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evil world mark henrieTwo decades ago, George Nash, in his The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945,[1] told the story of how American conservatism was forged rather uneasily as a political movement from three intellectual groupings: traditionalists, lib­ertarians, and anti-communists. Today on the conventional “Right,” however, we find many libertarians who argue as vigorously against the opponents of abortion as they do against economic central planners while we also find some religious traditionalists who see no particularly compelling reason not to support fairly activist regulation of both economic and social life. These dis­agreements are nothing new, of course, and, as conservatives are nothing if they are not historically informed, it would be wise to return to Nash’s book to learn from the older disputes which took place on the way to political victory in the 1980s.

A re-reading of Nash’s book raises a more important question: Was there a logic to American conservatism, or was the move­ment merely a marriage of political conve­nience? My belief is that there was and is a general logic to conservatism, to which Ameri­can conservatism is no exception; but this conservative logic has heretofore often been misunderstood in America. Thus, our central theoretical question is: What is, and should be, the essence of conservatism in America? If we can determine the nature of authentic conser­vatism, then perhaps we can come to under­stand better the political and social challenges that confront us in our new historical circum­stances. What will conservatism have to say to America in the 1990s and beyond?

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In retrospect, it seems clear that anti-communism was indeed what held American conservatism together through the Cold War, both politically and intellectually. Re­gardless of their other differences, conser­vative thinkers from widely differing points of view could agree that Soviet communism was the summum malum to be combatted with a single-mindedness that seemed to “sophisticated” liberals of the time to bor­der on paranoia. If, as Carl Schmitt once argued, politics is a matter of finding en­emies, then the conservatives were particu­larly astute at seeing the real enemy of our time, while liberals, blinded ideologically to enemies on the Left, simply “missed” the major threat to peace, public liberty, and private virtue in the second half of this century. It would not be surprising if this conservative clear-sightedness accounted for political victory at the presidential level.

With communism consigned to history’s ash heap, American conservatism finds it­self disoriented. For once, the journalists are right in their diagnosis, and it would appear conservatives need a new unifying enemy. The so-called “neoconservatives” have been responsive to this predicament, and have proffered the multiculturalist aca­demic radicals, a “new” New Left, for diabolization. There is something to this choice, but since it is arrived at pragmati­cally rather than from clear principles, it misses much as well. Fundamentally, odi­ous as they may be, the multiculturalists are no world-historical force, though they may present one symptomatic face of a genuine problem. Furthermore, for those on the more traditionalist right, the neoconservatives’ uncritical celebration of American liberal-bourgeois “progress” before 1968 is not an adequate arcadian model to place in contradistinction to New Left radicalism. Some traditionalists even share something with the multiculturalists at the level of critique, for both claim that the “objectivity” of Enlightenment liberalism and its rationalist modes of inquiry is a masked and invasive tyranny, and hardly neutral.[2]

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How then can we best identify the enemy against which conservatives should rally in the coming decade if they are to be faithful to their traditions, and therefore true to themselves? To answer this, we must try to understand what it was about communism that galvanized us against it. The Soviet communists claimed the mantle of the French Revolution of course, the first incar­nation of the conservatives’ perennially re­curring adversary. What is it then that con­servatives have repeatedly opposed for the past two centuries?

Panajotis Kondyles has argued in a richly perceptive book [3] that the only consistent theme in European conservative thought, both in England and on the continent, is opposition to sovereignty, that claim by the centralized, “rationalized,” and liberal democratic political state to a monopoly on the “legitimate” use of coercion, a claim which expanded imperceptibly to a tacitly presumed monopoly of social authority, tout court. This presumptuous expansion of the sphere of the political sovereign acted to delegitimize other social authorities and inter­mediate institutions to which conservatives felt themselves bound, and which conser­vatives believed were integral to a good life.

