In Defence of L’Ancien Regime
| Nicolai Foss |
It is sometimes instructive to reflect on the massive changes that the University has undergone since the Second World War. On the negative side, the advent of the mass university has very likely led to a dumbing down of the curriculum in many disciplines and a fall in the requirements for entry. It has paved the way for a powerful bureaucratic caste, and the “bureaucrat-professor” who is in the academic industry because of his specialized management skill, and not because of his wish to engage in scholarly pursuits and the training of the most intelligent persons in a given society. On the benefit side, many more people can now share in science and general learning, very likely contributing to economic growth.
As the universities are broadly speaking financed by the taxpayer, politicians and their henchmen in the ministeries of education, science, technology, etc. happily undertake to steer the universities. Thus, inspired by as-yet-largely-unvalidated claims of a general shift in the “mode of knowledge production,” university bureaucrats, managers, and politicians are calling for increased “inter-disciplinarity” and “relevance,” notably in the form of mobilizing multiple disciplines in the context of concrete problem-solving in “business” (the so-called “Mode II”). In the context of business schools, it seems almost de rigeur in certain quarters to deem business schools largely “irrelevant” (meanwhile, business happily employs the products of business schools, paying MBA and other graduates hefty salaries, presumably motivated by the high usefulness, indeed, “relevance,” of these graduates).
Contrast all this with universities not so many decades back. There are not many who stand up on behalf of l’ancien regime of universities. But here are two who do, one implicitly and the other one (much) more explicitly.
The first contribution is by UCLA emeritus econ professor William R Allen, “A Life among the Econ, Particularly at UCLA.” Allen describes the evolution of the economics department of UCLA, particularly in the less-than-two decades (beginning of 1960s to mid-1970s) where Armen Alchian dominated the department. What largely made the department successful was the insistence on the rigorous application of fundamentally simple, yet fundamental, price theory to problems of fundamental societal relevance. (He indicates that this orientation has now disappeared). The paper is, among many other things, a strong argument that “relevance” is nothing new and certainly does not presuppose interdisciplinarity.
The other paper is by University of Stuttgart math professor Klaus W. Roggenkamp, “The Humboldtian Ideas and Today’s Universities.” The paper is a wholesale denunciation of the modern university with its egalitarianism and low standards. It is completely uncompromising and hard core in its defence of the elitist university totally dedicated to basic research. And the paper ends by pointing out the extremely relevant uses of “clearly inapplicable” fundamental research in pure mathematics. A necessary antidote and a delightful read!