the Clientele, the Public, the Person

Adam Daniel and Chad Wellmon:

The multiversity [Clark] Kerr described was not the result of any considered plan or coherent philosophy. Rather, it emerged inadvertently as a congeries of historical conceptions of the university. Kerr identified three salient traditions. The first was represented by Cardinal Newman, founder of the University of Dublin in the mid-19th century. Newman regarded the purpose of the university as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, cultivating gentlemen suited to lives of erudition, taste, and intellectual refinement. The second was embodied in Abraham Flexner, an American educational reformer who, in 1930, founded the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J. He invoked a German model that defined the university as an institution devoted to specialized research.

Finally, Kerr described the “American model,” which he saw most strongly reflected in the land-grant movement of the latter half of the 19th century. This distinctly American idea of the university was born of an explicit twinning of higher education and the democratic project, opening the doors of the academy to a broader public and emphasizing such “practical” fields of study as engineering and agriculture. If Newman’s university served the generalist and Flexner’s the specialist, the American model was to serve the demos.

Kerr saw all three models as coexisting in the multiversity. The balance among them varied by institution, but, under the watchful stewardship of presidents, they remained in a general state of homeostasis. In the 55 years since Kerr’s treatise, however, the “American model” has increasingly eclipsed the other two. Regardless of what they do or how they fund and organize themselves, American universities understand themselves as institutions in service to the public.”

With all due respect to my good friend Chad and his colleague, I must disagree. It is true that universities often describe themselves in this way, but that is a smokescreen. American universities actually understand themselves as institutions in service to their clientele. They make occasional face-saving and conscience-salving gestures in the direction of the public good, but the reality is this: Universities, and especially top-tier universities, compete with one another for a shrinking pool of customers, whom they lure with promises of (a) a variety of recreational activities during their four years of undergraduate life and (b) admission to graduate school or a relatively lucrative job afterwards.

Professors and some administrators will tell a different tale, but I believe that the decisions of the people who actually run our universities clearly confirm my account. As I said in an earlier post, if you pay attention to actions rather than words the math isn’t hard to do. Just follow the money.

This is why, as Chad himself has argued, those of us who care about learning must promote and nourish the Academy that stealthily functions within the University. But I would argue that that Academy doesn’t exist “in service to the public” any more than the University does.

Many years ago, W. H. Auden wrote,

A man has his distinctive personal scent which his wife, his children and his dog can recognize. A crowd has a generalized stink. The public is odorless.

A mob is active; it smashes, kills and sacrifices itself. The public is passive or, at most, curious. It neither murders nor sacrifices itself; it looks on, or looks away, while the mob beats up a Negro or the police round up Jews for the gas ovens.

The public is the least exclusive of clubs; anybody, rich or poor, educated or unlettered, nice or nasty, can join it….

Auden gets his notion of the Public from Kierkegaard, who said, in The Present Age, that “the public is a host, more numerous than all the peoples together, but it is a body which can never be reviewed, it cannot even be represented, because it is an abstraction. Nevertheless, when the age is reflective and passionless and destroys everything concrete, the public becomes everything and is supposed to include everything. And that again shows how the individual is thrown back upon himself.”

I want to argue that the secret function of the Academy within (and sometimes without) the University is to nurture the human formation to which the gaping maw of a Clientele and the featureless abstraction of a Public are alike inimical. And to this formation the arts are absolutely central. Auden again:

Before the phenomenon of the Public appeared in society, there existed naïve art and sophisticated art which were different from each other but only in the way that two brothers are different. The Athenian court may smile at the mechanics’ play of Pyramus and Thisbe, but they recognize it as a play. Court poetry and Folk poetry were bound by the common tie that both were made by hand and both were intended to last; the crudest ballad was as custom-built as the most esoteric sonnet. The appearance of the Public and the mass media which cater to it have destroyed naïve popular art. The sophisticated “highbrow” artist survives and can still work as he did a thousand years ago, because his audience is too small to interest the mass media. But the audience of the popular artist is the majority and this the mass media must steal from him if they are not to go bankrupt. Consequently, aside from a few comedians, the only art today is “highbrow.” What the mass media offer is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish. This is bad for everyone; the majority lose all genuine taste of their own, and the minority become cultural snobs.

The purpose of the Academy should be to encourage and nourish a richly human cultural world in which one may transcend the subhuman status of Clientele and Public without succumbing to the equally dehumanizing lure of the Highbrow.