What is centrally important about this rise of sovereignty is that it proceeded in large part through theories of natural rights and the social contract: Individual liberties, therefore, have only abetted the growth of Leviathan. Robert Nisbet highlights this hidden dynamic in the best short study of conservatism in English, Conservatism: Dream and Reality.[4] Nisbet observes what would seem to Americans to be an historical paradox: The power of the state in our lives has risen hand in hand with the rise of the individual “rights” about which we are so proud. Like Kondyles, Nisbet argues that these two movements—increasing political power and increasing individual “freedom”—are directly related. For the rights that have been “recognized” by the modern liberal state are not so much rights against the state as they are rights against other social bodies that used to have some mea­sure of authority in the lives of men and women.

Nisbet traces the rise of the sovereign liberal state at the expense of the Church, the guilds, universities, social classes, the extended family, and now at long last, even the nuclear family—everything except “the individual.” It is difficult to “see” this pro­cess happening, but this is what we must do if we are to properly assess the means by which meaningful freedom may today be retained, not to mention other values that conservatives consider to be goods. The reason the rise of the “individual” jeopar­dizes our freedom is that as the sphere of political sovereignty grows at the expense of other authorities, the individual himself increasingly has nowhere to hide from the state’s “legitimate” coercion. Any power which might effectively shield the individual from Leviathan has been de-legitimized in this process. Furthermore, with the weak­ening of alternate authorities, the individual has nowhere to stand to articulate a perspective differing from that of the liberal polity and its culture. Claiming the sanction of universal Reason, liberal sovereignty rules out any fundamental critique of itself as a matter of principle.

But if, paradoxically, freedom is threat­ened precisely by the liberal state’s dispens­ing of rights, then we must do considerable re-thinking of the nature of the conservative’s attitude toward American society. In light of the interpretations of Nisbet and Kondyles, it seems American conservatives have been right to resist “big government,” but the Lockean means by which they have been resisting may have contributed to this more basic problem of liberal sovereignty. Again, what American conservatives largely have failed to see is that the advance of the negative liberties and the protection of a “private” realm have often operated not to the advantage of real liberty, but rather to the advantage of the state’s monopolyon “coercion,” which now is the only meaning of “authority” once all alternatives have been delegitimized. The implications of this analysis are plain: The natural rights of the social contract tradi­tion, to which American conservatives have often repaired in their attempt to limit the gigantism of the state, ultimately serve to strengthen the hand of the liberal state. Thus, a conservatism that celebrates indi­vidual liberties only accelerates liberal totalism. We have most clearly experienced this emerging totalism in the oft-heard la­ment that “everything is becoming poli­tics,” from education to morality to rela­tions between the sexes. Such politicization is an inevitable result of the manner in which American liberalism conceives of the “public-private” distinction. That is, in pro­tecting only a certain understanding of pri­vacy, and doing so by advancing a doctrine of politically administered individual rights, a uniform politicization of all spheres of human interest occurs. Thus, all human relations begin to resemble the relations of the political sphere, and these relations in turn are modeled on the contracts of the marketplace, for significantly, the pre-emi­nent Lockean rights are the rights of private property and economic freedom,

Having just spoken of the threat of “totalism,” a clarification is in order. We are accustomed to the notion that totalitarian­ism is a threat to freedom, but it appears that liberal totalism is opposed by the con­servative primarily because it threatens so­cial and personal goods beyond simple free­dom. That there are such goods which a society might pursue in common is just one of the facts obscured theoretically by the tale that we tell about the social contract—a tale that focuses our attention on the goal of “liberty” to the exclusion of all other goods. What is threatening in liberal totalism, there­fore, is not primarily a loss of negative lib­erty. Rather, the conservative fears the loss of some element of the human good that is neglected in the liberal vision of society as a collec­tion of individuals brought together under a juridical sovereignty by a contract of mutual advantage. The concern is that the liberal rational­ization of society at the expense of intermediate au­thorities destroys something neces­sary for a fully hu­man life.

