The Co-op Model's Relevance Today

Cooperative education is now more than 100 years old. The co-op approach, in which students alternate time in the classroom with professionally paid work directly related to their majors, was founded at the University of Cincinnati by Dean Herman Schneider in 1906. There are co-op programs today at 500 institutions in the United States.

The centennial marks a good time to take stock. How effective is co-op? What has been its impact on its three fundamental partners -- students, employers, and institutions of higher education? Is co-op still relevant? Still viable? What role should co-op play in 21st century education?

I see empirical evidence of co-op’s value every day at the University of Cincinnati. We have 3,800 students in 44 disciplines participating in co-op opportunities at more than 1,500 employers in 34 states and 9 foreign countries. At graduation, UC co-op students have an enviable head-start in their careers by virtue of their on-the-job work experience (an average of one-and-a-half years for UC students), marketable skills, impressive credentials, and networking connections. Many are hired immediately by the companies where they completed their co-ops.

Collectively, our co-op students earn about $35 million each year. Plain and simple, that money helps students pay for college. Moreover, if those dollars came in the form of scholarships, it would necessitate a university endowment totaling $875 million.  In short, we would have to nearly double our endowment to support the program.

Beyond those signs of success, of course, our co-op students benefit from blending classroom learning with experience in the workforce -- applying theory to practice, as one researcher summarized it. Theirs is the ultimate school-to-work transition. And at the nexus where co-op takes place, benefits also accrue to participating employers and the sponsoring university.

We have long known of these benefits anecdotally. Over the past 20 years, a series of small studies have started to confirm co-op’s value in data. Overall the field needs broader studies and better longitudinal analysis, but the research that has been conducted to date tells a remarkably consistent story. Studies show definitively, for example, that co-op experiences help students explore career options, clarify goals, and find mentors. There’s now statistical evidence that co-op motivates students to learn and study, leads to higher GPAs, and improves individual self-confidence. There is further documentation of the value of co-op in improving individual communications and human relations skills. That’s all in addition to findings that co-op alumni get higher salary offers than their non-co-op peers.

Abstracts from over 40 years of research are available online.

Studies also now confirm the benefits of co-op for employers. Co-op serves as an effective screening and selection process in the recruitment of new talent and it leads employers to workers who are typically more motivated and more productive than other recruits. Co-op also has a positive effect on employee retention and productivity.

In its “Job Outlook 2005,” the National Association of Colleges and Employers reported that employers complain continually that too many new college graduates lack maturity, don’t know how to conduct themselves in a business environment, and don’t have an appropriate work ethic. Those are skill sets that co-op students develop during their education. It’s perhaps not surprising, therefore, that estimates of the number of co-op employers -- including Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, government, and nonprofit organizations -- have jumped in recent years from 50,000 to more than 120,000. Not surprising, either, is that such organizations as the Education Commission of the States and the State Higher Education Executive Officers have called for improved postsecondary attention to the school-to-work transition, which of course is at the heart of co-op education.

Colleges and universities benefit from co-op, too. Co-op students enhance learning by infusing classroom discussions with real-world experiences -- sometimes leading faculty to reform curricula.

In 2006 the highly ranked architecture program at my university combined employer feedback with faculty observations from the classroom and resolved to focus on the enhancement of students’ building construction skills. Similarly the civil engineering program used employer feedback as well as input from their accrediting body to redesign the curriculum to enhance students’ understanding of the fundamental concepts of structural analysis.

By its inherent nature, co-op leads institutions of higher education to better relationships with business, which in turn opens new doors for fundraising and partnerships beyond co-op. Another practical benefit is in student recruitment. Pace University found that a full half of incoming students were attracted to the university by its co-op opportunities. What’s more, their study showed, the student retention rate for those in the co-op program was 96 percent, compared to 52 percent for the institution as a whole. Other studies corroborate co-op’s positive impact on student retention.

Co-op programs drive colleges and universities to be continually innovative in curricula and learning processes in response to employers’ needs. In fact, a study under way at the U.S. Department of Education is helping document that co-op education is emerging as one of the few educational approaches that can help curricular development keep pace with industry needs. It may be time, then, for the U.S. Congress, as it works on re-authorizing the Higher Education Act, to take a fresh look at how co-op education can help enhance college affordability and ensure the relevance of higher education in the new century.

Our neighbors to the north have the right idea.  The Province of Ontario offers up to 15 percent tax breaks for companies hiring co-op students.  Tax incentives for companies employing co-op students could be the best way of increasing the participation in cooperative education. Tax breaks treat all sectors of industry equally, and are less likely to skew the production of graduates towards segments without a solid employment market.

One hundred years after co-op was created at the University of Cincinnati, our Professional Practice program is leading a $1 million study that will help create the next generation of co-operative education. We’re looking for ways to link measures of student performance in co-op with corporate feedback and curricular reform. Our work is just one of a number of current efforts looking to make co-op stronger pedagogically and even more relevant -- efforts, for example, to reinforce student learning through improved self-reflection, and to link co-op more deliberately with experiential and service learning.

The co-op approach creates necessary bridges between work and learning, between liberal education and professional education, and between universities, government, and business. Moreover, co-op prepares students extraordinarily well for work -- and life -- in today’s fluid, fast-paced, and globally interdependent workplace. By the time they graduate, co-op students have a firsthand perspective on international competition, business ethics, workplace diversity, corporate cultures and more. As we prepare students for their roles in the 21st century, the benefits and attributes of co-op education have never been more relevant, or more urgently needed.

Nancy L. Zimpher
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Nancy L. Zimpher is president of the University of Cincinnati. As a faculty member, Zimpher directed hundreds of student teaching experiences and recalls fondly her own initial “real world” experience -- as a student teacher. 

Teachers and Teaching

During the summer months before I entered Harvard in the fall of 1953, I read The Education of Henry Adams  (1918). His sardonic, world-weary recollection of his undergraduate years at Harvard from 1854 to 1858 was not reassuring. Harvard “taught little, and that little ill,” Adams wrote, and “the entire work of the four years could have been easily put into the work of any four months in after life.” The best he could say was that Harvard “left the mind open, free from bias, ignorant of facts, but docile.” In reflecting on his classmates, Adams dourly observed, “If any one of us had an ambition higher than that of making money; a motive better than that of expediency; a faith warmer than that of reasoning; a love purer than that of self; he has been slow to express it; still slower to urge it.” He had even fewer good words to bestow upon his teachers.

My own experience as an undergraduate 100 years later was quite different. It was indelibly marked by a number of teachers and writers who changed my life utterly and forever. They were models of the life of the mind in action. They made me want to be, if I could, precisely what they were: teachers and scholars.

Virtually from the day I entered Harvard, I wanted to be a professor. I found books intellectually exhilarating. Nothing gave me greater satisfaction than achieving a sense of mastery of the life and works of particular authors and thinkers -- not simply the sort that earns an outstanding grade on an exam but the kind that yields a rounded, nuanced appreciation. I came close to reaching this level of knowledge and insight, I thought, with Samuel Johnson, Sigmund Freud, George Bernard Shaw, and T.S. Eliot. I immersed myself in their most significant works, not once but again and again, and I read the leading works of criticism and secondary materials about them. Eventually I came to a fluent familiarity with the texture of their thought. Few intellectual efforts were more satisfying; few brought me closer to sensing the thrill of being a scholar.

My admiration for my teachers -- indeed, my wonder at how much they knew and how compellingly they wrote -- was unbounded. I thought of the words that Oliver Goldsmith used, in “The Deserted Village,” to describe the intellectual capacities of the parson: “And still they gaz’d, and still the wonder grew, / That one small head could carry all he knew.” I gazed in wonder at all that so many of my professors knew: Northrop Frye, seemingly about all literature; Perry Miller, about the New England Mind; Douglas Bush, about John Milton; Walter Jackson Bate, about Samuel Johnson and John Keats; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., about American intellectual history. Harvard, in Nicholas Dawidoff’s phrase, was “a culture that served men who had spent a lifetime accumulating knowledge.” It honored men of learning, scholarship, and wisdom. I wanted dearly to become a part of that culture, wherever it might exist and however I might qualify for entry.

How, I would ask myself, had Harvard chosen its faculty members so well, especially when it had chosen them when they were so young? How did it recognize intellectual promise with such consistent perspicacity? Perhaps there was something about the capacity of Harvard to reinforce a sense of destiny that elevated the achievements of its faculty members as they matured, just as it did of many of its students.

Many histories describe the fifties as years of intellectual passivity, simplistic religiosity, and political meanness, of “the organization man” and “the man in the gray flannel suit.” And yet, because of the craft and character of the best of my teachers, I regard it as a period bursting with decidedly powerful ideas. I am astonished still by the boldness and enduring authority of many books of political and social criticism published during that decade. As undergraduates who were then coming of age intellectually, my friends and I wrestled intensely, often late into the night, with the encompassing claims of those contemporary philosophies to which our teachers introduced us: especially Freudianism, Marxism, Keynesianism, and existentialism.

Each new course was an awakening. I read books that were unconventional and pathbreaking, books with bold and synoptic themes that would change forever how we thought about the world and ourselves -- books like Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953), Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society (1950), Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform (1955), F.O. Matthiessen’s The Achievement of T.S. Eliot (1935), Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness (1944), Morton White’s Social Thought in America (1948), and Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station (1940).

As my professors explored in their lectures the rugged intellectual terrain of these challenging books, they taught me the beauty of powerful ideas, as a liberal education should. They gave no slack. I studied the political and historical analyses of such demanding scholars as Joseph Schumpeter, George F. Kennan, Richard Hofstadter, and Louis Hartz. I devoured the works of important modern novelists: Lawrence, Conrad, and Forster, Hemingway and Gide, Malraux and Camus. No contemporary novelist overwhelmed me more than Faulkner, who was an entire universe in himself, as were the very greatest writers, like Balzac and Dickens, who came before him. I struggled with the dense, often difficult poetry of Eliot and Yeats, Stevens and Frost, Auden and cummings. And I embraced the icon-breaking plays of the modern dramatists: Ibsen, Strindberg, and Shaw, O’Neill, Williams, Miller, and Beckett.

As one who was fortunate to be an undergraduate at the time, I cannot accede to the conventional claim that these were years of intellectual and spiritual quiescence. These books and these men (my professors, in fact, were all men) made me want to be, throughout my lifetime, a reader, a learner, a teacher, a scholar.

By their loving immersion in their subjects, by the strenuous demands they made of their students, my teachers inspired me -- an anonymous student sitting in classes typically of several hundred -- to be passionate about the life of the mind. In the words of George Steiner, author of Lessons of the Masters (2003), each represented the ideal “of a true Master.” Steiner rightly adds, “The fortunate among us will have met with true Masters, be they Socrates or Emerson, Nadia Boulanger or Max Perutz.”

I yearned to become a member of their company of scholars. I hungered to write books like those they taught me so to admire. I wanted to partake of their professional way of life. What could be more thrilling or ennobling, I thought -- what could be more worthy or rewarding -- than a career as a teacher and scholar?

My naïveté about the possibility of teaching English at a good liberal arts college was brought home to me one day as I talked with a Radcliffe friend, herself the daughter of a distinguished professor. “I am wary about ever marrying an academic,” she said, “no matter how much I might love him.” I asked why, expecting that she would point perhaps to the modesty of academic salaries. “It might be that the best job he could get would be in Brunswick, Maine,” she replied. “Why would I want to spend the rest of my life in Brunswick, Maine?” She had injected realism into the conversation.

Almost all of my courses were taught in large lectures, typically of 100 to 300 students; occasionally a class would be as large as 400. Most of the professors had mastered the art of projecting to a large audience -- and this was in a period before the regular use of slides and other audiovisual aids. Some professors were accomplished orators or humorists, and some roamed the platform dramatically and with a practiced pace. Some timed their presentations to end in a grand flourish on precisely the stroke of the hour’s end. Many had established a reputation for one or two fabled lectures. Students would annually await the day of their delivery: Crane Brinton, a European historian, on the activities of Parisian prostitutes during the French Revolution; Walter Jackson Bate, a literary critic and biographer, on the death of Samuel Johnson; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., a historian, on the embattled presidency of Andrew Jackson; David Owen, a historian of England, on British rule in India, always with the timeworn ditty:

  Briton meets native,
  Bible in hand. Native
  gets Bible. Briton
  gets land.

At the time I majored in English, the department had reached “a high plateau,” in the description of Morton and Phyllis Keller in Making Harvard Modern (2001), and become “the most notable of Harvard’s humanities departments.” Its intellectual leader was Walter Jackson Bate. Its senior professors, all “at or near the top of their games,” included Douglas Bush, Perry Miller, Harry Levin, Alfred Harbage, John V. Kelleher, Howard Mumford Jones, and Albert J. Guerard. And this list did not include such distinguished visiting professors as Northrop Frye and F. W. Dupee, both of whom attracted large student enrollments.

The greatest of all my Harvard teachers was Walter Jackson Bate, a man of immense learning whose humane exemplification of literature as a source of moral teaching shaped me in permanent ways. During a long career at Harvard he published the magisterial biographies Samuel Johnson (1977) and John Keats (1963), both of which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography, as well as many books of criticism. Bate taught three principal courses -- The Age of Johnson, Literary Criticism (from Aristotle to Matthew Arnold), and English Literature from 1750 to 1950 -- and I took all three during my sophomore year, when he published The Achievement of Samuel Johnson (1955).

Bate was a frail, delicate man whose frame, in Nicholas Dawidoff's words, “appeared to be constructed of twigs and mist.” His lectures were conversational but deeply felt, meditations of a sort that were themselves a metaphor for his striving to achieve a perception of life’s tragic truths. He described, in tones of melancholy nostalgia, how he had come to Harvard as a 16-year-old farm boy from Indiana, without a scholarship, and been awakened to the life of the mind by the lectures of Professor Raphael Demos in Philosophy 1. He could be ironic and mischievous. He seemed congenitally sad and weary. He was the most memorable teacher I ever had.

Bate’s most celebrated course was The Age of Johnson. During the weeks of a semester, Bate led us through Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets (1779), The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), Rasselas (1759), and his achievement as a lexicographer in the two-volume Dictionary of the English Language (1755), in which Johnson sought, as he wrote in his preface, to capture “the boundless chaos of a living speech,” as well as generous, incomparable selections from Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). Bate argued, again and again, that through his efforts to invest existence with meaning, Johnson had lived a life of allegory, as Keats said of Shakespeare -- “his works are the comments on it.”

Literature, for Bate, was an instrument of moral education and development. “Man was not made for literature,” he often recited, paraphrasing the Bible; “literature was made for man.” A protégé of Alfred North Whitehead, Bate sometimes repeated Whitehead’s premise that “moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness.” For Bate, Samuel Johnson was the preeminent example of a life straining toward moral meaning and emancipation from adversity. “Life is a progress from want to want, not from enjoyment to enjoyment,” wrote Johnson. Many of the illustrations that ornamented Bate’s lectures were drawn from Johnson’s tortured efforts to overcome his own idiosyncrasies, eccentricities, irascibility, and sloth. “The great business of his life,” Bate wrote, “was to escape from himself.”

I loved Johnson’s praise of Paradise Lost, with his conclusive reservation “None ever wished it longer,” and his famous observation that a second marriage represented the “triumph of hope over experience.” I admired the angry candor in his condemnation of self-righteous patriotism as “the last refuge of a scoundrel” and his weary observation “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” I took delight in his blunt rebuke of Lord Chesterfield: “Is not a patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind, but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot import it, till I am known and do not want it.”

