Jewish World ReviewJune 14, 1999 /31 Sivan 5759
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
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
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.
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.
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
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©1999, Creators Syndicate