Author: Bradley J. Birzer
The primary purpose of the university is to preserve the great ideas of the past and to introduce the present generation to timeless conversations, thus preserving such wisdom for countless and unknown future generations…
Conservatives rarely remember the profound influence Robert A. Nisbet (1913-1996) had on the press, academia, and the public at large in the 1960s and 1970s. Leftists, as well as conservatives, turned to him, seeing in him a reasoned and articulate spokesman on a variety of issues. If we conservatives of 2017 have forgotten this—at least mostly—we have entirely forgotten that he had spent a considerable amount of his professional time analyzing and writing about the role of the modern university. As well he should have. Not only did he spend his professional career in academia, but he had taught at some of America’s most prestigious institutions, including Berkeley and Columbia. At the former, he earned his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D., while at the latter, he had supposedly held the highest-paid endowed chair in any American university. In the 1950s and 1960s, he had dedicated considerable intellect and capital to building from scratch the University of California-Riverside.
Most importantly, though, Nisbet wrote frequently on the role of teaching as well as on great teachers and, in 1971, a definitive history of the modern university, The Degradation of the Academic Dogma: The University in America, 1945-1970. In this book, he built upon much of what his good friend and inspiration, Russell Kirk, had written in 1955’s Academic Freedom (for which, Nisbet served as a vital and critical informant). The Degradation of the Academic Dogma, however, deserves its own post or two or three. Another time.
Throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s, Nisbet continued to worry deeply about the state of the university. One of his most interesting pieces appeared in a 1979 neo-conservative compilation, The Third Century. In the thirteenth chapter of the book, Nisbet decried the decline of western civilization. “We live,” he worried, “in a society that has become profoundly lowered, at times debased, in its intellectual and cultural values.” As such, the public school system, not only did not attenuate this decline, it precipitated it, locking in a “progressivism” that merely trapped society in its own impoverishment while enslaving our children “to the mammoth bureaucracy that today governs primary and secondary education in the United States.”A lover of jazz, Nisbet probably knew next to nothing about the world of rock-and-roll, but, if he did, he might be surprised to know that an English rock band, Pink Floyd, was making the same argument in its album, The Wall, released the same year, 1979.
What, then, about the university, Nisbet asked? Could it save civilization? If we measure civilization by its manifestations of genius, then the answer would be a resounding no. “On the evidence of history it is possible to be a great leader, a great artist, or a great philosopher and not have ever been near a university.” This does not mean, he continued, that the university could not produce genius—only that empirically genius had come from outside the academic world and often next to it. “One shudders at the thought of a Mozart obliged to complete an A.B. in the liberal arts and then to present, say, a master’s degree in musical composition.” In example after example, Nisbet believed, one could readily prove the lack of necessity for the university when it came to the advancement of civilization. Genius, he noted with much perception, is, by its very nature, unique, particular, and peculiar. It is also, again, by its very nature, unpredictable. Genius comes when it comes, and it often appears in women and men who had shown no aptitude for anything other than the most normal of lives prior to the arrival and emergence of such genius. Time, circumstance, personality, opportunity, and will were each unknowable and incalculable factors in the manifestation of genius.
Even in the modern world of technological and scientific achievements, Nisbet continued, one could just as readily find genius in Bell Labs as in the Harvard physics labs or in Silicon Valley (privately, in an entrepreneurial startup) we well as in Palo Alto (Stanford). In other words, while one might very well find genius in the modern university, he could just as easily search the modern research laboratories held in ownership by a corporation or even in the side garage. Here, Nisbet echoed the discovery process and spontaneous order of the Whigs and Hayekians.
Yet, with Cardinal Newman, Nisbet believed that the primary purpose of the university was “strictly intellectual, but beyond this it is a mission of disseminating intellectual values to the widest possible audience, to the largest possible public.”
Once again, Nisbet turned to an empirical and historical example. A lover of the classics and the “greats,” he argued that the medieval university had demonstrated the institution’s worth by reviving, reinterpreting, and adding to “the classics which had come down from the ancient world.” These classics have served, then and now, as “our lamps of culture,” which begin with Homer and continue through the present. Time and again, he believed, the classics had spoken to new generations, giving them order and hope. If for no other reason, the classics have—through the community of the university—introduced the ancients to the present and the present to the ancients. As such, they have remained in communication with one another. “It is instead the bringing of students, young or old, into direct experience with the major ideas, values, perspectives, and visions that have been the stuff of Western culture.”
Thus, while one might find examples of genius and true “progress” in the research laboratory or in backyard startup, the university should serve an altogether different purpose. Its job is, as Nisbet believed, was not to promote genius. Should it do this by coincidence, fine. But the manifestation of genius in the university is simply an added benefit, not a primary purpose of the institution. Instead, the purpose of the university is to preserve the great ideas of the past and to introduce the present generation to timeless conversations, thus preserving such wisdom for countless and unknown future generations.
After all, the Imaginative Conservative must ask with Nisbet: If a conservatism cannot effectively conserve the great ideas of the past, what is it pretending to conserve?
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