Bate especially admired the paradoxical reversals that lit up Johnson’s prose. For example, Johnson once dismissed a book as “both good and original, but that which was good in it was not original, and that which was original was not good.” He admired, too, Johnson’s psychological insight. Johnson once wrote, “So few of the hours of life are filled up with objects adequate to the mind of man ... that we are forced to have recourse every moment to the past and future for supplemental satisfactions.”

Among undergraduates, Bate was especially known for involuntarily losing his composure every year -- some thought he was reduced to tears -- in describing the death of Johnson. He seemed as genuinely moved by Johnson’s death as he would have been by the death of a beloved contemporary. It was one of Harvard’s most famous performances. In another course I took from Bate, he was equally moved in describing John Keats’s deathbed wish that there be no name upon his grave, no epitaph, only the words, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

Under Bate’s gentle guidance, I came to love the literature of the 18th century: the periodic prose of Burke, the wit and irony of Gibbon, the rhyming couplets of Pope. I have ever since been able to recite from memory a certain amount of 18th-century poetry, especially those poignant lines from “The Deserted Village” by Goldsmith: “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey / Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”

In a memorial minute adopted after Bate’s death by the Harvard faculty of arts and sciences, his colleagues wrote that he “gave his students what he said Johnson had given so many, the greatest gift that any human can give another, the gift of hope: that human nature can overcome its frailties and follies and, in the face of ignorance and illness, can through courage still carve out something lasting and worthwhile, even something astonishing, something that will act as a support and friend to succeeding generations.”

Another teacher whom I greatly admired was Albert J. Guerard, a professor of English and comparative literature, who taught a brilliant course entitled Forms of the Modern Novel. Three mornings a week he lectured to a class of more than three hundred students on novels from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), Zola’s Germinal (1885), and Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895) across the first half of the 20th century to Camus’s The Plague (1948) and Faulkner’s Light in August (1932). In between -- it was an all-star list -- he assigned Gide’s The Immoralist (1902), Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and Lord Jim (1900), Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940), among others. (I do not recall any reference at the time to the argument that Chinua Achebe would later make in “An Image of Africa” (1977); there Achebe denied that “a novel that depersonalizes a portion of the human race” -- he was referring to Heart of Darkness -- “can be called a great work of art.”)

Typically he covered a novel in an hour, always with luminous clarity and insight, as he introduced us to such critical themes as moral ambiguity and latent homosexuality. His great theme was the moral power of literature: “The greatest writers take us beyond our common sense and selective inattention, even to paradoxical sympathy with the lost and the damned -- take us, that is, to the recognition of humanity in its most hidden places.”

Professor Guerard was not only a novelist and critic; he was also a teacher of writing. Many of his students established themselves as novelists. One of whom he was particularly proud was John Hawkes, whose experimental novel The Cannibal (1949) he warmly recommended.

Guerard reveled in the beauty of a novel’s first and last sentences. He loved the way in which first sentences -- like Melville’s “Call me Ishmael” in Moby-Dick (1851) -- can set a tone for a novel’s primary mission. He especially admired opening sentences that invited a sense of intimacy, like “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” in The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Maddox Ford, or suggested a sense of quiet mystery, like “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” in The Go-Between (1953) by L. P. Hartley. (My father loved first lines, too. His favorite was from Scaramouche [1921] by Rafael Sabatini: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” He loved the reckless, romantic sweep of that language. Another favorite was the haunting opening sentence of Rebecca [1938] by Daphne du Maurier: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”)

I recalled from my high school reading the famous opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...,” and that of Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen, which confidently asserts, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” As I became conscious of the tone-setting capacity of opening sentences, I looked in my reading for new examples. One that I admired appears in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940) by Carson McCullers: “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” Another appears in The Stranger (1942) by Albert Camus: “Mother died today.”

There are, of course, any number of further examples. One of the best in European literature is “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” in Anna Karenina (1877) by Leo Tolstoy. One of the best in American literature is “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter,” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain.

I especially remember a poetic lecture that Professor Guerard delivered on the importance of a novel’s final sentences. Most endings, he said, were melodramatic or tired when they should have conveyed a cadenced finality. Few approached the quiet beauty of the last line of James Joyce’s “The Dead” -- “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead” -- or the lyric passion of the soliloquy of Molly Bloom that concludes Joyce’s Ulysses (1922): “... and then he asked me would I say yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” Few were as philosophically effective as the last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925): “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” One of my favorite endings is that of The Sun Also Rises (1926) by Ernest Hemingway. “Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.” Jake responds, “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”

Professor Guerard was especially good at analyzing dialogue. The conversation that appears in fiction, he said, with the experience of one who had published several novels himself, is quite different from the conversation of everyday life. A tape recorder can capture the way most people actually speak -- in false starts, circuitous detours, and garrulous and prolix meanderings, with pointless and irrelevant insertions. But no matter how accurate the transcript, such a rendering will seem stilted in print. Fiction, by contrast, must use dialogue to achieve artificially the illusion of a reality that is more richly authentic and convincing than a tape-recorded transcript could ever be. For a conversation to seem natural to the reader, he said, the author must shape it, omitting the repetitive, relying on the telling phrase and the pivotal word. In the end, “nature requires the sculpting hand of art in order to appear in literature as nature.” The lesson was as true for the ornate, drawing room conversation of Henry James as it was for the terse, telegraphic dialogue of Ernest Hemingway.

Guerard spoke in a measured, husky voice. He was a mesmerizing lecturer, a dignified man of magnetic warmth. When the entire class spontaneously applauded a lecture he delivered early in the term, Guerard expressed his appreciation at the start of the next lecture but asked that we thereafter refrain from applause. He feared that he would think his lecture fell short on all of those more usual occasions when the class did not applaud.

During his lectures on Light in August (1932), Guerard described his only meeting with William Faulkner, a meeting at which Faulkner insisted that he was a self-educated Mississippian who had never finished high school and had little to contribute to a conversation about literature. His only ambition, he had written to Malcolm Cowley, was “to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books.” Guerard mentioned three books that he regularly taught: Notes from Underground (1864) by Dostoevsky, The Secret Sharer (1912) by Joseph Conrad, and The Plague (1952) by Camus. As it happened, Faulkner had a remarkably exact knowledge of all three. After that response, Guerard did not ask Faulkner about his obvious indebtedness to the cadences of the King James Bible and the plays of Shakespeare. Faulkner often asserted that he had never read Freud. “Neither did Shakespeare,” he told a Paris Review interviewer in 1956. “I doubt if Melville did either and I’m sure Moby-Dick didn’t.”

When the term ended, I sent a letter of appreciation to Professor Guerard, explaining that I intended to become a professor of English. I was thrilled to receive a reply. “There are many rewards to teaching,” he wrote, “but receiving such letters [as yours] is certainly one of the most satisfying. I’m a poor giver of advice, but would be glad to talk with you if you think I could be of any help.”

Several years later, in 1961, Guerard decamped for Stanford in a move that shocked Harvard: no one ever left Harvard. By the time of his death, he had published nine novels, six books of literary criticism, and a memoir. Among the subjects of his critical books were Conrad, Hardy, Gide, Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Faulkner.

Forty years after my graduation, when The New York Times reported my impending retirement as president of Dartmouth, Guerard sent me a beautiful letter. “It was a pleasure to see your beaming, youthful face,” he wrote. “You seem much too young to retire. On the other hand I think you can look forward to the reading of many books and perhaps writing one or two. At 83 I’m still at it.” And then, recalling a conversation that we had more than 10 years earlier when he had been my guest for dinner at the President’s House at the University of Iowa, he added, “I have had many fine and famous people in my classes but you were the only one able to recite the reading list years after taking my course.” Few letters have ever gratified me more.

Even as I admired Harvard professors like Guerard, I was intimidated by the prospect of emulating them. I shuddered at the lifelong burden of reading that a career choice to become a professor of English would entail. I thought of the frustration of Eugene Gant, Thomas Wolfe’s protagonist in Of Time and the River (1935), who as a college student “would prowl the stacks of the library at night, pulling books out of a thousand shelves and reading them like a madman. The thought of those vast stacks of books would drive him mad: the more he read, the less he seemed to know -- the greater the number of books he read, the greater the immense uncountable number of those which he could never read would seem to be.”

“How,” I asked my father, “does Professor Guerard find the time to reread each year the novels that he is teaching, keep up with the scholarly literature, and read all of the new novels published in this country and Europe?”

“Don’t you suppose he enjoys it?” my father replied.

I also admired Northrop Frye, a compact, bespectacled man with a booming voice, who was a visiting professor from the University of Toronto. He had made his critical reputation a decade earlier with a book on Blake, Fearful Symmetry (1947). He lectured with a strong assurance and an unusual clarity. As an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada, he commanded both the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. Now he was about to publish one of his masterworks, Anatomy of Criticism (1957), which presented a complete worldview -- a coherent framework, comprising tragedy, comedy, and romance, in which all novels, poems, and plays had interconnected places. “Poetry can only be made out of other poems,” he wrote, “novels out of other novels.” His theory took the Bible as the mythological substructure of Western culture. All human thought, Frye argued, was shaped by that substructure. Anatomy was an elucidation of how an archetypal and mythological reading could illuminate all of literature. When I bought Anatomy at the Mandrake Book Store, the proprietor, comparing Frye’s volume to a current national best-seller, said, “This is our Auntie Mame.

The qualities that most distinguished Frye were the breadth of his learning and the Euclidean clarity of his lectures. He seemed to be familiar with the whole of literary output; he was the furthest from a period specialist that one could be. Frye pushed creative imagination to the limits. He admired the ways in which certain lines encapsulated thoughts with a near-perfect economy of words. Shakespeare, of course, was more adept at achieving this masterful concision of thought than any other writer. His plays abound with pertinent examples, of which the most supreme is “To be or not to be.”

Frye could be devastating on literary trendiness. “The literary chit-chat which makes the reputations of poets boom and crash in an imaginary stock exchange is pseudo-criticism,” he wrote in Anatomy of Criticism. “That wealthy investor Mr. Eliot, after dumping Milton on the market, is now buying him again; Donne has probably reached his peak and will begin to taper off; Tennyson may be in for a slight flutter but the Shelley stocks are still bearish.”

Still another impressive professor was the American historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. He was simply a wunderkind -- a brilliant intellect, a compelling writer, a scholar of breathtaking learning. The son of a distinguished Harvard historian, Schlesinger had had a meteoric career. The honors thesis that he had written as a senior had been published a year later as Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim’s Progress (1939), and his work as a junior fellow at Harvard had resulted in The Age of Jackson (1945), for which he received the Pulitzer Prize for history at the age of 28. Shortly thereafter, Schlesinger was appointed an associate professor of history with tenure, to the surprise of some historians who believed that he had drawn forced historical parallels between the politics of Jackson’s administration and that of Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Only later did I read the seminal work on that tendency, The Whig Interpretation of History [1931] by Herbert Butterfield.) Schlesinger had a near-adulatory admiration for Roosevelt who, he believed, had preserved capitalism from itself by introducing governmental regulation of its harshest features. During the term that I took Schlesinger’s course, he was completing The Crisis of the Old Order, 1919–1933 (1957), the first volume of his history The Age of Roosevelt.

Schlesinger was not only exceptionally skilled in dismantling the theories of others; he also was richly imaginative in building theories of his own. Many of Harvard’s courses in American history sought to define a national identity by emphasizing a narrative of accommodation and progress: consensus over conflict, the absence of a landed aristocracy, the liberating presence of the frontier, the opportunities for upward mobility, and the constant presence of renewal and rebirth. For Schlesinger, American history had been a series of conflicts between the forces of wealth and privilege and those of the poor and underprivileged -- what George Bancroft had called “the house of Have and the house of Want.” In an important passage in The Age of Jackson, Schlesinger wrote:

American history has been marked by recurrent conservatism and liberalism. During the periods of inaction, unsolved social problems pile up till the demand for reform becomes overwhelming. Then a liberal government comes to power, the dam breaks and a flood of change sweeps away a great deal in a short time. After 15 or 20 years the liberal impulse is exhausted, the day of consolidation and inaction arrives, and conservatism once again expresses the mood of the country, but generally in the terms of the liberalism it displaces.

Schlesinger was an admirer of Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life (1909), which argued for a strong central government to address the problem of growing inequality. In Schlesinger’s reading, American history had been an “enduring struggle between the business community and the rest of society.” That struggle, in turn, was “the guarantee of freedom in a liberal capitalist state.” The goal of a pragmatic liberalism, perhaps ironically, was to prevent the capitalists from destroying capitalism. For that reason, he championed what he called “the vital center” where compromise and experimentation could devise practical solutions to democratic problems.

One of Schlesinger’s central domestic themes was that the New Deal had solved the problems of quantitative liberalism, and that the next decades -- starting with the sixties -- would be dominated politically and socially by issues of qualitative liberalism. In contrasting the old “quantitative liberalism” with the new “qualitative liberalism,” Schlesinger wrote: “Today we dwell in the economy of abundance -- and our spiritual malaise seems greater than before. As a nation, the richer we grow, the more tense, insecure, and unhappy we seem to become. Yet too much of our liberal thought is still mired in the issues, the attitudes, and the rallying cries of the 1930’s.” The concern of liberalism in the next decades, he believed, should be “the quality of civilization to which our nation aspires in an age of ever-increasing abundance and leisure.”

The new liberalism that Schlesinger envisioned presumably would emphasize such quality-of-life issues as civil rights, racial justice, employment discrimination, capital punishment, the availability of health care, religious toleration, gender equity, fair housing, educational opportunity, and environmental protection. Ironically, some of the qualitative issues -- perhaps they are best called cultural issues -- that came to the fore in the next several decades, such as abortion, gun control, school prayer, and welfare reform, had a distinctively conservative tenor. They cast doubt on the consensus theory of American development and illustrated Pieter Geyl’s observation that “history is argument without end.”

Schlesinger was fascinated by the American presidency. Following in the footsteps of his father, he organized polls of historians to rank the presidents. In the poll conducted during my student days, six presidents were adjudged to be great: Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Perhaps gratifying to Schlesinger, Truman was ranked near great, in the company of Polk, Cleveland, and Theodore Roosevelt. The ranking complemented Schlesinger’s thesis that periods of liberal and conservative ascendancy alternated in 30-year cycles.

At the podium, Schlesinger, always sporting a bow tie and often a bold-striped shirt, was an impressive presence. His mind was both agile and deep. His lectures were incisive, meticulously prepared, and polished. Never was a word out of place, a sentence left uncompleted. His course on American intellectual history was riveting -- the largest in the History Department (and that was a department that included Samuel Eliot Morison, John K. Fairbank, Frederick Merk, Crane Brinton, Charles H. Taylor, Myron Gilmore, David Owen, and Edwin Reischauer). He was as penetrating in discussing the sociology of William Graham Sumner and Walter Rauschenbusch as he was shrewd in analyzing the political machinations of Andrew Jackson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Because of his aplomb as a lecturer, I was surprised to read in the first volume of his autobiography, A Life in the Twentieth Century (2000), that Schlesinger felt great trepidation at the lectern:

I never quite escaped the imposter complex, the fear that I would one day be found out. My knowledge was by some standards considerable, but it was outweighed by my awareness of my ignorance. I always saw myself skating over thin ice. The imposter complex had its value. It created a great reluctance, for example, to impose my views on students.

Few professorial examples of intellectual humility impressed me as much as that of a colleague of Schlesinger’s, Professor Frederick Merk, a compelling lecturer who traced, with an unsurpassed skill, the westward movement, the role of the frontier, and the spirit of manifest destiny in American history. His lectures were clear, crisp, and witty. Students had affectionately named his most popular course “Wagon Wheels.” Near the end of the first term in his survey course on American history, Professor Merk announced that he did not know enough about the causes of the Civil War to lecture on it and that he had therefore asked Schlesinger to substitute for him in delivering the next four lectures. How many professors ever set their standards of intellectual humility so high?

