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Rethinking the Future of the University

David Lyle Jeffrey
Dominic Manganiello

Part III. Where are we going?

The future of the university: From postmodern to transmodern

Paul C. Vitz

Texte intégral


1We begin by surveying the situation of the university today, especially the university world in the United States with which I am most familiar. (Of course, there are strong similarities between universities in the U.S. and those in Canada and Western Europe.) Let us call this the “modern university” as it is the university with which we are all so familiar.

2Obviously, this modern university is quite different from the medieval university, or the university of the eighteenth century. For example, today’s university is primarily supported by the federal and local state, as well as tax revenues, and is an integral part of the general economy. Even in the United States, where a significant minority of major universities are called “private,” the same situation holds. Private universities receive very substantial support in the form of research grants, student-aid and so forth from federal and state governments, not to mention tax-free donations that comes from individuals, foundations and businesses. My own university—NYU, a private university—spends much effort making certain that it gets its share of government money and that it meets government requirements. In short, the modern university is part of a seamless bureaucratic web centred for us Americans in our state capitals, but especially in Washington, D.C.

3In contrast, the premodern university, for example, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was dramatically smaller, even relative to its society. And it was largely disconnected from many of the major political and economic forces of the times. It tended to specialize in the preparation of clergy and in the education of a small social and academic elite. In the nineteenth century what we now know as “the university” came into being in a big way. In the U.S., the mid-nineteenth century establishment of land-grant universities in different states was a major expression of modernism; and countless other state institutions of higher learning have since been set up—particularly in the twentieth century.

4By the term “modern” we mean what most have meant—roughly the past 250 years—and the ideas produced during this period. For our purposes, the modern begins around the middle of the eighteenth century, with the French Enlightenment. Key events in this period have been the French and American Revolutions, the rise of modern science and technology, the industrial economy and the move from a rural to an urban population, e.g., the modern city. The rise of the modern state-supported university, beginning in Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century, drew on modern ideas, and on the continuing development of modernism in general. This period has been one of mass intellectual movements such as democracy, Communism and Fascism. Key ideas have been liberty, egalitarianism, rationalism, science and objective knowledge, and especially progress.


5But as we all know, the modern period is beginning to end, and something known as “postmodern” is widely understood to be under way. If by modern is meant the period starting around 250 years ago, although somewhat later in the universities, by postmodern we will mean tire major intellectual changes in roughly the last 30 to 50 years. The interesting thing about postmodernism is that it is a natural extension of modern ideas, but this extension has typically been fuelled by hostility to the more basic ideas from which it springs. Postmodernism, therefore, is the dissolving of modern certainties using modern logic itself. For this reason postmodernism is really a form of late modernism, or what I call “morbid” modernism.

6Nietzsche was the first thinker to lay the groundwork for postmodernism, and today’s postmodern theorists include in philosophy such figures as Richard Rorty, who has claimed more or less that “truth is what your colleagues will let you get away with saying.” In literary studies, we have deconstructionists such as Derrida, Stanley Fish and many others. Postmodernism is rejecting such familiar concepts as the enthusiasm for reason (which originated in the Enlightenment), the belief in the objectivity of science and the belief that there is some discoverable and more or less fixed meaning to be found in any written text. The result is our familiar contemporary intellectual attitude of relativism with respect to both truth and morality. In the arts, it is the boringly familiar attitude of the avant-garde now in its postmodern form of ironic distance and nihilism. All of this, of course, fits in with contemporary political opinions, with their emphasis on plurality, cultural relativity and consumer economy, with its message of anything goes, if you like it—and can afford it.

7The primary factor affecting the university as we move into the postmodern period will, I believe, be what can be called “the withering of the modern state.” We have already noted that the modern university is financially dependent upon the state and thoroughly integrated into the network of institutions that surround it. Thus, any long-term systematic contraction of today’s welfare state means a similar contraction for the modern university. Very briefly, I want to make a case that the welfare state, probably the major political expression of modernity, is now entering a long period of dissolution and general lack of support.

