Kenneth e. Eble

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the Profane Comedy

American Higher Education in the Sixties


New York




Afl rights reserved-Hio part of this book may be reproduced

in any form without permission in writing from the publisher,

except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in

connection with a review written for inclusion in magazine or

First Punting
The Macmillan Company, New York

Brett-Macmillan Ltd., Gait, Ontario

Printed m the United States of America

Library of Congress catalog card number: 62-11360

'O My Family and Friends

This book assumes that there is something of value which can

be said by one man of limited experience about a world as large

and complex as the American academic world. The book is only

in part personal; frequently I have tried to bring facts into rela-

tion with personal assessments. Yet, any book worth writing

about American education must be personal; it must not submit

to American education's subservience to the chart, the compila-

tion, the continuing study. It must frankly admit that however

clear the glass through which one looks, what is seen and written

about depends on the eyes and mind and hands that perform the


The focus of the book is on higher education. That higher

education, and secondary education, and elementary education,

and adult education, and, for that matter, "education" are all

separate entities is a condition which I'm forced to accept, though

not to desire. Arrogance may explain my presuming to knowledge

about higher education; ignorance certainly explains my exclu-

sion of that which precedes and follows life on the campus. My

view of the campus is that of a student and teacher, though, this

is an acknowledgment of point of view, not of special knowledge.

That the book should be both affectionate and caustic is, I hope,

as much because of the character of the academic world as be-

cause of the peculiarity of one member of it.

Throughout the book, I refer to those many institutions which

make up higher education as colleges, universities, and schools,

without a finicky regard for exactness. The alternative was to

use the long phrase, colleges and universities, each time both were


meant When I specifically mean college or university, I try to

make the context support the use of the term. For the most part,

any one of the three terms means the degree-granting institutions

of higher education as distinct from a growing number of in-

stitutions which give training beyond the high school but which

do not grant degrees.

In choosing the tide, The Profane Comedy, I have weighed the

risk of being thought disrespectful to Dante's masterpiece against

the advantage of saying much in a short space. American colleges

and universities are certainly profane, as contrasted with divine,

and comedy, as Dante explained in a letter to Can Grande della

Scala, is appropriate to a narrative which begins harshly and ends

happily. Any account, however harsh, of an institution so vigor-

ous, so confident, so alive with the promise of youth, as American

higher education, must end happily. That the tide of this book

has other implications makes it no less appropriate to the subject.


I owe much to many individuals for the completion of this book.

Since this is a book about college teachers and scholars, I begin

by acknowledging my general debt to the three scholar-teachers

in whose classrooms I became most aware of the virtues of study

and the pleasures of learning: Gerald Else, Victor Harris, and

Gilbert Highet. My general thanks, also, to the many teachers

and students who have had a part in shaping my vision of the

academic world, and to the University of Utah, which has af-

forded a congenial and stimulating academic climate. Specifically,

my thanks to all members of the English department at the Uni-

versity of Utah and to the former head of the department, Edwin

Clapp. My special thanks to Don Walker, Jack Adamson, and

Milton Voigt, who read the manuscript and made many valuable

suggestions, and to Robert and Mary Schaaf, who performed the

great service of seeing the manuscript through discerning and

nonacademic eyes. My thanks to others with whom I have talked

about the book or who have read parts of the manuscript: Robert

Helbling, Don Heiney, Hal Moore, Dorothy Snow, Ralph Salis-

bury, and Martin Zober. My typist, Mrs. Helen Winn, and our

departmental secretary, Mrs. Sally Allen, have been of great help.

I wish to thank also the AAUP Bulletin for permission to quote

from Lloyd Williams's article (Winter, 1957) an ^ fro* 1 * the As-

sociation's report on the University of Nevada; The Journal of

Higher Education for permission to use material that appeared

there in a somewhat different form as "The Burden of Bonehead,"

Vol. XXVIII, January, 1957, pp. 30-37; Erik Wensberg and the

Columbia University Forum for material that first appeared there


as "Head, Heart, and Hand Outstretched," Vol. Ill, Fall, 1960,

pp. 11-15; and Peter Rimer, my editor at Macmillan.

