Robert Nisbet’s Degradation of the Academic Dogma at 50

The universities are in trouble. Declining enrollment, ideological politics resulting in cancel culture, and confusion over mission have thrown these venerable institutions into turmoil. Perhaps the crisis of the university in the present time is the worst since the turmoil of the 1960s. Writing just after a decade of student revolutions, Robert Nisbet turned his incisive mind to a study of the trouble accosting the universities and published The Degradation of the Academic Dogma fifty years ago this year. He concluded that the problem with the university was that it had lost a sense for its orienting dogma—that knowledge is good—and thus failed to focus upon its founding function, the propagation of knowledge through research and teaching.

For Nisbet, every community is founded for some function, and it expresses that function in abstract terms as a dogma. The community enforces its dogma and fulfills its function through the exercise of authority. Nisbet uses the term academic dogma in the non-pejorative sense. He writes, “All major institutions are built around dogmas. So, for that matter, is social life generally.” We need a system of principles or ideals around which to order our lives and our activities. This is true of every group, churches and chess clubs as well as colleges.

The traditional dogma of the American university was the same as that of Plato’s Academy, that knowledge is good. And the function of the university was to extend knowledge through research and to preserve and to pass on knowledge through teaching. Status within the academic community emerged directly from how one serves the academic dogma, how one’s social role in the university is tied to the essential function of the community. The Chaucerian scholar, Nisbet writes, was the quintessential example of the academic man. His prestige was enormous, because his research and teaching were predicated not on the acquisition of money, or economic status, or service to society, or government, but upon the preservation and extension of knowledge through scholarship and teaching. Nisbet writes, “[S]cholarship is basically what the academic dogma is about and has been about for close to eight hundred years. Its essence has been learning, erudition, and the influence these qualities have upon the development of mind and character.”

The structure of authority was related directly to this dogma and function. The social status accorded the philosopher and historian was higher than the technician of law and medicine for centuries. This is because the philosopher and historian stood for the dogma of knowledge central to the university and they much more closely adhered to the role of knowledge acquirer and preserver than did those with more practical or, in the word of the day, “relevant” functions. This is not to say that students didn’t attend universities for professional reasons. They did. They came to become qualified for prestigious positions in society. But the university did not train them for those positions per se. It qualified them for prestigious positions through an education that imparted knowledge for its own sake.

From Nisbet’s description, there is much in the traditional university that smacks of aristocracy. The academic dogma is a case in point. Nisbet writes, “There has never been any pretense of equality or democracy of ideas. Knowledge is sacred; knowledge also carries rank.” Those closer to the dogma are higher in social status and higher in social authority. Those better at accomplishing the function of acquiring knowledge and imparting it through scholarship and teaching are higher in status and authority. Like other aristocratic functions, the academy sneered at mere money-making and at technical skills that could be justified only for what they could produce monetarily, not for what they were.

Like other guilds and medieval corporations, the autonomy granted to the university was for the legitimacy of its claim to autonomy. It sought liberty, but, Nisbet writes, it sought  “[a] liberty, in the medieval sense, was no more than an enclave, a corporate autonomy in society that deserved its own freedom to act in proportion to the honor of its mission, the protection it gave to its members, and the importance of its contribution to society.” The university did serve society, but it did so indirectly, by pursuing knowledge. The freedom of the academy was not the freedom from authority, but the freedom to exert its own authority around its own dogma and function. In this way, the university was like other medieval guilds, “[seeking] to preserve the distinctive identity of its craft. And the craft of the university guild has been, for nearly eight centuries, scholarship.”

As long as the university adhered to this dogma and this function it largely preserved its freedom and its social authority. However, as the title of the book indicates, the dogma of the university was degraded. Nisbet is using the term degradation in the sociological sense, it means a “lowering in rank,” a lowering in social status. The dogma of the university, that knowledge is good, is no longer the ordering dogma. The function of the university, to facilitate scholarship and teaching in the traditional sense of those terms, is no longer the essential role of the university. The role of the scholar in the traditional dogma and function of the university is no longer central and thus he is no longer accorded due honor.

In this understanding, the scholar is like the medieval Knight, a figure who served an essential purpose in medieval society and lived for and received due honor. But just as the knight was replaced because his essential function became obsolete, so the knights of scholarship are the “victim of an erosion of role that threatens to make him obsolete.” Those scholars who do pursue traditional scholarship struggle to find a place in the university.

Why did this happen?

For Nisbet, the essential changes came from more or less the same sources as the changes in the rest of society that he chronicles in Quest for Community. Primarily the intrusion of state power in the form of federal money following World War II. The universities accepted massive sums and they did so for reasons that had nothing to do with the academic dogma. Much of this money was attached to research that advanced state interests. Nisbet writes, “The first million dollars given to a university for project research was far too much. Today ten billion dollars is not enough. So have we fallen.”

Few academics take vows of celibacy or chastity. Wealth itself was not the issue. It was the structure of the wealth that threatened the dogma and function of the university. Rather than giving money to the university to advance its mission, the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake, the money was given for the acquisition of particular knowledge for the sake of state interests, usually defense-related. This structure of wealth warped the academic dogma and degraded it. In the process, it similarly warped the authority structure of the university. The money came in without regard for those with the traditional talents for maintaining the dogma and function of the university. Instead, what was called “administrative” ability was elevated in the university. The term had little to do with academic leadership, referring instead to those with a talent for finance, marketing, and sales, not scholarship and teaching.