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We are now reaching our goal of a better under­standing of what it is against which conservatives have long stood in inarticulate opposition, and which might serve negatively to unify American conservatism today. I propose, in light of contemporary developments, that if con­servatives wish to remain true to their his­torical concerns, they should recognize as their adversary the Universal and Homoge­neous State. This term, coined by the Russo-French Left Hegelian, Alexandre Kojève and recently popularized in Francis Fukuyama’s writings about the “end of history,” is an artless expression, but it does communicate a compelling idea.[5] Kojève meant this term to describe the “rational” organization of society at the so-called end of history, when the telos of man’s political evolution had been reached and all basic contradictions of social life had been dialectically resolved in “concrete freedom.” The universal and homogeneous state has come to be when the ideas of universal liberty and equality are actualized in a democratic polity that protects individual rights and which fea­tures a well-regu­lated, but free, mar­ket economy.

This understanding of the end of political development relies on Kojève’s peculiarly economic reading of Hegel’s philosophy, but as we have seen, it finds resonance in many traditional conservative critiques of modernity—for what Hegel attempted to describe was the completion or the fulfillment of modernity. Concretely, Kojève at times identified the universal and homogeneous state with European social democracy, and he likely would have seen the recent Maastricht Treaty as a giant step in the direction of this historically inevitable end. At other times, however, he saw the end of history culminating in “the American Way of Life.”[6] What this ambiguity illuminates is that from the standpoint of such radical critique, the differences between social democracy and American liberty are not as great as they may at first appear.[7] What is further captured by Kojève, and which has certainly been missed in much American thinking on the Left and Right, is that the central issue of modern political life is not one of collectivism versus individualism or central planning versus the market; in each of these cases the poles of opposition exist within the parameters already broadly set by liberal theories of legitimate sovereignty, which are themselves the matter of contention.[8] Most controver­sially to American conservatives, we can begin to see here that what is at issue in our confrontation with modernity is not state authority, considered an evil, against the freedom of the market, considered a good. What Kojève understood, what the older and especially the Continental conserva­tives understood, and what American con­servatives in the 1990s must come to under­stand, is that the liberal state is a cooperative venture between a certain form of political association (democracy) and a certain form of economic association (the market economy)—both founded on an atomized and atomizing individualism. Together, these act to “rationalize” society and per­sons in society. In this analysis, the market is not experienced positively as a realm of unique freedom, but instead is experienced as a realm where uniform laws of rational efficiency act to the end of homogenization and therefore dehumanization. Human goods such as community, solidarity, and indeed, even eccentricity, which are threat­ened in the process of homogenization, are what conservatives ultimately must be about “conserving.”

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The homogenizing power of liberal mar­ket logic is revealed in contemporary politi­cal arguments that speak of the necessity of “competitiveness” in international markets. While it is often claimed that modern tech­nological production has freed humanity from nature or necessity, the unrestrained market has itself become the realm of neces­sity that cannot be opposed. Here, it is con­tended that we are not free to resist the demands of market efficiency. We are not free to seek such social goods as higher environmental standards. We are not free to defend settled ways of life by protecting older domestic industries. Owing to lower real wage levels brought on by a competitive labor market, women are not free to remain at home as mothers, regardless of the non-quantifiable harm to children. In short, we are not free to organize any of our social relations in a manner that will lead to pro­duction inefficiencies. Indeed, the free trade agreements of the last decade which seek to eliminate “non-tariff barriers to trade” aim to establish supra-state mechanisms that will prevent nations from freely choosing for any reason any path for their society that conflicts with the demands of the market; all peoples will be subjected to the “necessi­ties” of efficient market competition. How ironic that the liberal partisans of individual “freedom” have led us to a situation where the demands of the market itself preempt or obscure free choice.

Of course, this loss of freedom is not the primary reason the conservative feels com­pelled to resist the universalization of mar­ket logic in the homogeneous liberal state. Rather, the conservative resists the view of man-as-consumer which is a central ele­ment of homogenization. Ultimately, the conservatives’ primary concern has always been the health of human souls. As the Southern Agrarians (perhaps the most genu­ine conservatives America has yet produced) tirelessly argued, the criterion by which to judge a social and political system is the kind of person that system tends to pro­duce. To resist homogenization requires both attention to our social and political arrangements and attention to the health of our own souls, our own virtue. Conserva­tism is always a personal affair.