My tutor during my junior and senior years was Professor John V. Kelleher, one of the world’s foremost scholars of Irish literature and culture, especially of the twentieth century. He held a chair in Celtic studies established by a Boston Brahmin expressly to promote understanding between the Yankee and Irish-American cultures.

Once a week I would thread my path through the Widener Library stacks for my tutorial hour with him. During the course of the two years, we read our way diligently through much of the poetry of Edmund Spenser (especially The Faerie Queene [1590] and “Epithalamion”) and John Donne. But the true lessons of these tutorial sessions lay not in the poetry itself, but in the conversations we had about the poetry. When Professor Kelleher read a poem aloud, my understanding of it grew. He taught me how to discover more and still more in the coded arrangement of words in poetic lines and stanzas. I was in awe of him.

Kelleher was a shy and modest man and a dedicated scholar. Crowned with a great shock of pure-white hair, he came from a blue-collar family in the mill city of Lawrence, Massachusetts. A graduate of Dartmouth College, he began his academic career as a junior fellow at Harvard and was appointed to the faculty without a Ph.D. Although he spoke with a severe stammer, he read poetry aloud in a deep and sonorous voice and with a lilting fluency, without any trace of a speech impediment. When he recited Spenser, his Irish accent captured the sound of Elizabethan English, he told me. He charmed me with his self-deprecating manner -- he was one of the most modest men I have ever known -- and his vivid recollections of many of the great Irish figures he had met: Maud Gonne, Jack B. Yeats, Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain, and Samuel Beckett.

He loved to talk, too, about the gradual transformation that was occurring in Irish-American society -- a subject I had observed at an ethnic distance but that he knew at first hand. He saw the transformation, as he later wrote in an essay on his friend Edwin O’Connor, as a “rapid demise” characterized by “the rise of the funeral home and the destruction of the wake; the death of the old people, the last links with that vanished mid-nineteenth-century Ireland from which we were all originally recruited; the disappearance of the genial, uncomplimentary nicknames; and finally, the lack of any continuing force, like discrimination, or afterward the resentment of remembered discrimination, strong enough to hold the society together from without or within. Whatever happened, there came a time when nobody felt very Irish anymore, or had much reason to. By the late 1940s that society was practically all gone.”

Professor Kelleher probably understood the works of James Joyce (and Yeats, too) as deeply as anyone in the world. His copies of Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939) were extensively annotated and interlined with his comments on those often-baffling texts; they obviously constituted documents of exceptional critical brilliance. His favorite work of Joyce, however, was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). In an essay he gave me to read in typescript -- it later appeared as “The Perceptions of James Joyce” in the Atlantic Monthly (March 1958) -- he wrote, “I remember that when I first encountered Stephen Dedalus, I was twenty and wondered how Joyce could have known so much about me.”

One afternoon, as I was planning my course schedule for the next year, Professor Kelleher surprised me by saying that it probably did not make sense to take a course in Shakespeare. “No one can truly teach Shakespeare,” he said. “If you want to appreciate Shakespeare, you simply have to sit down and read him yourself, over and over again.”

Once I graduated from Harvard, I did not see Professor Kelleher again for thirty-two years, until he attended his 50th class reunion at Dartmouth in 1989. I was in the midst of my speech to his reunion luncheon -- at least 400 members of the class and their wives were packed into the room -- when I spotted him standing alone at a rear corner. His full head of pure-white hair was still a beacon. As soon as the lunch was over, I wove my way through the crowd, excited to greet him. “President Freedman,” he exclaimed, as we laughed in joyous reunion. For the first and only time, I corrected him: it was still okay to call me Jim.

One of Harvard’s most notable professors in the fifties was Perry Miller, who had returned from the war in 1946 as one of the university’s first professors of American literature. His wartime exploits as an OSS officer were well known; according to local legend, he had kept an Irish mistress, announced his intention to kill as many Nazis as he could, and accompanied the French war hero General Jacques Philippe Leclerc when the Free French forces liberated Alsace. Who knew whether any of this was true?

Upon his return, Miller began to offer his famous course, Romanticism in American Literature, concentrating on Cooper, Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, and Thoreau. A year later, Miller offered one of the first courses in the new General Education program, Classics of the Christian Tradition. Miller went on to become an important intellectual and cultural historian, a leading exponent of Puritan thought, a gifted and exhaustive scholar with an unquenchable interest in theology, philosophy, and the history of ideas. He sought to capture what he referred to in Errand into the Wilderness (1956) as the “massive narrative of the movement of European culture into the vacant wilderness of America.” His work on the theological progression from seventeenth-century Puritanism to nineteenth-century Unitarianism was penetrating and original.

The two-volume The New England Mind (1939, 1953) that made his reputation had been published by the time I entered Harvard. So had his biography Jonathan Edwards (1949), with its evocation of the Great Awakening and its striking analysis of the role that Newton’s physics and Locke’s psychology had played in the formation of Edwards’s thought, and his anthology The Transcendentalists (1950). Miller published several other volumes while I was an undergraduate, including Errand into the Wilderness and The Raven and the Whale (1956), a study of Poe and Melville.

I took Miller’s survey course in American literature, which covered ground from Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor to John Steinbeck and William Faulkner. Miller’s teaching style was compelling. He was a man of physical gusto and intellectual enthusiasm. When he read from Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” he fairly bellowed the preacher’s theme of eternal damnation in a fire of wrath.

In his book Exemplary Elders (1990), David Levin, a Harvard student in the years immediately after the war, recollected Miller’s teaching authority: “Miller’s great skill as a teacher was exemplary rather than sympathetically imaginative. He had a brilliantly intuitive mind, an extraordinary ability to find the heart of a seventeenth-, eighteenth-, or nineteenth-century text. That gift, and the art of dramatizing intellectual history so that young students who had virtually no knowledge of theology would see both the passion and the intellectual complexity in the debates of narrow Puritans or corpse-cold Unitarians, made him a priceless teacher.”

Once, when our teaching fellow was ill, Miller conducted our section of 15 students. Shifting uneasily in his chair, he told us that this was the first time in his entire career that he had ever taught a section of undergraduates. He virtually implored us to participate voluntarily so that he could get through the experience. Miller died much too early -- in 1963, at the age of 58.

Douglas Bush was another professor whom I greatly admired. He was a quiet man, modest and understated, but his vast knowledge of literature and his deferential demeanor made a deep impression on me. I took his course on Milton and have always regretted that I did not take his course on the Victorian novel. Bush had made his reputation with a magisterial book, English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 1600–1660 (1952). He went on to display his critical virtuosity in more than a dozen other books, including studies of Jane Austen, Matthew Arnold, and John Keats.

(Nothing better illustrated his catholicity of taste than his unsuccessful efforts in nominating Edmund Wilson and Robert Frost for the Nobel Prize in Literature.)

Professor Bush’s method of teaching of Milton was to read the poetry to the class, quietly, patiently, line by line, pausing every several lines to comment on their meaning, historical allusions, classical references or echoes, and events in Milton’s life. Often it appeared that he was reciting from memory, rather than reading. Once, when the classroom lights suddenly went out, he immediately recited an apt passage from Paradise Lost: “More safe I sing with mortal voice . . . / In darkness, and with dangers compass’d round.”

Under the tutelage of Professor Bush, I came to admire the power and beauty of Milton. I reveled in the lyrical reach of his metered lines. I loved “Lycidas” (“Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil”) and the sonnets, especially “On His Blindness,” with its canonical line “They also serve who only stand and wait,” which John Berryman called “the greatest sonnet in the language.” I also admired Milton’s prose, especially Areopagitica, his argument against censorship, with its stirring rhetorical assertion “Who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” Each year Bush asked his students to memorize 20 lines from Milton for the final exam. I took an easy path, choosing the opening passage of the short poem “L’Allegro,” a poem that Helen Vendler counts as “Milton’s first triumph,” and to this day I can recite that energetic passage on command: “Haste thee, Nymph and bring with thee / Jest, and youthful Jollity....”

During my undergraduate years, I had many opportunities to hear poets and novelists read their work. The occasion I remember most indelibly was related to Professor Bush -- a reading on May 29, 1955, by T. S. Eliot, who appeared in Sanders Theatre under the auspices of the Advocate, Harvard’s undergraduate literary magazine. Eliot had written for the Advocate as an undergraduate and now was helping the magazine to raise money. Because I had competed unsuccessfully for membership on the Advocate, I felt a special sense of yearning that evening, a desire to identify with this Harvard graduate who was perhaps the most significant living poet and critic.

After being introduced by Archibald MacLeish, poet, playwright, and Harvard professor, Eliot rose to speak. “I don’t think most people know or realize how important an undergraduate literary magazine can be at so critical a time in a young writer’s development,” he said. “It meant not only encouragement and companionship, but very salutary discouragement and criticism.” He went on to say that he wished that he had intended all the obscure classical references and complex layers of symbolism that scholars and teachers were “discovering” in his work and attributing to his scholarship.

And then he added a word of homage to Professor Bush. In a number of early essays, Eliot had downgraded Milton’s stature as an English poet. “While it must be admitted that Milton is a very great poet indeed,” he wrote in 1936, “it is something of a puzzle to decide in what his greatness consists. On analysis, the marks against him appear both more numerous and more significant than the marks to his credit.” In his celebrated rejection of Paradise Lost, Eliot wrote, “So far as I perceive anything, it is a glimpse of a theology that I find in large part repellent, expressed through a mythology that would have been better left in the Book of Genesis, upon which Milton has not improved.”

Now, Eliot announced, Professor Bush had since persuaded him that Milton must indeed be ranked among the great English poets. I was stunned by the significance of that statement. It was, of course, a tribute to Professor Bush. But even more important, it was a confession of a critical mistake. Eliot’s confession of error was an epiphany; it brought the audience into the intimacy of a writer secure enough, generous enough, to admit his fallibility.

Professor Bush was an indomitable proponent of the humanities. He thought them more essential to a liberal education than the social sciences or the natural sciences; they were, he said, “the most basic of the three great bodies of knowledge and thought.”

With firm conviction as well as a fearful pessimism, Bush once wrote, “We may indeed reach a point in our new Dark Age -- at moments one may wonder if we have not reached it already -- where the literary creations of saner and nobler ages can no longer be assimilated or even dimly apprehended, where man has fulfilled his destiny as a mindless, heartless, will-less node. Meanwhile, no scientific problem is anywhere near so urgent as the preservation of individual man and his humane faculties and heritage.” I have always cherished the passion of his conviction.

When I took Economics 1 with Professor Seymour Harris during my sophomore year, the subject had not yet become a mathematical, model-building discipline. The basic textbook -- an early edition of the classic work by Paul Samuelson -- emphasized macroeconomic activity: the role of government in fostering aggregate demand and stabilizing the economy, managing the business cycle, correcting misallocations and market failures, and providing public goods. It covered basic neo-Keynsian topics of the mid–20th century, like supply and demand, business cycles, patterns of saving and spending, the pump-priming role of government, and the indeterminate influence of the imponderables that constitute consumer behavior.

It was in this course that I was introduced to one of the most engaging books about economists ever written, The Worldly Philosophers (1953) by Robert L. Heilbroner. The course’s intellectual heroes were Joseph Schumpeter, who highlighted the “perennial gale of creative destruction” at the heart of competitive markets, and John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the century, whose emphasis on government spending to stimulate the economy animated the New Deal. Schumpeter, who taught at Harvard from 1932 until his death in 1950, emphasized the disruptive role of innovation and technological change in a competitive economy. His most famous book, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942), was essential reading.

When it came time to write a term paper, I asked my section man if I might write on The Road to Serfdom (1944) by Friedrich A. Hayek, the Austrian economist who had studied with Ludwig von Mises and was perhaps the leading intellectual opponent of Keynesian orthodoxy. Although Hayek was a classical liberal, his book argued the conservative theme that the logic of the European welfare state implied the erosion of personal freedoms. He feared the results of central planning and social engineering; he admired individualism and the economic outcomes of unfettered markets. “Hayek?” my section man responded quizzically. “He is completely out of step with current thinking.” He expressed his disdain for Hayek’s so-called inevitability thesis: that if a nation experiments with intervention in the economy, it will eventually end up as a totalitarian state. He concluded, “I don’t see that there’s much you can do with that book.” And so I renewed the search for a paper topic. (Twenty years later, in 1974, Hayek was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Science.)

Having enjoyed Economics 1, I ventured into an advanced course in economics and political thought, taught by O.H. Taylor, a sad, shy man who led the seminar-size class with great gentleness through the work of the important theorists of the state and economic activity: Smith, Ricardo, Locke, Hume, Marx, Weber, and Veblen. Of all these thinkers, I was most intrigued by Weber and his argument, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), that Calvinist religious beliefs provided the economic basis of capitalism. Perhaps Taylor knew already that the place of this philosophical course in the economics curriculum would soon be doomed, at Harvard and elsewhere, by the increasingly econometric and empirical tendencies of the discipline.

Robert G. McCloskey, a political scientist, was a distinguished expert and fluent lecturer on the Supreme Court. His course was a stimulating review of the Court’s jurisprudence, emphasizing the historical forces that shaped the direction of the decisions of the Court. From him I first glimpsed something of the grandeur of public law. He especially emphasized the political alertness of the Court and the way in which it had historically tended to follow or confirm public opinion rather than challenge it. “[P]ublic concurrence sets an outer boundary for judicial policy making,” McCloskey wrote. “[J]udicial ideas of the good society can never be too far removed from the popular ideas.” In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Supreme Court occasionally challenged public opinion, often to its chagrin (as in the cases finding New Deal legislation unconstitutional), sometimes to its glory (as in Brown v. Board of Education, holding segregated public schools unconstitutional). Indeed, McCloskey emphasized the value to the Court as a deliberative institution in having one or more former elected officials (governors and senators) among its members.

During my sophomore year I took Edwin Honig’s course in creative writing, English C. I learned, to my grim disappointment, that I was not meant to be a writer of fiction. Honig was a poet, and he gave each of his 15 students detailed personal attention. He was a calming influence on his often tense, anxious students, never seeming to tire of reading endless manuscripts on the familiar subjects of first love, sexual initiation, and generational conflict. Honig appreciated that a teacher cannot teach students to write, but that he could, by wise and gentle criticism, teach them to improve their writing.

I wrote a number of short stories for the course, all of them wooden and unimaginative, obvious and predictable in their plotting. As was Honig’s practice weekly, he read one of my stories anonymously to the class for criticism; I squirmed in the hope that my classmates would not recognize it as mine, even though it was the best of the impoverished lot that I wrote for the course.

I admired Honig -- he was a humane man, tall, craggy, shy in demeanor, halting in speech -- and I read most of his books of poetry as well as his critical book on the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. From him, I learned that a writer must not only have a versatile command of language, he must also have something to say. Novels must have themes and make points; the best writers are thinkers. As a fledgling writer, I had a thin imagination and was bereft of striking ideas. I had no conception of what I wanted to say. I concluded that I did not have the creative qualities of a writer....

For all my admiration for my Harvard teachers, as a student I never met or had a conversation with any of them, with the exception of Professor Kelleher. After completing a lecture, most professors hurried from the podium as quickly as they could, well before any student could come forward to ask a question. The Harvard system of undergraduate education was not conducive to faculty-student interaction. Professors did not hold office hours for undergraduates, and they rarely took meals or attended social events at Lowell House. They were apparently too busy or important to spend time with students. The system was designed to ensure that students’ moments of personal discourse were with the teaching fellows who taught our sections, not with members of the faculty.

