Radical Left

The Uses of a "Critical University"


If we have not been convinced of "New Left" anti-intellectualism yet, their one "contribution" to proposals for the improvement of education—the "critical university"—should convince us.

Just as "progressive" politics has almost progressed us back to the era of mob rule by brute force in which no science of politics was necessary or possible, so "progressive" education has rapidly progressed us toward the destruction of knowledge. Those implementing the completion of both feats are today's "activists." Just as the young savages of the New Left have taken their professors' lessons in the impotence of reason literally, and resorted to gut reactions and hysterical violence in practical ethics and politics, so have they carried professional skepticism to its logical results in the more esoteric realms of academia. Contrary to popular opinion, the contemporary products of modern philosophy are doing more than simply seizing and destroying the physical university; they are intent upon seizing and destroying its intellectual substance as well. And those who naively assume that their attacks on educational institutions as "tools of the military-industrial complex" are purely politically motivated ought to look more closely at what they are offering as an alternative.

The idea of a "critical university" derives its name from its function: to criticize existing institutions, and their theoretical justifications. The role of the intellectual in society, and hence of the university, according to this view, is not to be the transmitter and advancer of knowledge, but to be the instrument of social change. As one professional scholar puts its:

"The major purpose of a university in a free society is criticism of society for its own improvement.…the university should be the conscience of the community, the seedbed of dissent where the worst departures between the ideals and the realities of the community can be pointed out and criticized." (Sanford H. Radish, "Essay IV" in Freedom and Order in the University, ed. Samuel Gorovitz (Cleveland, 1967), p.134)

One should note that this view of the role of the intellectual world derives from certain philosophical premises, notably Hegelian-Marxist premises. The university and society, the intellectual and the social reality, are conceived as existing in a dialectical (i.e., contradictory) relationship. The social reality tends to repress, in the sense that it encourages stability and hence discourages criticism and change; while the intellectual world (which emerges as the contradiction of the social, because it is a product of dissatisfaction with social reality) tends to liberate, in the sense that it encourages dissent, and hence encourages change and progress. Strictly speaking, of course, intellectuals are supposedly by nature such opposing, rebelling beings—just as the working class developed by capitalism is supposedly by nature ultimately revolutionary. But, just as Marx considered it necessary (or at least practical) to exhort the working class to revolt—somehow the natural dialectical historical process required a little prodding—so academic New Leftists must convince the intellectual establishment of its true nature and role.

Thus, the constant criticism that the contemporary university is "a tool of decadent capitalist culture's military-industrial complex" is more than a protest against napalm and nuclear weapon producers. By remaining in the service of dominant social institutions (which according to New Leftists are industry and the military), universities train intellectuals to become a part of those very institutions. Instead of producing critical intellectuals who will oppose and hence change society, universities produce people who can take the jobs required for the maintenance of that society. (The more one hears of this, the more it sounds like the New Left's version of the Bircher's conspiracy theory.)

When New Left theorists criticize universities for being "in service to society", then, and advocate as an alternative that universities should be "the servants of society", they may be talking gibberish, but it is very revealing gibberish. They do not reject the premise that men should be educated to be servants. According to their notion of a university's function, however, it can only truly be of service in its "proper" role as a "seedback of dissent." The experience of higher education (according to them) should not be an accumulation of knowledge which will be subservient to each individual's goals; any knowledge one acquires which will be of practical use to him in later life is by definition not "intellectual" enough. Students should seek "pure" knowledge—because only if knowledge is sought as an end in itself can intellectuals provide their function of producing ideas in opposition to the existing social reality.

