A dubious dominion of the dons

May 16, 1997

However defined, all institutions claim to embody ideals. Representative politics, the great religious systems, the press and the family are commonly discussed in ideal language. From such discussions, debate or policy ensues. It is not surprising that the failure of institutions to reach or even define a shared ideal leads to scepticism and frustration.

Even the petty political scandals here in Swindon and in the United States, irritating but insignificant in comparison to the political brutalities and crimes committed in parts of Mexico, southeastern Europe, Africa and Asia, are sufficiently magnified to take the edge off commitments essential for the maintenance of democracy and public service.

Higher education fits the pattern. As universities, colleges and institutes shift from being servants of the state, or of privileged professions, towards being servants of society (the US archetype) the opportunities for criticism increase. We live in blame cultures (I believe Diana Trilling gets credit for that phase.) But the dominant tone of public discussion is often more than accusatory: it is tedious. And all the more so because so many university administrators echo the criticism when defining "needs'. Are we to endure such cliches as "diversification, differentiation and flexibility'' deep into the next millennium?

Worse yet, the evaluation and assessment industry - vide Britain - has so commodified higher education that quaint catchwords such as "the pursuit of learning" seem to describe only secondary activity. Of course, good work is produced, fine teaching occurs, a calling of sorts inhabits the ancient ruins. But it is still difficult to escape the impression of a universe of employees scuttling about on the crowded floor of education factories, organised to run not according to the rules of the guild, but according to the operations of large-scale producing institutions, with many essential decisions being made by those whose careers have never seriously involved teaching, science and scholarship.

The "decline of donnish dominion" (to use A. H. Halsey's phrase) is by now a familiar theme, however we date the beginning of the descent. But its importance lies as much in the special moral freight and ideals carried by that dominion as in the exercise of its authority. They were derived from the belief that knowledge was indeed utilitarian, meaning that its employment would lead to a superior life for individuals and for society. Out of the curious medieval mix of demand-led education, the ongoing contest between lay and ecclesiastical authorities for control of faculties and endless argument over the validity of competing systems of thought came a tradition of seeing the university as a special arena for nurturing the young. Today most participants in higher education programmes are no longer "young" by any historical understanding. I suspect that the moral dimension of knowledge is less important in such circumstances.

But I have in mind a different point. It arises from recent participation in a special set of events, involving the gift of a professorial chair by the government of Saxony to Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan. The professorship, named after the distinguished and thrilling Israeli octogenarian statesman, Josef Burg, who was born in Dresden, is subtitled for "human values, tolerance and peace". The significance of the gift for a university in which the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was enrolled was on everyone's mind.

What can be expected of the holder of such a chair? The question is ultimately unanswerable but raises a very large moral question capable of some empirical inquiry.

Almost from the start, the capacity of the university to promote its own ideals depended on its guild status. But since both the teaching masters and students of the Middle Ages were first organised into separate guilds, a contest for power ensued. Finally outsiders took de jure or de facto control, the academic guild itself transformed into a branch of the civil service but enjoying a reasonable degree of independence when all was calm. All was not calm. In any wider upheaval we find both masters and students, the learned doctors and the pubescent students, taking sides, espousing ideologies and in so many instances calling for blood. The Hussite heresy of the 15th century led to the departure from Bohemia of German scholars and masters, perhaps a thousand of them. The violent Reformation and Counter-Reformation were fought with weapons created in universities. In the modern era nationalism enveloped universities, wars ended international collaboration (understandably), academics became bigots and antisemites more than we might like to recall, not just in benighted central and eastern Europe but in the colleges and universities of the enlightened democracies. In the US the numerus clausus reigned. Some German and Swedish professors were attracted to fascism. In any case, no professor in Italy thought of resigning his usurped chair so that the great Fermi might return when the fascists were routed there. In the 1980s the students of Czechoslovakia started a second Prague spring that brought down the communists, but in the 1930s students living much further north were not averse to attacking the great yeshiva at Vilna.

Howling undergraduate mobs at Cambridge after the first world war protested against legislation to grant the degree to women. No one who has seen the photographs can fail to be shocked by male crudity. Academics who were students in the 1960s often seem particularly pleased with their idealism, but the historical record of student conduct in that time is greatly mixed. As I write, scenes of furious Arab student demonstrators calling for war and terror flash on the television news. Are their professors arguing for peace and discussion? The medieval brawl, the exhilaration of ideas pushed by logic and fury, screams out graphically through the pages of university history as a dismaying symbol of values apparently unaffected by university residence.

Is this unfair? As in some sense descendants of cloistered monks, dependent on the secular arm for security, the university classes were always vulnerable to outside pressures and will always remain so, certainly in the absence of free institutions. The point is not whether the university as an institution can resist such pressures, but whether those within the walls can set an example of generous and civilised behaviour.

So for a moment the terrifying thought crosses my mind that it may not much matter whether the dominion of the dons has declined when that dominion, insofar as it embodied ideals, has had so many dubious results.

I did say "for a moment".

Sheldon Rothblatt is professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley and STINT professor of history at the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden.

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