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University of Montana campus, Missoula

University of Montana campus

As the University of Montana considers its future, some tested ideas about higher education may shed light on the darkened and unmarked path stretching before us. The most tested such idea of all is the humanistic tradition.

The modern university took its bearings from the Italian humanists of the 14th and 15th centuries. They promised to teach students how to write more forcefully, think more clearly, and speak more eloquently. These aims would be achieved by a rich and varied curriculum of courses in the humanities, which included the sciences. Humanists like Petrarch and Pico della Mirandola made no distinction between the humanities and the sciences. These two fields both belonged as partners of equal standing in the humanistic tradition.

Despite the best efforts of succeeding generations of thinkers, the ideas of the Italian humanists never have been surpassed for pedagogical excellence.

John Henry Newman recognized as much in the 1850s by essentially echoing the humanists’ teaching proposals. In "The Idea of a University," justly hailed as the most important book ever published about higher education, he made a crucial distinction between servile and liberal education. Newman assessed servile education as job training and, in today’s parlance, career planning. Liberal education had to do with the formation of taste and judgment for highly principled citizenship, through a program of rigorous study in languages, history, philosophy, mathematics, science, music, art and religion. Servile education would be a meretricious institutional philosophy for any university worthy of the name. He praised liberal education even on practical grounds. There always would be a market for the services of university graduates with the literary and analytical skills that follow from a sound liberal education.

Second only to Newman as a commentator on the legitimate aims and aspirations of the university is Thorstein Veblen, author of "The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men." Writing in the early 20th century, Veblen thought that servile education, in combination with an undue emphasis on sports, had made ruinous inroads into the university’s proper sphere as a corporation for academic excellence. Even worse troubles lay ahead. He could see nothing that might prevent the university’s complete degradation to the condition of an instrument in the hands of elites concerned ultimately about recruiting status quo leaders, as if no other social and economic arrangements but the ones happily in place were to be considered. Such a university would be rife with courses and programs about leadership, but much less attention would be paid to the curricular needs for a democratic community of intelligent, resourceful, responsible and self-governing citizens.

When William Deresiewicz spoke at UM in April 2017 under the auspices of the President’s Lecture Series, he touched on many of the themes dear to Veblen. He appeared here fresh from his successes with "Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life" and a brilliant Harper’s article, “The Neoliberal Arts: How College Sold Its Soul to the Market.” Drawing on the insights of these two publications, he described today’s university culture as a triumph of utilitarianism in service to neoliberal power structures.

In charting the way forward, UM might want to re-examine the humanistic tradition seriously and even to glory in it as our chief reason for being. Instead of emulating every other scared school by cutting the humanities and bending them to the needs of servile education, we could look back to the noble ideals of the humanists and find inspiration in them, thereby standing up proudly for our heritage as the liberal arts flagship institution of higher learning in Montana.

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Richard Drake is the Lucile Speer Research Chair in Politics and History at the University of Montana. 

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