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Wednesday, December 30, 2015


Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find -- Matthew, 7:7

Bereft of inspiration, afloat in a dead zone of the Ocean of Blog, I invited questions, and lo, they have come.

Andrew Blais [who, under my direction but without much assistance from me, wrote a fine doctoral dissertation later published as a book], asks whether my choice of comrades has been general or personal.  Early in my life, it was general: I picketed Woolworth's in Cambridge at a time when I think I did not know a single African-American; early on, I declared myself on the side of the workers, but without having ever held a real working job save as a summer Copy Boy at the New York Herald Tribune [a plum secured through the influence of my mother, who had a generation earlier worked as the secretary to the Trib's city editor.]  Later on, however, my commitments were mediated by personal connections.  Quite the most intense and long-lasting of those commitments was to the anti-apartheid cause and the transformation of the new South Africa, a quarter-century long involvement that grew out of the personal and intensely political friendships I formed during my initial visits to South Africa in 1986 and 87.  Indeed, my participation in the 1986 Harvard protest arose out of a dinner with a former student who invited me to come along.

Steven J. asks:  "Do you have any observations on the evolution of education system-at all or any levels?  Ideas from Ideal of the University became topics discussed with fellow-students and administrators at the time."

There have been at least eight major transformations of American higher education during the sixty-six years that I have been involved with that sector of society as student or professor.  Let me sketch them briefly before I offer some observations.  The first transformation has been an explosion in the size of the higher educational sector.  When I went off to college in 1950, roughly 5% of Americans twenty-five or older held undergraduate college degrees.  Today, somewhat more than35% do.  That is, all by itself, an enormous change.  It has created a society deeply divided along the line of educational credentials, with the majority [two-thirds] on the outside looking in.

The second major transformation, intimately connected with the first, has been the growth of the public higher educational sector.  Before World War II, and up until the '60s, private higher education dominated, but the multiplication of state university satellite campuses and state college systems [along with the creation of the Community College world] has radically changed both the financing and the character of higher education.  Some of the state systems, such as the one in California, are larger than the entire higher educational systems of major industrial nations.  A side-effect of this explosion, by the way, has been the nationalization of colleges and universities that were previously regional in character.  Some of the Ivy League universities and other elite institutions, which before the war were really regional in  character, have actively sought a national student body.

The third major transformation, a side-effect of the first two, has been the complete change in the admissions process.  Before the war, colleges had what could best be described as admissions requirements.  An applicant who met the requirements was pretty well assured of admission.  Even in 1949-50, when I applied to Harvard, only about 2200 young men applied, and of those roughly 1650 were admitted.  Twelve hundred fifty of us showed up to enroll the next September.  It was much easier to get into Harvard then than it is to get into UMass now.  [I actually did not want to go to Harvard because they required that one wear a tie and jacket to every meal, even breakfast, but Swarthmore, my other choice, turned me down on the grounds that I was receiving psychotherapy, so I had to go to Harvard.]  Sometime in the late '50s, the picture changed, with applications to desired schools [I avoid the judgmental "desirable"] so far outpacing available slots that an admissions policy was required.  I have written about the baleful effects of this change in a chapter  of The Ideal of the University called "The Admissions Rat Race."

The fourth major transformation, starting in the '60s as a consequence of the Civil Rights Movement, was the admission of something more than token numbers of African-Americans, and the consequent creation, in response to their protests, of sizeable numbers of programs, committees, and actual departments of Afro-American Studies [see the discussion in my book, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man.]

The fifth major transformation, now unhappily being undone, was the establishment of faculty tenure as a norm throughout the higher educational sector.  Most academics these days do not realize that tenure has been, by and large, a post-war phenomenon.  Indeed, by a stroke of good luck that I quite naturally interpreted as evidence of my genius, I managed to live out my half century long career during the golden age of faculty employment, with tenure, sabbaticals, and two-course per semester teaching loads commonplace on major university campuses and elsewhere.  [If you think that is the historical norm, ask Immanuel Kant, who lectured as much as seventeen hours a week as a privatdozent at the University of K√∂nigsberg and was paid per student enrolled before his elevation to the Professorship of Logic and Metaphysics in 1770.]

