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Learning Curve

The view from the front row of the academic follies.

Jan 24, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 18 • By DAWN EDEN
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After the proposal passed over his lone objection, London mentioned the new policy to a colleague outside the university: Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, chairman of the federally funded Center for Naval Analysis, for which London served on the board. It didn’t exactly float his boat. The secretary responded that, in that case, the Navy would simply cut off the $10 million in research funds it had agreed to provide for NYU’s Courant Institute for Mathematics and Applied Science. London, “sensing an opportunity to hoist these self-satisfied ‘idealists’ by their own petard,” suggested the secretary raise those concerns with the university president. In swift order, an emergency senate meeting was called, with members changing their vote at the president’s behest. Once again, the vote was 77-1.

“This time,” London writes, “I was on the other side in what I can only describe as the most delicious moment in my thirty-eight years at NYU.”

The Gallatin Division had its genesis in 1972 when London, after working on a committee to develop a college alternative, was tapped to lead the school’s fledgling “UWW”​—​University Without Walls. He and his colleagues replaced the division’s 60-credit general education program with the requirement that students read a long list of great books and demonstrate their knowledge of the works by way of an oral exam.

Around this time, in the course of describing this experiment to skeptical colleagues at a Faculty Council meeting, the dean acquired an unexpected ally. The venerable philosophy professor Sidney Hook, mistakenly thinking the new division was an external degree program, asked London if a “great person” had ever graduated from such a program. 

So nonplussed was I by this question that I couldn’t think of a great person who had graduated from a traditional college program. .  .  . However, Professor Hook was waiting for an answer. Reaching into my memory bank, where trivia about everything from the etymology of “brouhaha” to George Kell’s career batting average swim aimlessly about, I blurted out, “Lenin.” 

A stunned Hook asked London how he knew that. “I said, ‘Lenin attended the University of Moscow extension division. I remember reading that fact in Bertram Wolfe’s Three Who Made a Revolution.’ At that point, Professor Hook noted, ‘Anyone who knows that deserves my support.’ ”

Readers expecting to learn about the actual operations of the UWW (renamed the Gallatin Division in 1976)​—​particularly the impact its Great Books curriculum had on students’ learning​—​will be disappointed. London is more interested in relating anecdotes about inside politics at a university where the sixties never really ended. As his Diary progresses, moreover, it becomes clear that his overriding interest is to show a way out of the “institutional confusion” of contemporary academia: the alternative provided by think tanks, which he calls “universities in absentia.” To that end, he provides an amusing sales pitch for the Hudson Institute as he describes the first job he did for Hudson after requesting a meeting with founder Herman Kahn in 1969:

[Kahn] wanted me to work on a project related to drug abuse in New York. He said that the street price of heroin reveals a great deal about the effectiveness of drug enforcement efforts. .  .  . “So,” he stated, “as your first assignment buy heroin on the streets of Harlem.” 

As the professor picked his jaw up from off the floor, Kahn assured him that the police were in on the project and would cooperate​—​which they did. When London says that the Hudson Institute was “more exciting .  .  . than any academic institution I had encountered,” it’s hard to argue with him. It would become an oasis for him during his early battles as UWW dean​—​so much so that he “jumped at the opportunity” to become one of its trustees in 1974: “I had emerged from heroin purchaser to trustee in a five-year period.” 

Alas, as Diary of a Dean frequently reminds us, when it comes to the state of contemporary higher education, there are no quick fixes. That is why, today, Herbert London continues to cast his vote against liberal academia​—​but from the outside: “I realize, like G.K. Chesterton, that the problem with pragmatism is that it
doesn’t work.”

Dawn Eden is the author of The Thrill of the Chaste.

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