Democratization, Revitalization, Politicization, and Deconstruction: Is the Liberal University in Decline?

March 1, 1994

by Howard Fienberg, for Politics 3951

It is incumbent on us now to spur the liberal imagination further before the darker forces in our society initiate a reaction that none of us wants. ... Lest the mindless form of politics called political correctness roll over us like a juggernaut, obliterating all serious art and original thought, we had better find that protective line of defense, and find it soon. (Brustein 533-4)

There are numerous controversies and debates surrounding the modern university, of varying effect and substance. One must ponder whether such problems serve to strengthen the university, change it for the better, or deconstruct the university altogether. It must be examined what it is that is happening with an eye towards both the history of the modern university, current trends, and the underlying theories behind both.

Hanna Arendt, in "Thoughts on Politics and Revolution," takes a very mixed view towards current trends in the universities as part of the general polis; Jurgen Habermas, in "The University in a Democracy," also has convoluted points of view on these trends. Both tend to favor democratizing the university, but neither would seemingly support the movements for democratization as they have evolved in this day and age. Their views date back twenty-five years, but have relevance to understanding the state of universities today, and where its future should lie, as well as how it may actually turn out. In order to put them in proper perspective, it is necessary to extrapolate from more recent commentators on the university, and perhaps a common thread can be shown through the utilization of such a method.

The Enlightened Man (or Citizen)

Kant found that a mature and enlightened man was one who worked from the tenets of reason, and reason alone. Others have differed in their reliance on such an orthodox cling to the concept of pure reason as the basis for civilization, but it remains at the heart of what is referred to as the Enlightenment and the enlightened citizen. The enlightened citizen, with the proper backing of morality, should base his or her life on reason and truth. This includes self-reflection, and an openness to new ideas.

The modern conception of the Western liberal university is one which promotes the formulation of such qualities within it's students. It is a proving ground for their intelligence, and serves to develop their ability to reason, relate, and understand, not only themselves, but their ancestors and the rest of society. This is done through the utilization of all knowledge: science, art, social science, and the humanities, all combine to form a maelstrom of reason and intelligence for the individual. While each person leaves the university with different outlooks, they all share the ability to think and reason; they are enlightened citizens.

Today, however, that hardly seems the full story. Students are produced with pre-fashioned modes of thought, special blinders installed to skew truth to what they see as right and wrong; they seem to have had their sense of reasoning debilitated and their conception of truth warped or obliterated.

The enlightened citizen participates in the realm of public life. However, "it now seems that what died in the sixties is what Quentin Anderson once called 'the associated life' - the notion that an individual life can be redeemed by positive commitment to the public world." (Delbanco 540) The enlightened citizen understands his background, but learns to overcome any of its limitations; he is a part of the human race, not any single exclusionary group. He is devoted to all of humanity, and receives satisfaction from serving it. It is not necessary to be poor or oppressed to be capable of fighting against it; "it was never the oppressed and degraded themselves who led the way, but those who were not oppressed and not degraded but could not bear it that others were." (Arendt 204) The enlightened citizen would not rejoice that he is a poor black Somali, nor feel self-pity that he is a wealthy Anglo-Canadian; simply, he would learn to reason beyond these sour differences among peoples, and become what is today referred to as a 'citizen of the world.' In opposition,

This kind of 'politics' [in academia]... is built on a 'doctrine of separation and difference'; it promotes the satisfactions of feeling victimized; it tends to avoid discussion of responsibility or civic obligation or human connectedness. (540)

As such, it embraces a more self-indulgent, feel-good mentality, a suaving of the emotions, and a dulling of reason. This also brings forth what has been referred to as the "noble lie." The "noble lie," for example, is that either the whites liberated the Americas from the evil natives, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, that Africans are superior to all others because of their greater amounts of melanin in their skin, something some people have claimed to be intelligence producing. Either case is false, or too simplistic.

Even if it were deemed necessary for blacks to adopt a mythic view of their past, elaborating such a myth should not be the task of the university. It is rather politicians and theologians who may be expected to comfort and inspire the people in this way. The university cannot engage in such an undertaking without repudiating its fundamental purpose: the disinterested pursuit of truth. (D'Souza 120)

The enlightened citizen is supposed to be open to new ideas and self-reflection. This runs contrary to political correctness, a movement that tends to stifle both concepts. Openness to new ideas has been sacrificed to a certain extent nowadays in favor of political correctness, a 'party line' that is expected to be regurgitated by most people with little deviation.

... PC has crypto-Maoist roots, and ... is dedicated to a program not unlike that of the unlamented cultural revolution by the People's Republic of China - replacing an "elite" system with a "populist" agenda through egalitarian leveling. (Brustein 527)

PC is used to attempt to adjust past wrongs and boost past victims. PC is an exercise in self-esteem launching on a wider scale than Hitler did for Nazi Germany, but in a much subtler manner. It bypasses reason, and appeals purely to emotion. The movement separates individuals into various groups to be categorized and shuffled; it steals individual identity, masking it beneath layers of group consciousness. Morris Dickstein notes that "what makes PC so paradoxical is that at its core it is an attempt to institutionalize virtue, a way of legislating enlightenment." (Dickstein 544) The point is that enlightenment should be reasoned and discovered, not enforced and imposed; PC thus violates the Enlightenment's emphasis on personal choice.