8The major liabilities of the modern state have been spelled out by others, but let us review them. First and foremost is the enormous amount of debt and other financial obligations that the state has taken upon itself. It is now clear that further growth of government budgets, at least in any significant sense, is no longer possible. It is hard to see how the amount of debt, even that which is officially recognized much less the large unofficial debt, can ever be paid off. Throughout the Western economies, it is generally acknowledged that maintaining the status quo of welfare benefits is probably the very best that can be hoped for, while most predict a substantial long-term reduction in the financial support of modern government.

9Even if the total amount of money in the federal budget remains roughly constant over the next few decades, it is most unlikely that the proportion going to higher education will remain as large as it has been. In North America and in Europe, demographic pressures based upon an aging population clearly point to increased funds devoted to the needs of the elderly. For example, in the U.S., in the struggle between health costs and education, education is already tending to lose. In Europe, the pressures against education will be even stronger as their very low birth rates shift political power to the elderly.

10The state seems already to have begun the kind of downsizing that started some 20 years ago in the world of corporate business. Reasons for believing this—aside from such obvious things as recent budget cuts—are the following: throughout the developed world, general enthusiasm for the modern state is waning. In the United States, large numbers of Americans see the state with its tax powers, bureaucratic requirements, police agencies and the like, as a serious enemy. Such citizens are found on both the political left and the political right, and are especially common in the heartland and rural areas of America. In other nations, there seems to be less of this generalized fear of the central state and more of a specific secessionist psychology. That is, there is a growing allegiance to racial, ethnic and cultural identity and hostility to the homogenizing modern state that rejects such distinctions. For example, Quebec in Canada is a familiar example of this mentality, and strong and growing secessionist sentiments are found in many other countries.

11Part of this antipathy to the modern state is a long-overdue reaction to the enormous growth of the state during the long period from World War II through the Cold War. And part of this antipathy to the state arises because there are no longer any other nations which seem to be seriously threatening. Therefore the usefulness of the state as a protection against an outside enemy is less convincing. In other words, when outside enemies decrease, inside enemies increase.

12Regardless, throughout the world, state socialist structures are being privatized, reduced in size and occasionally closed down. In many respects the modern university is a socialist structure—a kind of educational monopoly only vaguely responsive to the needs of those that fund it. The downsizing and privatizing of the universities, although taking longer to develop, can be seen as part of this larger worldwide trend.

13Meanwhile, there has been the growth of transnational organizations such as the European Community, GATT and NAFTA. These new international organizations and especially the economic activity that supports them are already beginning to undermine national sovereignty and, in the process, make the modern state less important. The general world view promoted by international business and by the many international contacts of the governing class is making nationalism increasingly a thing of the past. Differences within nations are becoming greater than differences between nations. An example is the widespread growth of particularist psychology. In the United States in a recent high school graduation in northern California separate graduation ceremonies were held for white students, Latino students and black students. It was the minority students who insisted on this procedure. In response to a comment by a white student that “We are all Americans,” one Latino student said: “You may be an American, but I’m not.” For many minority students, the term American means white or Anglo-American. Certainly, throughout the modern states of Europe and North America large-scale immigration has also undermined national identity.


14Besides the decline of the modern state, there are many other reasons why American higher education is in trouble. The most obvious is the enormous cost of college education. One year at a private university in the United States now commonly costs $30,000. This includes tuition, room and board, books and modest living expenses. (I speak from direct experience. We have six children: one graduated from college three years ago and another one last year, one is in college now and three are looking forward to it.) Even so, private universities claim that this figure does not come close to paying the actual costs, and the shortfall is made up by infusions from endowments and various forms of government funding. State universities cost less to the student but the burden falls on the taxpayer—and the total costs of state or public education are even higher than in the private sector due to the intrinsic inefficiencies of government-based systems. In the U.S., the total costs of education at the local, state and federal levels make education our single largest user of tax money—more than any other service by far.

