The Two Universities

By Bauerlein, Mark | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, March 2018 | Go to article overview

The Two Universities


Bauerlein, Mark, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


In January, news came out that Emory University received a $400 million gift from the Woodruff Foundation. All of it will go to healthcare and research. That's $100 million more than Michael Bloomberg's foundation gave to the school of public health at Johns Hopkins in September 2016. Emory's school of public health is ranked only six spots behind Hopkins' (no. 1), though it opened relatively recently in 1990. You can sense the energy when you walk into the building and mingle with the 1,300 or so master's and doctoral students and 168 faculty members.

That part of the campus has an entirely different feel from the side where I teach my classes. The older areas where the liberal arts are housed have a nice, bucolic aspect-a grass quad, lovely but modest marble buildings dating back a century, and professors and students alone and in pairs, laden with books, passing in and out of the library.

Up on the Clifton Corridor, as it's called, construction crews are finishing up the new hospital, a mammoth project in marble and glass. Across the way are the Emory Clinic and the old hospital, and further along the medical school and children's hospital, the med school library, public health, and the school of nursing. Cross another street, and you reach the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a twenty-first-century metropolis all its own, surrounded by security walls and guards and containing every pathogen known to science. Dozens of Emory public health students go to work there every year after they graduate. My sister earned a PhD in epidemiology and ended up for a time in the CDC's infectious diseases/blood division. It is an international hub of the medical-industrial complex.

All this growth and output is a fabulous testament to the American research university. College leaders talk about higher education in the United States as the envy of the world because, well, look around. When I started at UCLA in the late seventies, the campus was more or less divided by disciplines. North Campus was arts and humanities, the film school, and the sculpture garden (Serra, Rodin, Lipchitz, Henry Moore, Calder). South Campus was math, engineering, and the hospital. At the time, much of the south section was parking lots, tennis courts, and open space -but not any more. While North Campus hasn't much changed, South Campus is now a bustling biomedical wonderland, the open areas filled in by the Mattel Children's Hospital, David Geffen School of Medicine, Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, Doris Stein Eye Research Center, Ronald Reagan Medical Center, and more. The buildings have no collegiate air, but they reek of inquiry and advancement and the common good.

Go to other research universities, and you will see the same trend. For a humanities professor, it's a bit disorienting. The gargantuan construction sites and mega-donations don't square with our impression of higher learning in decline. We look at the curriculum and wince at how low the bar of study has sunk. We don't know what to do about our colleagues' enthusiasm for pseudo-philosophical notions such as intersectionality and queer. The things that matter to us- the parables of Jesus, Dryden's couplets, the gloomy opening of Act 3 of Tristan, Kojeve and the dialectic of desire-don't seem important to the field. This is to say nothing about faculty disdain for most things conservative. We can't even argue about it anymore. We're too discouraged.

Last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Christian Smith caught the mood of lingering traditionalists and let loose. His essay was called "Higher Education Is Drowning in BS." The subtitle extended the impact to all of America: "And it's mortally corrosive to society." In a series of paragraphs beginning "BS is . . .," Smith enumerates the corruptions and deceptions of academic practice. They include:

* academia's "loss of capacity to grapple with life's Big Questions"

* its slide into jargon and hyperspecialization;

* "the relentless pursuit of money and prestige";

* the publish-or-perish system, which only yields "a raft of books and articles that contribute little to our knowledge";

* and the "grossly lopsided political ideology of the faculty of many disciplines. …

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