Monday, September 10, 2012

Reading Room redux: Thorstein Veblen's rant à clef

…More #highered history: CorporateU is nothing new to US. Revisit Veblen, an early Reading Room entry, with commentary, a treat from L.D. Burnett at US Intellectual History, 

I have been keeping company with Veblen.  He may wince not, but I sure do -- that is, when I'm not laughing out loud at his mordant wit.  His savagely brilliant sarcasm has a bite far worse than its bark.  I would not want to be on the receiving end of such a scathing polemic as he delivers in The Higher Learning in America.*  This has been a fierce, fun read. 
Given the new direction I am pursuing for my dissertation, it is especially helpful for me to read Veblen in order to begin to historicize the ideal of the ivory tower  -- the notion of the disinterested pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, the community of scholarly inquiry, etc.  That idea is not timeless (none of them are!); it was new to Veblen's time (or so he argued), and he wrote this polemic to contend for it. Also quite helpful is Veblen's speculation on the place of the American university following the War.   
In a remarkable section near the end of his introductory chapter, Veblen suggests that the American university will occupy a "strategic position" with "command" of resources, materiel and personnel in order to defend the way of learning and serve as a "provisional headquarters for the academic community throughout that range of civilized peoples whose goodwill they enjoy" (52-53).  Certainly Veblen is borrowing his metaphor from his times, suggesting that the university will be on a war footing.  Nevertheless, his suggestion of the university as "strategic" points the way, I think, for both William F. Buckley and the Port Huron authors, as well as the cultural combatants of the 1980s and 1990s. Veblen is staking out the ground of the culture wars right here, in 1918. 

Even in his own time, what Veblen meant by "the higher education learning" -- what he wanted it to mean in the public mind --  was something altogether different than what "the university" had come to signify by the early 20th century in America.  By Veblen's reckoning, the American university combined two different missions within one institutional framework:  undergraduate collegiate instruction and graduate training in scientific research.  "While it is the work of science and scholarship, roughly what is known in American usage as graduate work, that gives the university its rank as a seat of learning and keeps it in countenance as such with laymen and scholars," Veblen writes, "it is the undergraduate school, or college, that still continues to be the larger fact, and that still engages the greater and more immediate attention in university management." (100) His notion of what "the layman" understood a university to signify may not be correct -- which is a big problem for Veblen's argument, as I will explain below.  But his perception of where university administrators lavished their energies and attention is, I think, correct enough. 

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