A few professors, inevitably, were terrible lecturers, and I wondered why the quality of their teaching was not better. The issue usually was not substance but style. James Bryant Conant, Harvard’s former president, once quoted Edward Gibbon on Greek scholars in the 10th century: “[The teachers of the day] held in their lifeless hands the riches of their fathers without inheriting the spirit which had created and improved that sacred patrimony.”

Many professors didn’t seem to care about the organization or fluency of their presentations. Occasionally some seemed unprepared. Lecturing to a large audience was, I believed, an art that could be improved by instruction and practice -- wasn’t that what Dale Carnegie purported to do? -- and I assumed that professors themselves would find satisfaction in perfecting their lecturing styles.

Every faculty undoubtedly has its share of opinionated, self-centered teachers like Miss Jean Brodie, whose unorthodox prime is chronicled in Muriel Spark’s novel. For all her fervent dedication to her students, Miss Jean Brodie was a self-deluded admirer of fascist regimes who abused her position of authority. But my worst professors were not especially opinionated or self-centered -- merely dull. Were all of my teachers models of intellectual power and pedagogical clarity, let alone of moral stature and common sense? Surely, they were not, although I was probably too inexperienced -- or too dazzled by Harvard’s reputation -- to appreciate that.

Despite these limitations, I admired beyond measure the wisest, most learned members of the faculty and have been forever grateful for the models of the life of the mind that they provided me. From them I learned, as George Steiner wrote in Lessons of the Masters (2003), “There is no craft more privileged.... To awaken in another human being powers, dreams beyond one’s own; to induce in others a love for that which one loves; to make of one’s inward present their future: this is a three-fold adventure like no other.”

James O. Freedman
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This essay is an excerpt from Finding the Words, an autobiography by James O. Freedman of the first 27 years of his life. Freedman served as president of Dartmouth College and the University of Iowa and was the author of Idealism and Liberal Education (University of Michigan Press) and Liberal Education and the Public Interest (University of Iowa Press). Freedman died of cancer last year, weeks before Finding the Words was to move into production at Princeton University Press. The press -- working with two of Freedman's friends, Stanley N. Katz of Princeton University and Howard Gardner of Harvard University -- finished the book, which has just been released. This excerpt is printed with permission of the Princeton University Press.

The Flawed Metaphor of the Spellings Summit

By the conclusion of Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings' recently-convened Test of Leadership Summit on Higher Education, I finally understood why her proposals are so ... well, so ill-conceived. They rest on a faulty metaphor: the belief that education is essentially like manufacturing. High school students are "your raw material," as Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri told us. We need "more productive delivery models," economies of scale, even something called "process redesign strategies." Underlying everything is the belief that business does things right, higher education does things wrong, and a crisis is almost upon us, best symbolized by that coming tsunami of Chinese and Indian scientists we hear so much about. Time for higher ed to shape up and adopt the wisdom of business.

But the whole metaphor is wrong. Education is nothing like business, especially not like manufacturing. Consider the Spellings Summit's faulty assumptions:

1. "If it isn't measured, it isn't happening." This slogan we heard in formal talks and casual conversations. Therefore more testing, more reporting, more oversight, as Spellings is proposing, should improve colleges and universities. The one certain result of the Spellings initiatives will be a mountain of new reporting by colleges and universities, funneled to the Federal government via accreditors. Without formal assessment, this view holds, nobody learns anything.

But for human beings, it's obviously wrong, unmeasured good things happen all the time. Left alone, a 5-year old will explore, discover, and learn. So will a 20-year-old. They get up in the morning and do things, for at least a good part of the day, whether anyone watches and measures them or not. Many people read even if they aren't forced to. The professor does nothing; the student learns anyway. Medical doctors live by the dictum Primum non nocere:  first, do no harm. Sometimes the best treatment is to leave the person alone. That's because - unlike steel girders - students are living creatures. (We'll return to this point.)

2. Motivation is simple. "Rewards drive behavior," said several speakers with no more thought on the matter, moving easily to the use of money to guide institutions. Students and professors alike were considered to be easily directed. If tests are "high stakes," students will automatically want to do well, and if colleges as a whole do poorly, they should just be punished. Nowhere did the Spellings Commission report, or the "action plan" presented at the summit, consider that students might not like standardized tests, that administrators find report-writing onerous, or that professors could resent the nationalization of educational goals-and quit teaching altogether. Coercion, it is believed, is a simple and effective method for directing people. After all, if you put a steel girder on a flatcar, it will stay there until moved. And if you melt a steel girder to 4,000 degrees F., it almost never gets angry and storms out of the room or broods.

Consider one of the immediate results of No Child Left Behind, the resignation of hundreds of fourth-grade teachers. Coercion costs; people will try to avoid it. They'll quit their job, for instance. They'll get angry and sulk in the back of the room. "Getting tough" is not the answer.

3. Clearly stated goals at the outset are a prerequisite for success. In machining, or the production of microchips, precise specifications, measured to the nanometer, are necessary. Everything must be planned, laid out in advance, then rationally carried through to completion. As several speakers said, "We all know what needs to be done," as if that were a simple thing.

But in fact, serendipity -- the occurrence of happy, if unpredicted, outcomes seems to have no place in this scheme. The great Peter Drucker recognized that in business, unplanned outcomes can be better than planned outcomes. Post-it Notes and Viagra, for instance,  were not intended outcomes in planning; they were huge successes.

People set their own (often conflicting) goals; they resist coercion; they often surprise us. Admittedly, that makes working with them (healing them, leading them to salvation, encouraging their curiosity) a messy process. But I've seen no evidence that business people are better at it than educators.


Daniel F. Chambliss
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Daniel F. Chambliss is chair of the sociology department at Hamilton College and director of the Project for Assessment of Liberal Arts Education. He is the author of Champions: The Making of Olympic Swimmers and Beyond Caring: Hospitals, Nurses and the Social Organization of Ethics.

Utilizing America's Most Wasted Resource

How often have we heard, “People with talent and ideas are America’s greatest resource”? And yet, while colleges and universities have as their primary goal the delivery of top quality academic programs, few take full advantage of the talents that are available to help meet this goal from the retired professionals in their communities.

In most university and college communities there is a growing pool of talented retired or transitioning individuals who would like nothing more than to make a difference by using their knowledge and experience to improve their communities and institutions while continuing the process of their own personal development.  

Added to this resource is the emerging wave of boomers who will be not retiring in the traditional way. They will be reinventing themselves as they enter new careers and develop new active roles of service. These will be professionals from a wide variety of fields (education, health, government, the arts, business and nonprofit executives, scientists, engineers, and retired military etc.) who have the energy, interest and ability to continue as active contributing members of society for a longer period of time than any preceding generation. With each year thousands of highly trained individuals are added to this growing but under-utilized pool of talent.

Unfortunately, few colleges and universities have made any formal attempt to develop a successful working relationship between the institution and this exciting and capable source of talent. Relationships have been more a matter of chance than conscious planning.

Most of these focus on the use of retired faculty living in the area or local professionals to serve as part-time faculty to meet a very specific and unmet instructional need. For many retired individuals, this form of relationship is inappropriate, of little interest, or impractical since they may be available for periods of time that do not mesh with the academic calendar. The question then becomes how to best take advantage of more diverse individuals to improve the quality of our institution?

There are a wide range of possible options for involving transitioning or full-time retired persons in the day to day operation of every institution. The alternatives have the potential not only of being extremely beneficial to a college or university and to the community, but at the same time can significantly improve the personal well-being of those who are offering their services. The institution, the community, and the volunteer can all gain from this relationship.

Using the Talent

In addition to teaching a course for credit, other services that these individuals can provide are:

Professional Expertise: Building on their backgrounds, they can serve as guest lecturers, members of panels or as special advisers to students working on team projects  In addition, they can be tutors for students who enter courses with special needs or mentors to those students who would like assistance as they address advanced topics in greater depth. The challenge here for faculty is finding the right person or persons with the right set of competencies who will be able to mesh into the instructional sequence that is planned.

Life Experiences: One area of possible service that is often overlooked is the ability for these individuals to bring to the classroom a perspective that may have little or nothing to do with their professional fields of expertise. For example, in every community there are individuals who have lived through the depression of the early 1930’s, served in the military in WWII or the wars that followed, individuals who have lived through the Holocaust or other major genocides, people who have had to face religious or racial intolerance, were active in the Civil Rights Movement, have lived through the challenges of moving to the United States from another country, or have spent parts of their careers working overseas. In each instance, their participation can add a unique dimension to any class studying these periods or subjects. Bringing experts in music, art, or theater into a discussion of a particular period of time or social movement or inviting natives of other countries to discuss the culture and attitudes of different societies can add a texture to a discussion that is otherwise impossible. The key, once again, is the creative use of these various talents within the context of courses and programs.

In nontraditional settings: As more institutions view the out-of-classroom environment as a vital element of the academic and learning experience, these individuals can be used as guest resident counselors, club advisers, program consultants, discussion leaders, etc. Not only can they add a vital element of reality that is so often missing in such activities but, in many cases, they may be available to students at times and in places when most faculty are not.

Adding another dimension: There is one additional use of these citizens that, while rarely taken advantage of, can be of significant benefit to the entire institution. Recent research on how people think has shown that as people mature they become what has been called “transformative” or “critical” thinkers, willing and able to question assumptions, beliefs and traditions. With their extensive backgrounds, these individuals have the potential of adding a unique element to a classroom and the campus.  These mature and experienced people can help both students and institutional leaders make plans for the future and address new and often unique challenges.            

Some Examples

There are a number of existing programs that can provide details on various approaches. As institutions and communities are different, so are the options. Every program reflects the unique culture of the sponsoring institution; they are not cut from any cookie cutter.

The Elderhostel Institute Network is a central office providing information and resources for Institutes for Learning in Retirement (ILR) in the United States, Canada and Bermuda. Elderhostel and Olli programs (the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes) provide a core of talented retired individuals. In many other countries these programs are known as Universities of the Third Age (U3A). See this Web site for a complete listing:

In the U.S. there are four interesting programs that reflect this diversity:

  • The Plato Society, at the University of California at Los Angeles, is a good example of an active program in a complex multipurpose university, with excellent outreach in the community.
  • The Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement is one of the oldest programs in the nation with a selective membership and serving primarily higher education professionals in the Cambridge region.
  • The North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement is part of an extensive research program in adult learning issues. The outreach and variety of programs it offers has become a major force in drawing early retirees to this region of the country.
  • The Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College is one of the earliest and most comprehensive programs in the U.S. In a single day, members are advising students, participating in formal on-campus class activities, or attending peer led sessions for members on drama, studio arts computer technology, science and society, the classics, magic, music, current events, and offering a public forum on “The Politics of Identity in a Global Context." Members with scientific backgrounds have, at the request of government officials, conducted a major study of water resources in the region while others played a key role in designing a leadership training program for implementing change for school districts that was funded by a major community foundation in the area. In the course of a year, 28 forums and lecture series in archeology and musicology were given by members for the general public. Members served on many nonprofit boards and government agencies and played an active role in Elderhostel programs offered at the institution. An annual publication includes creative research and writings by members. Working with Eckerd College, the academy also serves as the sponsor and source of coaches for the college’s student award winning participation in the annual national Ethics Bowl. Members have been requested to serve in about 100 class rooms as either “faculty colleagues” or “resource” persons. In addition, one member, a retired diplomat, funded an endowed scholarship in International Affairs and the members contributed about $750,000 to renovate the building in which they meet, which was once the college president’s home.

Civic Ventures provides a portal through which active seniors can make a difference in society. While not necessarily related to a college or university, many of the Civic Ventures approaches can easily be applied to other programs.

Getting Started

The first challenge that institutions face is establishing a process to locate the individuals with the needed talents and willingness to participate; educate faculty and administrators about the potential use of this group; and make the match between needs and opportunities.

Most significantly, this relationship between the college or university and the community cannot be left to chance. It needs to be planned, communicated and perceived as an integral element in the mission of the institution. Fortunately, the costs involved are modest and the benefits will far outweigh the time, energy and the dollars required. Some key suggestions:

  • The initial first step is establishing an office to facilitate the program. While, in time, it has the potential of bringing financial resources to the institution, the program should be located in the office of academic affairs and not under development. Avoid any hint of second class academic status in the initial design. It is vital that priorities be placed in three distinct areas: 1) the immediate and long term needs of the institution; 2) the intellectual needs of the volunteers; and 3) the future needs of the community.
  • Provide some appropriate title (Fellows) with academic privileges such as access to library, research facilities and parking. While most volunteers would not expect to be paid for their services, some formal program of recognition and appreciation should be established.
  • Draw up an initial list of potential recruits from distinguished prospective professionals in fields that are related to your institution’s curriculum, strengths and needs and to other fields that are of importance to the well-being of the community. It is important that this group be as diversified as possible and not dominated by any one profession or group.
  • Get faculty, administrative and community involvement from the beginning. Establish a high quality advisory board with representatives from all three categories.
  • Provide adequate space for meetings and for growth. The space can serve multiple purposes, but transitioning professionals require a “place” as a surrogate office where they can work, meet and network with colleagues, etc. Since parking will be essential, a location near but not necessarily on-campus is most important.
  • Provide funding and staff for the initial year or two. If the group is successfully meeting the needs of its members it will become self-sufficient in a relatively short period of time.
  • Create some simple, but formal, organizational structure through Bylaws that will give the group an identity, and related through the office of Academic Affairs. Normally the group itself will be involved in this process during the first year of organization.

The Potential

This program, if developed with care, has the potential of generating far more benefits to the institution, the individual volunteers and to the community than is immediately apparent. For example, in addition to their instructionally related functions, such a group might serve as:

  • Ambassadors of the school in the community (volunteers are more credible than paid employees).
  • A core think-tank, with sub-groups, on a wide variety of issues, and commissioned by community groups for special studies and tasks.
  • A source of potential research colleagues and collaborators for faculty.
  • The resource bank for speakers, consultants, etc.
  • The energy source and place from which professionals develop their own talents, form new professional relationships and spin off new enterprises.
  • A special “advisory” group for senior institutional officers and sounding board for testing new ideas, evaluation and planning.
  • A talent bank from which the community can draw pro bono professional services to benefit the non profit infrastructure and municipal government.

A Final Word of Caution

Working with talented and dedicated people is always challenging and rewarding for everyone involved. Therefore it is crucial in programs of this type that both the faculty members and resource persons keep their focus on the objectives of improving the quality of the academic experience for students, the wellbeing of the community and health of the institution. If this primary goal is not clearly articulated from the beginning, some some faculty and administrators may perceive this relationship as an attempt by experienced “outsiders” to take over the classroom or program. The potential for significant impact and a delightful personal experience for faculty, students, administrators and the resource persons is there. They key is to keep focusing on the mission of working together toward a common goal.

Robert M. Diamond and Merle F. Allshouse
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Merle F. Allshouse was director of the Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College from 1994-2002. He has been president of Bloomfield College, vice president of the University of Colorado Foundation, and a professor of philosophy and religion and associate academic dean at Dickinson College. He is a Fellow of the Florida Studies Program at the University of South Florida. Robert M. Diamond is president of the National Academy for Academic Leadership and professor emeritus at Syracuse University. His publications include Designing and Assessing Courses and Curricula. He has held joint administrative and faculty positions at Syracuse University, SUNY Fredonia, the University of Miami and San Jose State University.

