Change in Course, Signaled by a Change in Courses

[A Reply to Don M. Randel's "Change is in course offerings, not in our course," University of Chicago Magazine, June 2002]

Andrew Chrucky
Chicago, July 1, 2002

Don M. Randel, the President of the University of Chicago, has tried -- to his credit -- to enter into the discussion about teaching in a liberal-arts program. However, it seems that Randel -- in the usual corporate tradition -- is trying to be a team player. Or, to put it otherwise, given his background in music, he is trying to harmonize with the song being played here. Perhaps this kind of acculturation is proper for a CEO of a corporation, but not -- in my view -- for a university president. A university president should be a conductor of music which he has independently selected or composed. Put non-metaphorically, a president must have a moral philosophy of education which he tries to promulgate -- and if need be -- in opposition to the faculty. So far, unfortunately, this university has had only one such president in Robert Hutchins.

President Randel's rhetoric is composed of a barrage of attacks on straw-men. He says, for one, that the administration is being blamed for the demise of Western Civ. No one makes this accusation. The fact of the matter is that the nibbling of the Core is the result of the Faculty Senate's vote in 1998 to reduce (eliminate?) the Common Core. These changes were introduced before Randel came here; so, it would be anachronistic to hold him in any way responsible -- and no one should.

Randel could have taken the stand that these reductions to the Core are changes with which he disagrees -- but, instead, he agrees with them. And this to me is a sign that the Board of Trustees has, alas, chosen the wrong conductor for the job.

Whatever his real opinions, publicly he is taking a stand to agree with the majority in the Faculty Senate. Let us examine his explicit reasoning in trying to defend the reduction in the Core. Curiously, though, he does not even mention that there were drastic reductions in the Core -- he is only reacting to the current protest against the reduction in Western Civ.

By his lights, he does not know what all the fuss is about; after all, why worry about a few courses when the University is on course. But is it? Let us not obscure the issue by lumping together the College and the University, as does Randel. Let us distinguish between the graduate research departments of the University and the College. The graduate departments are intended to be composed of super-stars who publish articles and books, and who have a tenuous contact with the undergraduates. The College, on the other hand, is composed of undergraduates taught by graduate students and ad hoc appointees. [An ad hoc appointee is a non-tenured instructer hired for a fixed term on a full-time or a part-time basis. This includes Harper-Schmidt Fellows and adjuncts.]

The graduate departments and the undergraduate College are distinct worlds, and should not be conflated in Randel's style when he talks about the University. The super-stars of the graduate departments do not mingle with the undergraduates of the College. The University prides itself by the roster of Nobel Laureates, and after an unintentional luring of undergraduates to bask in the wisdom of super-stars, it throws them into a makeshift academic environment of graduates and ad hocs.

What becomes clear from reading Randel's artcle is that he has no appreciation for a prescribed sequence of courses. He does not see the difference between a student having to take courses 1, 2, and 3 in a sequence; and a student electing to take these same courses in some arbitrary order. About Western Civ, he doesn't understand what all the indignation is about. After all, courses 1, 2, and 3 can still be taken as a 2 and 3 sequence, and 1 elected. And why not have the students elect 1, 2, and 3; or 4, 5, and 6; or whatever they like?

What Randel doesn't appreciate in education is the role of "guidance." A student pays a school to guide him or her in pursuing wisdom. Randel, however, in effect, is saying that students do not need to be guided in the selection of courses -- they need only to be guided in individual courses. And, even here, he is content to let teaching assistants and ad hocs do the course guiding.

If guidance by way of required courses is dropped, it means that the students must provide their own guidance. And Randel thinks that letting students guide themselves is not relativism. It certainly is. It means that the school is relinquishing its authority; so, everyone becomes their own authority. Oblivious to this, a Core reduction for him is simply the result of the Faculty Senate's critical thinking. I am utterly bewildered by this sort of "critical thinking." The Faculty Senate supposedly thought critically about the Common Core in the College, and wound up reducing it. Is there some kind of record of the discussions which took place on the floor of the Faculty Senate? Were there some really brilliant arguments advanced which are recorded somewhere? If there are such Platonic dialogues, I certainly would like to read them. Reducing courses means only one thing -- those in charge think that there are less things which are worth learning by everyone.

Actually, I can think of only three reasons to cut down on a prescribed curriculum. The first reason is: We don't know what a liberal education is about; so let's stop pretending that we do. If that is the case, then the students are just as knowledgeable about what is worth studying as we are; so, let them pick and choose according to their lights. The second reason is: Liberal education does not give any knowledge worth pursuing, so let's stop pretending that it does. The only knowledge worth pursuing -- it may be thought -- is how to make a million. And since professors don't know how to make a million, let the students figure it out as best they can for themselves. The third reason is that professors simply don't want to be bothered with undergraduate education.

Randel says that what is happening at the University of Chicago is a revival of the 18th century battle of the books -- a battle between the Ancients and the Moderns. Surely this is a big red herring. The battle is not over authorities -- which would be wonderful to witness. No, the truth is simpler: we are witnessing the abandonment or bankruptcy of authority. When courses which were prescribed are dropped, it signals the loss of wisdom and authority. People who are authorities in a given discipline are able to tell you what texts are better than others. And it is on the basis of such comparative judgements that an authority can select a canon of superior texts which are worth reading. If an alleged authority cannot make such a selection, or when a group of alleged authorities cannot reach a consensus, then we have a crisis in authority. And this is what is happening at the University of Chicago -- a lapse in authority about liberal education.

President Randel tells us that the University is distinguished by its allegiance to critical thinking. Perhaps it is as a public relations incantation. Perhaps the phrases to utter in reverence of the University of Chicago are "critical thinking," "argument," "debate," and "the life of the mind." But who knows what these magic phrases mean? Randel writes: "Let us instead swear that we will forever think critically . . ." Yes, let us swear allegiance to these magic phrases -- whatever they mean.

What I am curious to know is what Randel really thinks it is that is worth thinking critically about? By his opening remarks, it is evident that his immediate priorities are to think critically about how to raise $2 billion for the University. Let's think "critically" how to get our billions, and then let's think of how to spend them. Robert Hutchins was apparently mentally dysfunctional: his priority was to think about worthy causes, and then to find the means to fund them.

Hutchins, as president and as ex-president, was a man driven to do morally right things. He did not want to run an educational institution like a CEO; instead, he wanted to be an educator. He wanted to create the conditions in which education could flourish, and he placed himself in the classroom both to educate and to be educated. When he left the University, he continued his efforts to bring about a world of peace and justice. He was always driven to do the morally right thing.

I do not sense an overriding concern with a moral perspective in Randel. When he talks about history, for example, this is what he says: "To think of new and richer narrative based on . . . an increasing body of facts [which] ought to be what we are all about in a university . . ." The only part of this formula I share with Randel is that we must get our facts straight; but which facts? Randel wants "new" and "rich" narratives. This sounds like an aesthetic approach to history. My own preference is not for a "new" or "richer" narrative, but for facts relevant to moral assessments. For example, I admire the historical "narratives" of Charles and Mary Beard, and those of our contemporary historian Howard Zinn.

Robert Hutchins was right to seek a synoptic perspective for liberal education. Unfortunately, he used the term "metaphysics" for this, which triggered the wrong associations. He should have said that he wanted to unify education from a moral point of view, because that is really what he was after. And this is what Randel too should be after.