The University of Chicago, founded in 1892 by John D. Rockefeller, long had the reputation of being one of the most serious undergraduate colleges in the country. Students who applied to Chicago knew about its socially inhospitable reputation. What other university would tear down its football stadium to make way for a new library? If students nevertheless chose Chicago, they did so because what they wanted most from college was not recreation but education. The core curriculum put into place in the 1930s by Robert Maynard Hutchins, president and then chancellor of the university, was among the most rigorous “Great Books” programs in the country. “The result,” as the sociologist Edward Shils observed in a memoir about Hutchins, “was an atmosphere of extraordinary exhilaration among students and teachers… . The students responded to this mode of teaching … with the enthusiasm which comes from the sense of doing something of intrinsic importance.”

Readers will note that we use the past tense. In this relativistic age, when the very idea of “intrinsic importance” is widely ridiculed, it is hardly surprising that serious attention to the liberal arts should be an early casualty of fashion. And so it has been at the University of Chicago. This is not news. The quality and tenor of education at Chicago have been declining for years. But word of these developments seems finally to have penetrated the sanctum of The New York Times. Like the man who chanced upon an elephant for the first time and then rushed about to disseminate news of his extraordinary discovery, the Times last December 28 ran a front page article informing its readers that “Winds of Academic Change Rustle University of Chicago.” Imagine! The Times reported that “with colleges today increasingly viewed as employment credentialing stations, students as customers and learning for its own sake as a quaint idea whose time has passed, the University of Chicago finds itself a victim of its own high-mindedness and in a painful identity crisis.”

So what else is new? One of the main issues currently confronting the University of Chicago is the dilution of its required core curriculum from twenty-one required courses down to fifteen or eighteen, depending on which revisionist wins out. But it was not so long ago that virtually the entire course of undergraduate study at the University of Chicago was mapped out ahead of time for its students. As a friend of ours who attended the university in its heyday recalled after reading the article in the Times: “When someone asked Hutchins why there weren’t electives for undergraduates at the University of Chicago, he patiently explained that if we knew enough to determine what we should be taught, we shouldn’t be students.”

In fact, the same things are happening— and have been happening for some time— to the University of Chicago as have happened to liberal arts education elsewhere in the country. At the top, there is a crisis of leadership, well exemplified by a statement, quoted in the Times, made by Hugo F. Sonnenschein, the University of Chicago’s current president. “Chicago has a special role and responsibility because it has a reputation as embodying what a great university should be. But the commodification and marketing of higher education are unmistakable today, and we can’t jolly dance along and not pay attention to them.” Once upon a time, of course, one would look to the president of a distinguished university to provide intellectual leadership—that is, to resist pressures to trivialize and cheapen the integrity of the university’s educational offerings and jolly well dance to a different drummer.

Higher education cannot be a popularity contest without compromising its very essence: to strive for the best. When top university administrators start using words like “commodification” and “marketing,” the game is up. They might as well be in the business of selling widgets. Accordingly, as part of its effort to increase the university’s “market share,” administrators plan to increase the undergraduate enrollment by some 35 percent, to 4,500 students. Never mind that the University of Chicago has trouble attracting enough qualified students to fill the places currently available. The Times article quoted several observations by Michael C. Behnke, a new vice president “hired to improve marketing and recruitment.” (He is also described as “the vice-president in charge of enrollment.”) “I don’t know how many students we can attract if we go after those who only seek the life of the mind,” Mr. Behnke said. “Kids aren’t sure they can lead a balanced life here. My job is to convince them that they are not joining a monastery.” He added later: “We are in a culture of choice, of doing your own thing.” Why then have any requirements at all? Doubtless the university’s students—we mean its “customers,” its “consumers”—would prefer a diet of continual entertainment (what the Times called “expanding its recreation and service areas”). Why not give them what they want? After all, they are paying for it.

The quoted statements from Chicago’s new vice president for enrollment exemplify what happens when commercial concerns trump education principles. But this isn’t the only thing wrong with Chicago today. Like many other institutions, its crisis of leadership and its wholesale pandering to commercial pressures are supplemented by an ideologically driven intellectual frivolity. Hence even at the University of Chicago, supposedly a bastion of tradition, we find that one can major in such pseudo-disciplines as “media/cinema studies” and “gender studies.” There is even a new Center for Gender Studies whose director, mirabile dictu, was quoted as saying she supported cutting the core curriculum further so that students had more time for “new fields of inquiry” like … well, like gender studies. We tend to feel about academic disciplines with the word “studies” in their titles the way that George Orwell said he felt about saints: that they should be considered guilty until proven innocent. With “gender studies” the presumption is not even necessary, since it has consistently proven itself to be little more than a haven for radical feminist claptrap.

It is difficult not to feel a special sadness about what is happening at the University of Chicago. For although it has long since ceased being the bastion of traditional rigor its enthusiasts like to remember, it has until recently done a better job than many institutions at resisting the philistine and ideological attacks that have undermined many educational institutions. We deeply sympathize, therefore, with Ken White, a twenty-one-year-old, fourth-year student at the university who lamented: “This is one of the very last places that has a rigorous curriculum. It’s a test case. If you lose Chicago, I don’t know what you’ll have left.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 6, on page 1
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