There is a moment in former University of Chicago President Hanna Gray’s memoir, An Academic Life (published this spring with Princeton University Press), when Gray is appointed to chair Ronald Reagan’s Task Force on the Arts and Humanities, a committee whose object was reputed to be the dismantling of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. Her co-chair is Charlton Heston, star of Planet of the Apes, outspoken social conservative and president of the NRA. We might expect a futile exercise in bureaucratic nihilism, but, as Gray describes the experience,
Charlton Heston and I got on well. We never discussed politics, or guns, and found ourselves in agreement on most of the matters before us. Charlton was intelligent, fair-minded, and hardworking, always courteous and tolerant, never full of himself, a good colleague … In the end, after four busy months of discussions and of hearings open to the public in different parts of the country, we concluded, with surprising agreement among committee members who actually represented a wide range of initial positions, that the federal government did indeed have a role [in arts funding].
Gray’s memoir is so insistently out of place among higher-education polemics that it might be worthwhile for that reason alone. She is an inveterate institutional loyalist, impervious to the appeal of the movements and ideologies to which many academics have openly and happily hitched their work. To call someone an institutional loyalist now cannot help but sound like an accusation of moral corruption—surely you’re not going defend Yale over justice? But in Gray’s depiction, correcting injustice rarely requires exposing the university to public humiliation, and, conversely, it is very unlikely that such humiliation will correct any injustice.
The main tasks of a professor are to teach and do research. The two sometimes vie for priority, but together they encapsulate what we expect professors to do, and they take the bulk of weight in yearly evaluations, tenure judgments, and other professional measures.
Now, it seems, a new task has been added to the job: promotion. We are urged to promote our classes, our departments, our colleges, our professional organizations. More than anything, we are directed to promote ourselves. The imperative is to call attention to one’s writing, courses, talks, ideas, or persona in media new and old. It could be about your new book on Shakespeare or the history of haberdashery, or something you did, or simply yourself, but the key is to get your brand out there — if not in The New York Times, then on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or just the department newsletter. And if not quite to the general public, at least to administrators, boards, funders, students, and other professors.
The conventional standards — teaching your classes well, publishing in reputable journals or with academic presses — no longer are enough. You do not exist unless you fire up your personal publicity machine.
Arguments that they’re useful are wrong, anti-humanistic, and sure to backfire
The humanities are taking it on the chin. If there were any doubts about this proposition, they have been dispelled by the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point’s proposal to eliminate 13 majors, including history, art, English, philosophy, sociology, political science, French, German, and Spanish. The administration cited large deficits, programs with a low enrollment, and a desire to play to its strengths — STEM subjects and training in technology. One professor of physics and astronomy (Ken Menningen) approved, declaring that the university was right to “pivot away from the liberal arts” and toward programs that students, concerned with career prospects, find attractive. That reasoning might make sense if Stevens Point were a trade school, but it is, at least by title and claim, a university, and there is an argument to be made that because the claim is now without support at Stevens Point, the title should be removed.
The philosopher and political theorist Michael Oakeshott would have thought so. Here is his account of the university: “It is a place where [the student] … is not encouraged to confuse education with training for a profession, with learning the tricks of a trade, with preparation for future particular service in society, or with the acquisition of a kind of moral and intellectual outfit to see him through life.” Note that Oakeshott lists in rapid succession the most often invoked defenses and justifications of liberal education, and note too that he immediately dismisses them as barely worth thinking about: “Whenever an ulterior purpose of this sort makes its appearance, education … steals out of the back door with noiseless steps.”
TOWARD THE END of his life George Orwell wrote, “By the age of 50, everyone has the face he deserves.” The same is true of societies and their universities. By the time a society reaches its prime, it has the university it deserves. We have arrived there now in Canada, in the middle age of our regime, well past our youth but not quite to our dotage. What do we see when we look into the mirror of our universities? What image do we find there? Lots of smiling students, lots of talk of “impact” and “innovation,” more than one shovel going into the ground, a host of new community and industry partnerships to celebrate. But whose image is that really? Who created it and whom does it serve?