He appears to suggest that the university should be a series of political and social experimental communities, committed to the task of leading society into new liberal battles. The position has been taken more than once that the purpose of a university is to be in effect a launching pad for a variety of political movements. Of course the American campus cannot and should not be isolated from the kind of talk endemic to American public life. A distinguished member of the United States government in a rip-roaring speech in Berkeley recently told the students: "We get upset about four-letter words on sex, but we don't worry about four-letter words on hate, bomb, kill, maim, and guns." It is perhaps unfair to treat these remarks, intended to be a call for social commitment, as arising from a recognition that there are quite a lot of young people who are or will become voters. But the temptation to view students as an interesting resource is great.
The response of universities to the characteristics of our era must take into account the purposes of universities and the kinds of contributions they can make. Universities are among the important institutions in our society, but there are other important institutions. You will recall de Tocqueville s description: "Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive." The fact there is an unmet need does not at all mean that a university is best equipped to take it on. Even if it is, the added function may place such a burden upon an institution as to defeat its basic purposes. Even a welfare-indoctrinated society must make choices. It may be that new types of institutions are required; it does not follow that universities should become these new types. A university which claims to be all things to all people, or as many different things as different groups wish it to be, is deceitful or foolish or both.
Excerpted from Point of View by Edward H. Levi Copyright © 1969 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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