15Perhaps all this cost would be justified if the quality of the education itself were generally understood to be high and getting better. Instead, the opposite is the case: the quality of a college education, at least in the United States, is considered to be mediocre and getting worse. Certain universities have had almost half their courses aimed at what are called “remedial” education. As the budget cuts of the past few years have taken effect, students are complaining justifiably that classes are getting larger and more and more of the teachers are graduate students, often foreign students with serious language difficulties in English. After graduation, students are commonly disillusioned to discover how little a college degree is worth on the job market and how long it takes to pay off their large college loans.

16Meanwhile—at least in the United States—secondary education, having declined for decades, is finally in a real crisis. Another way of putting this is to say that the “farm system”—namely the U.S. public high school system—is in such a sad condition that actual improvement in college education is unlikely in the foreseeable future. The decline in basic reading, writing and math skills has been familiar to American faculty for years. I was recently told by a professor at the Collège de France that the same phenomenon is now true in France, whose high-quality secondary education has long been legendary.

17It has been said, and with a distressing amount of truth, that the American colleges and universities are the most expensive baby-sitting institutions in history. We simply do not know what else to do with our young people, except to send them to college. There certainly does not seem to be any obvious place for them in the economy.

18At another level, we see in the United States the emergence of large numbers of children who are home-schooled—a reasonable estimate is at present one million children. Typically, these children and their families are supported by computer communications and contemporary technology, such as video-based instruction. When interactive television and interactive computer-based learning are more regularly in place, the stage will be set for an end run around much of the existing university system. For example, the chairman of a major department of mathematics recently told me in a private conversation, “Why should we pay professors to teach the same course in Calculus I year after year? A well-done video introduction to calculus, combined with tutorial support, would make it easy to abolish many faculty lines.” Every fall, there are thousands of rather mediocre Introductory Psychology courses offered throughout the country. Most of these classes have hundreds of students in them, and there is almost no interaction with the professor. Far more efficient would be an excellent and well-edited video presentation given by one of the half-dozen best psychology lecturers in the country—combined, of course, with tutorials. Indeed, one of the things becoming clear is that it would no longer be necessary for the student to be physically on the campus. This instruction can take place anywhere a computer can go.

19In the United States, more and more parents worry about the campus environment, in terms of the pressures there that encourage everything from binge drinking to drug use to sexual promiscuity of all kinds. At certain universities, the now unsupervised dormitories have been described as the most corrupt environment to come into existence ever—or at least since ancient Rome. These dorms are one part saloon, one part drug-den, one part brothel and one part vomitorium. Campus life, as a result, has lost most of its former charm—especially for those who pay for it. In fact, universities could emerge to take advantage of the new worldwide communication network—universities that have no physical “campus” at all. Such new universities would be defined not by their expensive ivy-covered walls, but by their efficient use of cyberspace. (One seems to be getting started, called the Western Governors University. See Cushman 1996.) There are, of course, other signs that the university is having a crisis of morale. The professors themselves continue to disengage from teaching and from allegiance to their own university. They see themselves as part of a national or international community of scholars and, much like today’s professional athletes, they are available to the highest bidder and often eager to move. (Perhaps university administrators, like the owners of sports teams, should get together and agree on a “salary cap” for academic stars.) Institutional loyalty among students is also declining as evidenced by the increasing number of students who do not finish their B.A. or who transfer to one or more schools before completing their degree. Even for the better students, their undergraduate college is seen as a kind of “prep school” for later professional or other graduate education. In these graduate programs, students commonly identify with their profession or their career—not the university.

20Another disturbing indicator of the university malaise is the absence of major university leaders. Today’s university presidents are primarily fundraisers, lobbyists and public relations people trying to shore up the institution and put out as many brush fires of bad publicity as they can. Indeed, it is difficult to recruit presidents for universities, and the pressures on presidents can be exemplified by the recent leave of absence taken by the relatively new president of Harvard University—a leave precipitated by the stress of his job.

