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The Journal of Higher Education 74.2 (2003) 231-236

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The Uses of the University, Fifth Edition, by Clark Kerr. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001. 252 pp. $18.95.

One of the hardest things for any scholar of society and its institutions to apprehend is a fundamental shift in his or her society and its institutions while living in their midst. For scholars of higher education that task has been made especially difficult in recent years by the widespread adoption of scientism, especially statistical microstudies, among higher education analysts as the dominant and proper method of study (Keller, 1998). Weberian social analysis is definitely out of vogue.

But 39 years ago, on April 23, 24, and 25, 1963 a 51-year-old labor economist and president of the University of California, Clark Kerr, delivered the Godkin lectures at Harvard and audaciously declared:

Universities in America are at a hinge of history; . . . they are swinging in another direction . . . The university today finds itself in a quite novel position in society. It faces a new role with few precedents to fall back on . . . We are just now perceiving that the university's invisible product, knowledge, may be the most powerful single element in our culture, affecting the rise and fall of professions and even of social classes, of regions, and even of nations. (pp. xi-xii)

The lectures with their breathtaking claims and startlingly candid assertions were rushed into print; and in 1964 students, professors, campus officials, and higher education junkies gulped down The Uses of the University and began to argue about whether leading research universities had covertly evolved into substantially different entities, with new "uses" by society. Radical students at Berkeley charged that the lectures revealed Kerr as an aloof educational "fascist." Berkeley history professor Henry May pronounced Kerr's lectures the "least discreet" remarks ever delivered by an American university president. Others, however, wondered whether Clark Kerr might be the most incisive and clairvoyant analyst of what was happening to the higher reaches of U.S. higher education and its place in the polity.

In many ways Clark Kerr's little book launched the field of higher education studies. One year before Kerr's book came out Stanford psychologist Nevitt Sanford compiled what he regarded as the first comprehensive study of "the American college," lamenting that "social scientists . . . have not been particularly interested in higher education as a field of research" and hoping that "This volume has shown...that higher education is a field of inquiry" (Sanford, 1962, pp. 27, 1009). But Sanford's book focused on student learning and personal [End Page 231] growth, not on the structural changes taking place in colleges and universities, as Kerr's book did. Sure, scholars such as Eric Ashby. Burton Clark, John J. Corson, Seymour Harris, Joseph Katz, T.R. McConnell, and David Riesman had begun studying aspects of higher education prior to 1963, but none had fully sensed the novel place of knowledge in contemporary life and what major alterations the centrality of research and fresh ideas was causing for the most noted universities. Kerr's The Uses of the University argued that research universities, as the chief generators of new knowledge, had suddenly become as vital to society as the national and state governments, the military, the religious sects, and the farms. Clearly, higher education had to be plucked from obscurity and examined by scholars more closely.

What Clark Kerr Uncovered

Kerr's thesis was logically explosive. He contended that new knowledge had gradually become the key propellant in the growth and improvement for a nation's health, military might, economic competitiveness, artistic excellence, social harmony and political stability—a proposition that was subsequently publicized and embellished by social analysts such as Daniel Bell (1966, 1973) and Peter Drucker (1968). This prompted the federal government to invest huge new sums of money in research and development work in industry, new government agencies, and the nation's research-oriented universities. "Intellect has...become an instrument of national purpose, a component of the 'military-industrial complex'" (p. 93).

The rapid expansion of...


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