The Idea of the University, Take One--On the Genius of This Place

Response by James M. Redfield

November 8, 2000


Don Levine began with the market-orientation of the universities. This is indeed a cause for concern, but the tendency is not peculiar to the universities; I am old enough to be startled when I see attorneys advertising themselves on billboards, also when I hear surgeons on the radio offering free consultations where they can hawk their procedures. Of course we have to make a living, and professional work has always been in the market, in that professional services have a price and professionals live off those willing to pay it. Nevertheless the professions have never been and are not now of the market. We should judge lawyers by the intellectual and ethical quality of the representation they offer and by their contributions to the law; we should judge doctors by their capacity to heal and by their contributions to the art. From this point of view the great divide within the University is between the Business School and the rest; business is in the service of the bottom line, whereas professional work is not.

Health and justice, however, are worldly values, and in this sense medicine and jurisprudence are in the world and properly evaluated by the world. In this sense the professions, while in the academy, are not of the academy. What President Harper used to call "university work", what we have recently been retrained to call "arts and sciences", has a different sociological standing. These activities are self-accredited, self-evaluated; if our research fails nobody really cares much but us, most of the time nobody else notices. In this specific sense the research operation is unworldly. It is in fact heir to the third of the great mediaeval schools: not law or medicine but theology. Like the scholastics we are engaged in a perpetual dispute which only occasionally interests anybody but us.

Therefore to talk of the University of Chicago as the place where "ideas matter" does not tell us what we need to know. Ideas matter everywhere-not least in business, certainly. Chicago, I would submit, is a place where ideas matter in a specific way. It is the most academic of the great universities.

In the late 1950s I went to Oxford, rather starry-eyed. I was take aback to find that Oxford was considerably less academic than Chicago. The students had plenty of other reasons to be there. From the student theater people went directly into the West End; from the student newspapers they went directly to Fleet Street. From the Union they went straight on into Parliament., and with a good second-class degree in Humane Letters they were assured of a decent civil-service job. They understood the value of their studies very well and focused their energies accordingly. Even those aiming at academic careers strove primarily to display a certain virtuosity. Actually to be interested in the books was considered somewhat naive.

Chicago, by contrast, is a relatively unworldly place. That, I think, is what the students mean when they say the place is no fun, that you won't make the connections which will help you later in life, that the only reason to come here is the academic program. The faculty, by the way, thrive on these students. They are probably about as smart as any, and they are certainly the most teachable students anywhere. They come with minimal extra-curricular expectations. Let's keep it that way. Slightly more talented, significantly less motivated, students would not improve the College, at least not as a place to teach.

A disproportionate number of Chicago undergraduates become academics, and in general those who choose Chicago are those who believe hard academic work is likely to be of value to them. Many of them are socially mobile upward; that is why our academic aid budget is so large. Geoff Stone has encouraged us to be concerned that so few of our alumni, for all that they speak of their own education in the highest terms, want to send their own children here. Well, in the great days of CCNY the alumni didn't want to send their children there either. They had made it, and wanted their children to have an easier time. There are plenty of worthwhile things to do in college other than study, but study is what we specialize it. A belief in the value of study unites the research program, the graduate school, and the College.

Barney Cohen once said that the University of Chicago is a great Midwestern university and a great international university, but not a great national university. It is in the wrong place, for one thing. Harper's insistence on putting us in Chicago-rather than New York, as Rockefeller wished-was itself a kind of retreat from the world; he believed it would be more possible to build the kind of university he imagined out here in the deep provinces, on the frontier.

Oxford and Cambridge are great national universities; so are Harvard and Yale and some others. These are the places "with which we like to compare ourselves" but we don't want to be like them. Harper and Hutchins and Levi, the three presidents who (present company excepted) have done the most to create and conserve our tradition, had for all their differences one thing in common: they all insisted that the University of Chicago is the greatest institution in the world and if you don't think so that just means you have very bad values. We are anxious about our quality, absurdly defensive about it and passionate defenders of it, because we have the uneasy sense that there is no middle ground for us between being a great international university and just a decent Midwestern university.

The University of Chicago was founded in an idea-an idea which Levine identifies with von Humboldt. Within a very few years Harper made Chicago the greatest research institution in the Western hemisphere. Partly this was because in our half of the world Harper's was a frontier idea. It is true that Harper paid good salaries, but it is also true that the institutions from which he hired them were not all that interested in hanging on to the research scholars he hired. They weren't all that interested in research. Now everyplace is a research institution, and Chicago finds itself trying to keep up.

Hutchins, who longed himself to be educated and therefore tended to see education from the point of view of the consumer, supported another idea, which Levine identifies with Newman-although I think it was originally more political in its intention: education for citizenship. The idea became less political as politics appeared more and more as a threat to the universities-from the McCarthy era, through the disorders of the late '60s, on into the Humanities Wars. Levi, working to save the integrity of the institution through this era of external pressures, folded together (at least in thought) the graduate and the undergraduate, disciplined inquiry and interdisciplinary synthesis, by pointing to the renewal which comes from rediscovering perennial issues, and basic truths, so that just as the research enterprise can invigorate basic teaching, so also basic teaching can revitalize research. This was a political solution in terms of the intellect: each of us, it says, has an equal interest it the health of every part of the institution, and we have the institution in all its parts because it all helps us to think.

The worldly problem of the university is this: how is thought to be funded? Universities are not organizations for making money but for spending money-on the purposes for which they are chartered. Some of this money they can earn by sale of services--contract research and tuition--but the truth is, the worst way for a university to acquire its funds is to earn them, precisely because it engages the university with the temptations of the market and thereby threatens its integrity, more than any donor can ever do. Universities are best funded by the gifts of those who understand and believe in their ideas; therefore, and properly, universities can thrive only to the extent that they can explain themselves and their own value. It follows that the most important intellectual work we do should be development, for there we have to work out and explain the meaning and value of our work.

I think we are overedue for another such explanation, another version of the idea. Too often we explain the value of thought in terms of utility, but the utility of much of what we do is far from obvious, nor should it be. For von Humboldt, I suspect, inquiry was in the service of progress, of the great enlightenment project of creating a unified, rational, secular understanding of the world. For Newman, I suspect, thought was to the glory of God. God and progress are not what they used to be; we need a better reason. Perhaps we might find it in nature-that by nature we all desire to know. We need to think harder about the social implications of that.