BY HANK REICHMAN
In March I am scheduled to participate in a plenary panel on “The Impact of Anti-Intellectualism on the State of Higher Education” at the annual Hunter College Conference on Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions in New York. To prepare I’ve been reading (I’m embarrassed to admit, for the first time) Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1962 work Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. And there I found, on page 259 in the midst of an extended discussion of the relation between business and intellectuals during the gilded age this remarkable quote from Andrew Carnegie:
Liberal education gives a man who really absorbs it higher tastes and aims than the acquisition of wealth, and a world to enjoy, into which the mere millionaire cannot enter; to find therefore that it is not the best training for business is to prove its claim to a higher domain.
The quote is best understood, perhaps, by also quoting some of Hofstadter’s gloss on it: “Carnegie’s munificent gifts to education and his evident pleasure in the company of intellectuals protect him from the charge that such utterances were hypocritical. And yet he took delight in demonstrating how useless higher education was in business; much as he praised ‘liberal education,’ he had nothing but contempt for the prevailing liberal education in American colleges. . . . On the classical college curriculum he was unsparing. . .
“One must, of course, be careful about the conclusions one draws from anyone’s dislike of the classical curriculum as it was taught in the old college; many men of high intellectual distinction shared this feeling. The old college tried to preserve the Western cultural heritage and to inculcate a respectable form of mental discipline, but it was hardly dedicated to the vigorous advancement of critical intellect. The rapid advancement of scientific knowledge, the inflexibility of the old curriculum in the hands of its most determined custodians, and the dismal pedagogy that all too often prevailed in the classical college, did more to undermine the teaching of classics than the disdain of businessmen.”
Still, concludes Hofstadter, “if one looks closely into business pronouncements on education, one finds a rhetoric which reveals a contempt for the reflective mind, for culture, and for the past.”
I will leave it to readers to ponder for themselves the relevance of this history and of Carnegie’s statement to the insidious corporatism and anti-intellectualism now increasingly infecting contemporary American higher education.
[My apologies to Marty Kich for usurping, for one day, some of his “of the day” series.]