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Jewish World ReviewJune 14, 1999 /31 Sivan 5759

Thomas Sowell

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A victory in Chicago --
WHEN THE PRESIDENT of the University of Chicago recently resigned in the face of mounting criticism from the alumni, faculty and students, it was a rare victory for those who are opposed to the continued watering down of American higher education.

There are big-name colleges and universities where it is possible to get a degree without ever having taken a single course in history, mathematics, economics, or science. The University of Chicago remains an exception in having a serious undergraduate curriculum, which every student has to take in order to graduate. But the university administration has been watering down that curriculum and planning to increase the number of students, threatening to erode or end the current practice of having professors teach small classes of undergraduates.

The University of Chicago is rare among big-name universities in having its undergraduates taught by professors in small classes. The more usual practice is to have lecture courses with hundreds of students and smaller classes taught by graduate students.

Its combination of a challenging curriculum and small classes taught by professors has enabled the University of Chicago to offer perhaps the finest undergraduate education at any major university in America. Its alumni and professors have won more Nobel Prizes than those of any other institution. Why then would the university administration tinker with success? If it ain't broke, why fix it? Unfortunately, the academic world is not ruled by results, but by appearances, fashions and the personal careers of the people who run colleges and universities. The University of Chicago is out of step with the fashions of the times and its administration wants to bring it into line, making it a more hip and fun place.

A college guide described the university as a place where "lunch and dinner are your social life." Students there have been known to discuss Plato among themselves well into the night. At many other colleges, Plato is just another "dead white male," to be brushed aside by those preoccupied with more politically correct stuff.

Why the attempt to make Chicago more like other universities? Partly because the goal of expanding the student body will be easier to meet if the university can attract applications from a wider range of students, including many who are not as devoted to intellectual life as the kinds of students who have traditionally gone to the University of Chicago.

There may be another factor at work as well -- and this has wider implications for American society.

However successful and long-lasting an institutional achievement may be, it is an achievement already achieved.

A quarter of a century before the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln gave another important but lesser known speech, pointing out that the basic free institutions of American society were already in place -- and therefore would provide no glory to leaders who merely preserved them. Glory could be won only by changing these institutions, whether for the better or the worse. Lincoln argued that the greatest threats to American institutions would come from within, from political leaders out to make a name for themselves. For such leaders, merely occupying a governor's mansion or even the White House would never be enough. They had to leave their mark -- and they could do so only by remaking fundamental institutions that had stood the test of time, thereby jeopardizing the freedom that depended on those institutions.

On a smaller scale, the academic world reflects the same dangers resulting from similar personal ambitions. In an era when professors and administrators alike move readily from one institution to another, loyalty to any given institution is at best tenuous.

In this context, changes that make no sense to a given institution, such as the University of Chicago, make a lot of sense to those administrators who want to be accepted among their peers in academia and in the worlds of foundations and government, where so many academics move readily back and forth.

The only barrier to seeing sound institutions sacrificed to personal ambitions, as Lincoln pointed out, is a public that cherishes those institutions and fights to preserve them. The recent victory at the University of Chicago may encourage others in the larger society to fight back against those who would undermine the national institutions of this country for the sake of "change" and "making a difference."