'The Closing of the American Mind,' 20 Years Later

“HITS WITH THE APPROXIMATE FORCE AND EFFECT OF ELECTROSHOCK THERAPY” raved Roger Kimball’s review in The New York Times, as quoted on the paperback jacket of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, a surprise best-seller in 1987 and the opening salvo in a ceaseless conservative war against the academic and cultural left. On the 20th anniversary of The Closing, and 15 years after Bloom’s death, the most salient issues concerning Bloom are his role in neoconservative Republican circles and his semi-closeted homosexuality, possibly culminating -- as in Saul Bellow’s thinly fictionalized account in Ravelstein -- in death from AIDS.

In Bloom's introductory chapter to his 1990 collection of essays Giants and Dwarfs, titled "Western Civ," previously published in Commentary, he responded to the reception of The Closing as a conservative tract by claiming that he was neither a conservative ("my teachers--Socrates, Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Nietzsche -- could hardly be called conservatives") nor a liberal, "although the preservation of liberal society is of central concern to me." He saw himself, rather, as an impartial Socratic philosopher, above political engagement or "attachment to a party" and denying, against leftist theory, that "the mind itself must be dominated by the spirit of party."

A close re-reading of his books, however, confirms that they are lofty-sounding ideological rationalizations for the policies of the Republican Party from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.

Bloom rages against the movements of the 60s -- campus protest, black power, feminism, affirmative action, and the counterculture -- while glossing over every injustice in American society and foreign policy (he scarcely mentions the Vietnam War).

Bloom’s personal affiliations further belied his boast of being above “attachment to a party” and captivity to “the spirit of party.” Today these statements appear to go beyond coyness into the kind of hypocrisy that has become boilerplate for conservative scholars, journalists, and organizations like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni or National Association of Scholars, whose leaders vaunt their dedication to intellectual disinterestedness while acting as propagandists for the Republican Party and its satellite political foundations. The magazine in which Bloom made these boasts, Commentary, and its then-editor Norman Podhoretz, were prime examples of this hypocrisy. Podhoretz proclaimed in his 1979 book Breaking Ranks about Commentary, “I could say that the reason for our effectiveness [against the New Left’s alleged subordination of intellectual integrity to political partisanship] was a high literary standard.” But in the 80s he turned Commentary into a fan mag for President Reagan and in 1991 commissioned David Brock, in his self-confessed “right-wing hit man” days, to write an encomium to the intellectual gravitas of Vice President Dan Quayle.

For years, Bloom was co-director of the John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy at the University of Chicago, which received millions from the John M. Olin Foundation. That foundation, whose president was William J. Simon, multimillionaire savings and loan tycoon and Secretary of the Treasury under President Ford, at its peak spent some $55 million a year on grants "intended to strengthen the economic, political, and cultural institutions upon which ... private enterprise is based.

William Kristol wrote a rave review of The Closing in The Wall Street Journal (where his father was on the editorial board), which is also quoted on the paperback jacket; he was at the time Vice President Quayle's chief of staff, and is now editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard. Kimball, the Times reviewer, was an editor of The New Criterion, and yet another Olin beneficiary. (So much for the Times’ fabled vetting of reviewers for conflicts of interest.) The supposedly liberal mainstream media have been complicit at worst, silent at best, in these conflicts of interest concerning Bloom and other conservative culture warriors, as in failing to consider how much the success of The Closing was attributable to Republican-front publicity channels. Yet conservatives have the chutzpah to accuse liberal academics and journalists of cronyism!

More significant for today is Bloom’s influence as mediator between the ideas of his mentor at the University of Chicago, Leo Strauss, and what has become known as the “neconservative cabal” of Straussians behind the Iraq War in the administration of George W. Bush. Paul Wolfowitz was Bloom’s student; Bellow’s Ravelstein says of Wolfowitz’s fictitious counterpart, “It’s only a matter of time before Phil Gorman has cabinet rank, and a damn good thing for the country.” Ravelstein depicts Ravelstein’s apartment as a high-tech communications center with a Wolfowitz-like disciple in Washington and other movers and shakers in international affairs during the Reagan and first Bush administrations, including the Gulf War -- in which Ravelstein and his protégés (few of whose real-life counterparts ever served in the military) privately condemn President Bush for a failure of nerve in not taking Baghdad and toppling Saddam Hussein.

Avowed Straussians invoke Strauss’s key ideas such as the defense of the manly, militaristic exercise of power by nation-states acting for virtuous ends, the running of government by a behind-the-scenes intellectual elite serving as advisors to the ostensible rulers, and the elite’s use of “noble lies” extolling patriotism, war, religion, and family values, to manipulate the ignorant masses into supporting pursuit of tough-minded realpolitik. My sense, however, is that Strauss’s, and Bloom’s, high-minded philosophical formulations of these ideas have just been vulgarized by Republicans as a pretext for unprincipled American imperialism, hypocritical manipulation of their conservative base’s faith in “moral values,” opportunism by would-be Machiallevian advisors-to-the-Prince, and the kind of tawdry autocracy, secretiveness, venality, and lying that came to mark George W. Bush’s administration. Bellow portrays Ravelstein reveling in the money, celebrity, and influence in Republican politics that ironically resulted from his best-selling book that decried such vulgar distractions from the life of the mind. He is thrilled at being feted by President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher, as Bloom was. The implicit moral is that intellectuals, whether of the left or right, who aspire to be the erudite power behind the throne typically end up groveling before it.

Even more anomalously, in the past decade or so, conservative attacks on liberal academics -- whom Bloom and others like Podhoretz earlier accused of betraying scholarly non-partisanship and intellectual standards -- have taken a turn toward ever-more-stridently populist, partisan derision of scholarship and intellect altogether. I made this point in an a column here last year with reference to David Horowitz inciting know-nothing Republican state legislators like Larry Mumper of Ohio and Stacey Campfield of Tennessee to government interference with academic freedom under the banner of The Academic Bill of Rights. (All of the bloviating conservative commentators on my column evaded the issue of conservative flip-flopping between elitist and ad populum lines of argument.)

Horowitz, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh have presented themselves as champions of the rights of the ordinary people against the latté-sipping “cultural elitists” in university faculties, media, and politics itself -- as in the belittling of John Kerry in 2004 as French-looking, or the derision of Al Gore’s scholarly demeanor. Thus Bloom continues to be revered by conservatives, without their registering the bothersome fact that he advocated precisely the kind of cultural elitism that they now savage. (Never mind his atheism and preference for ancient Greek over Judeo-Christian culture, or his tidbits of gay lingo, as in his half-admiring description in The Closing of Mick Jagger, “male and female, heterosexual and homosexual ... tarting it up on the stage.”

All these contradictions in Bloom’s texts and life are an exemplary case of the long-running schizophrenia of American conservatism in what resembles the old Good Cop-Bad Cop routine -- Good Cop intellectuals who lay claim to aristocratic traditions and high moral or academic/intellectual standards, and Bad Cop philistines who are the public face of conservatism, in presidents from Coolidge to Reagan to Bush II, in vulgarian billionaires like Rupert Murdoch and Richard Mellon Scaife, along with the corporations and their executives whose pursuit of ever-increasing profits debases culture to the level of the lowest common denominator of taste. The baddest of the Bad Cops are rabble-rousing enforcers like Coulter, O’Reilly, Limbaugh, and Horowitz. It is the utter failure of Bloom and other conservative intellectuals to dissociate themselves from or even acknowledge the vulgar variety of conservatism, that ultimately exposes the hypocrisy of their lofty ideals and their selective indignation against every variety of liberal/leftist villains.

The same compartmentalized thinking that enables highbrow conservatives to champion Straussian-Bloomian elitism yet not speak out against philistine conservatism has enabled them to evade the issue of Bloom’s homosexuality, particularly in regard to Bellow’s Ravelstein. Bellow avowed that his Ravelstein was modeled on Bloom in virtually every detail. The novel’s narrator, a Bellow near-double and Ravelstein’s best friend, repeatedly insists that Ravelstein designated him as memorialist and instructed him to tell the unvarnished truth. That Bloom like Ravelstein was and notoriously misogynistic, is undisputed. In an article on Ravelstein in The New York Times Magazine, D.T. Max quoted Wolfowitz saying that in Bloom’s Chicago circle when he was alive, “‘It was sort of, Don’t ask, don’t tell.’” But whether Bloom had AIDS is disputed. Bellow’s narrator explicitly describes Ravelstein having the symptoms and medical treatment for HIV. After galley proofs circulated, Max reports that pressure was put on Bellow to revise, and he backed down to the extent of telling D.T. Max, “‘I don’t know that [Bloom] died of AIDS, really. It was just my impression that he may have.’” Yet Bellow subsequently made only minor revisions in the passages about HIV for the final book.

Furthermore, both Bloom and Ravelstein had a young, long-term male companion, whom they held in high regard and made their heir. In the galleys, they are said to be lovers, but in the published version Ravelstein “would sometimes lower his voice in speaking of Nikki, to say that there was no intimacy between them. ‘More father and son.’” Ravelstein also “disapproved of queer antics and of what he called ‘faggot behavior.’” Yet Bellow’s narrator also says Ravelstein “was doomed to die because of his irregular sexual ways.” Ravelstein himself says, “I’m fatally polluted. I think a lot about those pretty boys in Paris. If they catch the disease, they go back to their mothers, who care for them.’’

A rather vague sequence in which the dying Ravelstein says he still obtains sexual relief from “kids,” and asks the narrator to write a check for an unidentified one, is apparently a censored version of a passage in the galleys that, according to Christopher Hitchens in The Nation, read as follows:

Even toward the end Ravelstein was still cruising. It turned out that he went to gay bars.

One day he said to me, “Chick, I need a check drawn. It’s not a lot. Five hundred bucks.”

“Why can’t you write it yourself?”

“I want to avoid trouble with Nikki. He’d see it on the check-stub.”

“All right. How do you want it drawn?”

“Make it out to Eulace Harms.”


“That’s how the kid spells it. Pronounced Ulysee.”

There was no need to ask Ravelstein to explain. Harms was a boy he had brought home one night. . . . Eulace was the handsome little boy who had wandered about his apartment in the nude, physically so elegant. “No older than sixteen. Very well built...."

I wanted to ask, what did the kid do or offer that was worth five hundred dollars....

James Atlas’s biography of Bellow confirms Hitchens’ account of the galleys and adds, “On one occasion [Ravelstein] recruits a black youth from the neighborhood to satisfy him, insisting that he practices ‘safe sex.’” The racial factor here is disturbing, especially since the passage immediately follows a scornful comment by Ravelstein about the South Chicago “ghetto.” It also highlights the absence of any mention in The Closing of the vast black “neighborhood” that surrounds Bloom’s idyllic University of Chicago.

Atlas’s Bellow biography, published shortly after Ravelstein in 2000, contains only a few pages about the novel tacked on at the end, which cite Max and Hitchens but add little to their accounts of Bloom, other than the above sentence and another saying, “A frequenter of the sex emporiums of North Clark Street, Bloom confessed to Edward Shils that he ‘couldn’t keep away from boys.’”

Now, both at the time of Bloom’s death, when the obituaries labeled his cause of death a combination of bleeding ulcers and liver failure, and subsequently, the issues of Bloom’s predatory homosexuality and AIDS have been evaded by Bloom’s allies. Bellow’s own accounts are quite confusing. After proclaiming that Ravelstein was a true-to-life homage to his great friend Bloom, it would seem malicious beyond belief for him to have fabricated out of whole-cloth a character “destroyed by his reckless sex habits,” whom he knew everyone would identify as Bloom -- especially if, as he later claimed in the Max interview, he really didn’t know the truth.

These questions might not be worth dwelling on if Bloom and his book had not been canonized by social conservatives and Straussians, both of whom anathematize homosexuality and sexual promiscuity of all kinds. If Bloom’s private life was indeed louche, doesn’t that render suspect the encomiums in The Closing to Platonic love, especially in The Symposium, and Bloom’s denunciation of modern sexual license? And might the stonewalling by Bloom’s allies be an instance of the Straussian “noble lie”? (In his Commentary review of Ravelstein, Podhoretz, who elsewhere rages against homosexual promiscuous “buggery” and pederasty, displayed his infallible double standard toward leftist adversaries versus rightist allies in ignoring the more tawdry details to give Bloom dispensation for keeping his homosexuality discreetly closeted, and in accepting at face value Bellow’s late disclaimer about Bloom having AIDS.) Indeed, the Bloom case might be paradigmatic of neoconservatives’ predisposition toward dissembling and covering up vices in their own ranks that belies their exacting of moral rectitude from everyone else.

Donald Lazere
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Donald Lazere, professor emeritus of English at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, has written on the culture wars for many scholarly and journalistic periodicals. His books include Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy: The Critical Citizen’s Guide to Argumentative Rhetoric and English Studies and Civic Literacy: Teaching the Political Conflicts, forthcoming.

I Was a Progression Requirement Pusher

Students must obtain a cumulative grade-point average of 2.0 to graduate from my university. Sort of. In reality most students have to obtain a higher GPA for admission into a particular major. This second admissions hurdle is as important as gaining entrance into the university. Known often as a "progression requirement," it is one of the dirty little secrets in academe.

I know this because I wrote my department's progression requirement, which prohibits students from declaring a history major before obtaining grades of at least C+ in a series of courses. Some departments require even higher grades to begin the major, and a few go as far at to require a certain cumulative GPA for continued good academic standing in the department. Why did I write our department's progression requirements, and why did I push for their adoption? Because the professors in anthropology created their own first, and I did not want their "rejects" to scurry over into our major; so much for the love of teaching and a devotion to the success of all students.

Can I really tell you that a student earning a C+ in a survey course is likely to be more successful than a C student? No. Can I tell you that a history major who graduates with honors will be more successful than one who graduates with the minimum 2.0? Yes, but this presumes I know exactly what "success" means. Sure, the 4.0 student will likely be admitted into a top graduate school, might become a professor just like me, and be happy. But the 2.0 student might find just as satisfying a career, and be an educated citizen to boot.

As part of our effort to improve student retention and graduation rates the provost asked me to meet with deans, department heads and professors to review departmental progression requirements. In these meetings I have heard many rationales, but mostly these defenses rely on narrow definitions of what constitutes success in a given field, and are exactly the kinds of explanations I employed to defend my department's requirements. "Our students can't be successful accountants without at least a 3.0," or "our students tend not to pass the nutrition licensing examination on the first try if they have below a 3.0," are typical responses. Both may be true, but who is to say that the students in question have to be accountants or licensed nutritionists? Could they not proceed to have happy and productive careers in fields outside of their major? Also, if there is a pattern where people with grades below a certain level tend to fail licensure exams, could we not simply publicize this so that students can make informed choices?

Progression requirements are also appealing as a fast and easy way to demonstrate the rigor, high standards, and importance of an academic department (all of which I thought I was doing). As such they allow professors to ignore, diminish or at least supplement the real markers of a department's reputation, which at a research university are publications and the quality of the graduate program, both of which require much more effort and excellence than the creation of progression requirements.

Of course there are good reasons for progression requirements, such as when they are employed to limit admission into a popular major which simply does not have sufficient personnel to teach well the growing number of majors. Yet even here there are problems, for departments can create scarcity by capping enrollment, by requiring a series of small enrollment seminars, or, and this is my favorite, by pointing to the standards of their accreditation agency. Such agencies can function as a protection racket by saying: "do it this way- -- or else; teach no more than X students per class -- or else." Administrators are left to figure out how the agency derived the magic X number, and in the meantime many students admitted into the university have one less major available to them.

