The Ignorance of the Learned.

The Ignorance of the Learned.

Reviewed by Charles J. Bussey

Vol. 13, No. 4, 1991, pp. 25-26

Making Haste Slowly: The Troubled History of Higher Education in Mississippi by David G. Sansing. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990, xii, 309 pp.).

Publish or Perish! This argument continues to rage among academics, and it ignites passionate debates at my university today.

Page 26

It is within that context that I read David G. Sansing’s Making Haste Slowly. That and the fact of my birth in Oxford, Miss., with a long-time family connection to Ole Miss, may color this review and the reader should know those facts.

In a 1990 book called Killing the Spirit, distinguished historian and former college provost Page Smith launched an attack of the “publish or perish” mentality. He urged American universities to recognize their failure to emphasize quality teaching from a moral base instead of a value-neutral base, as some call it, and argued that “teaching is shunned in the name of research.” He is right. The vast majority of published research is at worst, worthless; and at best, mediocre and time-consuming of interested readers, time that could be used to improve teaching.

From these premises, I tackle Professor Sansing’s book.

First, Sansing consulted all the proper sources for this study. His bibliography is comprehensive and covers both written sources and the available oral ones.

We travel with him from the early nineteenth through the last years of the twentieth centuries as he documents the history of higher education in Mississippi. He shows us the early visions, and likewise the scheming, the pettiness, the political morass which identifies “college/university making.” (Most states have similar stories; my own state of Kentucky certainly does.)

Two-thirds of the book deals with the post-1928 period, and familiar names pass before us: Theodore Bilbo, Alfred Hume, Alfred Butts, Paul Johnson, John D. Williams, Fieiding Wright, James Meredith, Ross Barnett, Porter Fortune, Gerald Turner, Donald Zacharias.

Reciting those names calls images to mind, different images for each of us. Demagogic politicians; manipulative college leaders; the anti-democratic practices of Mississippi colleges as they sought to save “our Southern way of life”; blacks who wanted to share in the American Dream; riots; and modern university administrators who reflect a corporate image.

The story Sansing tells will be familiar to many Mississippians. And maybe they need to hear it again. He tells it well enough in a style which is passable though it doesn’t sparkle.

Some of the stories (the tangled Meredith, Barnett, Kennedy story from the early 1960s, for example) offer insight into what moved from a state to a national tragedy. Most of this work, however, may not appeal to readers beyond the boundaries of the Magnolia State.

What troubles me about this book, and this perhaps says more about educational leaders than Sansing, is the absence of proper vision. Like their counterparts across the nation, Mississippi college and university administrators seem unaware of what the university’s role should be.

We face a crisis in higher education in America today. State colleges that have become universities, as well as long established state universities themselves, have followed a flawed model I call it a kind of ‘academic fundamentalism.” It is what I believe Page Smith had in mind when he referred to a “disease of the spirit”

Characteristics of that disease include too much emphasis on specialization; the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake; and an almost absolute relativism, and, yes, such a condition is possible.

Universities seem to have forgotten their primary mission: TO TEACH. Students are the reason universities exist. Professors should focus on education first and publishable research last. Do administrators at colleges and universities in Mississippi (or anywhere else?) really care about teaching? Do any of them want to admit that they (we) follow a failed model?

Nowhere in Sansing’s book did I sense that higher educators in Mississippi realize the crisis that faces their institutions, a crisis of the spirit far more than a crisis of budget. Do Mississippi’s college and university leaders know the nature of the crisis? They (like most American university leaders) ignore it.

That might be expected, however, for as writer Gary Wills said recently “No ignorance is more securely lodged than the ignorance of the learned.”

Charles J. Bussey teaches American history at Western Kentucky University