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Tag Archives: Michael Polanyi

Progressivism & Higher Education

 

PhillySoc Occurrences
June 9, 2014

 

The methods with which the Prussian educational administration worked were the most ruthless imaginable, and this system has created the danger that new academic recruits will emerge who no longer uphold the old university traditions, also no longer feel comfortable with them, but resemble instead a certain type of American–that of an American not at a university but at the stock exchange.
Max Weber

 

The New Criterion recently featured a piece by former Philadelphia Society President Steve Hayward that should generate some discussion among us.  In “Conservatives & Higher Ed,” Steve sets out to explore the dearth of conservatives in higher education and understand why intellectual diversity is increasingly scarce in higher education, especially in research universities.  Steve hazards some interesting arguments and some fascinating speculation, some more compelling than other to this reader, who nevertheless admires the act of hazarding.  

So, to add to rather than detract from Steve’s invitation to discussion, I will suggest that we might also consider the increasing alignment between the welfare state and higher education that has gone beyond ideology to structure itself.  As I discuss in a piece I wrote for Independent Review a couple of years ago, higher education is itself increasingly part of the entitlement system of the American welfare state.  (A situation that has certainly become more entrenched with the current Administration’s goal of subsidizing college education for every pot. Perhaps, in Boulder where Hayward has been, they got the memo backwards, pot for every college education?!)  

To explain and understand the decline of liberal education based on foundational principles of truth, toleration, and persuasion, and the loss of conservative influence in higher education “productivity,” we must look not only to the diverging temperaments of radicals, liberals, and conservatives; and not only to the hegemonic ideologies of political correctness and identity politics; but also to the bureaucratic capture of our systems of education from top to bottom.  

I am calling not for conspiracy theory, but for a frank consideration of the fundamental incompatibility of bureaucratic administration and the “old university traditions”.

In his lovely little volume Science, Faith and Society (1946), Michael Polanyi articulated a compelling critique of the way in which governments were compromising scientific, literary, and creative advancement. Polanyi was well aware of the problems of government direction of science from his observation of the Lysenko affair (and personal encounter with Bukharin).  When the British Association for the Advancement of Science set up a division “to give social guidance to the progress of science,” Polanyi was among those who strenuously objected.  Polanyi drew a sharp distinction between the philosophy of freedom and Marxism:

Marxism-Leninism denies the intrinsic creative powers of thought.  Any claim to independence by scientists, scholars or artists must then appear as a plea for self-indulgence.  A dedication to the pursuit of science, wherever it may lead, becomes disloyalty to the power responsible for the public welfare.
Since this power regards itself as the embodiment of historic destiny and as dispenser of history’s promises to mankind, it can acknowledge no superior claims of truth, justice, or morality.  Alternatively, materialistic (or romantic) philosophies, denying any universal claims to the standards of truth, justice or morality, may deprive citizens of any grounds for appealing to these standards and thus endow the government with absolute power (17).

Polanyi, of course, was looking at the worst case scenario, but clearly saw that the centralized administration–and shall we add funding–of science and its institutions, among which our universities must be counted, was creeping well into the ways of supposedly free societies. “We see signs of such an influence even in ordinary well-run Government departments or other large-scale organizations, where administrative superiors allocate research tasks to mature scientists serving under their direction.” (53)

American higher education has fallen, I would hazard to say, less to Marxist ideology which certainly has its most friendly home there than to the principles of Progressive administration run amock.  Woodrow Wilson’s progress from college president to governor to President perhaps to the point.  For this, we must look less to Marxism than to the Prussian antecedents of the modern university and especially to the lessons of the Althoff system, after Friedrich Althoff who was known as “the Bismarck of German universities.”

This was the Althoff who sought to pressure Max Weber’s father, then holding a parliamentary seat for the National Liberal Party, to approve a professorship of political economy, and of whom Weber wrote: “the influence of the Althoff System has had an undoubtedly corrupting effect.”  (The irony of course being that the senior Weber was then participating in deliberations over the “culture budget.”  As Bruce Caldwell has put it, by the 1880s, “Liberalism, never really a force in Germany anyway, was dead.”)

Perhaps the stock exchange method would be preferable to what has now become, in effect, the “old university welfare system” in America, further consolidating its power and influence with a proposed budget line of $34billion for Pell Grants alone?

There is yet much more to understand about the far-reaching tentacles of the welfare state, which reach not merely into the ghettoes of poverty but increasingly into the ghettoes of higher education, where little real  liberal education remains to be found.


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