Saturday, January 22, 2005

Book Review - The Uses of the University, Clark Kerr

Clark Kerr’s The Uses of the University is a detailed description of the modern American research university. Preceded by his original Godkin Lectures of 1963 in the first three chapters, and three additional essays written in the following three decades of the twentieth century, this fifth edition of Kerr’s work includes a new chapter which compares the situations in 1963 and 2000 and looks ahead to new challenges. Kerr, the former President Emeritus, Chancellor, and Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, declared in 1963 that “universities are at a hinge in history: while connected with their past, they are swinging in another direction.” In 2001, he suggests that he now sees the hinge flapping in the winds, blowing from many directions. (Preface, 2001)

As Kerr explains the evolution of the university, from Cardinal Newman’s “The Idea of a University” to Abraham Flexner’s “modern university,” he introduces the term multiversity, which he explains as a culmination of the two previous ideas. The really modern university, or multiversity, can best be described as a “city of infinite variety.” (31) Consisting of several different, sometimes conflicting, communities, it has ultimately become a university to serve society, more geared toward service industries, science and research, and government grants than in teaching.

While the origins of the multiversity can be traced directly to the Greeks, it was in early-nineteenth century Germany that the profound transformation of the university took place. Philosophy, research, science, graduate instruction, and freedom for professors and students were emphasized. (8-9) From there, American universities such as Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Yale followed the German model with new ideas like research, professional education, and the elective system. The democratic ideas of the land-grant movement went a step further in producing the multiversity, while the explosion occurred following World War II.

The multiversity differs from the university in a number of ways. Whereas Kerr describes the multiversity as a city of infinite variety, he first described the “Idea of a University” as a village with its priests, and the “idea of a modern university” as a one-industry town with its intellectual oligarchy. (31) In governance, the university was centralized, while the multiversity is decentralized. Learning in the university was dedicated to the liberal arts and teaching, while the multiversity is more geared toward research, specialization, and government grants.

Perhaps the most glaring positive feature of the multiversity is what it has meant to American society in general, as Kerr argues from an American point of view:

The multiversity was central to the further industrialization of the nation, to
spectacular increases in productivity with affluence following, to the substantial extension of human life, and to worldwide military and scientific supremacy. (199)

Another positive feature of the multiversity is that, along with the further industrialization, research, and ties with industry, has come large government grants, and subsequently, prestige and status for the university. Kerr also argues that the multiversity is best seen at work, in how it has adapted, grown, and responded to the massive impact of federal programs following World War II. (34)

Kerr explains one of the most illuminating negative features of the multiversity as the transformation from a “community of masters and students with a single vision” into a community of competing visions:

These several competing visions of true purpose, each relating to a different layer of history, a different web of forces, cause much of the malaise in the university communities of today. The university is so many things to so many different people that it must, of necessity, be partially at war with itself. (7)

Another major negative feature of the multiversity is that it has created certain class divisions not only among the faculty, but also among the students. These faculty divisions have produced what Kerr refers to as the “nonteacher,” meaning that teaching is less central than it once was, while research has become more important. (32)

Two major periods of change in the history of higher education in the United States were the 1870s and the 1960s. Although nearly a century apart, as Kerr explains, “both have come primarily from the federal government, and both have come in response to national needs.” (35) The first of these two periods was the land grant movement, which took shape after Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act of 1862, allowing for massive development of American universities for the next century. (35) This movement followed the trend of society in general in which doors were opening to new classes of people and not just the elites. Not only were there new classes of people entering college, but because of the rapid growth of industry and agriculture, colleges were now interested in research and training students for those fields.

Much like the previous movement, the 1960s were also a period of egalitarianism and democratization in which college doors began opening for new classes of people. Kerr argues that “the federal grant university” had already arrived by the time of his Godkin Lectures of 1963. (99) This period was the culmination of what began with federal support of scientific research at universities during and after World War II. During the 1960s, the federal government not only emphasized science and research, but also equality of opportunity and treatment among the races, and an innovative role for the federal agency. (99) The 1960s, however, might best be remembered as a period of student revolt, when apathy turned to activism and students wanted their complaints to be heard about academics and politics alike.