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Perhaps the greatest difficulty in arguing against the universal and homogeneous state is that in doing so the conservative appears to be setting himself against “common sense” and defending the “indefensible.” For the modern state is doubtless the most efficient producer of many human goods. In some sense then, the conservative must oppose efficiency—when it conflicts with the human scale of life he seeks. Because the liberalism that gives rise to the universal and homogeneous state presents itself as the efficient means to a way of life inherently more rational than any other, conservative defenders of traditional social arrangements are often driven into “illogicalities or insin­cerities.” In their defense of established in­stitutions, they often sound either nostal­gically aesthetic or else they repair to “spe­cious if ingenious” utilitarian arguments.[9] There may be no solution to this problem: A truly conservative society will undeniably have less of many human goods, but it will also have more of many others that are at present given scant attention in our homo­geneous state.

Again, following Hegel, Kojève believed that the triumph of the universal and ho­mogenous state was an historical inevitabil­ity; struggle against it was futile. He there­fore spent the latter days of his life as a European Community bureaucrat, midwifing the emergence of that state in the E.C. But for those of us who believe there are no historical inevitabilities, it is precisely our growing awareness of the reality of the universal and homogeneous state that frees us to resist it. As it grew piecemeal, only a few (and many conservatives among them) could really sense the danger it presented; now that it grows to completion, its dehu­manizing effects are more apparent. Pur­ported inevitability should be no insuper­able concern for an intellectual movement one of whose founders famously announced his intention to “stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop.'”[10] What then is to be done?

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At the level of our formal Constitution, American conservatives have traditionally resisted homogenization by their prefer­ence for states-rights and local political con­trols. As early as the American Constitu­tional ratifying debates, some Anti-Feder­alists voiced their fear that the new central government would “swallow-up [the states] in the grand vortex of general empire.”[11] While the Federalist Papers reveal a clear intention to avoid “consolidated, national” government, one cannot deny that consoli­dation—homogenization—has in fact oc­curred, especially since the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment and the subsequent “incorporation” of the provisions of the Bill of Rights against the states. The actual text of the Constitution limits the sphere of sovereignty of the federal government, leav­ing a sphere of sovereignty to the states. Of course, if “sovereignty” is divided, it is not sovereignty at all, which may have been precisely the point. Part of the political task of conservatism in the 1990s will be to focus on restoring to the states a measure of their sovereignty, of providing them with Con­stitutional means to resist encroachments by the central government.

Also at the formal level of political life, conservatives should continue their critical attention to rights-discourse. For as we have seen, this is the lever by which the sover­eignty of the liberal state has progressed at the expense of the various intermediate as­sociations. There are good arguments to be made for abandoning or at least severely curtailing our use of “rights-talk.”[12] Still, if Americans must speak in this idiom, at least for the time being, conservatives should make it their primary aim to investigate and elaborate upon the one right that is most often neglected in American political thought: the freedom of association. In legal philosophy today, this subject largely remains terra incognita, yet it may provide the first key for conservatives to roll back the homogeneous state.

Beyond the formal structure of the state, there are new challenges and new opportu­nities to re-conceive our basic institutions in ways that might help them to resist the twin homogenizing powers of the liberal state and the liberal market. Here, conservatives can forge surprising new alliances with those who share many of their concerns.[13] Conservatives must search for creative ways to protect complex, historically evolved struc­tures of civil society and indeed, to promote the renewed formation of a “thick” associa­tional life in all its diversity. Intellectual ferment regarding school vouchers and other attempts to extricate the state from the function of educating children repre­sent the most sustained effort to date to reclaim one realm of human life from ho­mogenization.[14] Attempts to “empower” families (but not individuals) also demon­strate awareness of the problem of the uni­versal and homogeneous state.

