The Hard Years: A Look at Contemporary America and American Institutions

By Eugene J. McCarthy | Go to book overview

11
The Universities

There is an element of risk in stating what one believes to be the causes of trouble in America, because an explanation is often judged to be approval of what is explained. One can explain a volcanic explosion without being accused of favoring it, but not a riot.

I do not intend to fix blame, but rather to state what I believe have been causes of unrest and protest in universities in recent years -- without attempting to pass judgment on whether what has happened is disproportionate to the causes. Nor will I say that I sympathize with the ends but disapprove of some of the means. This is an easy way out. Most real problems are, in any case, problems of means.

I do not see the university as a mirror of society. It should be somewhat apart or detached from society.

The university's first responsibility is to transmit the learning of the past -- that knowledge which has stood the test of time as truth or which, even though not truth, has had significant bearing on life's own movement and history.

Second, the university has the responsibility to provide an environment for students and scholars so that new knowledge and new ideas can be developed and examined. The medieval concept of the university, expressed in the word studium, was that of an independent body of clerks and scholars set apart from society, called upon to pass a detached judgment on the past and also on the centers of power and influence in society. It was to stand against the church when necessary, against economic institutions, and also against civil authority. The ideal was reflected in physical separation, for early universities were separated from the towns by walls. The Harvard Yard reflects this same concept.

The university has a third responsibility as an agent of social

-68-

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