By this curious process of dialectical logic and inversion, "knowledge" and "ideas" become the modern equivalent of Platonic forms to be contemplated; liberal arts and sciences, in particular, should not be studied for what they can contribute to an individual's chosen career or practical enjoyments. One student criticizes the university specifically for its success in catering to the worldly desires of some of its students while neglecting "true" intellectualism:

"There is no question that many of the professionals who manage our highly complex technological society require, as background to their training in these occupations, an introduction to the liberal arts and sciences. And there is no question, either, that the university must offer courses in the liberal arts and sciences which are prerequisites to training in these various vocations. What is happening, however, is that these courses are being taught and are being learned not in the spirit of seeking out truths or understanding environments—but with the view of giving and getting the necessary information and grades to enter schools of law, medicine, engineering, agriculture, architecture, education and the like. And, increasingly, the university itself is being used to train doctors, lawyers, engineers, agronomists, teachers. In this way, the teaching and learning of subjects…is being distorted by being treated not as ends in and of themselves, not as having intrinsic value." (C.W. Gonick, "Self-Government in the Multiversity," in The University Game, ed. Adelman & Lee (Toronto, 1968), p. 40.)

The distinction here suggested between "education" and "training" is familiar in New Left criticism. True education, apparently, should have nothing whatever to do with practical reality—at least not for professional intellectuals:

"One would like to see some attempt to establish, within the multiversities, true centres of learning, creativity and scholarship, with no obligation to train useful citizens. Because they will have no connection with the labour market, there will be no need to issue licenses, certificates or degrees, and what necessarily goes with them, exams and grades." (Ibid., p. 45)

The way the alternatives are posed here is typical: either one goes to school to become a "useful citizen," or one goes to school to become a member of a "useful class" which no one will recognize as useful—the class of true intellectuals. Since a true center of learning like that described above would be the true servant of society, society should make it possible. But since non-intellectuals cannot grasp the value of supporting a critical institution which is either professedly useless or constantly fomenting revolution, they will not voluntarily support it. Thus:

"Surely we are a wealthy enough society to be able to make this kind of educational experience more widely available. I would propose that a guaranteed annual income be provided for all citizens who wish to participate in this community of life, and for as long as they may wish to remain there." (p. 46)

Not since Plato invented the Republic to be governed by philosopher kings have we seen such an elaborate justification for a handout. Since individual citizens cannot possibly know what is good for them, they must be forced to support their saviors, the intellectuals. Plato, at least, had the grace to admit that slaves would be necessary to support his upper classes. Even Marx never suggested that capitalists voluntarily subsidize the workers' revolution. But today's "progressive intellectuals" expect us to vote ourselves into supporting an institution for people who by definition we supposedly consider opposed to our own interests.

There is only one thing worse: today's politicians are likely to do it.

But while this may be the motive of those who know they have nothing to offer in exchange for their livelihoods—or who simply do not want to bother worrying about such disgustingly practical problems—this is not, in long range terms, their most serious threat. On the face of it, the notion of such "true centers of learning" where people seek truth sounds good to the average student today—he knows how precious little true learning goes on in today's universities. And few would argue with the New Left's contention (though one does argue with their sincerity) that we should be free to pursue unpopular ideas. Only when one analyzes the basis for the leftist criticism and sees what results from the practical implementation of the "critical university" concept does one realize how meaningless their notion of pursuing truth really is.

The general public and the majority of educators still think of the university's primary function as providing for the transmission and advancement of knowledge; and most students believe that the purpose of going to school is to acquire knowledge which will have practical application to the support and enjoyment of their lives. The premise underlying these views is that there is such a thing as "knowledge"; that men in the past and present have discovered and are discovering facts about reality—and that the knowledge of these facts (including the knowledge of how to gain more knowledge) is crucially important to one's life.

Anyone familiar with our educational institutions is aware of how much that idea, as far as its practical implementation is concerned, is a myth. Today, when ethics has been effectively severed from reality, and when "reality" itself is of questionable status, most professors (at least in the humanities) spend most of their time explaining how unsure they are of what little they know.

