One test of a classic work of social criticism is to see if the critique's central logic and arguments remain generally applicable beyond the critic's own time. One work that has lost little of its polemical power or social relevance is Thorstein Veblen's The Higher Learning in America. First published hi 1918, this volume sharply attacked the ascendency of business values and concerns in America's universities. In Veblen's critical analysis, the institutions of higher learning have taken on the aspects of corporations and trusts, relegating the pursuit of knowledge to secondary status. Today when the mission of higher education is uncertain and universities compete for endowments and students, this volume is as timely as ever.
Veblen was not only America's most famous economist and social critic but a distinguished academic as well, having taught at major universities and the New School for Social Research. His critique is built around an essential distinction between higher learning and career or vocational training. Emphasizing the primacy of learning over training, he repudiates the practice of appointing unqualified businessmen as governing trustees and condemns college administration conceived along corporate guidelines. The entrepreneurial spirit, in this instance, understands learning as marketable knowledge and measures academic prestige hi terms of needlessly elaborate building projects and material equipment.
Veblen's alternative vision severs the pursuit of knowledge and free inquiry from the institutional restrictions of economic interest. Undergraduate colleges and professional schools are to be detached from the university, while self-governance among professors and students replaces boards of trustees and presidents.
Veblen's view of learning was tied to a larger conception of civilization hi which an "idly curious" elite built and elaborated upon bodies of knowledge that sustained the practical institutions of society. Ivar Berg's brilliant and stimulating introduction to this new editon offers a critical reading of Veblen's work in its own context and applies its arguments to controversies currently surrounding the American university. The Higher Learning in America continues to be of interest to educators, intellectual historians, economists, and sociologists.