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  • The End of the Modern Academy:At the University of Chicago, for Example
  • Richard A. Shweder (bio)


The title of this essay is meant to suggest a particular understanding of the mission or end of the modern academy as exemplified by certain ideals associated in the minds of many academics around the world with the University of Chicago. The title is also meant to signal and raise concerns about contemporary threats to that mission, even at the University of Chicago itself. Examined in the essay are three core values of the modern academy. Are they foolish ideals? Have they become postmodern antiques?

  • Ideal #1: "Research done primarily in anticipation of profit is incompatible with the aims of the university."

  • Ideal #2: "The basic principles of the university include complete freedom of research and the unrestricted dissemination of information."

  • Ideal #3: "There must be no consideration of sex, ethnic or national characteristics, or political or religious beliefs or affiliations in any decision regarding appointment, promotion, or reappointment at any level of the academic staff." [End Page 695]


I entered graduate school over 50 years ago. I was at Harvard. In retrospect I realize that back then something pretty remarkable was happening at the institution of higher learning where I would ultimately become a faculty member a few years later. In 1967 Edward Levi, the president of the University of Chicago (Levi later became the attorney general of the United States), told the Citizen's Board of the University of Chicago that it is not the role of the university to directly respond to the needs of the broader worlds of politics and commerce or to be popular with the general public, and that the true mission of an academic institution is intellectual, not moral. He told them that the university does not exist to develop inventions for industry, or to train technicians for society, or to counter the injustices of the world. The central purpose of the university, Levi avowed, the main reason for its existence, is "improving the stock of ordered knowledge and rational judgment" (Levi 2007).

University presidents in the United States no longer speak that way, at least not when they talk to citizens' boards or potential non-academic patrons. Many of them have concluded that Levi's vision of the academy is the conjuring of an image of a so-called ivory tower that is both unaffordable and impractical; and they have more or less opened the gates of the academy to diverse interest groups with political, moral, and commercial missions of their own. Whether or not the ivory tower metaphor is apt, Levi was describing what one might call the modern conception of the academy. As far as I know, the enrichment concept in the motto of the University of Chicago ("Let knowledge grow, so life may be enriched") was never meant to imply "go to college so that you can get rich," or "go to college so you can save the world"—nor was the adage meant to imply that the aim of the university was to engage in beneficent social engineering, or human rights activism, or identity politics. Nevertheless, those motives are increasingly part of a contemporary postmodern multiverse discourse used to justify public and private support for the academy, [End Page 696] as many universities strive to become consulting agencies of sorts, setting up "urban labs" or "innovation institutes" to collaborate with nonacademic "change agents" (for example, politicians, entrepreneurs, and nongovernmental organizations) and targeting their fundraising efforts (and even their mission statements) to projected practical advances in the production of energy, school reform, environmental protection, and health enhancing discoveries and inventions in microbiology and molecular engineering.

Edward Levi's modern conception of the academy is therefore not a description of the contemporary academy, which in various ways—including the three I discuss in this essay—has traded its modern soul for a soul of a different kind, one that is sometimes postmodern, sometimes premodern, and sometimes both. Instead, Levi's ivory tower should be viewed as an imagined venerated academy associated with a particular set of intellectual ideals...


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