SUNY Albany just closed their Classics Department. Where is solidarity? Professorial protest? Student objections? I'm afraid that most Americans have lost sight of the unique role of higher education.
I judge universities by the strength of their Classics departments, and the list of institutions in the running is shrinking yearly as the field that dominated European high education until the twentieth century is altogether dropped by one school after another. I would argue that mine is a just evaluative method, not because of my own affection for Greek and Roman literature, but because Classics provides a test case of whether a school is pursuing the true role of higher education: the cultivation of knowledge for its own sake. The undergraduate studies to learn how to think: how to take in information, process it, and generate original ideas. On the graduate and professional levels, the very same activity continues on the level of research, the production of new knowledge.
Intellectual work is surely the definitive capability of our species, and a person thinking hard resembles a cat about to pounce. Each practices the skills perfected by the evolution of the codes of eons of DNA. The observer can scarcely doubt that the cat enjoys the hunt even if it prefers to dine on pelleted cat food, and, for humans, the value of using the brain is likewise dependent on no practical ends.
Research of various sorts is conducted in a number of contemporary institutions, most of them large corporations, but nowhere except in the university is it viable for its own sake. Experiments that might result in a lucrative and patentable discovery can always find funding; pure research has only one home. It is true but irrelevant that often discoveries by “pure” scientific researchers have proven useful. It is unlikely that the Classicist’s findings will be influential outside his professional circles, yet they possess nonetheless a share in the grand unfolding project of human knowledge that is nurtured only at universities.
The unfortunate fact is, of course, that research in higher education is less and less independent. America’s romance with capitalism and today’s budget crises have combine to lead colleges and universities to seek ever more “alliances’ with big money, tailoring their programs not to the professors’ own interests, but to the ends that will attract money. The call of these sirens is inaudible, of course, to the Classicist, whose field, rigorous though it be, is unlikely ever to draw much cash.
The modern university is increasingly a vocational school. The notion that a liberal education will prepare the student for any sort of problem-solving has faded before the unashamed advance of training for jobs. It is true that historically, universities have sometimes included courses in preparation for “the learned professions” of medicine, law, and the church (though most doctors, lawyers, and clergy prior to this century had no college training). Few people practicing these professions ever do research (professors in the fields do), but these historic exceptions have been overwhelmed by endless explicitly vocational programs of no scholarly or scientific pretensions, boasting instead graduate hiring rates and starting salaries and creating an environment completely inimical to the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. Even soi-disant friends of higher education think they can make their apologetics only by pointing to economic advantage, though by its very nature state-sponsored research properly belongs only to those intellectuals whose work would not be supported by the market. Money-making is a different game altogether.
These ideas are entirely out of step with the thinking of politicians and the populace today; indeed, they would find little acceptance even among academicians. The church controlled European higher education for many years. Then, after a brief period of secularism and at least a facade of ideals beyond the dollar, corporations have come to dominate, and learning cannot fail to be the loser. The question is simply whether we want to trust the progress of the species to those seeking to produce new knowledge or those pursuing personal wealth. Which is likely to better serve humanity?