The Academic Revolution, by Christopher Jencks and David Riesman

October 1, 1968

The Academic Revolution, by Christopher Jencks and David Riesman. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1968. 580 pp. [$10.00]. 

The tensions and pressures of our age are being increasingly felt in academia. Recent events indicate that many students, if not their faculty, administrators, and trustees, are currently engaged in reevaluating and altering the roles and functions of American Institutions of higher learning. How well these tasks are accomplished will depend in large measure on the degree to which the persons involved are adequately informed. In this respect it is fortunate that earlier this year such astute observers of contemporary society as Christopher Jencks1 and David Riesman2 published their monumental survey of American Colleges and Universities—The Academic Revolution.

A brilliant achievement, my principal reservation concerns the title. As the authors define the term "academic revolution," it is the "rise to power of the academic profession." But this is not a book on the political impact or the role in society played by colleges and universities. In fact, the reverse is true. When politics or sociological phenomena are discussed, it is to observe their impact on higher education.

In any event, the volume is no less valuable on that account, and should be required reading for anyone concerned with the academic world. Here is a book that provides a frank, opinionated, at times provoking, but always critical study. Each of the major types of institutions are described with excellent summaries of past history and bold evaluations of current effectiveness. Furthermore, there are numerous attempts to forecast (and at times even to influence) the future. These, I might add, provide some of the liveliest passages.

The body of the text treats of public and private institutions under the general headings of: Undergraduate University Colleges, Professional Schools (including Seminaries, Medical Schools, Military Academies, Engineering Schools, Teacher's Colleges and Graduate Schools of Arts and Sciences); Women's Colleges; Catholic Colleges; Negro Colleges; and Community Colleges.

With respect to Graduate work the authors feel a special obligation to provide constructive criticism since they believe that the "over-all quality of American intellectual life depends more on it than any other single institution."

After indicating the belief that "undergraduates are more competent, sophisticated, and mature than they once were" and that "colleges are treating them more and more as they have traditionally treated graduate students, both socially and intellectually" the authors focus on problem areas. They declare the two central problems of higher education to be a tendency for the academic professor to preach to the already converted minority rather than engaging in missionary work among the heathen majority; and the fact that most academicians adhere to an inadequate faith. Elsewhere in this chapter they remark that graduate schools often fail to devote their research to the "intellectual issues that arise inchoately in men's lives"; and that graduate faculty increasingly act out roles defined by colleagues rather than serving students and helping them to understand their own needs.

Their suggested solutions to these problems, most of the chapter entitled "Reforming the Graduate Schools," are too complex to summarize here but they are well worth careful reading.

No doubt some readers will be disturbed by the many personal remarks as to the quality of individual institutions. Most will, I think, applaud their plea for a pluralistic approach to solutions for problems based primarily on the needs of students. Specifically the authors call for many different types of institution even within individual categories and they have a distinct bias in favor of experimentation.

In view of recent events, it is ironic that portions of Chapter II, "The War Between the Generations," should have appeared in Columbia's Teachers College Record as recently as Autumn 1967. Here is an insightful discussion that could help all administrators and faculty members to make their continuing dialogue with students an honest and meaningful one. To close this review, here are a few of the many sensible thoughts from this chapter:

". . . colleges have always been institutions through which the old attempt to impose their values and attitudes on the young. They therefore take over from parents the tension-filled affect-laden tasks of socialization."

"The life of the mind was not unknown [in 19th century colleges] but neither was it usually central. The curriculum was largely prescribed, and the pedagogy consisted mainly of daily assignments and recitations. Extracurricular life was also closely regulated, and an enormous amount of energy seems to have gone into keeping unruly students from misbehaving. Corporal punishment was common, and the students often responded with violent rioting. While students undoubtedly had great influence on one another both socially and intellectually, their lives were circumscribed and the youth culture had nothing like the autonomy of its modern counterpart."

"Nineteenth-century young people seldom challenged the legitimacy of their elders' authority. They merely claimed that it had been abused in a particular case, defying it without creating any theory that something else should be put in its place. Even the riots that marked nineteenth-century college life were . . . more like peasant revolts against tyranny than like revolutionary movements. In the twentieth century, on the other hand, the increasing separatism of teen-age culture and the massing together in high schools and colleges of very large numbers of young people of identical age and social condition have gradually led to a new atmosphere, in which the basic legitimacy of adult authority has been increasingly called into question."

". . . today's entering freshmen seem older than those of the 1920s and 1930s . . . We believe that the mass media—especially television—have a large role in the earlier maturation of the young, making them sophisticated cynics about advertising (although also diligent consumers) almost before they can read, and exposing them to adult fare that would once have been kept out of reach or read under covers late at night . . ."

"One must distinguish between students whose estrangement from adult life is so complete that they withdraw into passivity and privatism (often nourished by drugs) and students who, while alienated from the adult society they observe around them, still have enough hope for the future to make an active effort at political change."

"One of the distinguishing features of student life is that its participants are allowed to make mistakes without paying too heavy a price. They can, in other words, be somewhat irresponsible. If students do not do their work they may get a bad grade, and if they get enough bad grades they may be fired; but the amount of absenteeism, indolence, and sheer incompetence permitted students is far greater than that permitted almost any other sort of worker."

". . . insubordination seems inevitable once the general principle of adult authority is abandoned."

A final comment seems equally applicable to faculty and parents:

"When parents . . . try to draw the line and set standards, they are seldom entirely successful, but they are often partially so."

1Resident fellow of the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Currently visiting lecturer and research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

2Professor of social sciences at Harvard University. Has also taught at the University of Chicago, Yale, Johns Hopkins and the University of Buffalo. Author of The Lonely Crowd, Constraint and Variety in American Education, and Abundance for What? among other books.

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