Avoiding the Issues
Russell A. Hunt
[Review of On the Meaning of the University: Essays Upon the Occasion of the Inauguration of David Pierpont Gardner as Tenth President of the University of Utah, ed. Sterling M. McMurrin, as published in CAUT Bulletin 26:4 (September 1977), 14.]
That it is possible to write coherently, concretely and even inspiringly about education has been proved by such educators and writers as Edgar Friedenberg, John Holt, and James Herndon. Were it not for their achievement, it would seem a reasonable inference, on the basis of the overwhelming majority of works about education, that it is an impossible subject to write about even coherently. It is a field which is not only jammed with jargon and cliche, but also bedevilled by a peculiar kind of intellectual cowardice. The primary symptom of this cowardice is a high degree of abstraction and fuzz in written prose. The logic of the syndrome seems to be this: if I say what I want to say in the most abstract possible way, eschewing examples and concrete images and imaginative figures of speech, what I want to say will be assimilated most closely to what the reader wants, or expects, to hear.

Let me make this point clearer with a paragraph drawn from the book under review. In his introductory essay, Sterling M. McMurrin delivers himself of this paragraph:

Whatever else it may be, education quite certainly is basically a function of the culture. It serves the life instincts of the culture; variations and changes in the instinctive effort to strengthen, preserve, and extend itself, to secure its own future through the criticism and perpetuation of established conventions, institutions, ideals, and practices. Its character is determined by the character of the culture variations and changes in the culture yield changes in the substances and processes of education. This does not mean that education is simply a reflection of other elements of the culture, for education is the most powerful instrument for effecting change in the total culture and its social institutions.
What is wrong here, of course, is that the only way to localize the meaning of these sentences would be to substantiate them with specific examples. Without such specific examples (and McMurrin never descends to the level of offering any-nor do any of the contributors to this book) it's simply impossible to disagree with the sentiments, or to know exactly how qualifiers like "whatever else it may be," "basically," "at its roots," "largely," "this does not mean," and "simply" are meant to work or how far they qualify the generality of whatever is being said. How could a reader possibly disagree with a statement like "Its character is determined largely by the character of the culture"? You don't; you aren't intended to. You are intended to nod inattentively, as to a truism.

Nor can you do more. If you do read such a statement with attention and involvement, you supply your own concrete example. Meanwhile, the person reading it at the next carrel supplies his own concrete illustration, which almost certainly has different implications than yours. If each of you is supplying his own specifics, with implications to suit his own prejudices, who needs the book in the first place? It has given you no access to the unique position of the writer or to the way his mind works; it's simply an occasion for you to engage in your own reverie, performing improvisations on the theme of "effecting change in the total culture." For one reader, such a phrase may provoke pictures of blood running in the gutters, for another an upgrading of the grammar spoken on the CBC. It's up to him. He gets no help from the writer.

This matter is not an empty issue of style, some academic notion that the essay is badly written. It's that it's badly thought a far more serious matter.

To a greater or lesser extent, so are all the essays in the book. They are all dogged by the same kind of commitment to abstraction, so that it is commonly almost impossible to see exactly what they are saying. Lord Eric Ashby, for instance, says: "Innovations which might erode this concept (he means "the concept of what we now mean by a university," but leaves it undefined) would cut the university off from its roots; but lack of innovation, failure to adapt the institution to the social climate, would lead to extinction." Surely none of us whatever opinions we might hold on, say, adult night school or contract learning could disagree with that. Or take T. R. McConnell of Berkely: "The problem we face is to subject emotion to reason and to couple intellectual solutions with feeling and commitment." Fine. But what concrete situations might we be talking about? McConnell is not much help: like the other contributors to this volume, he is cursed with the Midas touch of bureaucracy: everything he touches turns to an abstraction.

One of the clearest examples of this process is offered by David Pierpont Gardener, the incoming President of the University of Utah, in whose honour the book was assembled:

Research and evaluation associated with the development of non-traditional and studentinitiated programs, if carefully planned, amply funded, and meaningfully articulated with program development, can measurably contribute to the academic quality of new programs.
Presumably, somewhere far behind the hazy and undefined edge of this stylistic fog bank there is some experience with, say, a program in which a student independently pursued his interest in leftbranching sentences or the reproductive practices of whelks. But you can't tell from that sentence. Not only can't you tell what the experience was, you can't tell how Gardner feels about it. To have a man who habitually writes like this as president of your university would be to immerse yourself in whipped cream.

It is surely not irrelevant to these paralyzing diseases of style that none of the contributors to this book deal directly with, or take any perceptible position on, any of the issues that are most directly confronting our universities these days. The slow expiration of competence in the English language, the evaporation of public (and private) funding for higher education and the concomitant rise in scepticism about the values of traditional scholarship, the increasing numbers of faculty who are finding that collective bargaining is the only way to assure a continued voice in the operations of universities such problems occupy no place in the minds of these hazy speculators. If you want to see problems we faced ten or fifteen years ago turned into abstractions, rush right out and order this book. If you care about the shape higher education is in in 1977, don't bother.