A higher community

“The university is the most significant creation of the second millennium. From modest beginnings more than 900 years ago, it has become the quiet, but decisive, catalyst in modern society, the factor essential to its effective functioning and well-being.”

These are the opening words of a book I read on a train to Manchester, en route to the Higher Education Funding Council for England annual conference in April. At that gathering, vice-chancellors voiced disquiet at the state of our inadequately funded universities and expressed anxiety about the capacity to meet political and social expectations.

The discrepancy between those buoyant sentences by Frank Rhodes, in the introduction to The Creation of the Future: The Role of the American University, and the fretful mood of the Manchester meeting has remained with me. In May, The Guardian survey, “Universities in Crisis”, explained clearly why pessimism is so pervasive in higher education in the United Kingdom, in contrast to Rhodes’s transatlantic optimism.

Rhodes was born and educated in Britain. He studied geology at Birmingham and taught in English, Welsh and American universities before being appointed president of Cornell in 1977, a post he held until 1995. He was a conspicuous visionary and successful university head, and has remained an authoritative presence, chairing major educational and philanthropic associations. Few individuals are better placed to take the pulse of American universities.

The Creation of the Future delivers a judicious, humane, considered evaluation of the current state of the United States’s 125 research-intensive universities (out of more than 4000 colleges and universities). The key ideas of two chapters may surprise readers. In one Rhodes asks: “What is the core business of the modern research university?” He answers categorically: “The university’s core business is learning, and the most fundamental aspect of that learning is the education of undergraduates.”

Undergraduate education takes more time, involves more people, consumes more resources and generates more revenue than any other activity. It provides the basic training for future professionals and researchers; it serves as the platform for inquiry and transmits national culture and societal values. But it doesn’t do any of this nearly as well as it could.

Rhodes awards American universities only a B for their teaching. Why? Because today’s students encounter curriculum as a frantic proliferation of courses. They are offered hundreds of choices, but are not given any sense of educational goals and intellectual purpose behind such choices. Society’s notion of what defines an educated person has collapsed, and teachers don’t engage with the question.

The modern curriculum renders scholarship isolated, blinkered and monological. A major enemy of curricular dialogue and interaction is the way universities allow marketplace popularity to drive educational policy, sacrificing broad-based, liberal education on the altar of vocational and professional courses. Rhodes maintains that to reform curriculum involves asking basic questions. What qualities should be nurtured? Which knowledge is most important?

He writes: “If I were allowed only one word to describe the distinctive method by which the university pursues its tasks of learning, discovery and service, it would be the word ‘community’.” This is rooted in the belief that in scholarly communities knowledge is tested and refined by challenge, debate and disputation. Without community, knowledge becomes idiosyncratic, learning succumbs to narrowness, personal research discovery remains shallow and private.

Asked what had made Johns Hopkins a great university in so short a time, its first president replied: “We went to each other’s lectures.”

Rhodes does not pine for the vanished, homogeneous community of yesteryear. Rather, he spells out a “new community” based on engagement, openness and interaction. Academics must acknowledge that membership in a university has its price as well as its privileges. Without dialogue across disciplines, candour across courses, universities will become “an expensive sham”.

Rhodes’s approach is open to “realist” critique. He looks back, he reclaims values that have served universities in the past; and he will be accused of nostalgia. But to dismiss Rhodes as a romantic reactionary would be wrong. He is far too savvy for that. The Creation of the Future proceeds from an analysis of the American research university—with its strengths and achievements, and also its follies and foibles.

Like Rhodes, we should insist on the need to recapture the curriculum, restore community and reorder priorities in our universities. And we must not be shy to demand the necessary resources. Decent higher education may be expensive—but not nearly as costly as its failure.

Formerly vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand and rector of the University of the Western Cape, Colin Bundy is now director of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

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