- In the last few years, thousands of American students demonstrated that
they at least felt the urgency of the times. They moved actively and directly
against racial injustices, the threat of war, violations of individual rights
of conscience and, less frequently, against economic manipulation. They succeeded
in restoring a small measure of controversy to the campuses after the stillness
of the McCarthy period. They succeeded, too, in gaining some concessions from
the people and institutions they opposed, especially in the fight against
- The significance of these scattered movements lies not in their success
or failure in gaining objectives -- at least not yet. Nor does the significance
lie in the intellectual "competence" or "maturity" of the students involved
-- as some pedantic elders allege. The significance is in the fact the students
are breaking the crust of apathy and overcoming the inner alienation that
remain the defining characteristics of American college life.
- If student movements for change are rarities still on the campus scene,
what is commonplace there? The real campus, the familiar campus, is a place
of private people, engaged in their notorious "inner emigration." It is a
place of commitment to business-as-usual, getting ahead, playing it cool.
It is a place of mass affirmation of the Twist, but mass reluctance toward
the controversial public stance. Rules are accepted as "inevitable", bureaucracy
as "just circumstances", irrelevance as "scholarship", selflessness as "martyrdom",
politics as "just another way to make people, and an unprofitable one, too."
- Almost no students value activity as a citizen. Passive in public, they
are hardly more idealistic in arranging their private lives: Gallup concludes
they will settle for "low success, and won't risk high failure." There is
not much willingness to take risks (not even in business), no setting of dangerous
goals, no real conception of personal identity except one manufactured in
the image of others, no real urge for personal fulfillment except to be almost
as successful as the very successful people. Attention is being paid to social
status (the quality of shirt collars, meeting people, getting wives or husbands,
making solid contacts for later on); much too, is paid to academic status
(grades, honors, the med school rat-race). But neglected generally is real
intellectual status, the personal cultivation of the mind.
- "Students don't even give a damn about the apathy," one has said. Apathy
toward apathy begets a privately-constructed universe, a place of systematic
study schedules, two nights each week for beer, a girl or two, and early marriage;
a framework infused with personality, warmth, and under control, no matter
how unsatisfying otherwise.
- Under these conditions university life loses all relevance to some. Four
hundred thousand of our classmates leave college every year.
- But apathy is not simply an attitude; it is a product of social institutions,
and of the structure and organization of higher education itself. The extracurricular
life is ordered according to in loco parentis theory, which ratifies the Administration
as the moral guardian of the young. The accompanying "let's pretend" theory
of student extracurricular affairs validates student government as a training
center for those who want to spend their lives in political pretense, and
discourages initiative from more articulate, honest, and sensitive students.
The bounds and style of controversy are delimited before controversy begins.
The university "prepares" the student for "citizenship" through perpetual
rehearsals and, usually, through emasculation of what creative spirit there
is in the individual.
- The academic life contains reinforcing counterparts to the way in which
extracurricular life is organized. The academic world is founded in a teacher-student
relation analogous to the parent-child relation which characterizes in loco
parentis. Further, academia includes a radical separation of student from
the material of study. That which is studied, the social reality, is "objectified"
to sterility, dividing the student from life -- just as he is restrained in
active involvement by the deans controlling student government. The specialization
of function and knowledge, admittedly necessary to our complex technological
and social structure, has produced and exaggerated compartmentalization of
study and understanding. This has contributed to: an overly parochial view,
by faculty, of the role of its research and scholarship; a discontinuous and
truncated understanding, by students, of the surrounding social order; a loss
of personal attachment, by nearly all, to the worth of study as a humanistic
- There is, finally, the cumbersome academic bureaucracy extending throughout
the academic as well as extracurricular structures, contributing to the sense
of outer complexity and inner powerlessness that transforms so many students
from honest searching to ratification of convention and, worse, to a numbness
of present and future catastrophes. The size and financing systems of the
university enhance the permanent trusteeship of the administrative bureaucracy,
their power leading to a shift to the value standards of business and administrative
mentality within the university. Huge foundations and other private financial
interests shape under-financed colleges and universities, not only making
them more commercial, but less disposed to diagnose society critically, less
open to dissent. Many social and physical scientists, neglecting the liberating
heritage of higher learning, develop "human relations" or morale-producing"
techniques for the corporate economy, while others exercise their intellectual
skills to accelerate the arms race.
- Tragically, the university could serve as a significant source of social
criticism and an initiator of new modes and molders of attitudes. But the
actual intellectual effect of the college experience is hardly distinguishable
from that of any other communications channel -- say, a television set --
passing on the stock truths of the day. Students leave college somewhat more
"tolerant" than when they arrived, but basically unchallenged in their values
and political orientations. With administrators ordering the institutions,
and faculty the curriculum, the student learns by his isolation to accept
elite rule within the university, which prepares him to accept later forms
of minority control. The real function of the educational system -- as opposed
to its more rhetorical function of "searching for truth" -- is to impart the
key information and styles that will help the student get by, modestly but
comfortably, in the big society beyond.