Taking them at their word, the New Left has come up with a replacement; the critical university, in which such old-fashioned notions as "knowledge" are dispensed with entirely. Having swallowed the conclusions of modern philosophy wholesale, these "progressive" educational theorists propose to educate people according to principles consistent with them. There is no such thing as "knowledge of reality"; hence, students are not to be taught facts. In fact, there are no such things as "facts"; hence, students are not to be taught. Students are to be "exposed" to "ideas." Ideas about what? About what men presently do and believe. As a San Diego State College professor recently put it: the purpose of education is to teach "life-styles"—not to teach "content" (there is no content, or at least no single correct content), but to teach "form." Granting that man is ignorant, the only thing left to concern ourselves with is the manner in which he displays his ignorance.

Lest you think that I am exaggerating, or that such an approach is applicable only to courses in psychology, sociology and political science, let me remind you that modern "philosophers" spend their time analyzing what people mean by the language they use, which, it is claimed, has no reference to reality. And let me give you an example of what happens to a subject like literature.

The purpose of the formal study of literature is to learn to understand and evaluate literary works of art. A "critical university" seminar now being given (for credit) in the Department of Literature at the University of California, San Diego, however, is described as follows:

"Our leading question has been posed as the justification of literary studies. But we cannot pretend to confront this final problem immediately and directly. We propose rather to begin moving toward it by mediating analysis of "literature," as an idea and as an institution. Does it, in the first place, as a concept, have an internal sense? As a discipline, does it have a real or a merely presumptive object? Is its existence as a curriculum of studies justified 'in right' or merely de facto?"

In other words, this course is to consider such questions as; Is there any such thing as literature? Does the study of literature have a purpose? Is a curriculum of studies in literature justified?

I should point out that this course was instituted by a number of graduate students and faculty members in the department. In response to the bulletin they sent out, I wrote to the head of the Department to explain why such a course should not be given Department sanction:

"It is perfectly proper to ask; what is the meaning of 'literature'? (Though if one does not know, he should not be a professor of it or an advanced student in it.) It is not legitimate to ask; is there any such thing as literature? A department of nothing does not and should not exist.

It is perfectly proper to; ask; what is the object of literature as a discipline? (Though again, if one does not know he has no business claiming to be an expert—or trying to become one—in the field.) It is not legitimate to ask: does the study of literature have an object? If a department does not know whether or not there is a reason for its existence, it has no business remaining in existence.

And so on. If you think my concern is illegitimate, consider what would happen if these people came to the conclusion that there is no such thing as literature, that the study of literature has no object, that there is no justification for it as a field of study. A department of literature which sponsors a course—for credit, no less—which may lead to such conclusions is philosophically bankrupt. Open mindedness is only proper so long as it is recognized that one has a mind to keep open.

Such a course in a private university would be bad enough. Such a course in a public institution is worse: taxpayers are being forced to support a department which is willing to admit that it is not sure it has a reason for existing, or even that the object it claims to study exists."

You may be curious as to what, under these circumstances, students in this course will study. They will consider not only novels and poems, but "journalistic and bureaucratic discourse" (newspapers and administrative circulars) and "academic discourse" (articles in professional journals). Since, theoretically, "content" in a truly educational course is supposedly of no significance, it is interesting to note what kind of "content" has been chosen (that is, what specific texts will be used): books on Marxist, psychoanalytic, and structuralist critical thought.

It is a little difficult to understand why such a course should not be offered in a sociology or journalism department (if it is to be offered at all). It is hard to understand—until one remembers that those involved want to be experts in literature (or to be known as such). They are apparently attempting to justify their expertness by claiming to know that they are experts of nothing.

We should not be surprised. As usual, the "New" Left is not very original here—they are just mere consistent than their mentors. Modern philosophers have long claimed their status by virtue of the fact that they "know" there is no such thing as philosophy. Modern artists base their claim to fame on the production of nonart. We may yet reach the day when a young kindergartener goes to school hoping to learn to read—and finds that he must spend his time questioning the existence of the alphabet.

And it is not surprising that those who begin wishing for a Platonic realm of "pure knowledge" eventually find themselves in intellectual bankruptcy. After all, their teacher is Hegel, whose achievement was to conclude that everything and nothing are the same.

