Since we seem now to be ruled during this administration by former professors, here is a rant about what I have learned of the university.
Looking back at forty years…
I have some experience in academia: I spent 3 years at UC Santa Cruz, graduating in classics, two more, graduate and undergraduate, in formal study in Athens, at the College Year in Athens and the American School of Classical Studies, four at Stanford University for a PhD in classics, and then a 21-year stint as a professor at California State University Fresno.
I farmed before, during, and after the university tenures. I can’t count my current life at the Hoover Institution or my month of teaching each year at Hillsdale College as quite the same experience. Both, after all, are aberrant academic institutions — in the sense that the faculties and mission of these institutions resemble pretty much those of America off campus. (I have never met more sane people than at both places.)
The farm and the life with it were great gifts from my ancestors. Almost every weekend as an undergraduate and graduate student, and then nightly as a classics professor, I returned to the farm. People in the environs there were not hostile to learning; they just assumed that being a professor or writer was, and should be, not any different from welding or tractor driving.
Living in rural Selma was a sort of vaccination against the academic virus of self-importance and collective timidity. One must be somewhat self-reliant when bare vines somehow in ten months must pay for diapers and formula, when so much — weather, pests, markets, neighbors, intruders — conspire to prevent that. Fairly or not, I always admired a guy who could feed his family from 60 acres of tree-fruit (I could not) — and especially a lot more than I did an English professor, at least the sort I met over the last forty years.
So what did I learn in the university? I’ll try to be a bit less specific than I was in Who Killed Homer? written over a decade ago.
Lies, lies, and more lies
First was the false knowledge — odd for an institution devoted to free inquiry. The university runs like a 13th-century church in which the heliocentric maverick is a mortal sinner. So too on campus the Rosenbergs never spied. Alger Hiss was a martyr. Mao killed only a few who needed killing (see Anita Dunn on that one).
Che was not a murderous thug, but a hair-in-the-wind carefree motorcyclist. Minorities supposedly died proportionally higher in Vietnam — as they supposedly do now in Iraq and Afghanistan. Women are underrepresented as both undergraduates and as humanities graduate students. Anyone with an accented name obviously had picked grapes or was denied voting rights. Adlai Stevenson was an American saint, even more so than George McGovern. Only the unhinged even discussed doubts about global warming. Don’t question any of the above; it was all gospel — as we see now in D.C., from Keynes to Gorism to Cordoba as the beacon of Islamic tolerance during the Inquisition. (Doubt any of that, and that laid-back elbow-patched joking prof who told the class “Call me Bill,” in a flash, Gollum like, turned into a snarling jackal, screaming, “I am Doctor Jones, with important publications on climate change and a doctorate from Berkeley! How dare you question me!”)
Wounded fawns all
Next were the mock heroics. The philosophy professor who mastered his weedeater wanted us to think he had just stormed Iwo Jima. The gadfly who in the Academic Senate pushed through a resolution on a 170-2 approval vote demanding state sanction of gay marriage thought he was Mandela fighting back the forces of Neanderthal apartheid. My colleague the French professor believed that she belonged to the United Mine Workers when she trudged off to teach an 8 AM early-bird class. We heard for two years the Homeric battle of how the sociology prof, Odysseus like (or perhaps more in the Achilles strain), once somehow jump-started his car in the parking lot. We heard a lot that everyone was “tired” and “exhausted,” as if we had been painting all day or digging trenches for an irrigation company.
The World of Arugula
So there was the cluelessness about the material world, and both a repulsion and fascination for it. I farmed “raisin plants.” And why didn’t I let one or two owls do my pest management on 100 acres rather than use the poison that was born at Auschwitz? Machines always had to work — or else. When it hit 110 and the air conditioning went out in our building, profs sighed and damned “them” who couldn’t even keep us cool. (None had been on a roof at 120 or wondered how a compressor ran at all — or how a guy could spend four hours up there in Sahara-like conditions with all sorts of sockets and wrenches before his skull melted. [Note well, the campus machines worked far better than did the idea of graduating literate BAs.]) In the world of the professor, offshore drilling rigs can be started and stopped, come and go, sort of like an evening seminar. No wonder Professor Chu announced that California agriculture would dry up and blow away (and given the present policies, he may be right).
Looking back at it all, envy seemed the university lifeblood. Most other professionals, you see, were, in comparison to us, overpaid —especially those whom we had the misfortune of sometimes coming in contact with, or, worse, even socializing among. Go to campus and the present demonization of Vegas, Wall Street, surgeons, and insurers makes perfect sense.
Money both repelled and yet attracted academics, those strange summer moths that hated the cash bulb and yet could not resist its radiance. MDs, MBAs, JDs — all these folks had studied far less than we had! And yet, most unfairly, they now made far more money! We, of course, to paraphrase Barack Obama, out of altruism had passed on all those easy avenues of getting rich (identifying a Latin gerundive or an underappreciated 19th suffragette being far more difficult than cracking open someone’s brain or building a shopping center). (By the way, did you ever really believe Barack or Michelle that they could have waltzed over to Wall Street and struck it rich — as if such merchandising and monetizing were no more demanding than community organizing? To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: “I’ve known Wall Street hustlers, and you’re no Wall Street hustler, Barack”.)