Progression requirements produce what a colleague calls "academic boat people," because these students drift from major to major even though they meet, and often exceed, the university's general 2.0 GPA standard for continued enrollment. What are we to do with these students? What are we to tell parents when they complain that their child has a 2.4 GPA and yet cannot gain admittance into any of three preferred majors? Who should teach these students, and help them graduate? At my university such students become "undeclared majors," and are transferred automatically into the College of Arts and Sciences. Do deans of the other colleges send flowers and chocolates in thanks of such generosity?

More important, who are these students? Last November I spied one of them late one evening at the local Sam's Club. She was a decent writer in my upper-division course, but consistently earned C grades, and contributed very little to class discussions. She was at work, of course, and her lapel button held a photograph of her infant daughter. She greeted me kindly, and noted that she worked full time, was a new mother, and that soon she would finish the research paper for my course. At once my assumptions about her ability changed; suddenly her course grade reflected the complexity of life, and was no longer a simple metric of future success. Much the same happened months later when I encountered another student in a restaurant. He too earned a C from me, and as we conversed he noted that he worked more than 40 hours a week while enrolled in my course. He attended my 8 o'clock class, went straight to work, and then returned to campus for a class at night. As a progression requirement pusher I failed to incorporate the reality of these students into our department's standards.

To be sure there are many students who do not work late, do not face double days with families, and who simply do not apply themselves in courses. This does not justify progression requirements, even though the goal of excluding just such students motivated my own jump into rule making. And herein lies the problem: progression requirements are exclusionary. They keep people from pursuing their particular academic goals. They prevent students from specializing in a field of particular interest to them. Yes, budget constraints mean that universities sometimes cannot meet the demand for programs. But often such issues are absent, and yet progression requirements remain. Take it from a former progression requirement pusher: Such exclusion, as well meaning as it may be, prevents universities from fulfilling the call to educate our citizens. As such they should be eliminated when possible, reduced when feasible, and abandoned as a means of determining in advance who will and will not be successful in life.

Todd A. Diacon
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Todd A. Diacon is vice provost of academic operations at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Can Liberal Arts Colleges Be Saved?

The 2004 Carnegie Classifications identified only 95 liberal arts colleges with no graduate school where 80 percent or more of all graduates are liberal arts and sciences, not career-based, majors. They accounted for a mere 0.8 percent of the total higher education enrollment in the U.S. In a 1990 Yankelovich survey, two-thirds of respondents believed the main reason to go to college was to get the skills necessary for a good job. A 2004 University of California at Los Angles survey reported that three-quarters of all students gave as their reasons for going to college "to get training for a specific career," "to be able to get a better job," and/or "to be able to make more money."

This year, a Special Commission appointed by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings “to consider how best to improve our system of higher education” completed a year long study. Its 55-page report of analysis and recommendations does not even mention liberal education or the liberal arts.

The 95 "true" liberal arts colleges, the pure practitioners of liberal education, are in trouble. The number of persons who view themselves as liberally educated is declining. The number who wish they were liberally educated is declining even faster and the number who think they know what a liberal education is, or even that they would like to know, is shrinking fastest of all. In recent years, liberal education’s slide has been masked to some extent by demographics, the upsurge in applicants for all higher education resulting from the flood of college age children produced by the baby boomers. The flood is coming to an end.

A career-directed education has become the goal of many, if not most, young people eager to get ahead. A purely materialistic motivation for getting an education is now the norm, not the exception. There is economic pressure on liberal arts colleges to add career-directed courses and programs to attract students. The most prestigious colleges are to some extent relieved from this pressure by their wealth and the fact that so many of their graduates know they will go on to graduate and professional schools and therefore feel less need to collect a commercial credential at the undergraduate level; to learn what Elia Kazan’s immigrant father called something “use-eh-full.”

Even the richest colleges, however, are not immune from pressure to expand their curricula in vocational directions in order to attract students who are more interested in getting a good job and making money than in Aristotle, Descartes and Rousseau, and to make sure top students are not lured away by so-called honors colleges at state universities.

Can liberal arts colleges be saved or are they, to take Paul Neely’s apt analogy, becoming like high end passenger trains that went out of business because no matter how well they performed, consumers had come to prefer traveling by plane and automobile? Unless the case liberal arts colleges make for liberal education and for themselves is reformed, their curricula restored, and the across the board teaching excellence of their faculties secured, the answer in all probability is that those that survive will evolve into purveyors of career-directed, not liberal, education.

The Case as It Is Made Now

Much of the Case currently made for liberal education is internally inconsistent, cynically cobbled together to pander to the preconceptions of high school students and their parents, unsupported and/or simply not credible. As the steady decline in the demand for liberal education shows, the Case is not persuasive to those who are not pre-sold, i.e. those who need to be persuaded. Consider the following Case elements:

(1) Even though it won’t get you a job, a liberal education really is useful because it teaches students how to think critically.

The "critical thinking" mantra is an especially good example of embracing a bad argument solely because it is not laughable on its face. Never mind that no one knows what “critical,” as opposed to plain good, thinking is, or that there is no reason to suppose that one is more likely to become a critical thinker studying English literature than business management, or that there is certainly no reason to suspect that English literature professors are themselves more critical thinkers, or more capable of teaching critical thinking than business management professors. Yet no single assertion is more central to the Case made for liberal arts educations than the claim it will make you a more critical thinker, whatever that is.

(2) A liberal education best provides oral and written communication skills.

It is certainly true that a liberal education can provide these skills, but is it more true than for career-based education (or for that matter for the education that comes from being in the workplace)? There is no convincing evidence that the liberally educated are more effective communicators and the fact that the assertion is totally unsupported undercuts the Case as a whole.

(3) Liberal arts colleges provide an international education.

We live in a global world and it behooves liberal arts colleges to internationalize their curricula to the maximum extent possible. This does not mean, however, that the following common liberal arts promotion makes sense: "The globe is shrinking, we live in an international world, and our college recognizes these important facts by encouraging all students to spend a semester abroad."

Let’s restate this promotion from the point of view of a potential student or parent: "You have told me that spending 26 months at your college over the next four years at a cost of $150,000-$200,000 is a sound investment, but now you say I should spend more than 10 percent of that time somewhere else. Are you trying to cut your costs by giving me less or do you simply believe 26 months is more than I need?"

Everyone knows that study abroad is a useful and often meaningful, even life-changing, experience. But it makes no sense to say that it should be done at the expense of, rather than in addition to, the 26 months.

(4) You can study the subjects you like best and are most interested in.

In an effort to attract students, liberal arts colleges have reduced, and some have even eliminated, course requirements. To the extent they do so they turn over liberal education curriculum design to students who by definition are not yet liberally educated and virtually insure that their education will be less broad, less liberal. Maria Montessori’s maxim “follow the child” may make sense in first grade, but not at a liberal arts college unless, of course, the college’s education philosophy is that students will find liberal education on their own without the college’s guidance, in which case why should they spend $200,000 for 26 months?

(5) You will get good grades and this will help you get into the graduate or professional school of your choice.

Colleges don’t explicitly include grade inflation in their pitches to students, but everybody knows it is going on. In fact, grade inflation serves only to cheapen the value of a liberal arts degree and signals to students that a liberal education is simply a part of playing the credential-seeking game, of getting ahead. Further, since everyone is doing it, it doesn’t work very well.

The Case That Needs to Be Made

In contrast to these frivolous, disingenuous or wrong claims, the distinctively desirable features of a liberal arts education are de-emphasized or omitted entirely from the Case because it is assumed by admissions staff that they won’t be believed or understood.

(1) The quality of a liberal education that makes it so effective is that the subject matter studied is not “use-eh-full.”

It is the very "uselessness" of what liberal arts students study that opens the door to their appreciating knowing for the sake of knowing, that drives home the point that learning is of value in and of itself whether or not it leads directly to a marketable skill. It is possible to realize these things while studying banking or engineering, but it is much more difficult because the student is constantly distracted from the utility of acquiring knowledge by the utility of the knowledge being acquired. The genius of the American system of liberal education is that it eliminates this distraction. Its uselessness separates knowing from need to know, learning from need to learn, desire to understand from need to understand.

(2) The best teaching is at liberal arts colleges.

If liberal arts colleges pay attention in hiring, training, supporting and tenuring faculty, there is really no way universities, no matter now highly ranked, can match them in teaching excellence. The mission of universities is diverse and complex, the mission of liberal arts colleges is singular, to provide a liberal education to undergraduates. For the most part, the most famous names in higher education are associated with major universities, not liberal arts colleges, but the severe limits on their worth to university undergraduates are well known: limited exposure to students, huge lecture courses, smaller classes taught by graduate students, and so on. Universities, by their very nature, inescapably focus on specialization, not breadth.

Universities are aware of their inherent disadvantages in providing undergraduate liberal arts education and in recent years some have made efforts to shore up their performance by creating so-called honors colleges and requiring full professors to teach an undergraduate course now and then. By and large, however, these are Band-Aid efforts. A Nobel laureate once complained to me about being required to teach an undergraduate seminar. "I’m a professor, not a teacher," he growled.

(3) Your life will be fuller and richer if you read Aristotle, Descartes and Rousseau.

There is no doubt that this is a tough sell for college bound, wealth-seeking, "what’s in it for me" philistines and their nervous parents, but enrichment is inescapably central to the value of the liberal arts. Before I came to the academy, I was a lawyer. I know to a certainty that one does not learn how to practice law until one starts doing it. It is not learned in law school. Therefore, a career-directed, pre-law program at the undergraduate level makes no sense, i.e., even though vocational, it is neither useful nor enriching. By far the best, and often the only, way to learn any career skill is by practicing it. Career-directed courses are always of limited value; a liberal education is always enriching. The wise person, therefore, seeks both a liberal education and an on-the-job career education.


In the early 19th century, subject matter that made up the liberal arts curriculum was fixed: the ancient classics, rhetoric, logic, Greek and Latin. It was what a gentleman, a liberally educated person, had to know. Today, while the curriculum is flexible, taking advantage of the special skills and interests of the faculty, it still defines liberal education at each liberal arts college. It is the responsibility of the faculty -- not the students, not the administration -- to create a curriculum and the goal in doing so must be to make the best possible use of the faculty to insure that the college’s graduates are securely launched on a lifetime of liberal education.

Distribution, as opposed to course, requirements represent a partial abrogation of this responsibility. Perhaps after the first two or three years a distribution requirement makes sense, but course requirements come first. Elimination of requirements is a marketing, not educational, strategy. Since the objective of liberal arts colleges is to provide a liberal education the old Brown University no requirements strategy is disingenuous as well as wrong.

A liberal education is broad, not narrow. The more major requirements imposed, the narrower the resulting education. If all departments reduced their major requirements, liberal education would be facilitated. Experiencing some depth of inquiry is a part of a liberal education, but not at the expense of breadth. Graduate and professional schools, not to mention getting a job, will give students all the depth they need.

Which courses offered by a department receive the greatest departmental attention -- survey and entry-level courses or specialized advanced courses for major? Too often, it is the latter. I well remember a talk given by a creative writing professor who told us that the single most important and enriching course in his undergraduate career was Astronomy 101. At liberal arts colleges, his experience should be commonplace, not exceptional. 101 courses are the foundation of a liberal education.

Interdisciplinary courses are inherently pro-liberal arts. There are problems with them, however, including that creating a truly interdisciplinary syllabus is difficult and more work to teach, and that there is not the kind of recognition for success in interdisciplinary teaching that exists within departments. The steps colleges can take to ameliorate or eliminate these problems are obvious and should be taken.

A liberal education is best pursued when students share the learning experience. Common courses are a sound device for maximizing sharing. Similar problems inhere in teaching common courses as in interdisciplinary courses and require the same steps to remove them.

A much-used cost containment strategy is to combine departments, e.g. anthropology and sociology, art and art history, philosophy and religion. Reduction in, or failure to increase, the number of teachers in the departments is a common byproduct (or cause) of such combinations. While there is nothing inherently wrong with combined departments and, indeed, to some extent they may partake of the positive liberal arts qualities of interdisciplinary courses, combining departments can have unintended adverse consequences on the quality of instruction and should only be entered into after careful analysis. On the other side of the coin, too many departments can mark the way towards career-based education, especially in the social and physical sciences. Many universities, for example, offer dozens of economics majors, each directed to a specific career path and each leading away from breadth. Liberal arts colleges are to some extent insulated from this practice by the relatively small size of their faculties, but they are not immune.

There is nothing wrong with career-based courses and there is nothing wrong with encouraging students to pursue them, but not in lieu or instead of liberal arts courses. “Take them in the evening, in the summer, or before or after you graduate, but for the 26 months you are with us you will pursue a liberal education full time” is the correct rule for liberal arts colleges.

No course credit should be given for non-academic initiatives. If students have excellent summer work experiences or organize successful public service programs, they should put them on their resumes, not in their transcripts. The quality of the liberal education a college delivers is measured by what happens at the college, not in a congressman’s office or at a European university. If students can get a better liberal education somewhere other than at the college, why should they attend the college at all? Off-campus experience can supplement and enhance the liberal education a college offers, but not replace it.

The Faculty

Sadly, it is easier for liberal arts colleges to raise money for buildings, sports, or almost anything other than faculty salaries and support. If, however, liberal arts colleges do not offer the very best teaching, their prospects for the future are at best problematic. Faculties are the heart and soul of liberal education.

It makes no sense to staff a liberal arts college with teachers who are not themselves liberally educated. (Indeed, if college presidents, vice presidents, deans and other administrators are to play a meaningful role in directing the course of a liberal arts college, they also need to be liberally educated.) Hiring procedures used by liberal arts colleges – posting ads that ask candidates to furnish information about their qualifications to teach a particular specialty; 20 minute interviews in hospitality suites at professional society meetings where narrow specialists gather; observing candidates teach a 50-minute class to students chosen because they are majoring in the candidates area of specialization – are not well-calculated to reveal the extent and quality of candidates’ liberal education.

Certainly little that happened to candidates at the graduate schools where they earned their Ph.D.s provides assurance that the candidates are liberally educated. Graduate schools are antithetical to liberal education. They put a premium on and reward narrowness, not breadth. Indeed, most graduate schools have precious little to do with preparing their students to be effective teachers. The graduate school game is research and publication, no matter how frivolous or insignificant.

Worse, graduate schools dissemble about their graduates. A letter of recommendation from a graduate school dean or professor saying a graduate will be a good liberal arts college teacher frequently really means the graduate school believes the graduate will not be a successful researcher. Graduate school deans and professors often have little or no knowledge about the potential teaching capability of their students, and care less.

The one sure way to find liberally educated, potentially excellent teachers is to actively look for them, not wait for them to drop in at hospitality suite or respond to an advertisement. Networking is the key, talking to friends and friends of friends. Business understands this and there is no reason colleges can’t, too.

The number of new Ph.D.'s has increased faster than the number of college teaching positions. This can put colleges in the enviable position of having a surfeit of candidates to choose from. Too often, however, this advantage is lost because a first cut is made on the basis of the ranking of the universities from which candidates’ degrees were received. There is little reason to believe a social historian from Harvard is more liberally educated or more likely to become an excellent teacher than one from a lower ranked institution. The efforts and aptitudes required to gain admission to and earn a Ph.D. from Harvard (or any other first rate graduate school) are not closely correlated, if at all, with good teaching. Indeed, a respectable argument can be made that they are counter indicators. In fact, it is far from self-evident that liberal educatedness and teaching excellence are positively correlated with possession of a Ph.D. When a college has an opportunity to hire a potentially excellent teacher who lacks the Ph.D. credential, a retired judge or legislator perhaps, or a linguist or artist (even if an M.F.A. is also missing), the opportunity should be seized.

