The Long Shadow of James B. Conant 8

In this radically more heterogeneous environment, the value of the SAT began to be questioned—in 2001 the University of Califor¬nia system announced it was dropping the test from its require¬ments for admission—and the curriculum began to undergo a series of changes. These changes have become visible in the recent em-phasis on multiculturalism (meaning exposure to specifically ethnic perspectives and traditions) and values (the ethical implications of knowledge); in a renewed interest in service (manifested in the emergence of internship and off-campus social service programs) and in the idea of community; in what is called “education for citi¬zenship”; and in a revival of a Deweyite conception of teaching as a collaborative process of learning and inquiry. The vocabulary of “disinterestedness,” “objectivity,” “reason,” and “knowledge,” and talk about things like “the scientific method,” the canon of great books, and “the fact-value distinction,” were replaced, in many fields, by talk about “interpretations” (rather than “facts”), “perspec¬tive” (rather than “objectivity”), and “understanding” (rather than “reason” or “analysis”). An emphasis on universalism and “greatness” was replaced by an emphasis on diversity and difference; the scien¬tistic norms which once prevailed in many of the “soft” disciplines began to be viewed with skepticism; context and contingency were continually emphasized; attention to “objects” gave way to atten¬tion to “representations.” This transformation accompanied the change in the demographics of higher education; it was not caused by that change. For in many ways it was essentially a backlash against the excessive respect for scientistic norms that character¬ized the early cold war university. The transformation also demon¬strates how historically specific the ideals of Conant and his generation of academic leaders, for all their patina of postideologi- cal universality, really were.
People like Conant did have a remarkable confidence in their beliefs; it’s one of the things that make them seem a little remote to most Americans on this side of the cold war. Conant once asked the Harvard librarian to undertake secretly an appraisal of the costs of microfilming the printed record of Western civilization, which he proposed to bury in various places around the country, thus preserv¬ing it for survivors of a nuclear war. The librarian advised that the costs would probably be huge, and Conant dropped the project, having convinced himself that university libraries outside major cities would escape destruction in a nuclear exchange. But he stuck with the idea. “Perhaps the fated task of those of us now alive in this country,” he wrote in Education in a Divided World, in 1948, “is to develop still further our civilization for the benefits of the survivors of World War III in other lands.” He had what seems today an al¬most naive faith in the virtues of the society for which he worked. It does not seem to have crossed his mind that the great works of a civ-ilization that had ended in an act of self-destruction might not be the first thing the survivors of a nuclear holocaust would think it worthwhile to have.

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