Sunday, December 28, 2014


The Function of a University

Alston Hurd Chase (1906-1994), letter to the editor of the Harvard Crimson (January 31, 1934), rpt. in his Time Remembered (San Antonio: Parker Publishing Inc., 1994), pp. 157-159:
I should be very grateful to you if you would allow me a perhaps inordinate amount of space in your columns to discuss what seem to me two great and lamentable fallacies in President Conant's report as you print it this morning. I make no apologies for so sharp a disagreement with Mr. Conant; his views and mine represent two completely hostile theories of the function of a university, and it seems to me that this is a proper moment for a clear definition of these divergent beliefs.

In the first place, Mr. Conant has more than once frankly expressed his conviction that a university is primarily a group of scholars dedicated to the pursuit and perpetuation of learning. I believe, on the contrary, that a university is an institution supported by society primarily for the purpose of educating young men and young women to take a useful and happy part in the life of their community, of their country, and of the world. Certainly this was the purpose in the mind of the great majority of those who have left endowments from their own property or who have voted special privileges and state support to the universities. The subordination of the educational function of a university to any other interest constitutes a betrayal of the implicit or explicit agreement contained in the acceptance of such aid. Such a betrayal is particularly regrettable today, when the fate of democratic institutions is in the balance, when the need for men trained not in factual minutiae but in the art of thought is greater than ever before.

Scholarship pure and unapplied is the game of a certain class, and such scholarship in a faculty is of no more ultimate importance than the powers of the university football team. By a process of diligent mystification, the learned classes have hood-winked society into believing that such scholarship is really important. With a good memory, a certain amount of industry, a talent for choosing obscure fields and perverse points of view one may become a famous scholar and console oneself in the polemics of the study for one's realized inferiority in other fields. There is no harm in such scholarship; it is a pleasant and, to a certain degree, a necessary thing, but to place it first among the functions of a university is, I repeat, a betrayal of the trust placed in us by society. It is to mistake a privilege for an inalienable right, exactly as the nobility and clergy of France forgot that their feudal privileges were merely payment for their services of protection and consolation and continued to demand those privileges long after they had ceased to do their duty. Society today is little tolerant of useless shibboleths. If we demand our privileges and refuse our duties we cannot expect so long a shrift as was granted the "ancien régime," and we can only hope that our fall may be, not less sudden, but less fatal.

I know that Mr. Conant insisted that scholarship and teaching ability should be combined, but the direction of his thought is clear from these words in which he explains that to be a good tutor or a good lecturer is not enough. When he does not say that it is not enough to be a good scholar, I find his silence eloquent.

The second fallacy in his position springs from his education as a scientist. Minute research is necessary in science, and is sometimes useful or, as in chemical warfare, fatal to society. In the field of the arts, however, this type of research is absolutely inappropriate. Most of the necessary cataloguing and indexing has been done. There will always remain, however, a place for books upon great authors and upon movements of profound importance. But such books are the fruit of a lifetime of patient and understanding contemplation, during which the scholar has become the very flesh and blood of his subject. The scientific method of minute research has only a subordinate place here, and calls for no great ability. Yet the arts have been striving for years to imitate the sciences and have filled Widener with their petty lucubrations upon dead themes. This is the second fallacy, to expect of the arts a type of scholarship proper only to science, to require this scholarship from young men, and thereby to discourage them in that leisurely, deep, and sincere study of their field which might bring forth works of real profit to mankind.

The scholarship which universities need is that which is born of a profound love of its subject, which is nourished by years of thought in the company of other minds, especially in classroom and conference, which is tested by teaching, and which is matured at last as a book which shall enable men to live with greater charity and nobility. Socrates, the greatest teacher men have known, said that no one knew a thing if he were unable to impart it to others. Countless lecture rooms bear ineloquent testimony to the ignorance of scholars.

At the risk of being found sentimental, I dare confess that I think that teaching is a mission. We are not here merely to create other puny scholars in our own image, but to send out into life men who shall, in the words of Pericles, be most completely and most gracefully self-sufficient in the face of the most varied circumstances. I know that I am not speaking for myself alone when I say that I had rather send forth one such man than be the lauded agent in dragging the poor bones of the dead from the oblivion to which they are committed by time's kindly hand.

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