Kerr argues that the 1870s and 1960s had at least two things in common: “a spurt of growth in enrollments that made additions of new faculty and new programs much easier, and new surges forward in national efforts in which higher education could participate.” (124) The national efforts of the 1870s were geared toward industrialization and settling the continental United States, while the national efforts of the 1960s concerned the advancement of science and technology, and providing equal opportunity to minorities, women, lower-income groups, and other marginalized groups. (124) Both the 1870s and 1960s featured changes in administrative governance, faculty duties, student responsibilities, and curriculum.

Changes that occurred in the 1870s included specialized courses, self-governing departments, research, graduate work, student electives, and the addition of upwardly mobile students. Changes in the 1960s included a decline in academic governance, integrated programs requiring more time from faculty, the addition of new programs such as Women’s Studies and African American Studies, and the addition of lower-income students. Kerr argues that much of the changes of the 1870s were supported by faculty, while much of the changes of the 1960s were not. “The changes of the 1870s liberated faculty members; the changes of the 1960s tied them down to their offices and to their undergraduate students.” (127) Another fundamental difference in these two periods, as Kerr explains, was that “presidents, who were the great agents of change, had much more power in the 1870s than in the 1960s, and faculties much less.” (127)

The era from 1940 through 1990 is what Kerr refers to as “a largely golden age for the research university in the United States.” (141) This period witnessed not only an explosion in student enrollment, but also in federal research funds. World War II, the G.I. Bill, The Cold War, increased federal research and development funds, and military-related programs and research greatly contributed to fostering the development of the research university. Kerr points out that as many as 125 institutions were identified as “research universities” by the early 1990s, that federal research funds have risen four times over since 1960, and that student enrollment has risen five times over during the same period. (141)

Economic productivity being linked directly with higher education is clearly a major benefit of the research university, as is the fact that federal funds for research and development have dramatically increased. Another benefit of the research university is that, with 180,000 graduate students from foreign nations, the United States has become the world center for intellectual study. (151) Indeed, Kerr argues that “not since Italy in the early centuries of the rise of universities in western Europe has any single nation so dominated intellectual life.” (151)

The disadvantages of the research university concern less attention going to undergraduate teaching, and the fact that some faculty members have become more oriented toward federal funding and research than in teaching. (152) Another disadvantage of the research university as the division that exists between the advantaged fields, such as sciences, mathematics, and medicine, and the disadvantaged fields, mostly in the humanities and arts. Kerr suggests that “faculty members in the latter areas get little or no federal support and few special awards for merit.” (152)

Kerr describes the loss of liberal knowledge and its retreat as being due to increased vocational and professional studies, and greater specialization within the arts and sciences:

Largely non-residential institutions, particularly community colleges and comprehensive colleges and universities, have, in terms of numbers of students, become more dominant as universal access has particularly impacted them, and as
liberal arts colleges (many of which have turned ‘comprehensive’) enroll a smaller proportion of students. (144)

In a large part, Kerr argues that the loss of liberal knowledge, or what Julie Thompson Klein refers to as the generalist, can be blamed on the research university’s lessened emphasis on the student’s overall developmental growth. (144) Kerr’s explanation for the loss of liberal knowledge seems to agree with Klein, who argued that the demands for specialization caused the fragmentation of knowledge. (Klein, 20-21)

As Kerr explains the fourth revolution in education as that related to electronic technology, he foresees a vast expansion of local learning campuses in the United States, which use techniques such as video lecture and the internet. (220) Kerr argues that “if the electronic revolution does not turn out to be a total replacement for classroom lectures instead of primarily an add-on, then it could become the great theme for the next century.” (220) Another area of emphasis concerning the new technology of distance education is how this can be used for the benefit of adults already in the work force as a means of career advancement. (221)

Kerr makes an interesting argument when he suggests that “American higher education began as an effort at moral uplift. It continues as an effort to get a good or better job. A life of affluence is replacing a philosophy of life as the main purpose of higher education.” (221) Distance education and online learning create the possibility for those who fall into the “higher education as means to a better job” category, but more importantly, it also creates the possibility for those of us who fall into the “higher education as means to moral uplift” category. Perhaps the possibility of distance education creating two separate classes of students does exist – those more traditional, more affluent, and more involved versus those non-traditional, less-involved, and perhaps less affluent – but it is hard to imagine how that possible division becomes adversarial to the university’s purpose.