One’s social status on campus is no longer tied to how well one pursues the academic dogma or performs the academic function. Especially important is how much money one can bring into university coffers through government grants and contracts. The old Chaucerian scholar was replaced with the academic entrepreneur. The prestige of department chair was replaced with the prestige of research center director. Nisbet writes, “Overnight, first in the natural sciences, then in the social sciences, and finally—here and there, at least—in the humanities, the academic scene was bestridden by that modern incarnation of Caesar, the academic capitalist, the professorial entrepreneur, the new man of power!”  

These new men of power did not do scholarship. No one thought they did. No one thinks they do now. But they did do research. Big Research. They still do. With the rise of the new capitalism came the new Bourgeoisie and there came the transformation of university relations from status to contract, from member of the faculty to employee of the university. Even the language began to change from academic appointment to academic hire.

Individualism, humanitarianism, and politicization all wrought structural changes that undermined the authority of the traditional academic community. If the academic community no longer existed for the sake of its dogma, then the traditional authority that upheld the dogma was no longer legitimate. Enter: the student revolutionaries.

Nisbet perceives three additional themes coming to dominate the university: individualism, humanitarianism, and politics. Just as modern society transitioned from the corporate understanding of the guild, parish, town, and assembly to the individual, so too the university experienced its own individualization. The university does not welcome students into the academic environment and the academic community with its requisite authority. The university does not aim to elevate the higher imagination, to teach knowledge for its own sake, but to cultivate individuality.

This influence of individualism also punctured the traditional relationship of authority between teacher and student. Nisbet writes, “The equal blessedness of all souls in the cult is assumed and, where necessary, preached with zeal. Equality of student and teacher is as much a matter of dogma as equality of communicant and preacher was (and is) in radical Protestant sects.” If all are free and equal individuals and if the dogma of knowledge doesn’t matter, what does a professor bring to class that a student doesn’t? If knowledge isn’t the dogma and passing on of knowledge isn’t the function of the university, then professors are no different. Certainly, they deserve no more authority, than students.

Rather than focusing upon its fundamental mission, the university succumbed to the humanitarian impulse. Rather than serving society through preservation of knowledge, the university was called to a more direct service to society. While the university has long been in the service of society, it was always indirect service. By training individuals in the high pursuit of knowledge, they were prepared (not directly, but indirectly) for high status positions in society, places in church and court where they could wield wide social influence for the good of those beneath them. The changes came first in agriculture, then in “business, government…social welfare, environmental, [and] middle-class leisure needs.” At first a principle of intermediation dictated that some institution draw from the knowledge produced by the university (ostensibly for its sake) and apply it practically. Agricultural extension services, for example, mediated between the knowledge produced in the schools of agriculture and its application in the field. But then the university was expected to educate directly the technicians, the engineers, the medical staff, the agricultural workers, and, finally, the social workers.

Undergirding these degradations of the academic dogma is politicization. The influx of federal dollars entangled the inner workings of the university in political issues. Simultaneously, national politics began to play a role in the university that it hadn’t before. Politics began to tread upon the ancient autonomies that until then had remained more or less sacrosanct. This too weakened the traditional authority and aloofness of the university from practical, including political, affairs. The politicization of the university did not extend the authority of the university, but undermined that authority by subsuming it into the exercise of political power.

Individualism, humanitarianism, and politicization all wrought structural changes that undermined the authority of the traditional academic community. If the academic community no longer existed for the sake of its dogma, then the traditional authority that upheld the dogma was no longer legitimate. Enter: the student revolutionaries. Nisbets writes, “The student uprisings which began at Berkeley in 1964 did not destroy academic authority. It was the prior destruction of academic authority that in very large measure caused the student uprising.” Nisbet echoes Tocqueville’s observation on the French Revolution, “Chance played no part whatever in the outbreak of the Revolution: though it took the world by surprise, it was the inevitable outcome of a long period of gestation, the abrupt and violent conclusion of a process in which six generations had played intermittent part. Even if it had not taken place, the old social structure would nonetheless have been shattered everywhere sooner or later.” Nisbet writes, “By the time the student militants hurled their defiances at the authority of the faculty and traditional administration, there was very little authority left that could be mustered. There was really nothing to do but call the police.”

Reading the book fifty years on, it is hard to complain about his description. Some details have changed, but not the essential structure. Perhaps the biggest criticism of Nisbet is that although the university has done nothing to regain its traditional dogma it has nonetheless staggered on for half a century in more or less the same dilapidated state, generally getting worse in terms of individualization, humanitarianization, and politicization. Perhaps old institutions die hard, although it seems that the long overdue financial and proprietary reckoning is commencing for many institutions.

But back to the original question, what is the university’s distinct function in society? Other institutions, corporations, foundations and the like can engage in research. Other institutions can engage in humanitarian work and social uplift. Other institutions can take federal grants. Other institutions can engage in politics. Other institutions can generate revolutionaries. And most can do so much less expensively and much more efficiently than the university can. Nisbet asks, why do we continue the charade? Nisbet closes with a call for the university to return to its distinct function, for it to reestablish itself as a community dedicated to the academic dogma. “I suggest that the university’s most feasible function for the future is in essence what it has been in the past: that of serving as a setting for the scholarly and scientific imagination.”

One question we might ask of Nisbet is whether the changes he descries can be, not reversed, but humanely reformed so that they are subsumed into the university’s mission. Might there be a way to take research money and train technicians, but do so in a manner that bolsters rather than undermines the university’s core mission? Might the professional schools be built upon the traditional scholarly enterprise as a means of expanding that function rather than replacing it? Might those students we prepare for a place in church, court, and corporation ground their technical training on the foundation of knowledge acquisition for its own sake? It certainly seems like it is worth a try. Although we might also ask whether the traditional function of the university can regain its prominence at all, or whether the dogma and function of the university must migrate elsewhere. We might ask whether university reformers are like the medieval knight in Cervantes’ tale, jousting at windmills.