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Higher Education Cannot Escape History: Issues for the Twenty-first Century

reviewed by Roger Geiger - 1995

coverTitle: Higher Education Cannot Escape History: Issues for the Twenty-first Century
Author(s): Clark Kerr
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791417085, Pages: 248, Year: 1994
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Higher education cannot escape history, Clark Kerr argues in this collection of essays, because it has become at once more vital to society and permeated by society: "Higher education is now the greatest single source of new ideas, of higher skills, of the spread of culture, of the raising and satisfying of individual aspirations, of the expression of dissent, [and] of the creation of leadership" (p. 231). However, the very importance of higher education has meant that its own internal logic and autonomy have been increasingly confounded by external pressures. The resulting tensions, and the fundamental conflicts they have generated, seem destined to recur into the next century. These essays are organized around four general areas of such tension.

The first of these arises from the international or universal character of much of the knowledge with which universities are concerned and the "nationalization of purpose" (p. 6) imposed on them by their close dependence on nation states. Most students of higher education are well aware of this latter trend--the greater recourse to supposed national interest through manpower training or contributions to economic competitiveness. Kerr, however, underlines the parallel and contradictory development--the growing globalization of knowledge itself. At leading research universities, he estimates, 60 percent of faculty are in fully internationalized fields, where practitioners everywhere largely know the same things and maintain close intercommunication via journals, conferences, and now e-mail. Recent developments such as the end of the Cold War and the increasing migration of graduate students seem likely to accelerate this phenomenon. Thus, the prospect arises that perhaps universities can best serve their nations not by seeking vainly to covet valuable knowledge, but by being fully plugged in to the world of learning.

In the second section Kerr attempts to balance the conflicting claims of heritage, equality, and meritocracy. For so venerable an institution as the university, he somewhat grudgingly concludes, heritage deserves to be respected. Often new purposes can be achieved more readily through new institutions than by overhauling traditional ones. In an age of prevailing egalitarianism, competing notions of equality create a conceptual and political quicksand. Kerr does not foresee the running battle over group versus individual rights being settled anytime soon, but he unequivocally endorses the path of optimizing individual life chances, if need be through compensatory assistance. He is more sanguine in considering those institutions, like the leading universities and colleges, that depend on meritocratic processes. Although they have suffered a few blows and more numerous indignities, their contribution to advanced knowledge has proved too vital to be compromised.

Kerr next defends the importance of differentiation of functions in systems of higher education--a crucial matter for those systems that lack differentiation or have sought to diminish it. Of particular interest is his account of the origins of the 1960 University of California Master Plan. Although this tripartite division has now become a model of wise planning, it was born as a negotiated treaty among the constituent parts of higher education in the state.

On the fourth major topic, the ethics of the academic profession, Kerr is the most pessimistic. He sees the great autonomy granted to faculty members decreasingly joined with an inner sense of responsibility toward colleagues, students, institutions, or even subjects. Somewhat wistfully he states the desirability of an academic code of ethics, but recognizes the weight of countervailing external forces, from the lure of disciplinary advancement to the blandishments of ideologies.

The most remarkable feature of these essays is the magnitude or generality of the issues addressed. These are the "Big Questions" that frequently underlie the more specific, quotidian concerns of higher education. And they are considered from a global perspective that encompasses most of the developed and some of the developing world. In fact, many of Kerr's arguments are derived from comparison of higher education systems. Most readers will widen their horizons and encounter fresh insights from this panoramic view. Some may label Kerr's ultimate positions traditional, but they represent nevertheless a fair-minded traditionalism, closely examined and cognizant of other perspectives. Indeed, Kerr's balanced judgments of higher education's recent past give another meaning to the book's title: The history that higher education cannot escape offers guidance that ought not be ignored.


ROGER GEIGER is professor of higher education, Pennsylvania State University, and editor of the History of Higher Education Annual. He is the author of a two-volume history of American research universities in the twentieth century: To Advance Knowledge: The Growth of American Research Universities, 1900-1940 (Oxford University Press, 1986) and Research and Relevant Knowledge: American Research Universities since World War H (Oxford University Press, 1993).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 97 Number 2, 1995, p. 334-335
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1442, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 1:25:06 AM

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