Hiring to fill a particular slot, the most common practice, itself risks losing teaching excellence. Obviously, a chemist cannot be hired to replace a retiring historian, but if a medievalist is the strongest candidate to replace a retiring professor of modern European history, changing course offerings should at least be seriously considered.

Flexibility in hiring is an especially important consideration in hiring minority faculty. The likelihood that a minority group member highly qualified and desiring to teach organic chemistry at a liberal arts college will happen to be available the very year old Charlie decides to retire from the chemistry department is not high. But such a candidate might have been available at an earlier time and, even though it did not fit perfectly into the then perceived staffing requirements of the chemistry department, grabbing the candidate before he or she went somewhere else could have made good sense.

If diversity in the student body is desirable, indeed essential, for a liberal education, as almost all liberal arts colleges acknowledge, then faculty diversity is essential, too. If there is no minority organic chemist available, there may be an outstanding astronomer or sociologist who will advance the liberal arts excellence of the college as well as the diversity of its faculty. When Branch Rickey set out to hire major league baseball’s first black player, he did not search for a third baseman, but rather for the best player he could find, and then played him where he fit in; at third base. Incidentally, in hiring Jackie Robinson, Mr. Rickey gave full consideration to Mr. Robinson’s personal, as well as athletic, qualifications. The parallel to giving full consideration to liberal educatedness as well as academic qualifications in hiring teachers is apt.

Once hired, most new teachers need to be taught how to teach. This did not happen to most of them at graduate school. Throwing them into the classroom and letting them sink or swim, a traditional approach, makes no sense. Instruction of new teachers by faculty members who are skilled teachers should be intensive and continuing, not hit or miss. The progress of new teachers needs to be systematically monitored. Too often what is known about a young faculty member’s teaching skills is as best anecdotal, largely based on passing comments by students. Reliable evaluation is essential to effective training and, of course, to making sound tenure decisions.

In the popular press, tenure is controversial, seen by many outside the academy as an undeserved life-long sinecure. The claimed centrality of tenure to preserving academic freedom, heavily relied on by tenure supporters, is not persuasive. The freedom to assert controversial positions is not an issue for the overwhelming majority of faculty members. Instances where it can reasonably be said that, but for tenure, a faculty member would be fired are rare. In addition, academic freedom can be contractually guaranteed without tenure, e.g. “No professor can be disciplined, demoted or terminated for expressing a controversial or unpopular view.”

Tenure is a ruthless, up or out system. A faculty member denied tenure at one college is less likely to get it somewhere else. Tenure denial is a wrenching experience not only for the teacher denied but also for the persons making the denial decision. The human response at most teaching-oriented institutions is to try to avoid making it. Doubts are resolved in favor or granting tenure. Weaknesses are under-weighted and strengths are over-weighted to reach the “grant” decision. Non-teaching contributions by the candidate are given significant weight to justify granting tenure to a candidate whose teaching is not first class. The result is “acceptable” or “pretty good,” but not excellent, teachers are rewarded with tenure and take possession of the college’s limited number of teaching positions for the next 25-30 years.

In making tenure decisions substantial weight is frequently assigned to a candidate’s publications. Indeed, at some of the finest liberal arts colleges a published book is a tenure requirement. This may make sense at graduate schools where the objective is to promote scholarship and research, not teaching. It makes no sense at liberal arts colleges. It is commonly observed that scholarship informs and enhances teaching. If this is so, as I strongly believe it to be, publications need not be considered separately as a part of the tenure review process because their enhancing effect will be reflected in the teaching performance of the candidate. On the other side of the coin, poor teachers can produce outstanding scholarship. They should be encouraged to devote their live to graduate school research, not liberal arts college teaching.

The first place most businesses look to save money is workers’ salaries. Such cost cutting efforts, however, are frequently frustrated by the pressures of competition and unions. At liberal arts colleges these pressures are more easily resisted. The result is that faculty salary increases tend to lag behind other employment venues and sometimes even languish below the rise in cost of living. Since far and away the most valuable resource of a college is its faculty, this is foolish.

The reluctance to grant salary increases to faculty is far less apparent in the case of college administrators. Perhaps in making salary decisions, business executive members of college boards of trustees identify faculty with their factory workers, and administrators with themselves. It has been observed that when the salary of a college or university president reaches three times that of senior faculty, a potentially destructive disequilibrium is created. This disequilibrium is becoming more common.

Salaries reflect perceived value. The fact that many liberal arts colleges pay their teachers poorly reflects how the institutions value teachers’ services, and inevitably how teachers value themselves. I am aware of no established benchmark for what faculty salaries ought to be, or of accepted comparables. There are, however, some useful guidelines. First, faculty salaries should increase no less rapidly than those of administrators. Second, salaries of senior faculty should increase no less rapidly than starting salaries for assistant professors. Third, teaching excellence should be rewarded by salary increases, not bonuses or prizes which are always sporadic, capricious and often devices designed to portray the institution as more generous than it in fact is. Fourth, special effort should be given to encouraging donors to earmark gifts for faculty salaries.


A not insignificant portion of the challenges now faced by liberal arts colleges are of their own making, resulting from competition between them. Costs have been increased by the addition of programs and resources for the specific purpose of attracting students away from competing colleges. Competition has caused dollars to be diverted from important uses, e.g. for faculty salaries and support, to flashy facilities and programs. Grade inflation and the elimination of requirements are examples of competition between liberal arts colleges that degrades the offerings of all of them.

A few liberal arts colleges are wealthy, but most struggle financially. They all, however, are threatened by declining demand for liberal education. If they have any long-run chance of resisting the vocationalizing of their curricula, they need to make common cause, to work together, not at odds with each other.

Victor E. Ferrall Jr.
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Victor E. Ferrall Jr. was president of Beloit College from 1991 to 2000. Before then, he practiced law in Washington. He is currently writing a book on liberal arts colleges.

Shaping a Life of the Mind for Practice

What kind of “life of the mind” ought higher education strive to develop in today’s students? What relevance does the historic ideal of the “educated person” have for the contemporary academy? What forms of knowledge and teaching give currency to that ideal today? These important questions concern the entire enterprise of higher education. Yet, their answers are not obvious.

How should educators and academic leaders respond? Confronted by conflicting pressures, this is no easy task. Students increasingly seek “meaning” and significance from their college education. They and their parents also insist that college provide entry to good careers. The public supports higher education but rightly worries about its escalating cost. State and federal regulators want more control and greater accountability, though the criteria of assessment are much in dispute.

We believe that any coherent response to these challenges must update the ideal of “a life of the mind.” Students must not only interpret the world, but take up a place within it as citizens, at work, and as whole persons. This requires teaching for practical reasoning, a long tradition that has been overshadowed by the advance of specialized theory and abstract analysis.

Consider an engineer at the beginning of her career. A recent graduate, she is skilled in the analytic techniques she learned in her engineering program. But she finds herself working on an international project for the first time, collaborating with engineers from other nations who define their work differently than she does. How can these engineers work together, in a way that meets the various needs of the client, the employer, and the engineers themselves?

Such practical situations inspire the teaching of one of the faculty members whose instructional practices are featured in A New Agenda for Higher Education: Shaping a Life of the Mind for Practice. The book documents a two-year seminar organized at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The seminar gathered 14 faculty members from professions with a strong humanistic heritage, from the science-using professions, and from traditional liberal arts and science disciplines. Our goal was to inquire into higher education’s ability to prepare students for lives of engagement and responsibility, and how the disciplines and professions contribute to this goal.

The result was a new vision of the value of higher education, developed over three sessions of cross-professional and cross-disciplinary dialogue between the faculty. Based on the seminar experience, we propose that undergraduate education must move beyond “critical thinking” to the idea of “practical reasoning” as the proper end of curriculum and teaching. Critical thinking -- the skill of standing back from the world in order to analyze experience in terms of general concepts -- is a crucial and important goal. But it is not sufficient to guide contemporary living.

Teaching for practical reason means providing students with educational experiences that model what it means to put skill and knowledge to work through judgment and action. In the engineering course mentioned above, for example, engineering students supplement the analytic skills learned in other courses with new knowledge about how the engineering profession and its history differs across nations. Through assignments that require students to imagine the work of other engineers and its ramifications for their own conduct, and vice versa, the course introduces students to important knowledge and skills -- drawn from both the liberal arts and the engineering profession -- for an increasingly global workplace.

Whether in engineering, teacher education, or human biology, the courses documented in the book break down the barriers that separate the disciplines from the professions. As our faculty partners reflected together on their own teaching, they found that they each drew inspiration from the liberal arts and sciences, which teach students how to use broad concepts to inquire into the requirements of particular situations. The faculty also drew inspiration from the professions, which provide students with experience in making judgments on behalf of others within changing and uncertain situations. The faculty also drew inspiration from one another.

Opportunities to engage in such shared inquiry are uncommon. This work is time-intensive. It requires collaboration and administrative encouragement and support. But the Carnegie seminar, which we hope campuses will use as a model for the integration of liberal and professional education, proves that higher education can address the question of what an educated person for our time needs to know and be able to do. This is the “value added” of practical reasoning as the center of undergraduate education, both for the daily experiences of faculty and students and the organization of administrative units. We believe that the seminar offers a powerful example of the kind of faculty development that can enable campuses to introduce their students to “a life of the mind for practice” that prepares them to engage situations, sustain aims amid changing circumstances, and discern purpose and meaning while seeking with others a common good.

William M. Sullivan and Matthew S. Rosin
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William M. Sullivan is a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Matthew S. Rosin is a consulting scholar and former research scholar for the foundation. He is also a senior research associate at EdSource, an independent research agency that focuses on elementary and secondary education issues in California.

A Different Way to Fight Student Disengagement

Student disengagement takes many forms and is particularly apparent in academic contexts, when many students avoid rigorous study, when professors and students mutually agree to a “if you don’t bother me, I won’t bother you” compact, and when students and their families define education in terms of degree attainment -- the cheaper and faster the better. Other patterns of disengagement are perhaps most visible in student behavior and student culture. A variety of national surveys now indicate that over 40 percent of "millennial age" students self report episodes of depression sufficient to interrupt their academic work, yet students report only occasional faculty awareness of the crises the students see among fellow students or the pain they themselves endure. Over 35 percent of current students engage in binging with alcohol or other drugs with the intent of passing out -- emotionally and physically disengaging. And for some observers, students’ civic disengagement is so alarming as to question what and who will be preserving key democratic values in the future.

What all this reveals is higher education’s failure to attend to the most fundamental of our responsibilities: the development of the whole person -- intellectual, emotive/behavioral, and civic. All college students should reach deepened levels of learning and understanding, as well as develop a strong sense of self-direction, and self-realization or well-being, and a greater sense of civic identity and responsibility. These are three separable, equally important categories of outcomes, related to the core purposes of liberal education. The integration, the reassertion, and the achievement of these all-important aims and outcomes can and must become the priority of our colleges and universities. And if we are to seek reliable indices of quality and achievement at our institutions, we can and must develop reliable means that get at each of these outcomes and their interrelatedness.

At the source of the expressions of disengagement lies the problem of the disintegration of the purpose and core outcomes of college. All too many institutions of higher education -- and even proponents of liberal education -- are off-course, addressing only narrowly academic means and strategies rather than the integrated goals and ends that matter to our students and to our democracy. As a result, many of our institutions risk becoming complicit in the troubling patterns of student disengagement.

Most institutions, in official handbooks and documents, still attest with eloquence and conviction to the importance of students’ personal and civic development. Regrettably, helping students actually achieve the full range of essential outcomes is much less evident, and only rarely are the institution’s resources, including its faculty and professionals, prepared and aligned to accomplish these ends. What is even more regrettable is that the current national debate about accountability has entirely ignored both the personal and the civic aims of a strong liberal education. As educators, as parents, as a society at large, we simply do not hold ourselves, or hold our institutions, responsible for achieving them or demand and expect such achievement. In fact, few institutions would have in place, or individuals have clearly in mind, what could be examined to determine if the core outcomes of higher education had been, even partially, achieved.

An incomplete step in the direction advocated here is the institutional use of the National Survey of Student Engagement. NSSE studies begin to look at some forms of student engagement. While promising, use of NSSE does not allow the institution to examine outcomes of student well-being (including depression and forms of abusive behaviors). And its use to assess civic outcomes is modest; for example, the affects of volunteerism and other service experiences are not distinguished from experiences involving community-based learning pedagogies.

The failure to acknowledge the practical aspects of disengagement suggests a mix of anxiety over liability (or marketing) concerns by the institution, campus peer pressures by the students, a concern of being too busy or “it’s not my job” by faculty, and a lingering sense among most that we, as individuals and as institutions ought to be, but are not, dealing openly with these problems. What is apparent is that the efforts and resources currently in place on campuses are offering, in large part, partial treatments of symptoms, rather than dealing with causes.

Even a partial solution to the patterns of disengagement by students, and by institutions, will surely come as a result of at least noticing the linkages among the forms of disengagement and, ideally, some sense of how each of the forms of disengagement could be affected through specific contexts (including mentoring and learning communities) and educational practices (pedagogies and curricula) on campus and beyond. Signature practices that reverse student patterns of disengagement include service learning, residence-based learning communities, joint student and faculty research, and institutional initiatives that model and value active and reciprocal engagement with the community -- near and beyond.

The practices that work to deepen student engagement often take students beyond the classroom to applied contexts, reveal to those who study, and to those who teach, their own presumptions and privileges, and link knowledge with action -- helping all involved appreciate that there are multiple consequences to full engagement in learning. Not only are there learning outcomes from such experiences, there are also documentable outcomes, effects and affects, that influence the well-being and the civic development of those who participate. Different types of institutions have modeled these achievements. For example, Georgetown University’s “curricular infusion” project links faculty from philosophy, mathematics, and theater with the Center for Social Justice, the health and counseling Centers, the nursing program, and the Office of Learning Assessment. As integrated teams, they have developed and now offer as established parts of the undergraduate curriculum, courses using forms of engaged pedagogy, each emphasizing the infusion of topics and methods getting at the related forms of student development: intellectual, emotional, and civic.

St. Lawrence University has established a Center for Civic Engagement and Leadership, under which community-based learning pedagogies are developed and then spread. With presidential and provost support, faculty participation is highly valued by the institution, including with faculty rewards. Departments of philosophy, psychology, biology, history, economics, and communications have integrated these offerings for majors and non-majors. Some require them for their major and the institution is moving to establish this coming year a civic engagement minor, which will be linked to multiple major curricula.

Collectively, these and related engaged learning practices can comprise a solution to the most troubling aspects of student disengagement. But these practices will work educationally only when colleges and universities themselves both expect and reward greater student and faculty involvement -- and when faculty who sponsor engaged learning are valued and rewarded within the institution and within the profession.

What gives us confidence that engaged learning practices will work for today’s students? Over the past four years, the Bringing Theory to Practice Project (BTtoP), supported by the Charles Engelhard Foundation and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, invited campus involvement in testing the hypothesis that engaged practices like these might mitigate patterns of disengagement and begin to address the problem of fractured or dis-integrated purposes and outcomes. In many respects, the rigor in evaluating their programs and initiatives was more extensive and thorough than any examination of learning assessments they had tried previously. To date, over 60 institutions have received grant support from the BTtoP Project in order to initiate or to sustain programs that have been defined to fit their institutional particularities, as they examine the linkages among the several core purposes and outcomes.

