The fizz in college freedom

July 25, 1997

Ronald Barnett writes that "the university, as an organisation, takes on the economic and instrumental rationality of the wider society" (THES, May 30, 1997). Knowledge is valued for its effectiveness rather than its truth.

There has always been a difficulty in defining the character or the demands of that mysterious wider society and discerning the uses of knowledge in each epoch. The main impression given by the academic, daily and periodical press these days is that universities are operationally bureaucratic and subject to internal and external pressures in synergistic relation.

Essentially forgotten are the on-going delights of learning and teaching. The fizz is taken out of the renewing and discovery processes that teacher and taught alike experience. No country's academic community is free from cant, and calls for "fresh thinking" are invariably rhetorical. Genuine fresh thinking would be too radical an alternative and given the idiosyncratic solutions that would emerge, rather scary.

Yet open-hearted idealism has survived here and there among all the tales of productivity, privatisation, money scandals, lucrative administrative salaries, entrepreneurialism, research ethics, assessment and evaluation exercises and arguments over the culture wars and the utopias of cyberspace.

How refreshing to replace the hackneyed justifications for doing the Lord's good work with sentiments that are expressed with humility and due proportion. The extent of such feeling country by country is impossible to measure, but that it exists and gives meaning and satisfaction to students and teachers alike is not in doubt.

One finds it in the founding of new institutions, as part of the expansion of higher education. The reaching out to new constituencies raises hopes and provides an essential lift. The Robbins era foundations incorporated such sentiments.

In Sweden the new university of Sodertorn in south Stockholm is doing the same. The university is taking shape within the buildings of a former hospital set on a ridge above a train stop. The rector and his colleagues are trying to create a reassuring learning environment for lower-income students by joining ethos to space. While designing an educational ecology that functions collaboratively with learning is difficult, it can pro-duce cooperation and a sense of rebirth very different from routine career building or government "planning".

Sodertorn is pointedly trying to separate itself from the towers and spatial cramping, the maze of interior corridors of the postwar Stockholm University, but even at that university's home in crosstown Frescati all is hardly lost.

Marta Ronne, one of my Swedish students, passing through the suburb on a summer's day, writes to me of the vast greensward filled with students in holiday spirit. She makes the fascinating point that such mass commonality, with its collective good spirits, seems different from the unquestionably beautiful yet more private spaces of ancient Uppsala University.

Eager enthusiasm inspires a group of institutions in the United States to call themselves the Association of New American Colleges, exploring (in order to exploit) their special educational characteristics. Some institutions in the league are indeed new, but most are established, such as the LaSalle foundation of St Mary's College in northern California, arguably the oldest higher education institution in the state.

They are spread across the continent and encompass such places as Valparaiso in Indiana, Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania, whose president writes to me of the excitement generated there by new campus plans and construction, Florida's Rollins College, which in the 1920s gave birth to the experimental, short-lived Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and many others - Butler University, the colleges of Quinnipiac, Mercer, and St John's - places with individual or eccentric heritages, outside the battlegrounds of the public and private research universities but respectful of scholarship and eager to convey that respect to their students. Secular and church-related are intermixed.

In the Carnegie classification scheme, these are "comprehensives". They do not fall into the category of liberal arts colleges because they invariably combine some form of undergraduate with advanced or professional education.

They are private and relatively small with anywhere from 1,500 students to four times that size. They are tuition dependent, suburban usually but function in local or regional markets, or even further afield. Administrative structures are problematic, organisational styles hesitant and unclear, rituals and ceremonies undertaken from force of habit rather than from a commemoration of past success.

But the advantage of a loose or collegiate organisational structure is familiarity, and the likelihood of trendy managerial and bureaucratic notions of operational efficiency is reduced.

Some member institutions yearn for a distinct identity, but others take pleasure in the absence of inherited constraints and are unselfconscious about old-fashioned academic values. They retain a commitment to that vexing corpus called the liberal arts. They do not necessarily regard relativism as a blessing nor ideology as a benefit and would probably agree with the Notre Dame historian George Marsden that "established unbelief", typical of the major universities, is not a virtue.

Hence they are not embarrassed at mandating a core curriculum that combines professional with general studies, nor in believing that religion can be studied undogmatically. They think that a college or a university serving a democracy has an obligation to define the public good and to provide the educational means by which an educated citizenry can make informed decisions.

Such institutions have many of the financial problems, or the cultural problems, that universities and colleges around the world are experiencing. But no tyrant sits on their houses. They are not subject to the whims of policies made in distant courts, nor do they fear markets (having a certain modest confidence in the appeal of their education). In the give and take of their daily routine, they have an unmistakable sense of the possible, of being in large degree in command of their own fate.

Given the enormous size of the student community in the US, these many institutions still serve only a fraction of the nation's numbers. And yet, interestingly enough, they remain a model for even the great research universities, an example of what may be lacking, or to adapt the title of a history book of several decades ago, of a world that others have lost.

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

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