Killing the Spirit Essay - Critical Essays

Killing the Spirit

In the first chapter here Smith lays out his “major themes”: “the impoverishment of the spirit by ’academic fundamentalism’; the flight from teaching, the meretriciousness of most academic research, the disintegration of the disciplines, the alliance of the universities with the Department of Defense, the National Aeronautics and Space Agency ..., biotechnology and communications, and, last but not least, the corruptions incident to ’big time’ collegiate sports.” All of these “themes” he intends to discuss, besides presenting the reader with a historical study of the development of higher education in America, within a mere 305 pages of text. He has given himself an impossible task; and, because he generalizes mercilessly throughout his study, he convinces the reader principally of the depth of his personal disgust with academia.

Many features of contemporary higher education provoke Smith’s ire. Professors now teach fewer classes than he had to; historians write too many narrowly focused monographs; the tenure system continues to fuel the “publish-or-perish” syndrome; Women’s Studies have come to dominate divisively the curriculum of many universities; the social sciences “are not scientific,” the humanities “not very humane"; and--worst of all--students are not given the genuinely liberal education that would be theirs if only their professors were devoted primarily to teaching rather than “research.”

The ills of higher education, Smith contends, begin at Harvard, Yale, and other “so-called elite universities,” for they “set the tone and ... poison the springs of academic life in the United States.” Furthermore, the “faculties at the elite universities (and, increasingly, at those lesser institutions bent on aping them) are in full flight from teaching” for the sake of research, “the vast majority” of which “is essentially worthless.” This last is a foolishly presumptuous and ill-informed assertion, especially considering that--in all the disciplines except, presumably, history--Smith has done “admittedly casual research.”