Contrary to popular belief, conservatism always requires creativity, for it only arises when customs are already under attack and can thus no longer be maintained unself­consciously. One example implied by the Southern Agrarians might suggest how a creative logic of resistance against homog­enization can be extended into the world of business. The Agrarians believed that pri­vate property was good because of the sense of independence and responsibility it elic­ited from persons who owned property. But corporate or “abstract” property-ownership does not seem to have this effect. Thus, one conservative reform might be a reconsid­eration of the legal status of the limited liability corporation, which systematically biases the economy in favor of large and impersonal corporate property over propri­etary business concerns. Such a scheme might well be less efficient at the production of material goods, but its effect would also be profoundly humanizing. Are we willing to pay such a price?

This last question is crucial, for seeking changes in public policy so that a humane associational life may flourish will come to naught if we do not ourselves seek in our own local contexts to “live well” together, to build a common life within our families and with our neighbors that might be strong enough to resist homogenization. This may require some sacrifices; it will require us to say “no” to some of the temptations of the market and the state. Yet only if our fami­lies, churches, and other associations mean something to us, indeed become part of us, will a defense of them in public policy be plausible. Living “conservatively”—living generously within our concrete contexts—always has priority over any political or ideological project.

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A few words about the practical impact of these thoughts on the situation in the uni­versities may be in order. How does one resist homogenization within this sphere of human life—where homogenization progresses by an attempted uniform “politicization” of the whole of life?

At the theoretical level, there is a great irony to campus politics, for the agents of homogenization are those who claim to speak for “diversity.” Yet Russell Kirk al­most half a century ago noted aptly that one of the central canons of conservative thought is “affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egali­tarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radi­cal systems.”[15] Conservatives thus must re­capture the rhetoric of diversity and reveal the uniformity which is really central for our contemporary diversity-mongers. For the ideology of diversity touts its openness to human “difference,” but only after such difference has been reduced to the realm of moral indifference. In which case, the “dif­ference” makes no more difference than the clothes we wear. Diversity here equals ho­mogenization to the level of a meaningless consumer-identity or brand-loyalty. The conservative alternative surely must be a civil engagement of differences that really do matter.

Practically speaking, the touchstone of conservative student activism in the 1980s was the independent campus newspaper. Because of the hyper-politicization of the universities, these newspapers themselves became “the issue,” and students responded to administrative pressures with appeals to their “rights;” namely, freedom of speech. This demonstrates a basic confusion. After all, are not the universities intermediate associations that in principle should be free from the rules of mere right which bind the political contract? Can they not have higher standards of association than those of the liberal state? And is not the attempt to revive the personalist role of in loco parentis to be applauded, even if we are dismayed on oc­casion by its politicized practice?

To discern a principled conservative stance here, two levels of reflection must be distinguished. In the case of the smaller, and especially the sectarian, colleges, it seems there is the possibility of building a genuine experience of community, a true civitas, at the level of the college. Such a self-conscious community might be able to resist pres­sures for homogenization from without. In such cases, while we may not like the kind of civitas that emerges, conservatives should nonetheless applaud movements to recover the role of in loco parentis, and indeed, should help foster the particular traditions and exclusivities of these bodies. If this po­sition will acquiesce in the unimpeded growth of certain bastions of political cor­rectness—and many can be named—it will also protect the occasional exceptional com­munity such as Sewanee or V.M.I. We all have an interest in the flourishing of institu­tional diversity. Not every college should be a St. John’s, but likewise, not every college should be an Oberlin: We all benefit from living in a society that sports both a Wabash and a Wesleyan.

In the case of the large secular universi­ties, however, which seem always to be ad­ministered by those who think it their role to advance the cause of the universal and homogeneous state, the conservative task is to work toward developing smaller bodies on campus to resist homogenization from within. In these cases, the university itself has become the agent of homogenization, and thus a resistant civitas must emerge on a smaller scale. Building such communities on campus seems even more pressing a task than the journalism of the 1980s, and think­ing through how to accomplish this should consume much student energy in the 1990s. For it has been in the large universities where the most invasive and striking efforts have been made to achieve a “total commu­nity,” a complete and homogenizing con­trol of all spheres of student life. While much has been written about the conflict over the curriculum, the politicization of the whole of student life has received insuf­ficient attention. In the dormitories, resi­dent assistants promote a uniform left-lib­eral ideology in everyday social interaction. Active measures have been brought against fraternities and other student societies if they discriminate on the basis of sex or if they have any religious content to their initiation ceremonies: It is said that to be “recognized” by the university, all associa­tions must be “equally open” to all, which is to say, all associations must be the same. Again in the dormitories, a drive to homog­enization is even evident in the “random­ization” of housing assignments. This policy prevents dormitories from develop­ing particular characters—as places for ath­letes or pre-meds or engineers, etc. Such “variety,” it seems, would be bad for “diver­sity.” Randomization strips students of their freedom of association in the name of what can only be called “uniform diversity.”