PC also stifles the imagination; unbridled wit and creativity are frowned upon or shunned.

Assuming the worst about sexism, colonialism, and patriarchy, such criticism tends to freeze all pleasure in the playfulness, irreverence, and irresponsibility of the imagination. It becomes blind and deaf to the possible truth in ideas and attitudes that do not satisfy contemporary standards of decency... [it] is hostile to the imagination. (Goodheart 553)

Scholarly achievement by merit has been replaced by affirmative action. The boosting of those "victimized" has become so commonplace that it is suspected of working most often in places where it has not been implemented at all. An attempt made to make up for the effects of past racism serves to create much more racism currently. A black female professor will get much less respect simply for the fact that she is black and a woman; it doesn't matter if she is the most brilliant researcher in her field, because it is now assumed that she was simply given the post as a token gift to her race and sex. Even where merit is still being judged, it is hardly suspected of having done so. Merit is another base concept for the enlightened individual, someone who is independent, and earns what she receives.

In examining the student movements of the 60's, Hanna Arendt acknowledges that the current movements are indeed based on morals rather than reason; however, she does not feel that such behavior is bad. She notes that the movement has brought back to our era the notion of 'public happiness'; these generations discovered that it was fun to act in the public sphere, and fulfilling to take part in public life. (Arendt 203) Thus, she sees such movements as enlightening the students far better than they would have been in the past. However, she does express concern that the positive factors of the movement are "already in [the] process of being dissolved, eaten away by fanaticism, ideologies, and a destructiveness that often borders on the criminal...". (203-4)

Jurgen Habermas finds that the enlightenment ideals of reason are indeed a product of university education. Crass politicization of the university causes a disintegration of such ideals, and he proposes that a balance should be struck between democratization and depoliticization.

The Goals and Meaning of the University

"The idea of liberal education was understood in [the 1950's] ... as a kind of inoculation against barbarism." (Delbanco 537) Following two destructive world wars, the West was keen on educating its youth in Enlightenment virtues, with the hopes that blind ideological conflicts and monstrous power struggles would be averted in the future. But this general consensus fell apart in the sixties, and, as the University of Pennsylvania's Professor Alan Kors has remarked, "For the first time in history, the barbarians are running the place." (D'Souza 257) From there, all the traditional facets of the university were opened to debate, including change or demolition. This kind of debunking of authority, and democratization, in such a traditionally hierarchical institution as the university, is supported by both Habermas and Arendt.

Habermas begins in his essay on "the University in a Democracy" by pointing out that the university was designed to equip its graduates

with a minimum of qualifications in the are of extrafunctional abilities... those attributes and attitudes relevant to the pursuit of a professional career that are not contained per se in professional knowledge and skills. (Habermas 2)

Thus is the university said to have the responsibility of developing graduates' characters to suit their professions as well as to "transmit, interpret, and develop the cultural tradition of the society." (2) Habermas qualifies these responsibilities with another, that of political education. The university, he claims, is meant to develop the political consciousness of its graduates, in order that they may be functional and productive in their democratic society.

He sees democratization as a potentially good trend for the university:

the rationalization of a choice in a medium of unconstrained discussion...the principle of public discourse is supposed to eliminate all force other than that of the better argument. (7)

Arendt, in her piece, relates simply that the university makes "it possible for young people over a number of years to stand outside all social groups and obligations, to be totally free." As such the university fosters reflection on society and itself, and conforms to a certain extent to the ideals of the Enlightenment.


The liberal university is a distinctive and fragile institution. It is not an all-purpose instrument for social change. Its function is indeed to serve the larger society which supports and sustains it, yet it does not best do this when it makes itself indistinguishable from the helter-skelter of pressure politics... (D'Souza 257)

Both Habermas and Arendt, while embracing democratization, are wary of politicization. Habermas relates that "Politics does not belong at the university except as the object of a science that itself proceeds according to an unpolitical method." (6) This is not to say that he is against current politics becoming a part of the "internal university community;" in fact, he encourages this, as long as they can be made "in such a way that they can be made dependent on a consensus arrived at through discussion free from domination." (6) Arendt, as well, considers much of the politicization of campuses to be "dangerous nonsense" and to be "perverting their [the universities'] function." (201)

The current academic movements are fueled by the "writers and young teachers of the 1960's [who] were offended by moderation." (Delbanco 538) They missed "the moral urgencies of the thirties and forties... obscenities of Nazism on the right, and Stalinism on the left." (538) This generation was raised in a political malaise of moderation and dull prosperity, as was our current generation of students. Politicization was perhaps as much for emotional and moral reasons as it was simply for the excitement and interest, the thrill of extremes. Such experimentation is healthy for the enlightened individual, but a committal to romantic notions of well-proven atrocities is an absolute rebuttal of reason.

