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The Cold War and the University: Towards an Intellectual History

The Cold War and the University: Towards an Intellectual History
Edited by André Schiffrin
259 pp, New Press, 1997
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The essays collected in The Cold War and the University take as their theme the effects of the Cold War on academic life and thought in America over five decades. The authors speak from their own experiences, many through autobiographical narrative and personal testimony. They speak, too, from the perspective of their disciplines, clustered in the social sciences-history (David Montgomery and Howard Zinn), political science (Ira Katznelson), anthropology (Laura Nader), sociology (Immanuel Wallerstein)- but also including evolutionary biology (Richard Lewontin) and the earth sciences (Ray Siever), linguistics (Noam Chomsky) and English literature (Richard Ohmann).

Although the volume does not purport to be a comprehensive history or to reach a set of common conclusions, it has a clear thrust. Situated all along the spectrum of the left, its authors share a critical stance toward the academy, a commitment to political engagement, and a belief that the academy cannot and should not stand apart from the urgent problems of the social order. They tend to regard the university as an instrument of the power structures that control the world and one that perpetuates its oppressions and repressions. They believe that universities were complicit in the Cold War and that, while continuing to claim to be places of intellectual freedom, in reality they further a conservative agenda. The ideal university of the authors' vision would serve as a corrective to such evils.

The individuals in academia who stood apart from their universities and opposed the Cold War, the authors believe, shaped the intellectual currents that have carried into today's approaches to scholarship and education, opening up broad areas of study and thought and transforming whole disciplines. The most interesting reflections in The Cold War and the University trace the intellectual history of disciplines and new objects and forms of academic attention. One need not agree with every proffered Cold War explanation to appreciate this introduction to the controversies, crises, and changes in the terrain of intellectual theory and debate that have animated the intellectual history of the academic professions over the last five decades.

The account is more vivid for the personal odysseys the authors describe. Montgomery and Zinn follow the career of the revisionist approach to traditional interpretations and the emergence of new areas of study in the field of history. Nader reconstructs the passionate battles in anthropology, while Katznelson analyzes the shift away from the consensus view in American political science. Wallerstein treats the creation of the new fields of area studies as a distinctively Cold War development and contrasts their origins with those of interdisciplinary fields, such as women's studies and African-American studies, that came into being later. Ohmann describes the transition in literary studies from the New Criticism to critical theory, multiculturalism, and other "isms."

But surveying the current scene, the authors see the gains won by dissidence and dissidents, resistance and revisionists, as under attack. The foe is a resurgent right that many of them think of as having blazed up from the embers of the Cold War. New culture wars are under way. While the authors would say that the ranks of the righteous have swelled, so that the contest is less lopsided than during the height of the Cold War, the soul of the university and the rightful role of the intellectual are again at stake.

LOOSE AND BAGGY MONSTER

The dreaded "Cold War" of the title remains ill-defined throughout the collection. Was it a historical period, a state of mind, a climate of enforced conformity, a system of thought, a security and foreign policy, a domestic political condition, a global conflict and its shadow, or some compound of these? The Cold War for the authors is an entire history; it is as if all that took place in the context of those years, from ideas and attitudes to institutional developments, could be attributed to the superpower rivalry.

And the Cold War is made both a cause and a symptom of a military-government-industrial complex. Richard Lewontin goes so far as to assert that if the Cold War had not existed, it would have had to be invented. He maintains that it allowed the government to intervene, in the face of the American tradition of anti-intervention, to sustain and expand an economy that would otherwise have suffered severe decline after the end of World War II. Citing the need for a vastly heightened defense against the Soviet Union and international communism, the federal government pumped taxpayer dollars into universities and research and training. National security demanded, government officials emphasized, not only superior technology but a better-educated citizenry, wider knowledge of other areas of the world, and more trained experts in crucial fields.

But unless one buys into the view that intellectual activity is essentially controlled by a state and its supporters who make war on intellectual and social freedom while propagating programs that advance their selfish interests, the account of the university on offer here is unsatisfying. The history of the American research university over 50 years cannot be comprehended through a single theme, no matter how significant. The authors ignore vital elements in the growth and transformation of the universities, such as the G.I. Bill, which made college possible for tens of thousands of veterans, and the related faith, which reached its zenith during the 1950s and early 1960s, that educational access and attainment were the keys to strengthening the promise of a democratic society. Nor do they look at the profound consequences of population growth and demographic shifts, the impact of economic recession, or the origins of the civil rights movement. They leave aside as well the internal dynamic of the disciplines of learning and its continuous questioning and re-formation of knowledge. Similarly, they omit much of a longer history extending back well beyond World War II, which would include delineation of the tensions inherent in the American university, with its perennially disputed roles, missions, and relationship to the outside world.

