The Forum | Western Civilization

Gertrude Himmelfarb on Higher Education’s Search for Relevance

January 14, 2020 by Rebecca Richards

At the end of 2019, Gertrude Himmelfarb, renowned historian and public intellectual, passed away, though her scholarship and ideas continue to inform current understanding of difficult challenges facing our nation. In a 1994 essay, Dr. Himmelfarb evaluated the effects of both World War II and affirmative action on the mission and structure of higher education. Her description of the ramifications of the war and affirmative action still rings true a quarter of a century later. As crises continue to erupt in higher education, it is worth revisiting Dr. Himmelfarb’s insight into the origins of these problems and her proposals for mitigating some of the negative effects of what she termed two major “reformations.”

Drawing on the work of eminent sociologist Robert Nisbet, Dr. Himmelfarb argued that, prior to World War II, higher education had a singular focus on knowledge-seeking and a hierarchical structure. The university maintained a separate community, apart from wider society. While it thrived in a democratic culture, the structure within academia was decidedly undemocratic.

An influx of money and a change in student demographics, due to the GI Bill, transformed the nature of higher education. The mission of the university evolved from pursuing knowledge to solving social ills. The university’s focus on fulfilling society’s needs soon translated into fulfilling students’ needs outside of academics. Students were given more power in university governance and curricula decisions. As a result, the university began to resemble a participatory democracy driven to solve social problems—a fundamental shift in the nature and purpose of higher education.

A second major “reformation” stemmed from affirmative action, which changed the student body, the faculty, and the curriculum. According to Dr. Himmelfarb, classes about race, ethnicity, and gender were a product of the first “reformation,” but they grew into departments of their own and became required courses as a result of the second. Alarmingly, these topics were not contextualized or incorporated well into the wider curriculum. She writes, “Instead of viewing race, class, ethnicity, and gender as parts of a whole . . . they are now seen as competing wholes—not as parts of a single story but as quite separate and distinct stories.” Race, ethnicity, and gender classes gradually replaced more traditional history classes as required courses, which led to the concerning lack of general historical knowledge among college students that continues in current times.

As a result of these two transformations, the university lost its distinct separation from wider culture and splintered in its effort to stay relevant, much like the polarized culture of today. Dr. Himmelfarb writes, “The traditional ideal of the university, as a community where professors and students are united in a common enterprise for a common purpose, has been replaced by the idea of a loose, almost amorphous, federation made up of distinct groups pursuing their special interests and agendas,” She describes this phenomenon as the “Balkanization of the university.” In this light, the near constant conflict between the administration, faculty, and students of universities makes sense.

A quarter of a century later, higher education is undergoing a third transformation. It has no other choice as American confidence in institutions of higher learning is rapidly diminishing. A college diploma no longer seems worth the investment of time or resources. A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis suggests that, although the diploma increases income, it no longer increases wealth premiums. The traditional, four-year university is no longer seen as affordable or necessary. Instead, Americans are turning to community colleges, certification programs, or foregoing higher education all together. Large universities and small, liberal arts colleges alike will have to restructure in order to accommodate these changes in public perception.

The reasons behind the current crisis in higher education extend beyond the effects of World War II and affirmative action, and returning to the pre-reformation model of the university is unlikely at best. Acknowledging this, Dr. Himmelfarb proposed two solutions: raising public awareness of the original spirit of higher education to seek knowledge and truth wherever they may lead, and supporting the professors and students who are still pursuing that spirit on campuses. Because colleges and universities respond to funding incentives, targeted philanthropy can be used to send a clear message that knowledge is worth pursuing. St. John’s College, known for its unique and traditional liberal arts curriculum, has successfully employed this approach. By adopting a philanthropy-based financial model of operations, St. John’s College is depending on financial support from alumni and friends of the college who believe in the importance of the liberal arts and the original mission of the university. 

As Dr. Himmelfarb commented, “If disinterested knowledge was the dogma of the pre-reformation university, ‘relevance’ was the dogma of the post-reformation university.” Ironically, in its quest to stay relevant, the university is swiftly becoming obsolete. Dr. Himmelfarb closes her essay by finding hope in the fickleness of cultural interests. There is a good chance that culture will grow bored of the trivialized and politicized curricula taught at many colleges and universities. By that time, there will hopefully still be institutions to fulfill the original mission of pursuing knowledge and, as a result, higher education will remain relevant for years to come.

Rebecca Richards is a program associate for ACTA’s Fund for Academic Renewal. 


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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