The Failure of the University

"The Failure of the University," Daedalus, Vol. 103, No. 4, American Education: Toward an Uncertain Future, Volume I (Fall, 1974), pp. 58-66.


Tocqueville, democracy’s great friend and admirer, reminds us in this passage of the Platonic tripartite division of the soul?desire, spiritedness, and reason. Accord ing to that understanding of human psychology, each of these parts provides its specific motivation to action and has its own proper end. Desire seeks preserva tion and comfort; spiritedness, honor, particularly in politics; and reason, knowledge for its own sake, or the contemplation of being. The educated man is the one in whom each of these three elements has developed properly and fully and in whom they are most harmoniously balanced, particularly with respect to their self-evident order of rank. Now in Tocqueville’s analysis, as in Plato’s, different regimes tend to encourage the flourishing of one part of the soul at the expense of the others. They do so by giving power to men whose dominant motive derives from one of those parts and who by their authoritative position determine public education and the respectable objects of aspiration. The character of public life thus established rein forces, in turn, the tendencies of the citizens on whom the regime is based. A world is constituted with horizons that exclude or distort the other alternatives in such a way that they no longer come to sight as real alternatives. Higher education, to the extent that its intention is to cultivate man simply and not to make the man suitable to this time or place, must counterpoise the prevailing intellectual vice of the regime and preserve what it tends to neglect.

Democracy, or the egalitarian regime, must, according to Tocqueville, perforce have utility as its primary motive: it is founded on the rule of all, and the vital desires and the fear of death are shared by all?as opposed to the desires for glory and pure knowledge which are rare. This devotion to utility is particularly true of modern democracies, the theory of which was precisely to encourage the self regarding passions as a sure means to political consensus. Disinterested love of the truth is particularly threatened in democracy. The motives of honor and glory which usually characterize aristocracy are not in themselves any more akin to the love of truth than is utility, but they free men from the concern for preservation and hence from the necessary attachment to a mercenary use of the mind. Aristocrats are more inclined to admire?perhaps in a frivolous way, but one which can be used to the profit of the theoretical?beautiful and useless things. A Pascal is, therefore, more a product of such a society and more likely to find a home within it. Thus, in addition to the other reasons adduced, the intellectual life in a democracy is profoundly in fluenced by the absence of a truly leisured class which would patronize and protect it from the demands of the market.