Belmont Club

The tower of the winds

Alan Charles Kors argues, in the Wall Street Journal, that higher education can be described as an arrangement in which the public tolerates professorial eccentricities as payment for classifying and segregating the youth by IQ. Now if only they would leave it at that.

The power of universities comes from their monopoly of credentials. As Richard Vedder so deeply understands in his “Going Broke by Degree,” they are the only institutions allowed to separate young individuals by IQ and by the ability to complete complex tasks. They do not add value to that, except in technical fields. Recruiters do not pay premiums because of what the Ivy League or the flagship state universities teach in English, history, political science, or sociology. They hire there despite, not because of, that. Recruiters do not pay premiums because our children have been sent to multicultural centers for sensitivity training. Recruiters pay premiums for the value already there, which universities merely identify.

The crisis facing higher education, he feels, arises from the fact that a largely selfish and dysfunctional generation of academics has leveraged this monopoly power entirely for their own gain, creating politically correct ghettos where the bizarre has become normal. “In higher education, to paraphrase the Woody Allen stand-up line, we increasingly send our students to schools for learning-disabled and emotionally disturbed teachers. … American college students became the victims of a generational swindle of truly epic proportions.” And yet despite the obviousness of the swindle he predicts it will persist because the winnowing service which academia provides is too valuable to do without. The carnival will thump along.

Without incentives for different models of higher education, we shall have this same system of colleges and universities as far as the mind can foresee. The tax-free mega-endowments will grow. The legislators and the public will not end the subsidy. The alumni will continue their bequests. The trustees will proudly attend the administrative dog-and-pony shows, the most efficient act on any campus. Well-intentioned donors will support ghettoized “centers” (without faculty lines, cross-listed courses, graduate fellowships, or degrees) that marginalize inquiries that should be central to the academy. These provide protective coloration for administrators, help with fund raising in certain quarters, and permit a transfer of funds to the accelerating thirst for ever new forms of regnant campus orthodoxies. Until civil society makes administrators pay a price for the politicized hiring, curriculum and student life offices they administer, nothing truly will be reformed.

One reason to think that political correctness won’t last forever is astrophysics professor J. Richard Gott’s Doomsday Argument. It essentially asserts that since there is nothing special about our status as observers, we are statistically likely to be halfway along the life of whatever we are measuring. Gott used the argument to predict the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

In 1969, at the time of my visit to the Berlin Wall, it had been standing for 8 years. … I reasoned, using the Copernican Principle, that since there was nothing special about my visit, I was simply observing it at some random point in its existence … If there was nothing special about the location of my visit in time, there was a 50% chance that I was observing the wall sometime during the middle two quarters of its existence. If I was at the beginning of this middle interval, then 1/4 of the walls existence had passed and 3/4 remained in the future. If I was at the end of the middle 2 quarters, then 3/4 of its existence had passed an only 1/4 lay in the future. Thus, there was a 50% chance that the future longevity of the wall was between 1/3 and 3 times as long as its past longevity. Now 8 years divided by 3 is 2 2/3 year, while 8 years multiplied by 3 is 24 years. So standing at the wall in 1969, I predicted to a friend … that there was a 50% chance that the future longevity of the wall would be between 2 2/3 years and 24 years. …But 20 years later, I called my friend … “Well, turn on your TV because Tom Brokaw is at the wall now, and they are tearing it down.”

Kors writes, “The academic world that I entered is gone. [Replaced by the politically correct abominations which he denounces] I teach for my students, whom I love, and I fight for intellectual pluralism, for legal equality and for fairness simply because it is my duty to bear witness to the values I cherish, with no expectation of success.” But maybe he shouldn’t be so discouraged. The Doomsday Argument, whatever its shortcomings, reminds us that apparently solid things usually end sooner than we think. The news networks in their heyday looked at least as solid as the politically correct ivory tower. Where are they now?