Third World Ideology

...[Edward Said said that] an uncritical examination of non-Western cultures, in order to favorably contrast them with the West, ends up as a new form of cultural imperialism, in which Western intellectuals project their own domestic prejudices onto faraway countries, distorting them beyond recognition to serve political ends. (D'Souza 254)

Hanna Arendt argues that the third world is "an ideology or an illusion." (209) She makes the case that the conception of underdevelopment only applies when one looks from a Western perspective, and that the resulting assertion of underdevelopment as a "crucial common denominator" among countries in simply a prejudice. (210) Such distinctions and sweeping generalizations are leftovers from the imperialists, who classified all of their colonies in the same breath as 'subject races'. This classification of them, whether to elevate them or to oppress them, shows poor method and flawed reason.

The study of non-Western culture has increased dramatically in the last twenty to thirty years, and has led to the establishment of entire courses of study based on development. Unfortunately, such programs inevitably tend to fall into the trap of what Paul Hollander calls "the search for a peasant paradise abroad." (D'Souza 304) He claims that Western intellectuals tend to project their own alienations with the West onto other nations, and thus experience them in that manner; they are viewed through skewed lenses. Proper reason and truth is disregarded in favor of simplistic ideology and emotional outpouring.

Elitism and the University

"This process reproduced the mentality of a university-trained professional stratum for which society still intended a relatively uniform status. Transcending differences of faculty and profession, this mentality ensured the homogeneity of the university-trained elite..." (Habermas 3)

The question posed is whether or not the university is necessarily elitist, and if it should it be so. In the US following W.W.II, the plan was "to educate the ruling-class of the world's ruling nation in such a way that would nurture its ambition, self-discipline, and a particular strain of democratic noblesse oblige." (Delbanco 537) According to Habermas, "transcending differences of faculty and profession, this mentality ensured the homogeneity of the university-trained elite..." (Habermas 3)

In an era which has seen the decline of this rulership, would more populist outlooks be appropriate as the leadership of the world stage is lost, and more cooperation is required with the rest of the globe? As the doors are opened to more and more people to attend university, it would seem that the elitist hold on education is being broken. However, the Enlightened citizen has always been one of a select few, one who could understand and reason, and rise above the masses. It is sad, but true, that the Enlightenment is basically elitist, in that it can only be achieved by a select few. If the doors to education had been opened years earlier, perhaps the chances of producing enlightened citizens from a wider spectrum would have been possible, but nowadays it would seem that even fewer enlightened beings are being produced than ever before. This is not to discredit opening the universities, merely to point out that the change in caliber and diversity requires a significant increase in education that is simply not being provided.


"... if the constitutional norm that guarantees freedom of instruction and research should ever be violated again, the first resistance should come from the universities themselves, with professors and students side by side." (Habermas 10)

Arendt as well sees the liberal university as something worth preserving. She remarks that the destruction of the universities would mean the end of revolutionary movement and action, as these directly spring from the freedom provided by university; she continues by noting that the educational and research system would adapt and continue, leaving the movements behind. Students who attempt to deconstruct or destroy the university "have been well on their way to sawing off the branch they have been sitting on." (208)

Jurgen Habermas and Hanna Arendt differ in many of their views on the concept of the liberal university. Such differences underlie, however, a greater commitment to the grand conception of the liberal university as the producer of an enlightened citizenry.

I believe, as John Henry Newman writes in The Idea of a University, that the goal of liberal learning is "true enlargement of mind which is the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence." This knowledge of ourselves, and of the geographic and intellectual universe which we inhabit, is ultimately what liberates and prepares us for a rich and full life as members of society. The term liberal derives from the term liberalis, which refers to the free person, as distinguished from the slave. It is in liberal education, properly devised and understood, that minorities and indeed all students will find the means for their true and permanent emancipation. (23)

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. "Thoughts on Politics and Revolution." Crises of the Republic . San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972. 201-33.
Brustein, Robert. "Dumbocracy in America." Partisan Review . Vol. 60, Number 4, Fall 1993. 526-34.
Delbanco, Andrew. "The Politics of Seperatism." Partisan Review . Vol. 60, Number 4, Fall 1993. 534-42.
Dickstein, Morris. "Correcting PC." Partisan Review . Vol. 60, Number 4, Fall 1993. 542-9.
D'Souza, Dinesh. Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. New York: The Free Press, 1991.
Goodheart, Eugene. "PC or Not PC." Partisan Review . Vol. 60, Number 4, Fall 1993. 550-6.
Habermas, Jurgen. "The University in a Democracy - Democratization of the University." Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics . London: Beacon Press, 1970. 1-12.

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