Like many longtime academics, Alvin Kernan is nostalgic about the university of the past. He does not, however, believe that it is possible to go back to such a model - nor does he think that the changes have been entirely for the worse.
In his memoir, "In Plato's Cave" (Yale University Press), Professor Kernan points out that despite universities' tendency to claim "that the torch of scientific humanism has passed without a flicker from the Greeks to the present," higher education has in fact gone through several incarnations.
Medieval universities were centered on theology, for example. During the Renaissance, higher education became primarily classical and rhetorical, and in the 19th century, the scientific research institution was born. Over the past few decades, he says, this 19th-century model has been giving way to "a new kind of democratic university."
"Everything [has moved] in a democratic direction," he says. Formerly an English professor at Yale and Princeton universities and now senior adviser in the Humanities at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in Princeton, N.J., Kernan has seen this shift manifested in all kinds of ways. For one, there are "many more colleges, and many more people going to them." While the old system was meritocratic and elitist, the 20th century has produced "affirmative action, as well as the movement of women into universities, and [an] emphasis on multiculturalism." Kernan himself benefited directly from this democratization, attending college with funds provided by the G.I. Bill after World War II.
But hand in hand with this more positive trend has come a steady wearing down of educators' authority. "By the late 1960s, early '70s, it was clear that the students were claiming authority they had never really exercised before." Student riots and protests over the Vietnam War brought about a significant shift in the balance of power on campus.
An even more significant force counteracting authority has been the rise of relativism. According to Kernan, 19th-century institutions were essentially positivistic: They taught - and believed in - scientific, objective truths. The first cracks in this notion of truth began to appear with the advent of Einstein's theory of relativity. But it was during the 1980s and '90s, with the spread of deconstructionist and postmodernist theories, that a concrete sense of truth fell completely apart. These theories argue there can be no fixed meanings to texts - only interpretations.
In Kernan's eyes, this kind of relativism is an inherently "democratic attitude," because it essentially says "one person's interpretation is as good as any other."
This turn away from critical assessment has given rise to grade inflation, he argues, which "has by now made grades meaningless" (indeed, Stanford University's median grade last year was an A-). It's as if students are claiming "What right does he have to judge me?" he says, and teachers are uncertain of their right to claim a higher authority.
Although there may be some rumblings of a backlash, Kernan doesn't see things ever going back to the way they once were. "I don't think history ever repeats itself," he says firmly. "When you get big changes of this kind, it's probably impossible to reverse the trend." Universities are prospering, and many people welcome the changes, he says, but "it seems to me considerably less of an institution than it used to be."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society