In addition to the contributions of the research documenting the relationships among outcomes, the process used in addressing patterns of disengagement makes its own contribution. We have seen that using the opportunities that already exist (from faculty meetings to parent weekends, from board discussions to town hall meetings), the institution that wants successfully to tackle the complexity of the problem of disengagement will involve its multiple constituencies (faculty and students, administrators and boards, researchers and parents, those within the campus, and those in the community beyond the campus) in considering openly and candidly the realities of disengagement on their own campus and their shared, among all of these constituencies, responsibility in both causing and solving them.

Through Bringing Theory to Practice, and through related “engaged learning initiatives” sponsored by AAC&U and other concerned organizations, faculty, administrators and students at many colleges and universities now agree that we must identify and address the patterns of disengagement in higher education and the fractured condition of its attention to core purposes and outcomes, and participate in exploration of the solutions. The beginning of a solution is to be found in recommitting our institutional actions and resources, robustly and creatively, to engaging students -- creating the contexts in which students can claim the full range of outcomes that liberal education promises -- and expecting that, in fact insisting that, such engagement occur.

Donald W. Harward
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Donald W. Harward is director of the Bringing Theory to Practice Project, president emeritus at Bates College, and senior fellow at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Sustainability's Third Circle

Around 1952, the brown treesnake ( Boiga irregularis) arrived on Guam from somewhere in the South Pacific, presumably as an accidental passenger on a cargo vessel. It settled in and multiplied. This snake’s invasion of Guam is a nightmarish instance of ecological disaster. The animal has devoured the whole populations of native species on the island, blown electrical generators, gulped down pets, and attacked children.

Guamians who take the long view, however, need not worry. The voracious brown treesnake cannot keep up its deprivations forever. Its pattern of consumption is unsustainable. Sooner or later it will run out of food and its numbers will crash.

"Sustainability" advocates, however, are seldom content to wait for Malthusian logic to kick in. Especially when it comes to human activity, they counsel forethought. Let's not wait until we humans are left like treesnakes on a lunar plain, with nothing left to eat. Of course, as one begins to think about what it means to sustain a civilization as opposed to a treesnake, the list of items one would want to conserve goes beyond the equivalent of tasty lizards, fruit bats, and sea fowl. One begins to think about arable land, water resources, power generation, and anything else we might wear out or use up; and then one starts to think about how we might invent and engineer our way beyond these limits.

The concept of "sustainability" is thus expandable. It can be pegged down to hard core empirical questions about such things as the "carrying capacity" of an piece of land, or it can become a sail for utopian dreams in which advocates imagine themselves transforming humanity itself by changing our appetites. On college campuses, you can find instances of both.

Arizona State University has two new undergraduate degree programs in sustainability starting this fall, a B.A. and B.S., both of which promise to introduce students to the concept "in the context of real-world problems, exploring the interaction of environmental, economic, and social systems." The curricula for the Arizona State programs has not been posted, so one can’t tell how much actual science, economics, and rigorous analysis of "social systems” might be entailed.

For the major to be more than just ideological priming, however, students will have to advance fairly deeply into mathematical modeling, market theory, biology, material science, and social theory. The faculty for the Arizona State program has the right credentials. It includes civil engineers, economists, biologists, biochemists, architects, an informatics expert, and even an archaeologist. If “sustainability” has a future as an academic subject, this is what its faculty should look like.

At the University of Delaware, by contrast, Kathleen Kerr, the head the residence life program has seized on the idea of sustainability to advocate for a program that has no science at all but a great deal of ideology. Kerr and Keith Edwards from Macalester College made a presentation in November 2007 at a “Tools for Social Justice” conference in Kansas City, Missouri. Their PowerPoint presentation is posted online on the Sustainability Web page of the American College Personnel Association. There we learn quite a bit. Kerr and Edwards debunk the "myths” that sustainability is mostly about the environment” and that “sustainability is primarily a scientific and technical problem.” Rather, in their view, sustainability has over a dozen "social justice aspects"

Environmental Racism
Fair Trade
Living Wage
Domestic Partnerships
Corporate Responsibility
Rights of Indigenous Peoples
Gender Equity
Water Rights
Human Rights Child Labor Issues
Affirmative Action
Multicultural Competence
Pollution and Farming Practices
Worker’s Rights
Sweatshop Labor

The list is almost whimsical. Why is "fair trade" a social justice issue bearing on sustainability, but not free trade, which has lifted billions of humans out of deep poverty? Why “domestic partnerships” but not stable heterosexual two-parent families? Why “multicultural competence” but not literacy and arithmetic that offer people a chance to wider their intellectual horizons? For that matter, why "water rights" and not mineral rights?

The answer to all these questions is pretty clear. Sustainability in Kerr’s and Edwards’ view is a campus on-ramp for the agenda of progressive left. The task of saving the planet appears too important to consider the views of capitalists, social conservatives, libertarians, nationalists, advocates of the traditional family, or a wide variety of other outlooks.

Near the beginning of Kerr’s and Edwards’ Powerpoint comes a slide titled “Triple Bottom Line” which shows three overlapping circles labeled “healthy environments,” “strong economies” and “social justice.” Where all three circles overlap appear the words “sustainable society.” Versions of this little diagram pop up in sustainability pronouncements around the world with the frequency of brown treesnakes in Guamian playgrounds. The Geography Association of the U.K. uses ellipses at vertices of triangles instead of overlapping circles. The International Association of Public Transport sticks with the circles but adds more words. The University of New Hampshire has a more baroque ensemble that includes a fourth bubble (“Climate System”) and a mysterious double-headed arrow that points the classroom and the community in opposite directions. Ithaca College goes for the stripped down model of three ovals, like a Ballantine beer bottle, or Borromean rings. The University of North Carolina giant-sizes the diagram so that the circles spill off the page.

Academe hasn’t seen this much creativity spent on dressing up a dull idea since the invention of the "Celebrate Diversity!" poster. Well, actually, it is some of the same creativity. Over on the Duke University sustainability page, the announcement of the Earth Day Bash on West Campus shows a picture of a cake decorated with an image of the earth and the motto, "Celebrating Sustainability." I give this month’s prize to the Calendar of Events at the University of Iowa's Sustainable Agriculture Program, which shows someone holding three apples arranged like the circle diagram and trusts the informed viewer to recognize the wordless image.

The widespread use of the diagram is another clue that “sustainability” is a more of a social movement, with its own symbols and passwords, than it is a nascent intellectual discipline. The popularity of the circle diagram surely lies in that third ring, whether it is labeled “social justice” or just “society.” It is an invitation to think that culture and society as open to systematic revision by people who better understand humanity’s long-term interests.

I don’t doubt that "society" is indeed a factor in sustainability. The first American anthropologist, Lewis Henry Morgan, writing in 1851 about the Iroquois, observed that a society based on hunting wild game needed not only to maintain control over a wide territory but had to organize its institutions to accommodate a mobile and dispersed population. "Sustainability" has been a prominent theme in anthropology ever since. One lesson of this study -- popularized by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed -- is that societies frequently make short-term decisions about their resource use that have disastrous long-term consequences. This is just as true of small-scale preindustrial societies as it is of mass-scale industrial ones. The spotted owl may not survive the American timber industry’s appetite for old growth forest, but the Maori ushered in the extinction of about half of New Zealand’s native vertebrates after their arrival c. 1250.

Perhaps another lesson to be drawn from the anthropological record is humility. Societies have often developed quite sophisticated adaptations to their environments only to be overwhelmed by unexpected developments. The ancient inhabitants of New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon (AD 850-1250) were superb in managing their scarce water resources, but apparently couldn’t handle a series of decade-long droughts. But it seems unlikely the Anasazi elders could have helped the situation much by drawing circles in the sand at the bottom of their kivas and maundering on about “sustainability.” Humans are much better at adapting to new realities than they are at inventing perfected social orders that can withstand the vicissitudes of climate, catastrophe, war, and disease. Planning goes only so far.

I offer that somewhat rueful observation by way of getting back to where sustainability is going on American campuses today. On a great many campuses, educators have spotted an opportunity to promote the sustainability cause outside the traditional classroom. Once upon a time this meant recycling newspapers and helping to green-up the campus. Increasingly it means, as Kerr and Edwards put it in November, trying “systematically [to] incorporate social justice education on your campus.” What exactly is social justice education? They explain that it involves examining “the oppressive systems that have existed and continue to function in society” and helping students to “develop a libratory consciousness.”

This strikes me as pretty plainly an ideological program, not education in any liberal sense. So maybe the question ought to be: how far has this ideology spread in American higher education?

Debra Rowe, for example, is president of the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development as well as co-coordinator of the Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium, founded in December 2005. As Rowe explained at an event at Smith College in 2006, “We are the first generation capable of determining the habitability of the planet for humans and other species.” With this weight on our shoulders, said Rowe, we need to commit ourselves to “education for sustainable development.” The United Nations has “declared a Decade of Educational for Sustainable Development, 2005-2014.” ESD involves a lot of plain old environmental activism, but it also involves stuff the “U.S. public” doesn’t yet know about: “[The] public doesn’t know we can reduce human suffering, environmental degradation and social injustice now while building stronger economies.”

What Rowe represents is, in effect, the fusion of much of the progressivist political agenda with the relatively anodyne program of contemporary environmentalism. This fusion already occurred in Europe over the last decade in the increasingly strident pronouncements of Green Party activists. Now it is here, but it has acquired a more American character as it crossed the Atlantic. The difference is that in the United States, sustainability-ism has taken on the leafage of American utilitarianism. A good many sober-minded scholars and bureaucrats have looked at in terms of solving practical problems. The National Association of College and University Business officers (NACUBO), not known for giddy ideological stands, has joined HEASC and is holding its first Carbon-Neutral Conference at the end of March in College Park, Maryland. NACUBO has its own Campus Sustainability page, which has more to do with tracking systems and benchmarks than with overthrowing the capitalist world system. But I get the impression that NACUBO doesn’t much understand what kind of toboggan it has jumped on.

The sustainability movement does indeed have promising academic programs such as Arizona State’s, but the movement’s leaders aren’t interested in stopping there. They are committed to that third circle -- "social justice." In a good many cases, "social justice" translates into re-packaged hatred of Western institutions, from the marketplace to the traditional family, all of which are deemed "oppressive."

HEASC itself avows the ideological side of sustainability, seeking to “move sustainability to the center stage of higher education” to help “make a healthy, just and sustainable future a goal of all learning and practice.” Anyone who follows the links I’ve been sprinkling through this account will find a rapidly growing forest of Web sites, organizations, highly interconnected movement that includes many of the major higher education associations, such as the American Council on Education and the Association of Governing Boards. While some of these organizations describe their commitments, as NACUBO does, in the language of recycling and conservation, some grab the third ring. ACPA is the most vociferous on “social justice,” which it hopes to promote in college residence halls around the country. But is the ideological side of the sustainability movement limited to the preaching of RA's and student activity czars?

Not at all. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education speaks to a much broader set of concerns than dormitories and has hundreds of member colleges and universities as well as business members, NGOs, and government agencies. AASHE “defines sustainability in an inclusive way, encompassing human and ecological health, social justice, secure livelihoods, and a better world for all generations.” (Oddly, its symbol is a single ash leaf, rather than the nearly ubiquitous triad of circles.) AASHE aims to take this “encompassing” view to “all sectors of higher education -- from governance and operations to curriculum and outreach” and it serves as “a professional home” for a new breed of campus bureaucrat, “campus sustainability coordinators and directors.”

Earlier I described the sustainability as a “movement,” but it is clearly a movement that is already partly institutionalized. It has its own class of paid workers whose interest in advancing the cause is inseparable from their interest in sustaining their own careers and pursuing the usual challenges of acquiring staff and accreting budgets. It is hard to tell how many of these college offices have already been established. A Google search suggests something in the hundreds. Presumably AASHE’s list of member colleges and universities is a close match.

The typical college or university sustainability office draws attention to campus conservation efforts and academic courses (such as Natural Resource Economics). Some stop there, but many add to the mix some elements of social activism rooted in the “social justice” agenda. The University of Florida’s Office of Sustainability includes as a goal making the university a “model” of “social equity,” which it defines as hiring goals “to ensure the university reflects society’s racial, ethnic and gender diversity … a livable wage and benefits, including benefit packages for spouses and domestic partners of university employees.” The University of New Hampshire’s sustainability office is less specific but it too promotes “social justice” by “increasing student exposure to humanistic treatment of particular issues of justice.” The jargon of Kathleen Kerr and ACPA find their way into many of these sustainability office Web sites.

Sustainability bureaucrats are not the whole picture of this campus development. Beyond them lies the land of the hard-core campus activists, such as the Sustainable Campuses Project and the Sierra Youth Coalition -- a Canadian venture which foreground “the intersections between sustainability and anti-oppression work.” Anti-oppression work takes us back to Kerr and Edwards’ list, notched up yet a few more degrees. Sustainability for the Sierra Youth Coalition, for example, includes working for the liberation of “womyn, genderqueer, transgender, and intersexed people,” struggling against ableism, and overcoming whiteness.

There is rich vein of colorful pronouncements by student groups in the U.S., but quoting such stuff has the drawback of making the phenomena look merely silly. I would rather end on a more admonitory note. The idea of sustainability isn’t new. I alluded to the 19th century prophet of non-sustainablity, Thomas Malthus, and to the anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, but surely the figure who rolls all the elements of the sustainability movement into one geodesic ball is Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983). Fuller summarized his life project as the attempt to discover, “Does humanity have a chance to survive lastingly and successfully on planet Earth, and if so, how?” Fuller’s environmentalism was held together with the gossamer logic of utopian dreams, and naturally he gained an enthusiastic following in the 1970s when the first wave of environmentalism hit. Fuller is an interesting and quirky figure, but it is hard to say that he made much progress with his basic question. He failed because his scientific objectives always blurred into his salvational dreams. His fitting monument was Biosphere 2, the giant glass terrarium in the Arizona desert whose supporters wasted hundreds of millions of dollars in a hapless search for a practical agenda. During the first biosphere “mission,” most of the animals and all of the pollinating insects died, and the volunteer humans emerged in none too great shape.

No doubt many of today’s sustainability advocates believe they are embarked on a more practical enterprise. Some are. Ann Rappaport and Sarah Hammond Creighton’s recent book, Degrees That Matter: Climate Change and the University,for example, is a compendium on setting goals for such things as campus gas emissions, electronic switches, and light bulbs. But for many others, the conservation initiatives and empirical research are perilously blended with the pursuit of “social justice,” at the cost of clarity and coherence. Few of these advocates venture to say what “social justice” is, preferring a vague commitment to ridding humanity of every painful “inequity” to the awkwardness of admitting that “social justice” typically means nothing more than the menu of causes currently favored by the political Left.

For those who take global sustainability as a serious scientific and intellectual problem, this snacking at the social justice table is a bad idea. The legitimate questions about how humanity can best thrive in a world beset with environmental challenges deserve to be answered with open-minded inquiry, rigorous pursuit of the facts, robust debate, and attentiveness to the full range of possible answers. We are ill-served by an approach that forecloses whole lines of investigation and that demands allegiance to political nostrums -- some of them of negligible relevance -- before the science has even begun.

American higher education is a bit like Guam in having no natural defenses against certain kinds of predators. Treesnakes aren’t a worry here but illiberal ideologies are, especially those that present themselves at first as thoughtful responses to practical problems. In recent years, President Bush has been strongly criticized for allegedly silencing science that cut against his policies or ignoring unwelcome findings. It is a hard irony of our times that American higher education is in the midst of an ideological enthusiasm that promises to do the very same thing.

Peter Wood
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Peter Wood is executive director of the National Association of Scholars. His books include A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now and Diversity: The Invention of a Concept.


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