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Works and Days

The Fannie and Freddie University

November 20th, 2011 - 11:52 am

It’s More than Just PC

The traditionalist critique of the university — I made it myself over thirteen years ago in the co-authored Who Killed Homer? — was that somewhere around the time of the Vietnam War, higher education changed radically for the worse. Note I am talking mostly about the liberal arts. America remains preeminent in math, physics, hard sciences, medicine, and engineering, subjects that are largely immune to politicization and race, class, and gender relativism. The top students, and often the more hard-working, gravitate to these fields; indeed, in my general education courses on the ancient world, I often noticed that math and science students did far better than did their sociology or anthropology counterparts.

Such excellence in math and science explains why the world’s top-rated universities in all the most recent rankings are overwhelmingly American. (Indeed, liberal arts professors piggyback on such findings and often, in a sense quite fraudulently, point to these polls as if to confirm their own superiority.)

I spent a great deal of my life in the university as a student and professor and now as a researcher. Higher learning in the arts and humanities has enriched American life for 200 years. Small liberal arts colleges like Hillsdale, St. John’s, St. Thomas Aquinas, and dozens of others continue to be models of enlightened learning. But all that said, increasingly public universities and the larger private institutions have become morally and fiscally bankrupt. Here are some reasons why.

Monotony of Thought

By 2011 we all know that faculties are overwhelmingly liberal. That in and of itself would not be so alarming if they were not activist as well. By that I mean academics are not just interested in identifying supposed past American sins, but also in turning disinterested instruction into political advocacy, especially along race, class, and gender lines. Rosie the Riveter, the Japanese internment, and Hiroshima all deserve study, but they are not the sum total of World War II. Today’s average undergraduate may know that African-Americans were not integrated into American units during World War II, but they have no clue what the Battle of the Bulge, a B-29, or Iwo Jima were. They may insist that global warming is real and man-caused, but would have trouble explaining what exactly carbon is.

The effect of politicized learning on the quality of education was unfortunate in a strange sort of cyclical fashion. The more “–studies” classes saturated the curriculum, the less time there was for classical approaches to literature, philosophy, language, or history. The more the profile of the student body became more important than its preparation, the more these classes had to be watered down, as if thinking the right thoughts could justify the absence of the old rigor.

Deans begin quoting the ethnic profiles of the incoming classes, the supposed expanded diversity of the faculty, their own commitment to various progressive causes, and kept absolutely mum about the average GPAs and SAT scores of the new student body or the content of the new curriculum. And why not? No provost was ever fired for having fewer students graduate with less skills; many were for not “reaching out” to “underrepresented” groups.

A Blank Check

We know all the other pathologies of the modern university. Tenure metamorphosized from the protection of unpopular expression in the classroom into the ossification of thought and the proliferation of the mediocre. Faculty senate votes did not reflect raucous diversity of thought among secure professors, but were analogous to Saddam’s old plebiscites in their one-sided voting. Tenure created the notion of a select cloister, immune from the tawdry pursuit of money and neurotic worry over job security so true on the crass “outside.”

Campus ethics and values were warped by specialization in both faculty instruction and publication. The grandee that butchered a graduate class every semester was deemed more valuable to the university than the dynamic lecturer who enthused and enlightened three undergraduate introductory classes each term — on the dubious proposition that the former serially “published” peer-reviewed expansions on his dissertation in journals that at most five or ten fellow academics read.

Not teaching at all was even preferable to teaching very little, as a priestly class of administrators evaded the “burdens” of instruction. The new bureaucrats were often given catchy titles: “Assistant to the Provost for Diversity”, or “Associate Dean for Cultural Studies”, or the mundane “Special Assistant to the President for Internal Affairs”, in the manner of late Soviet apparatchiks or the power flow charts of the more mediocre corporations. Although the faculty was overwhelmingly liberal, it was also cynical, and understood that the avalanche of self-serving daily memos it received from the nomenklatura need not be read. I used to see entire trash cans filled each morning with reams of xeroxed pages, as professors started off their days by nonchalantly dumping the contents of their mail slots. Most of the memos read just like those “letters” congressmen send to their constituents, listing a dean’s or vice-provost’s res gestae and detailing how they were “working for you.”

Lala Land

Self-invention proliferated. Under the system of “faculty governance” (analogous to carpenters assuming the roles of the contractor and architect), curriculum, hiring, promotion, and firing were managed by peers. An article “in progress” or “under review” was passed off by committees as good as published (And why not? You, in hand-washes-hand-fashion, might be on the other end of a faculty committee and need the same life raft someday). Linda Wilson-Lopez, a third generation one-quarter Mexican-American, was deemed as much a victim as if he she had just crossed the Rio Grande. Old white guys in their sixties, who were often hired sight unseen in the early 1970s, suddenly demanded diversity hires — with the assumption that when the music stopped in the 1980s they had already found chairs and the new discrimination did not apply to the already tenured. (Had affirmative action involved replacing sixty-something, full-professor white males, it would have had a very different reception). Proposals for envisioned research on sabbaticals were as common as post-sabbatical reports of actual work were rare.

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