In the face of such homogenizing pres­sures, it appears that conservatives can play their most constructive role on campus by building and supporting para-university institutions,[16] with independent property, income, and leadership. Models for such associations exist: fraternities, dining clubs, literary societies, interest-oriented group houses, religious houses, independent “think-tanks.” In each case, a common life develops which, being independent of the control of the central authority, can be uniquely resistant to homogenization. Such groups should posi­tively revel in their peculiarity, and conserva­tives should offer support in helping them retain or regain their independence.

This growth of a rich array of indepen­dent structures around major American universities reflects in microcosm the con­servative vision of society generally. Such communities would not necessarily be “po­litical,” but in our time, and especially in the universities, the most subversive political act is to refuse to become politicized. If conservatism is about resistance to the uni­versal and homogeneous state, it is also, consequentially, the negation of ideology.

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Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from The Intercollegiate Review (Spring 1993).

Notes:

[1] Nash, George The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945.

[2] See, for example, Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 1988). The extent to which traditionalist concerns overlap with so-called post-modern critical theory becomes readily apparent in the introduction of Stephen K. White’s Political Theory and Postmodernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[3] Panajotis Kondyles, Konservativismus (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1986). This fine study deserves to be translated into English.

[4] Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

[5] Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit, Allan Bloom, ed. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997, 1980).

[6] In a vein remarkably similar to that of Pope John Paul’s oft-criticized 1987 encyclical, Solicitudo Rei Socialis, Kojève argued that Soviet communism and “the American Way of Life” were really two sides of one coin, both “materialist/sensualist” in their ac­count of the highest things and therefore “post-histori­cal” or post-human. They differed only in the tech­nique offered for achieving these agreed-upon ends.

[7] While not asgreat, they are by no means trivial.

[8] As early as the 1950s and from a perspective clearly different from that of Kojève, John Courtney Murray, S.J., saw that the conflict between individualism and collectivism was an intramural and ultimately futile debate within modernity, and that the parameters of debate themselves needed to be critiqued from outside. See We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1960).

[9] John Casey, “Tradition and Authority,” in Maurice Cowling, ed., Conservative Essays (London: Cassell, Ltd., 1978), 85.

[10] William F. Buckley, Jr., “Publisher’s Statement,” National Review 1 (November 19, 1955), 5.

[11] “Address of the Pennsylvania Minority” in Herbert J. Storing, ed., The Anti-Federalist (Chicago, Univer­sity of Chicago Press, 1985), 212.

[12] A very temperate and judicious appeal for enriching our political dialogue is Mary Ann Glendon’s Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (New York: The Free Press, 1991).

[13] “The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor comes to mind, as do the so-called “communitarians,” who critiqued liberalism very forcefully in the 1980s.

[14] The proposal for school vouchers is seen by some as a Trojan Horse, for wherever government money goes, there goes government control. Making vouch­ers universal might therefore end the independence of private schools, as the Hillsdale College case makes plain. How can we achieve the admitted good of universal education while avoiding homogenization? This is probably the central problem which should now receive creative conservative attention.

[15] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (Washington: Regnery Books, 1953, 1986), 8.

[16] While many Americans consider it faintly disloyal to direct their financial support to institutions other than their alma mater, the great English universities simply are loose confederations of independent institutions which together operate “as if” they were a unitary university. Only in America is it thought that the central administration must be in control of the whole.

 

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