To the Editor:

In “What Will Replace Behemoth State University?” (March 2, 2010) Robert Koons points out many of the flaws and dangers of gigantism in university culture and mission.  While he leaps to blame modernism and humanitarianism for these excesses, Koons remains absolutely silent about the capitalistic and corporatist imperatives which have been driving universities and American culture during the same period that has seen gigantism arise. The concomitant rise of gigantism in business is surely worth a mention, no?

For the sake of argument, let us stipulate that Koons’ “charter colleges” can provide a cure for this admittedly sorry state. But how could this ever work? All Koons needs to do is look at how our bottom-line, free-market economic planners have created conditions in which virtually every mom-and-pop grocery store and independent coffee and book shop has been swallowed up. If the cultural loss of independent initiative, creativity, and autonomy are worth worrying about, then Koons needs to direct his gaze way past the university gates.

Near the end of his piece, Koons writes that “the reconstitution of civilization will begin with Burke’s small platoons growing organically into the space left by an increasingly sterile modernity.” Whether one is talking about universities or book stores, television networks or furniture factories, one cannot simply plead for the recapturing of open space—as if all we needed to do was change people’s hearts. That space is largely unavailable because it has been sold and Koons must acknowledge who has bought it all up. (Hint: look at who advertises during Texas Longhorns’ football broadcasts.)

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Surely, Koons is partly correct to lay some blame at the feet of secular scientific culture and universities for abandoning the sentimental (for some) vision of the monastic mission to discover one telos. (The notion that the universe should be taught teleologically is debatable, but let us set that aside for now.) But one need not listen to liberals to discover where else the blame must be placed. Just listen to what religious leaders like Pope John Paul II have pointed out: namely, that the assault on a vision of the world as value-laden comes just as powerfully from consumer capitalism as from secular humanism and science.

By ignoring this economic engine that drives all of us, every day, Koons winds up implicating himself in the culture-wide myopia he lambastes for ignoring values. That world has been created by an overestimation of the guidance scientific and bureaucratic technologies could provide, but the motive for that overestimation is surely, largely, driven by profit. Such myopia does not refute Koons’ more cogent points, but rather indicates fertile regions to which his critical logic must be extended.

-David Hildebrand, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado Denver.

Thanks to Professor Hildebrand for his thoughtful letter. He raises an important and difficult question: to what extent has the evolution of America’s political economy in the last 150 years, especially the rise of the corporation, contributed to the demise of classical learning? I am no fan of gigantism and bureaucracy in the private sphere, and I share Hildebrand’s concerns about the separation of ownership and management (identified so presciently by James Burnham in The Managerial Revolution). However, I find it hard to see a direct causal link between the rise of corporations and the fall of the liberal arts in the university. I’ll accept that the turn to mass production in industry and mass education in the university reflect a common, Baconian elevation of quantity over quality and of calculation over wisdom, but this involves attributing each to a common cause. It’s also true that corporations, along with federal and state governments, subsidize both scientific research and vocational training within the university. However, there is no necessary link between the rise of research and vocationalism, on the one hand, and the decline of liberal education, on the other. The humanities are not dying because the business schools are flourishing: the demise of the humanities is self-inflicted.

In any case, the last thirty years have brought significant change to the world of industry, with the revival of entrepreneurship and the flattening of managerial hierarchies. The internal structure of the research university is increasingly a relic of a bygone era of mass production and central control.

The pursuit of profits is in itself an innocent and even wholesome activity, one as old as civilization itself. Of course, the temptation to avarice is equally ancient and certain always to be with us. From the perspective of political economy, what matters are the answers to these questions: how is the pursuit of the accumulation of wealth organized, and to what end? It is to answering questions such as these that the classical tradition awakens the mind. I don’t believe that the revival of higher learning must wait until after some sweeping revolution has freed us from the moral dangers of our time. Although the siren song of obsessive consumerism is indeed seductive, it can be overcome by the exercise of practical wisdom (as Odysseus demonstrates).