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by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

From university to multiversity to demoversity

Alvin Kernan on tectonic shifts in higher education since the 1960s

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

From university to multiversity to demoversity

In 1999, on Volume 38 of the Journal, we featured an interview with Shakespeare scholar Alvin Kernan (1923–2018). The subject was his memoir In Plato’s Cave (Yale University Press, 1999), in which he described his experiences as student, professor, provost, and dean at Columbia, Williams, Oxford, Yale, and Princeton. Kernan’s academic career coincided with a dramatic transformation of American institutions of higher education, and of the intellectual assumptions that long sustained them — assumptions about truth, meaning, human nature, history, and culture. My interview with Kernan about his book was re-released as a Friday Feature in January 2024.

In his 1990 The Death of Literature (Yale University Press), Kernan diagnosed the effects of media-driven culture and various critical theories on the shared experience of literature. In a review of the book in The Wilson Quarterly, Frank McConnell wrote that Kernan “blames the fall of culture on the poets and critics who should be its guardians. If we are collapsing into a new barbarism, Kernan says it is in no small measure due to the asocial artist whose every utterance, however outrageous, can be justified just because he calls himself that, an artist. And the part of the literary tradition that the ‘artist’ leaves unharmed, the critic finishes off.”

In 1997, Kernan edited an anthology titled What’s Happened to the Humanities? (Princeton University Press), the product of two conferences held at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina and at Boston University. Contributors to the book included Francis Oakley, Denis Donoghue, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Frank Kermode, Christopher Ricks, and Louis Menand. Kernan wrote the book’s Introduction, “Change in the Humanities and Higher Education,” excerpts from which are below.

“Institutionally, in the standard academic table of organization, the university catalogue — the knowledge tree of contemporary western culture — the humanities are the subjects regularly listed under that heading: literature, philosophy, art history, music, religion, languages, and sometimes history. This branch of knowledge is separated from the branch of the social sciences and from the branch of the biological and physical sciences. These three branches together form the arts and sciences, or the liberal arts, as they are sometimes known, which are as a group separated in turn from the professional disciplines — such as medicine, education, business, and law — which, at least at one time, concentrated on practice rather than theory.

“Historically, the humanities are the old subjects, which in many forms and under a variety of names-the nine muses; the liberal arts; quadrivium and trivium; rhetoric, dialectic, and logic; humane letters — were the major part of Western education for over two millennia. In the modern college and university they have mutated into a number of specialized subjects, such as art history, religious studies, classics, national literatures, and musicology. Perhaps because they are the old subjects, they are also the least abstract, the most immediate — not the most prestigious, but the most intimate — to humanity’s sense of itself in the world. They shape the stories we tell, our ways of thinking, what our collective past has been, how we communicate and persuade with language, and, perhaps most powerfully of all, the music that stirs our depths: these are, mutatis mutandis, the basic humanistic ways of knowing, the most instrumental to life as it is ordinarily lived.

“Socially, in the latter twentieth century, the humanities, along with some of the ‘softer’ social sciences like anthropology and sociology, have been the battlefields of an extended Kulturkampf. These subjects have proven extremely sensitive to pressures for social change in the society at large, to the wave of populist democracy, to technological changes in communication, to relativistic epistemologies, to demands for increased tolerance, and to various social causes, such as black studies, feminism, and gay rights. Every liberal cause — from freedom of speech and the Vietnam War to anticolonialism and the nonreferentiality of language — has fought bitter and clamorous battles in these subjects. The revolutionary spirit extended into the intellectual realm, and truth itself as well as fact, the foundations of Western rational inquiry, were confronted by deconstructive philosophies that replaced knowledge with interpretation and dethroned objectivity in the name of subjectivity. Where the old humanities were once ethnocentric in their concentration on western Europe, they have become increasingly multicultural, pluralistic, and politicized.

“This turmoil in the humanities has been part of, and offers an insight into, a much larger change in American higher education as a whole that has been taking place since World War II. ‘A substantial change of scale is a change of enterprise,’ remarks Christopher Ricks, and a few numbers establish the nature and direction of the change of ‘enterprise’ in higher education. In the years between 1960 and 1990, according to figures from the National Center for Educational Statistics, the number of institutions of higher education increased from 2,000 to 3,595. The greatest increase was in the publics, which grew from 700 to 1,576, while the privates, which had earlier dominated higher education, went from 1,300 to 2,019. Full-time enrollments increased from 3.5 to 15.3 million, with the share accounted for by the public institutions increasing from 60 to 80 percent of the total. The area of the greatest growth was in the new community colleges, which enrolled only 400,000 students in 1960 but had 6.5 million by 1990. The proportion of women increased from 37 to 51 percent of the total of undergraduate enrollments in this time period, and that of minorities from 12 to 28 percent. To support this growth, federal aid to students went from $5.1 to $11.2 billion. To provide teachers for the increased number of students, the number of doctoral degrees granted grew from about 10,000 to over 38,000 a year, and overall faculty numbers increased from approximately 281,000 to over 987,000. Research payments were increased accordingly by the federal government, which between 1960 and 1990 increased R&D funds from $2 billion constant 1960 dollars to $12 billion.

“These numerical changes are of course the substructure of much more visible surface disturbances. Socrates said that ‘the modes of music are never disturbed without unsettling of the most fundamental political and social conditions,’ but who would have thought that the sounds of Elvis and the Beatles, electrically amplified until they drowned out every other sound, would announce new political and social conditions on campus? The sweet smell of marijuana floated through the dormitories, and the sound of gunfire crackled in the groves of academe. Et in Arcadia ego! Free-speech movements coarsened the vocabulary of higher education, and student protests, strikes, and sit-ins were only the most visible of many continuing challenges to in loco parentis authority. Democratic egalitarianism found its intellectual counterparts in pluralism, a multicultural curriculum, and the relativistic concept of truth — one person’s ideas are as good as another’s — which has been the intellectual ‘loss leader’ on campus for many years now. In time, new manners and new epistemologies were followed by new politics. Affirmative action brought increasing numbers of minorities into the classrooms, a feminist movement established itself at the center of academic concerns, and all intellectual activities were declared to be means of seeking power. Margery Sabin sums up the pattern of change in the following way: ‘radical social protest in the late 1960s; deconstruction in the 1970s; ethnic, feminist, and Marxist cultural studies in the 1980s; postmodern sexuality in the 1990s; and rampant careerism from beginning to end.’

“Educational institutions, like all other social institutions — the family, the state, the church — obviously do change radically from time to time. In The Uses of the University (1967), Clark Kerr noted the appearance as early as the 1950s and 1960s of a new kind of institution of higher education, which he called the ‘multiversity, a city of infinite variety,’ a term he coined to call attention to a progressive weakening of any unifying force at the educational center — either geographical, curricular, or philosophical — of the old research universities, which he defined as a ‘unified community of masters and students with a single “soul” or purpose.’ In the thirty years since Kerr told us that a ‘multiversity’ was replacing the old research universities, the democratic social revolution in education has continued to the point that by now it might be better to call the new institution a ‘demoversity,’ if you will allow the word, tending toward the empowerment of the many rather than the unified one, questioning traditional centralized authority and all forms of elitism.

“These tectonic shifts in higher education have not, I think it is fair to say, been kind to the liberal arts in general, and to the humanities in particular. . . .”

—from Alvin Kernan, “Change in the Humanities and Higher Education,” in What’s Happened to the Humanities? edited by Alvin Kernan (Princeton University Press, 1997).