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By Bruce Wilshire
SUNY Press, 1990, 312 pages, $29.50

This book is described on the fly-leaf as "a liberal response to Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind." Bruce Wilshire believes that the modern American university has morally defaulted because "academic professionalism, specialism, and careerism have taken precedence over teaching, and the education and development of both professors and students has been undermined." The large research university can be seen to share the very same ideals of professionalism that are common to modern culture as a whole, he states. In today's university "what Max Weber feared has pretty well come true: a race of highly trained barbarians is produced, 'specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart.'"

Wilshire starts with an account of his bewilderment upon first meeting of his 150 undergraduates in a class on "Current Moral and Social Issues." Bemused by every aspect of the situation, he wonders: What is the relationship between what he knows and what the students are interested in? What are the students supposed to learn? How are they supposed to react? Deeply dismayed by what he takes to be the orthodox university responses to these questions, he looks at how the "moral collapse" of the traditional mentor- learner relationship has come about, and ventures to outline a wiser and more humane alternative.

Wilshire believes that the secular university, when it emerged in America at the close of the nineteenth century, endorsed and institutionalized a Cartesian disjunction between mind and body, the individual and the world (both physical and social). Moreover, out of admiration for the achievements of seventeenth century physics, it concluded that real "knowledge" could only be attained through specialized analytical methods applied to rigorously delimited data. This was especially true of the "social sciences" where, for example, economics was separated from politics, psychology from philosophy, etc.

As a result, the faculty members of the modern university are increasingly committed to their own disciplines and have little to say to, and little interest in learning from, faculty members in other "fields." They vigorously defend their profession from the occasional individual disposed to cross departmental boundaries. Still worse, their departments — especially those in the sciences and social sciences — abide by a Cartesian concept of knowledge that rules out all "emotive" concerns from university discourse. What remains, he writes, is "an extraordinarily emaciated version of Apollonian reason."

Wilshire presents a number of practical "piecemeal" measures as first steps toward "reorganizing the university": a substantial percentage of the faculty (one-third to two-thirds) should be hired and retained for their success as teachers — not researchers or writers; liberal arts should be taught in liberal arts colleges small enough to promote genuinely human relations among and between teachers and students, but large enough to include "a wide variety of temperaments, career plans, and ethnic backgrounds"; greater emphasis should be placed on the arts to help members of the faculty "reclaim what Wordsworth called the feeling intellect"; courses should be interdisciplinary; and a "think tank" should be set up charged with finding "a common language" and a "shared vocabulary" for the modern, post-Cartesian university.

Copyright 1992 by Scott London. All rights reserved.