The people sponsoring the critical university course in literature explicitly state their premises and goals. They are not concerned with the study of literature; their "final question," as they put it, is "what service do we in fact have to offer our communities?" Which, translated, means, "how can we use the profession of literary scholarship as a weapon for social change?" (The alternative translation would be: how can we increase men's understanding and appreciation of literature?—but since they aren't sure it exists, I do not think this is what they had in mind.) Professor O.B. Hardison recently pointed out that this brand new alternative to contemporary mis-education has in fact been prevalent since the beginning of the century. And Professor Hardison's answer to the so-called progressive scholars is one which students should seriously consider. The scholar's responsibility, he says, is to his subject. "He has the responsibility to give his best to it, to defend it when it is attacked, to explain it when it is misunderstood, to illuminate it as far as he can, and to pass it on—at best enriched, but at least undiminished—to later generations. Above all, he has the responsibility not to sell out—not to surrender it to those who would use it for ulterior ends, no matter how laudable." The extent to which his concept of the role of the intellectual in society differs from that of the New Left is admirably clear in his remarks on his own profession: "We must explain the end of humanistic study—that is, the value of the humanities…We need to assert…that the experience of great literature has been, is, and will be centrally valuable for educated men…that as scholars we are not responsible for saving society but for preserving and enriching the civilization that results from social organization…A second task…is to explain the means of humanist study…We need to make it clear that we know what we are doing and that, by and large, what we are doing is right." (Professor Hardison's article is "The MLA and Social Activism," PMLA, 83 (Sept., 1968), 985-987.)

The obvious difference between an intellectual like Dr. Hardison and the New Leftists is that he knows what values the intellectual does have to offer—he does not consider the intellectual "useless"—and that he knows what he is doing.

The concept of "critical university" courses was originally a product of the New Left strategy cf creating "parallel institutions" which would compete with existing ones (a peculiarly capitalistic notion). And if students and "teachers" want to institute courses like that described above for no credit, or in appropriate departments (though I cannot think of any), we should have no objection. But the New Left and their professorial mentors, who view people as too stupid to know what's good for them, do not like to compete. Just as they prefer to take over existing universities instead of building their own, so do they prefer to use the status of existing intellectual standards (or what few are left) to give credence to their admittedly anti-academic courses. There is only one reason for using the sanction of a literature department for such a course as that described: to undermine the discipline as a field of study. If these people question the existence of literature, they are welcome to leave the field; they are not welcome to claim to be experts in it (and to be granted degrees) on the basis of their professed ignorance. If a surgeon began to question the existence of the human body we should hope that he would keep himself out of the operating room until he made up his mind. There is no reason to expect less of a teacher.

If serious students care about the significance of the degrees which they are working for, and if professional scholars care about the intellectual integrity of their disciplines, they must oppose any attempt to undermine the academic standards required in their fields. They must be prepared to explain the meaning and the danger of such "critical university" courses being offered for credit in their subjects. Instigators of these courses are relying on one thing: the silence of serious intellectuals. Many establishment scholars will give them that silence and their sanction. (The department head's response to my letter was a justification of the course by references to "accepted" scholars who have asked similar questions; a statement that he had a feeling that I, like Dr. Johnson, was kicking a stone and that this wouldn't refute Berkeley or the New Left; and a suggestion that I take the course. This last I found odd, considering that I had told him that I considered the course a serious threat to the academic integrity of the department.)

If true intellectuals—those who believe that knowledge is possible and that their business is to discover it—continue to allow these phonies to ride on the prestige their work has won, sooner or later the respect accorded to intellectuals will be (justifiably) small. If the notion that knowledge is impossible is instituted in "courses" in universities, there will soon be nothing to learn. And if two thousand years of knowledge is lost, mankind will be back in the era of ignorance and savagery. The New Left has ably demonstrated that that is where they belong. Let them live there if they wish—but don't let them take you with them.

[This paper was originally presented last month before an audience of students in San Diego. Mrs. Litzenberger is a graduate student in literature and a teaching assistant at the University of California, San Diego.]