21Meanwhile, the well-documented politicization of the universities has added a further serious liability. The political-correctness, feminist and pro-gay movements have undermined the objectivity of many scholars and have alienated large numbers of faculty and much of the taxpaying public. Why send your child to a brainwashing college program disguised as education?

22Stepping back and taking something of a historical perspective, we can interpret today’s universities as modern institutions moving into a postmodern period in which traditional supports are withering. We should add that these universities are a form of academic industrialism, created by the same nineteenth-century forces that produced the factory, the modern city, the modern bureaucratic state and many other highly concentrated economic and political entities. In certain respects, modern universities are the last surviving example of the nineteenth-century factory. They are huge assemblages of centralized “red brick” buildings. Besides the cost of faculty and staff, the major budget category is building-maintenance. These academic factories have certain buildings set aside for the workers to live in (student dormitories), other buildings for the factory activity (libraries, classrooms, laboratories) and still others for the managers (administrative offices, faculty offices and housing). These dense, expensive and increasingly inefficient systems are also, as noted, on a collision course with the new decentralizing technology, and it is likely that when this technology is fully in place, the university crisis will become dramatic. Downsizing has been difficult enough for major corporations, but should it hit the universities suddenly, the screams of pain will be deafening—and no doubt articulate. Let us hope the economy can avoid any dramatic crises thus allowing for gradual downsizing to take place.

23In simple language, the prestige, self-confidence and morale of American universities have been in decline for about three decades, probably starting during the student riots in the late 1960s. Throughout this period, however, the massive growth of the same universities in terms of programs and buildings has made them increasingly vulnerable to any serious withdrawal of support. Today’s university community has all the signs of a complex, extremely expensive, redundant and over-developed system waiting for big-time trouble.


24Unfortunately for universities in the U.S., many outstanding intellectuals will be deaf to their problems because so many powerful minds have already left the academic world. This point deserves some development. In the United States, intellectual life in important ways has already moved out of the universities and into “think tanks” or independent institutes that are sometimes nominally in a university but function more or less autonomously. The rapid development of think tanks and similar institutions in the past 30 years has not been recognized as the social and academic revolution that it is.

25A very short representative list of U.S. think tanks includes: the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the Rockford Institute, the Acton Institute, the Discovery Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Brookings Institute, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Hoover Institute, the Institute on Religion and Public Life and on and on.

26The bureaucratization of the university is well known to all those in it: the endless meetings, new forms to fill out, complicated social issues to address—or avoid. All these have greatly reduced the amount of time that can be profitably spent on what really matters to most academics: research, and teaching when the students are motivated and well-prepared. Think tanks finesse all these problems; they have no athletic teams to worry about; no Chemistry I to be staffed; they have no remedial writing courses to create controversy over political correctness—indeed they don’t have students, except for a few interns; they don’t even have much government funding and the problems that generates. Essentially, think tanks provide ideal environments for the life of the mind, without anxieties about academic programs. The closest equivalent to the modern think tank would be the intellectually oriented courts and “salons” of the eighteenth century, typically funded and organized by a wealthy aristocrat.

27What is surprising is how little money it really takes to fund a think tank—in comparison with a university budget. Of course, in the sciences, establishing think tanks is more difficult because of research costs and laboratories, but even so, independent institutes for doing high-level research have been spun off from the normal academic structures on most major university campuses. Perhaps Professor Irving Kristol, formerly at my university, is a good example of the rising appeal of private institutes. Given a choice between his professorship and an appointment at the American Enterprise Institute, he chose the latter—and no doubt wisely.

28In other words, now that the U.S. university no longer provides a reliable place for such major functions as keeping intellectual life alive in a relatively independent form, other institutions have come along to replace it. And one result is the development of a growing intellectual community that no longer has any vested interest in the universities.