The sixth major transformation, fueled both by the growth in higher education and by the Selective Service laws during the Viet Nam war, was a change in the motivation and character of the professoriate, which saw countless young men discover a calling as university professors, the preparation for which took them safely past the age at which they were eligible for the draft.  [I made the mistake of earning my doctorate at twenty-three, and so had to serve six months on active duty and five and a half years in the National Guard.]

A seventh major transformation was the inclusion of more than token numbers of women in the professoriate, with the well-known shock delivered by the change to the curriculum, campus culture, and norms of the Academy.  At Harvard in the '50s and '60s, brilliant young men were encouraged to go on to graduate study.  Equally or more brilliant Radcliffe students were expected to marry they Section Leaders and keep house for them.  The small but important world of elite women's colleges [the so-called Seven Sisters and their like] kept alive the deviant idea that women had brains.

And the eighth major transformation was the explosive growth in the cost of higher education, has which tens of millions of college students to burden themselves with loans that will take half a lifetime to pay off.  As we old Marxists like to say, it is no accident that the loan burden, which prohibits college graduates from pursuing low-paying politically rebellious career paths, came into being at just about the time when opposition to the Viet Nam War was threatening to breed up a generation of radicals.

As you might expect, I have welcomed some of these transformations and condemned others.  Educationally speaking, is this a better world than the one I entered in 1950?  I would say it is, if only because it is much more open and inclusive.  Are the trends positive?  Very definitely no.  I am quite convinced that in a generation, people in the Academy will look back at the second half of the twentieth century as the Golden Age of American higher education.


John Thornton said...

mr. wolff,
the vigor and lucidity of your writing is an inspiration to all 66 yr. olds, whether we agree with all your stances or not.I think you are profoundly right that the choice of comrades, whether real or somewhat imaginary is the real permanent motivator.
I have a nephew and a son-in -law who are would- be socialists and you will be a treasured resource for them!

Musing Marxist said...

I have a question that's very personal because it reflects what I struggle with. You say you felt liberated by your conclusion that one's moral and political commitments are not rationally required but are instead matters of immanent choice. That makes sense, but do you ever also feel that the absence of a rational foundation for politics and morality makes one's choice of comrades arbitrary, taking politics and morality seriously a little absurd, and the use of any degree force in pursuit of (arbitrary, a bit absurd) political and moral commitments grotesque?

I think your answer to these questions is a hearty and possibly indignant "no." How, then, do you resist the turn to ennervating irony as the reaction to your conclusion that morality and politics is a matter of immanent, non-rational choice? Do you pay attention to the particulars --- this person hungry for something to eat juxtaposed against that person's gala in the Hamptons --- and let the connection of those particulars with your connative set motivate you? But then how, in your more reflective moments, do you not feel that that kind of particularism is disreputable.

And another, related question: how do you escape from deeply sympathizing with those of your opponents in the moral and political struggle who have likewise realized that politics and morality are matters of immanent choice? How do you resist feeling communal affinities for those who repudiate the cloying, over-earnest project of rationalist morality, no matter what substantive political banner they contingently happen to rally around?

David Auerbach said...

Somewhere in that history belongs the effect of GI bill in transforming higher ed.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Quite true, David, I should have included that.

Warren Goldfarb said...

I think you are exaggerating the sixth transformation. By 1966 draft deferments for graduate students had been abolished, except for those in medical school or seminary. (A close friend of mine chose rabbinical school over the Princeton PhD program in philosophy for draft-related reasons.)

A more important transformation, and a precondition to your seventh, is the opening of the "elite" institutions to women starting in the 1970s. In 1968, remember, Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth, Amherst, Williams, Bowdoin and even U. Virginia were still all-male; while at the male/female ratio at Harvard/Radcliffe was 4:1 and at Brown/Pembroke was 3:1. By 1980 this had all changed, although equality in undergraduate numbers took another decade.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Warren, thank you for both points. I genuinely did not know that the exemption had been cancelled for doctoral programs by '66. The point about gender equity is of course very important, and I should certainly have mentioned it. When I was at Columbia, the same sort of situation existed with Barnard. What is more, even my progressive colleagues coud not be brought to agree that Barnard facuty should teach in the Columbia Philosophy program, even though some of them were really first -rate [rather better than some of my Columbia colleagues!]