Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 17, 2009

Upton Sinclair on college presidents

Filed under: Academia,bard college — louisproyect @ 10:45 pm

Upton Sinclair

From The Goose Step: a study of American Education

Thus the college president spends his time running back and forth between Mammon and God, known in the academic vocabulary as Business and Learning. He pleads with the business man to make a little more allowance for the eccentricities of the scholar; explaining the absurd notion which men of learning have that they owe loyalty to truth and public welfare. He points out that if the college comes to be known as a mere tool of special privilege it loses all its dignity and authority; it is absolutely necessary that it should maintain a pretense of disinterestedness, it should appear to the public as a shrine of wisdom and piety. He points out that Professor So-and-So has managed to secure great prestige throughout the state, and if he is unceremoniously fired it will make a terrific scandal, and perhaps cause other faculty members to resign, and other famous scientists to stay away from the institution.

The president says this at a dinner-party in the home of his grand duke; and next morning he hurries off to argue with the recalcitrant professor. He points out the humiliating need of funds-just now when the professor’s own salary is so entirely inadequate. He begs the professor to realize the president’s own position, the crudity of business men who hold the purse-strings, and have no understanding of academic dignity. He pleads for just a little discretion, just a little time-just a little anything that will moderate the clash between greed and service, the incompatibility of hate and love.

Either he succeeds in his purpose of persuading the professor to be less a scientist, a citizen, and a man of honor, or else he decides, in conference with his kitchen cabinet, that a way must be found to get rid of this unreasonable marplot. He and his cabinet now start a campaign of intrigue against the professor; they set going rumors calculated to damage his prestige; they contrive traps into which to snare him; or they wait until in the war between greed and service he gives utterance to some plain human emotion-whereupon they find him guilty of “indiscretion,” and announce to the public that he has shown himself to be lacking in that “judicious” attitude of mind which is essential to those occupying academic positions. Or perhaps they find that they have too many men in that department; or they decide to combine the departments of literature and obstetrics. They have a thousand different devices, scores of which I have shown you in action. Always they tell the professor-with their right hands upon the Bible they swear it to the public and to the newspapers-that it is purely “an administrative matter,” there is no question of academic freedom involved, and everyone in their institution lives, moves and has his being in the single-minded love of truth.

I have on my desk a letter from a Harvard professor, who tells me that my chapters on that institution are interesting, but he thinks I attribute too much cunning to the objects of my indignation. “These conforming preachers and editors and teachers are more of the genus Babbitt than of the genus Machiavelli.” This is a question of psychology, which only the Maker of the creatures can decide. In any case it matters little, because my purpose here is not to apportion blame, but to point out social peril, and it matters not whether social traitors know what they are doing-the effect of their action remains equally destructive to society. I have called the American college and university a ruling-class munition-factory for the Manufacture of high explosive shells and gas bombs to be used in the service of entrenched greed and cruelty. The college president is the man who runs this indispensable institution; and he is not one of the military leaders who sit in swivel chairs in city offices, he is one who sallies forth in person at the head of his armies, bravely hurling commencement bombs and Fourth of July torpedoes.

The college president is a human radio, a walking broadcasting station, a combination of encyclopedia and megaphone. He is that man whose profession it is to know everything; in his one mind is summed up ex-officio all the knowledge of all the specialties. He tells his professors what to teach, and how to teach it, and has little birds and whispering galleries and telepathic mediums to advise him if they obey. He is a human card-index, an information service bureau concerning the reputations of professors in all other institutions, and of promising undergraduates and Ph.D. candidates, and just what they are worth, and how much less they can be hired for. Or, if he does not possess all this knowledge, he possesses a perfectly satisfactory substitute-the ability to look as if he possessed it, and to act as if he possessed it. Such is the advantage of being an autocrat; criticism does not affect you, and whether you are right or whether you are wrong is the same thing.

The college president has acquired enormous prestige in American capitalist society; he is a priest of the new god of science, and newspapers and purveyors of “public opinion” unite in exalting him. He receives the salary of a plutocrat, and arrogates to himself the prestige and precedence that go with it. He lives on terms of equality with business emperors and financial dukes, and conveys their will to mankind, and perpetuates their ideals and prejudices in the coming generation. It is a new aristocracy which has arisen among us, and they all stand together, they and their henchmen and courtiers, against whatever forces may threaten. I have shown how they have invented a new set of titles of nobility, which they sell for cash, or use to exalt their patrons and overawe you and me. We shall find it worth while to turn over the pages of “Who’s Who in America,” and see what these mighty ones of the earth think of one another, and what they do to flatter one another’s pride, and to keep their own order in the public eye.


  1. Beautiful.

    Comment by Noel — March 17, 2009 @ 11:12 pm

  2. Btw, this was received from Joel Kovel after reading this:

    That was one prescient dude. He knew Leon before he was born!

    Comment by louisproyect — March 17, 2009 @ 11:15 pm

  3. Botstein looks like Vincent Price’s Egghead from the “Batman” series.

    Dunno if he’s as clever.

    Comment by Dennis Perrin — March 18, 2009 @ 9:28 pm

  4. I lost a visual link in transition, emphasizing my important point. Ah well. Google it.

    Comment by Dennis Perrin — March 18, 2009 @ 9:30 pm

  5. Really good post.

    These days the college presidents, have no hesitation to get rid of a rebel teacher.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — March 19, 2009 @ 6:06 am

  6. I like Sinclair’s characterization of the rich as “barons” and “dukes”. These titles survived the English and French revolutions for years, based on their land holdings, general prestige, and willingness to marry with the rising bourgeoisie.

    After all these years of classless anonymity, the hard-working American financial elites certainly deserve the same titles now that they’ve achieved equivalent positions of power.

    Comment by seneca — March 19, 2009 @ 8:09 pm

  7. […] Upton Sinclair on that curious breed of businessman, the university president, via Louis Proyect: From The Goose Step: a study of American […]

    Pingback by Edufactory « American Stranger — March 22, 2009 @ 2:42 am

  8. […] To this day, I don’t think anybody has ever summed up the role of college presidents better than Upton Sinclair: […]

    Pingback by Bard College and the American Studies Association vote | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — January 2, 2014 @ 6:24 pm

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