Finally, my greatest thanks to my wife, who performed the

greatest service, not only in reading and criticizing the manuscript

but in providing both rime and encouragement. All of these helped

make the book possible; for what is in it, I will have to take the

Salt Lake City, Utah
January, 1962


Preface vii
Introduction 1
1. Limbo 11
2. Purgatory 25
3. Paradise 34
4. The Peculiar Profession 51
5. "Student Life'* 63
6. The Playing Fields 74
7. The Bureaucracy 83
Part Three: PROBLEMS
8. The Fourth R 101
9. Teaching 115
10. Research 125
11. Money 139
12. The Persistence of Problems 158
1 3 . Achievements 171
14. Drive Versus Drift 191
15. Hopes and Proposals 203
Notes 221



Higher education is a dreary subject. Dealing in large part with

the dead, it lacks the vigor of the Board of Trade or the stadium.

Being somewhat alive, it lacks the charm of fossils. Yet, the col-

lege and the university are largely responsible for the existence

of our technological society, and, to a great degree, define our

culture. 1

There is litde need to document the intimate relation between

science, pure and applied, and the universities. Our two great

current concerns, national defense and space research, would col-

lapse if university personnel and university-trained personnel

were suddenly to disappear. Business, constantly adapting scien-

tific methods and machinery to its uses, would hardly suffer less.

The American household would, sooner or later, be deprived of

wonders comparable to today's electric can opener and no-iron

The colleges and universities are of equal importance to another

part of our existence, that part not directly concerned with

physical well-being, with the mere acquisition and consumption

of goods. Outside the great metropolitan areas, the colleges and

universities are almost the only active centers for the theater,

for music, for painting and sculpture, for the reading and writing

of books, and for the myriad activities of the mind which loosely

comprise "culture.'* 2 Adore than that, the college graduate be-

comes the consumer of culture and oftentimes the missionary

for it in the urban and rural areas which are finding the arts

almost as interesting as midget auto racing. That the public

tacitly recognizes the importance of the college and university


is obvious from the fervor which animates people of almost every

age and aptitude to pursue a college degree.

Education has a distressing way of plodding off into statistics.

That's part of its dreariness. Nevertheless, a few figures need

to be introduced here. In 1900, only 4 per cent of the college-age

population (18-21) went to college. Today, about one-fourth

of the college-age population (18-24) attends, 3 and in the next

decade the proportion is certain to go higher. 4 In the state of

Utah, which leads the nation in this respect, 1 of every 33 of its

population in 1949-1950 was a college student. 6 In the four

counties in which the state's major universities are located, more

than two-thirds of the high school graduates are now going on

to college. 6

The Office of Education Directory for 1960-1961 lists about

1400 colleges and universities which grant the Bachelor's or the

first professional degree, and about 600 junior colleges, technical

institutes, and normal schools which give education beyond the

twelfth grade. 7
In size, American institutions which grant college degrees

range from the University of California with its 54,000 students

on seven scattered campuses to several hundred schools with

enrollments of less than 500 each. The nine largest institutions

have about 9 per cent of the total enrollment. Manner of support

varies widely, too. Though there are almost three times as many

privately supported four-year institutions as publicly supported

ones, over half of the students are enrolled in public institutions. 8

The majority of private schools are supported by various denomi-

nations. Protestant churches support about 500 colleges; the

Roman Catholic Church about 300. The liberal arts college is

the most typical kind of college. In 1955-1956, there were 650

privately controlled liberal arts colleges and 82 public ones. To-

gether with colleges and universities which offer liberal arts as

a basic part of the curriculum, these institutions enroll five-sixths

of all resident college students.

Introduction 3

American colleges and universities exist in such variety that

classifying them gives only a hazy idea of the nature of any in-

dividual college. The only really clear distinction is that between

coed colleges and those restricted to either sex. In number, men's

colleges barely exceed women's colleges, 193 to 189, but the

1053 coed colleges clearly show the American preference.