THE HAND THAT FEEDS

In Lewontin's view, despite the overbearing power the government deployed at home during the Cold War, "the greatest direct enemy of the Left in the academy was not a coherent policy of the state, but the opportunism and cowardice of boards of trustees and university administrators" who welcomed in federal funds while failing to defend their institutions' autonomy and their scholars' intellectual freedom. Too many university leaders bent before McCarthyism and its assaults and proved spineless in the matter of loyalty oaths or on the question of offering a home to Marxist scholars. Potentially more insidious was the influx of federal funds for research that was often narrowly targeted, with many regulations attached, and sometimes classified.

An examination of federal funding-its levels, administration, patterns of investment, declared and undeclared conditions and purposes-is central to an understanding of the development of academic research, and the university economy as a whole, over the past decades. But the larger effects of external funding from both government and private sources cannot be simply traced back to the Cold War and its presumed mentality. The system we now have, in which the faculty depend on grants for much of their research and which requires investment on a scale that only the federal government can manage, holds many dangers. This central and contentious issue, however, and the various ways it has been resolved or lived with, are only touched on narrowly in The Cold War and the University.

From the establishment of the National Science Foundation in 1950 to the present, universities have largely accepted a duality or mix of purposes where outside funding is involved, nor has this been thought entirely inappropriate. Basic research has benefited enormously, often in unanticipated ways, and practical applications have flowed from it. By and large the funding system has spurred the vigorous progress in scientific knowledge and capacity that have characterized the last half-century. At the same time, the other, regulatory side of this coin continues to pose a critical challenge to the requisite autonomies of academia.

FREEDOM FROM CONFORMITY

The authors of The Cold War and the University see their political movements-or rather, countermovements-as remaking the academic world to a higher political standard, rather than celebrating genuine academic freedom for all. But then, some at the extreme see all institutions and the hierarchies of knowledge as having ultimately to do with power, all claims to "truth" as a cover for other interests-hence an expression of the political. Taken to a logical conclusion (which most of the good scholars writing in this collection do not do), the mission of the university must necessarily remain political, even if benignly so. In short, the critique of the politicization of the university under Cold War pressures is not a denunciation of the political university as such but of the idea of the autonomous university, which the critics regard as a phantasm, the tool of a conservative agenda hypocritically singing of intellectual liberty and the disinterested pursuit of learning.

In fact, academic freedom is fundamental not only for the individual faculty member, protecting unpopular views from outside interference-or from collegial pressures toward internal conformity-but for the academic institution as a corporate entity, if the university is to create and maintain the space in which individuals can exercise their intellectual and creative freedom. "Political correctness"-the pressure, internal or external, to conform intellectually in the name of an assertedly valuable and predominating truth or cause-has always been the enemy of the academy's goals. Doctrines of political correctness may and have come from those of any political persuasion. Where such doctrines take hold, the persuasion is held out as an overriding end. Thus, it is asserted to be wrong-and indeed it is-for universities to become instruments of outside powers and interests, but right for universities to become advocates and instruments of change or mandated policies that are thought to be beneficent. In the latter case, the university may come to resemble the Republic of Virtue, but its freedom, and that of its faculty and students, has been compromised, subordinated to some presumed higher good outside the scope of the academy's mission.

In the histories yet to be written of the university over the last 50 years, or of postwar intellectual developments, The Cold War and the University will be, as it sets out to be, a source. But it will, I think, have a value somewhat different from that intended by its authors, one that follows, paradoxically, from the limitations imposed by its presentation of so strong and explicit a point of view, so single-minded and enclosed an argument, about the character of the Cold War academy. It will teach the future historian a good deal about the experience, perceptions, and ethos of those critics who were leading actors in the intellectual transformations they describe, about the continuing controversies over the university's and the intellectual's appropriate role in the larger world, and about the recurrent struggles over the uses and abuses of knowledge.

But the future historian will need to ask-because the authors of this collection have not-to what extent the history of the modern university bears the imprint of the Cold War and to what extent other domestic and global developments and relationships, unexplored here, must be understood as central. How may one penetrate the process of intellectual change? The historian will need to ponder whether the values of academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and intellectual integrity emerged strengthened or diminished after the challenges of the Cold War era, and whether the right not to conform has withstood the fragilities of the academic world itself.

  • Hanna Holborn Gray served from 1978 to 1993 as President of the University of Chicago, where she is now Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor of History.
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