29The preceding negative and pessimistic evaluation of the university in its present condition needs to be qualified. Yes, it is true that the postmodern university is in decline. Nevertheless, I see this decline as slow due to the proposed withering of the welfare state, the university’s gradually increasing inefficiency and costs, the gradual increase in critical attitudes about the university in the culture at large and the creeping intellectual and moral confusion that are rife in many disciplines, especially in the humanities. I use the term “withering” to imply the slowness of this change and to imply that there should be time to adapt and respond positively to it. In any case, I believe the postmodern period will be one of the ending of the modern university and of transition to something new.

30This ambiguous new period I call “transmodern.” By that I mean something that transforms modernism, something that transcends it and moves beyond it. In doing this, it certainly does not reject all things modern, and thus it is far from a reactionary vision of the future. Also, I am open to the use of some other term to describe this proposed new period—and new esprit—that is still incubating, but “transmodern” has been reasonably satisfactory.

31The spirit of this transmodern mentality and the culture that I believe is yet to come can be described with various terms. Among them are the following: a spirit of hopefulness; a desire for wisdom; a concern with religious and transcendent and spiritual themes; a rediscovery of the importance of truth, beauty, goodness and harmony; a concern with simplicity and the quest for a mature and balanced understanding of experience. It will not be so much a spirit of new theories or ideologies, but of an integration of existing valid intellectual approaches, including those from the pre-modern tradition, a kind of synthetic mentality, rather than an analytic one.

32What signs are there of this new transmodern mentality? Here I will list examples that I believe illustrate something new and positive on the horizon. There may be other and better examples that you know of, but these are a few that have struck me. Beginning with music, we find the remarkable response to major new composers with spiritual themes—composers who have revived earlier often premodern traditions after being thoroughly enmeshed in modern and postmodern techniques. Here we have the Catholic and Polish Henryk Gorecki. There is the Eastern Orthodox Arvo Part from Estonia. There are two Englishmen: John Tavener, who is Eastern Orthodox, and James MacMillan, a Catholic. Two young composers from Slovakia who are not yet very well known are Daniel Matej and Peter Zagar, both serious Christians—the first Protestant, the second Catholic. In a different vein, we have the American composer John Adams with his minimal and now more complex works that communicate a meditative and spiritual quality of a somewhat Eastern religious kind. The recent composer Terry Riley, a minimalist, also has a definite Eastern religious component.

33Finally, in the music world we observe the great popularity of Gregorian chant—including one Spanish Benedictine album that has sold well over a million copies, and made the CD bestseller list.

34In architecture, we now have a revival of neoclassicism, especially the school of Notre Dame under Dean Thomas Gordon Smith. Other important neoclassical names are Leon Krier and the Belgian architect Maurice Culot. Such a return may at first be called “reactionary,” but any style that remains in continuity with the past must of course return to it for inspiration—for models of beauty and order. We can also assume that the intervening modern period will nonetheless lead to a new or distinctive expression of classical ideals—thus continuing the tradition in an innovative way. A similar revival is well under way in the world of painting, where thousands of artists are now returning to figurative, historical, mythological, Arcadian and other types of painting found in the great tradition preceding modern and postmodern painting. Let’s call it “transmodern art.” Important examples include the Norwegian Odd Nerdrum, the Swede Torgny Lindgren, the Scot Ian Hamilton Finlay, the Englishman Roger Wagner, the Americans David Ligare, Bruno Civitico and Audrey Flack. Sculptors include Frederick Hart and Richard McDermott Miller. Other artists in this movement are John Stuart Ingle, Martha Mayer Erlebacher, James Aponovich. (Institutional support comes from the New York Academy of Art with its conscious revival of figurative and Arcadian painting, and from such journals as American Arts Quarterly and Image. A modest supporter is also the influential New Criterion.)

35The same revival is occurring in poetry and elsewhere in literature. Examples include the poets Fred Feirstein, Dick Allen, Jack Butler, Paul Lake, Lewis Steele and others involved in the recovery of formalism and narrative. With respect to poetry as well as much else in the arts, the university community, dominated by modern and postmodern ideology, is quite out of touch with new developments.