This excursion into facts and figures discloses a system of higher

education that is vast and diverse, and in which the extremes are

far apart. The idea for this book grew out of my experiences at

a number of quite different institutions. In order, over a period

of fifteen years, I was a student, a student and teacher, and

finally a teacher, at two large state universities, a very small

rural private college, a very large Ivy League graduate school,

a medium-sized urban private university, and a somewhat larger

state university. These particulars are not put down as a con-

fession nor as a claim to extraordinary experience. Many indi-

viduals have had a more varied academic career. Mine was

sufficiently varied to force me to see higher education in its

diversity as in its sameness. Eventually, it led me to regard the

academic world as a cosmos existing at the three levels described

in this book: limbo, purgatory, and paradise.
The great number, the variety, and the breadth of services

performed are the foremost characteristics of American higher

education. 9 Universities, with their ambitious attempts to provide

for the study of all knowledge, have always been large in scope.

As American colleges became universities, they not only met this

traditional obligation but assumed the responsibility for civilizing

and socializing a growing proportion of American youth. The

two broad courses open to American higher education are de-

scribed by Robin Williams, Jr.:

An education system may follow the "Jeffersonian" modelit may

open the race to everyone but eliminate all but the best from the final

heats; or it may adopt the "Jacksonian" system and provide education


at all levels for anyone. Recent trends in American education appar-

ently have been mainly "Jacksonian." 10

The debate between "educating" and "civilizing," as it might be

called, continues to engage both the public and the academic

community. Should the university chiefly aim to develop a high

degree of disciplined intelligence in those students capable of

such growth, or should it concern itself primarily with develop-

ing the general capacities of every citizen?

Perhaps because both goals have much to recommend them,

the American university has typically compromised. Though it

has not realized the high aims set forth in Newman's The Idea

of a University, it has clearly embraced this one of his views: "It

is a great point then to enlarge the range of studies which a

University professes, even for the sake of the students; and,

though they cannot pursue every subject which is open to them,

they will be the gainers by living among those and under those

who represent the whole circle." u The awakening experience

that higher education provides, an experience open to dull and

bright alike, may be the most permanent and consequential effect

of going to college. An undergraduate learns litde enough in

four years, but he has had the sense of what man has done, what

he can do. More than that, he has had the close association with

other youths whose ideals have not yet succumbed to experience,

age, or resignation. Even when, by academic standards, college

life becomes most trivial, it is an attractive life and beneficial

because it may give the sojourner a vision of a life lived for more

than mere acquisition and expenditure.

On the other hand, the traditional sustaining idea behind liberal

education has always been, as Cardinal Newman phrased it,

"simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, and its object is

nothing more or less than intellectual excellence." 12 Such an

idea runs contrary to the beliefs of Jacksonian democracy and

Introduction 5

arouses the suspicions of those who resent any implications of

superiority. Nevertheless, the idea has never been abandoned, and

even in universities whose daily routines are devoid of intellect,

sentiments favoring intellectual excellence are routinely avowed.

Colleges and universities are selective, if not in their students,

then in their faculties, and the insistence upon intellectual excel-

lence by the faculty has kept many universities from becoming

overpoweringly hostile to the mind.

The American university is much more the world than the

European university and it suffers correspondingly from the

things of the world. The American emphasis upon things rather

than ideas, upon consumption rather than conservation, upon

size rather than quality are directly reflected in the universities.

They swarm with enterprisers, and scholarship itself is often

conducted in the manner of business enterprise. The great achieve-

ment of American higher education may be one of logistics.

Quality aside, it has developed ways to get large numbers regis-

tered, marked, and certified, and has made it possible for a man

to pack up his accomplishments at one station and have them

shipped to almost any other station down the line.

The students streaming into the colleges and universities can-

not be expected to bring much enthusiasm for the academic life

with them. An administration concerned with management and

public relations is not likely to show continuing devotion to

intellectual excellence. That leaves the intellectual character of

a university in the hands of the faculty. To me, as an observer

and as a faculty member, the professors have not defended the

virtues of the intellectual life very well. They have failed to

stand as a profession for the ideals which, as individuals, they

so solemnly preach. They have let themselves become disengaged

from the defining of policies and the defending of principles

which should guide a university's life, and have been forced to

accept practices which plague their lives. They have, most of


all, failed to provide leadership and have frequently excused their

failure by conjuring up an impossible public, or an equally im-

possible administration, tyrannizing over them.
The students and the public and the administration are not

free from blame. The students and the public have expected too

much and given too little. They have continually taken advantage

of natures that are more charitable and democratic sentiments

which are more discerning than their own. The best administra-

tions have given higher education the kind of active leadership

which conflicting faculty obligations have made difficult for even

the best faculty to provide. The worst administrations have left

the scholars bent over their books and have erected ramshackle

educational structures on their backs.