06/10/99: Mass shootings and mass hysteria
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06/03/99: Childish labor laws
06/01/99: Demonizing for dollars
05/27/99: The real public service
05/24/99: Income, taxes and demagoguery
05/18/99: Random thoughts
05/14/99: Aborted knowledge
05/10/99: The new "fairness"
05/04/99: Holding parents responsible
05/03/99: Exit strategies
04/28/99: Tragedy and farce
04/26/99: Guilt and cop-outs
04/21/99: Choosing a college
04/16/99: When success fails
04/13/99: A photo-op foreign policy
04/09/99: Russia and the Serbs
04/06/99: Random thoughts
03/31/99: Irresponsible "experts"
03/29/99: Another Doleful prospect?
03/23/99: Random thoughts
03/22/99: Loving enemies
03/19/99: Naming names
03/15/99: Undermining the military
03/10/99: Joe DiMaggio -- icon of an era
03/02/99: Facts versus dogma on guns
03/01/99: Losing the cultural wars
02/22/99: "Saving" social security
02/18/99: Too many Ph.Ds?
02/8/99: A national disaster
02/8/99: Economic fallacies in the media: Part II
02/5/99: Why economists visit dentists so often
02/2/99: Warning: Good news
01/29/99: What is at stake?
01/26/99:Moral bankruptcy in the schools
01/22/99: Who is going to convict Santa Claus?
01/19/99: Seeing through the spin
01/13/99: A trial is a trial is a trial
01/11/99:Trials and tribulations
01/08/99: Rays of hope
01/04/99: Random thoughts
12/31/98: The President versus the presidency
12/29/98: The time is now!
12/23/98: World-class hypocrisy
12/21/98: The spreading corruption
12/17/98: Politically "contrite"
12/16/98: Polls and partisanship
12/14/98: The "non-profit" halo
12/11/98: Corruption and confusion
12/03/98: The health care "crisis"
11/30/98: Knowing what you are talking about
11/23/98: The impeachment legacy
11/23/98: Random thoughts
11/19/98: Tales out of bureaucracies
11/16/98: Scholarships based on scholarship
11/12/98: Forward march
11/09/98: Moral outrage
11/05/98: Will the Republicans ever learn?
11/02/98: A voter's duty
10/30/98: The poverty pimp's poem
10/29/98: Random thoughts on the election
10/27/98: "Partisan" and "unfair"
10/23/98: Ed-u-kai-tchun
10/21/98: McGwire, Maris and the Babe
10/16/98: Lightweight Boxer
10/14/98: A strange word
10/09/98: Impeachment standards
10/08/98: Alternatives to seriousness
10/07/98: Heredity, environment and talk
10/02/98: A much-needed guide
10/01/98: Starr's real crime
9/24/98: Costs and power
9/18/98: Are we sheep?
9/16/98: Judicial review
9/15/98: Hillary Rodham Crook?
9/14/98: Taking stock
9/11/98: Moment of truth
9/04/98: Random thoughts
8/31/98: The twilight of special prosecutors?
8/26/98: "Doing a good job"
8/24/98: America on trial?
8/19/98: Played for fools
8/17/98: A childish letter
8/11/98: Hiding behind a woman
8/07/98: A flying walrus in Washington?
8/03/98: "Affordability" strikes again
7/31/98: Random thoughts
7/27/98: Faith and mountains
7/24/98: Clinton in Wonderland
7/20/98: Where is black 'leadership' leading?
7/16/98: Do 'minorities' really have it that bad?
7/14/98: Race dialogue: same old stuff
7/10/98: Honest history
7/09/98: Dumb is dangerous
7/02/98: Gun-safety starts with
parental responsibility
6/30/98: When more is less
6/29/98: Are educators above the law?
6/26/98: Random Thoughts
6/24/98: An angry letter
6/22/98: Sixties sentimentalism
6/19/98:Dumbing down anti-trust
6/15/98: A changing of the guard?
6/11/98: Presidential privileges
6/8/98: Fast computers and slow antitrust
6/3/98: Can stalling backfire?
5/29/98: The insulation of the Left
5/25/98: Missing the point in the media
5/22/98: The lessons of Indonesia
5/20/98: Smart but silent
5/18/98: Israel, Clinton and character
5/14/98: Monica Lewinsky's choices
5/11/98: Random thoughts
5/7/98: Media obstruction of justice
5/4/98: Dangerous "safety"
5/1/98: Abolish Adolescence!
4/30/98: The naked truth
4/22/98: Playing fair and square
4/19/98: Bad teachers"
4/15/98: "Clinton in Africa "
4/13/98: "Bundling and unbundling "
4/9/98: "Rising or falling Starr "
4/6/98: "Was Clinton ‘vindicated'? "
3/26/98: "Diasters -- natural and political"
3/24/98: "A pattern of behavior"
3/22/98: Innocent explanations
3/19/98: Kathleen Willey and Anita Hill
3/17/98: Search and destroy
3/12/98: Media Circus versus Justice
3/6/98: Vindication
3/3/98: Cheap Shot Time
2/26/98: The Wrong Filter
2/24/98: Trial by Media
2/20/98: Dancing Around the Realities
2/19/98: A "Do Something" War?
2/12/98: Julian Simon, combatant in a 200-year war
2/6/98: A rush to rhetoric

©1999, Creators Syndicate