Thursday, October 9, 2014

Defending Scholarship

In 1971, Robert Nisbet published The Degradation of the Academic Dogma.  Although many parts of the book can be seen as being outdated and ethnocentric, the basic argument still is vital:  Universities are about the production and analysis of knowledge, and everything else a university does should be considered secondary.  Nisbet adds to this “dogma,” the notion that the university has always been about knowledge for knowledge’s sake, even though it can have profound social and personal effects. 

If we look around at the University of California today, and other similar institutions, we can see how this foundation of the modern university has been lost in a sea of competing interests.  Some believe that a university should focus on training students for future jobs, while others argue that the main function of the university is personal development.  At the same time, many recent university initiatives are directed at developing new technologies or raising funds or contributing to the local and state economy.  Many of these goals are worthy, but from Nisbet’s perspective, they should only be indirect results of the central focus on scholarship. 

The problem then is not so much that the university is being taken over by corporate managers or political officials; the problem is that the production and analysis of knowledge has become just one competing interest among others.  Basic research and instruction have thus lost their value because they are no longer the guiding priorities.   From Nisbet’s perspective, university knowledge can only remain central if it is treated with respect and faith.  While this displaced religiosity may be off-putting, the main point is that students and faculty have to believe in the incredible value of knowledge and the disciplinary methodologies that have been established to create and circulate scholarship.

Every time a school celebrates the building of a new stadium or corporate research park, a little part of the university dies.  Our schools have lost their way, and so they don’t mind staffing their classes with inexperienced, part-time people or hiring administrators with no academic background.  Of course, universities need funds to survive, but when every function is sold to the highest bidder and every learning experience is tested and quantified, there is nothing left to protect or cherish. 

In our fight to force our campuses to spend more money on undergraduate instruction, we are trying to return to an emphasis on scholarship and education.  No fancy technology or highly paid manager can substitute for the experience in the classroom or lab or library.       


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