Higher education has been extremely successful in stimulating

criticisms of its own practices, particularly from those who are

enmeshed in university routine daily. The criticisms in this book

will go to rest with the others before them and the ones to come.

Institutions always decline into heaviness, formalism, and vain

show. People are always too ignorant, too weak, and too venal.

Ideas are always harder to grasp than things, difficult to hold

when grasped, tricky, deluding, and troublesome. Money is al-

ways hard to come by, and its absence as nourishing to evil as

its presence. That higher education at any time should respond

magnificently to criticism is more than can be expected. There

does seem to be one large gain which suggests that the criticisms

of the past have had an effect upon a part of higher education

today. The top level now includes more institutions, and many

of these are suffering, in David Riesman's phrase, the "stalemate

of success." 13 For the majority of institutions, however, the

persistence of the critics and the sameness of the criticism testify

to the need for all of them to be regularly called to virtue.

What happens to the colleges and universities in the sixties

will largely be the consequences of their attempt to educate more

students and to give some students a better education. This has

Introduction 7

been the central problem of higher education throughout the

century. The renewed emphasis grows out of the great number

of children now in the lower schools, the increased desire to

go on to college, and the events in the world which have under-

lined Alfred North Whitehead's solemn judgment: "In the con-

ditions of modern life the rule is absolute, the race which does

not value trained intelligence is doomed." u


the Cosmos

/. imbo

C/VEN in a shabby college, the freshmen enrolling probably

think their school is one of the greater heavenly bodies. Many

of them will never give up this idea and it will bring them back

to the campus, at least as far as the stadium, year after year.

Professors, who share some of these feelings toward their under-

graduate colleges, see a larger part of the cosmos. A majority

will have finished graduate work in one of the more glorious

graduate schools. Since there are few of these and many obscure

colleges, the journey of the new professor from scholar to peda-

gogue is likely to seem downhill. However fond the undergradu-

ate may be of the college he is attending, the fledgling professor

who has descended there from a loftier perch may feel that he is

dwelling in an inferior world.

The lowest level of American colleges comprises a kind of

Limbo where the educational vagrants, the intellectual pagans,

the good but academically unsancrified are assigned. Most of its

inhabitants feel grateful for being spared the extreme tortures

life can inflict; few escape a continual longing to be somewhere



else. Faculty members in Limbo tend to drift from one dismal

college to another. A few in each institution become permanent

residents. Many last two or three years before moving on. Teach-

ers whose contracts are not renewed at one school arrive at an-

other somewhat down the scale. Others, whose professional com-

petence is not questioned but who have remained long enough

to have forsaken scholarship, neglected professional responsibili-

ties, and developed animosities to their surroundings, drift to

similar schools, slightly worse or slightly better. Some rise out

of Limbo; some remain, cherishing a vision of Paradise; many

drift, losing sight of Heaven and becoming inured to Hell.
Such schools exist. They have names like Upper Idaho Uni-

versity, Susan More Hopewell College, Pine City Teachers Col-

lege. One was brilliantly described under the fictitious name of

Cherokee CoUege by Professor Lloyd Williams in the AAUP

Bulletin. Teachers at dozens of small schools identified it as their

own. Professor Williams' concluding diagnosis is harsh but fair:

Psychologically, Cherokee is sick. The most noticeable consequences

stemming from the present ethos and social structure of the College

are frustration, emotional insecurity, anxiety, latent and manifest

hostility, disguised and undisguised aggression, in conjunction with

both self-effacing and self-depreciating tendencies on the part of

many. ... In many respects this College is probably not unlike

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