36Closer to home, in the academic world, there are signs not merely of rejection of the postmodern nihilistic dead-end but of a positive recovery of the core of the previous intellectual tradition. This would include the serious critique of Derrida by Alexander Argyros (1991) in A Blessed Rage for Order—and also his positive vision of a new co-operation between art and science. Equally striking is Fredrick Turner’s (1995) significant The Culture of Hope: A New Birth of the Classical Spirit. Turner speaks of the possibility of recovering a new form of the “Great Chain of Being.” He also sounds the subtheme of co-operation between art and science, especially emphasizing recent scientific theories.

37In the general American culture, we see a major sign of the new mentality in William J. Bennett’s (1993) The Book of Virtues—over two million hardcover sales! Speaking of virtue, we note a major renewal of interest in the concept within philosophy with important contributions by Iris Murdoch, P.T. Geach, Philipa Foot, Chaim Perelman and Stanley Hauerwas. Also central to what comes after postmodernism are the contributions of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, especially his After Virtue (1984) and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1989).

38There is also Canada’s Charles Taylor, whose Sources of the Self (1989) and The Ethics of Authenticity (1992) are having major impact. The recent book by James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense (1995), brings together social science and, of all things, the Aristotelian tradition. The rebirth of natural law theory is yet another sign of the new transmodern mentality; some of the key contributors are John Finnis, Robert George and Russell Hittinger.

39In addition, there is the revival in French intellectual circles of what was once called the great “liberal” tradition, and what now might be called “neoconservative.” Here we have such young writers as Philippe Beneton, Alain Besançon, Pierre Manent and others. Although these political philosophers cover many topics, they are focused on traditional disciplines and have been nurtured by such nineteenth-century thinkers as Benjamin Constant and Tocqueville. By contrast, Derrida, Foucault and assorted French postmodernists have been passé in France for quite some years.

40In the previous listing of artists, writers and intellectuals I have, no doubt, left out many people of whom I am unaware.

41Finally, the transmodern note sounded here can be found in the writings of Pope John Paul II. Examples are his bestseller Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994) and his vision of a new civilization of love. The philosophy underlying his approach is a mixture of traditional Thomism and modern Phenomenology. And there are other prominent theologians that fit the transmodern concept. Examples are Hans Urs von Balthasar and Thomas Torrance.

42In short, it is already time not only for conferences on “The Death of Postmodernism” but for others on the birth of this new ideal of hope, of wisdom, of virtue and the good, of beauty and harmony, on the resurrection of classicism and other premodern concepts in the different arts and in the intellectual life itself. Don’t be too surprised if all this comes up like the dawn—very quietly, yet dramatically. It will not be a revolution, it will be a quieter, more thorough transformation. The real question is: Will the universities take the lead in recognizing this major new intellectual mentality? Or will other structures such as the think tanks, Internet communities or even religious institutions lead the way and benefit from this coming transmodern period?



ARGYROS, ALEXANDER. A Blessed Rage for Order: Deconstruction, Evolution, and Chaos. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1991.

BENNETT, WILLIAM J. The Book cf Virtues: A Treasury of the World’s Great Moral Stories. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

CUSHMAN, J.H., JR. “Virtual University Will Offer Authentic Degrees by E-mail.” New York Times, A15, June 25,1996.

JOHN PAUL II. Crossing the Threshold of Hope. New York: Knopf, 1994.

MACINTYRE, ALASDAIR. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984. 2nd edition.

—. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989.

TAYLOR, CHARLES. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

—. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

TURNER, FREDRICK. The Culture of Hope: A New Birth of the Classical Spirit. New York: Free Press, 1995.

WILSON, JAMES Q. The Moral Sense. New York: Free Press, 1995.


Professor of Psychology at New York University and author of numerous studies in the history and psychology of his own discipline, as well as of the public education system in the United States. Among his books are Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship (1977, 1994), Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious (1988) and Modern Art and Modern Science: The Parallel Analysis of Vision (1984)

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 1998

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