October 22, 2003

VDH on Education

One of the best pieces of commentary I have read in a long time is Victor Davis Hanson's critique of the current state of American academia. NRO has it available online here, but the format is not easily readable and the better quality HTML version is only available to subscribers to NR Digital. I was going to excerpt some of my favorite sections of the piece, but finally decided just to reproduce it in its entirety, along with a link to the subscription page to sign up for NR Digital.


American universities are places of dizzying unreality — and this does considerable harm


Our universities have become odd places. They appear almost eerily out of step with the rest of us in times of national crisis. When all of our institutions become subject to greater scrutiny in wartime, the public begins to grasp just how different academic culture has become from the world of most Americans.

This vast abyss was on view in some lopsided academic-senate votes during the controversy over war with Iraq. In California, as elsewhere, about 70 percent of the public supported the armed removal of Saddam Hussein. Yet at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the faculty senate voted 85-4 to condemn the war. In fact, most of the state’s university faculty representatives weighed in along the same lines, from Santa Cruz’s 58-0 vote to Chico’s 43-0 — not a single professor voicing support for a position held by seven out of ten Americans. Like plebiscites in Vietnam, Cuba, and the old Iraq, or the embarrassing balloting of the Soviet legislature, the results were as lopsided and predictable as they were meaningless.

We catch equally disturbing glimpses of this strange landscape through the periodic bloodcurdling pronouncements of faculty members at a time of national peril — such as Columbia professor Nicholas De Genova’s wish for “a million Mogadishus” or University of New Mexico professor Richard Berthold’s praise of the September 11 murderers: “Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon gets my vote.”

There were also the predictably wrongheaded pronouncements from purported experts in diplomatic history, political science, and Middle Eastern history — such as Jere Bacharach of the University of Washington, who on March 28, nine days into the Iraq campaign, grandly announced, “The war is over and we have lost,” inasmuch as American armor would soon be “surrounded and forced to surrender.” Yale professor Immanuel Wallerstein warned of the possibility of “a long and exhausting war,” dismissing the scenario of a quick triumph — “Swift and easy victory, obviously the hope of the U.S. administration, is the least likely [outcome]. I give it one chance in twenty” — before concluding that “losing, incredible as it seems (but then it seemed so in Vietnam too), is a plausible outcome.”

In still other instances, academia’s problem shows itself to be one of pure ethics, rather than anti-Americanism or poor judgment. We feel something has radically gone wrong with the training and culture of scholars, for example, when our top professors and recipients of academic praise and prizes — a Joseph Ellis, Michael Bellesiles, or Doris Kearns Goodwin — purvey misinformation or expropriate the work of others.

It is not the lamentable behavior and pessimism of university humanists alone that grates. Institutionalized hypocrisy also is endemic on campus, and casts doubts on the supposedly principled and ethical proclamations issuing from administrators. An entire industry exists to chronicle the pernicious effects of university speech codes and the double standards that allow conservative campus newspapers to be stolen but would cite infringement on free speech if feminist or race-based publications were pilfered. Ethnic and religious slurs are habitually ignored or pardoned — if confined to Israel and fundamentalist Christians. Campus-funded MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) organizations embrace racist and separatist language (“For the race everything; for those outside the race, nothing”) that would be deemed hate speech if espoused by any other group.

Anyone who has spent a few years in academic life can corroborate any of these accounts by personal anecdote. After 20 years of teaching I have my own favorites. After I reviewed unfavorably a classicist’s edited book, she bragged to an online worldwide classics list server that she had called the FBI to report my coauthor, John Heath, and me — we wrote Who Killed Homer?, an account of the tragic decline of Classics — as likely suspects in the Unabomber manhunt. The American Philological Association, the scholarly organization of classicists, did nothing in response to such McCarthyite tactics, even though the story was published in the Wall Street Journal — indeed, at the time the culprit was an officer of the group and often active in urging the membership to explore social and gender injustice within the profession.

On another occasion I reported to a department chairman that I had been informed that activist graduate students were stealing some books on military history I had put on reserve on the department’s library shelf for seminar students’ use. In response, he warned me about the controversy of a military historian’s teaching a graduate course on agriculture and war in an academic climate devoted to theory and gender; quickly wrote me a check for my losses; and then came up with the idea that, in the future, I must put false library stickers on all the volumes to fool the students into thinking that the books were university property rather than my own. I did, and the theft abruptly stopped.

I once went to an academic hearing to discuss charges made by unnamed accusers that a professor in our department had said insensitive things about a female colleague — in the privacy of his own office. That the complainers remained unidentified yet confessed to eavesdropping through the walls of someone else’s office to glean “evidence” seemed to make no difference. The transgressions of hearsay, snooping, and anonymous accusations were ignored — as it was a matter of supposed male rudeness and insensitivity.

Most recently our university invited activists and persons convicted of felonies — including blowing up university laboratories — to relate their experiences in a conference on radical environmentalism. The fact that in the post–9/11 environment, and at a time of California budget disasters, it made little sense to invite terrorist felons to campus on the state’s nickel occasioned little controversy — until donors to the university complained about the absence of balance. (No dissenters had been invited.)

The common theme in all these instances is that the embrace of politically correct ideology provided zealous miscreants with immunity from the strictures of common sense if not legality itself. Bearing false witness, character assassination, petty theft, eavesdropping, and felony criminal acts — all this was excusable if done in service to more noble political goals such as the professed struggles for gender sensitivity, pacifism, feminism, or environmentalism.

Such politicized activism would be merely the stuff of black humor if the university were at least doing its job of training literate and reasoned thinkers. But often it is not. Graduating seniors have worse reading and writing skills than the students of 30 years ago. At many campuses of the California State University system, almost 40 percent of the units taken by first-year students are remedial courses, basic high-school-level classes designed to teach elementary reading, writing, and arithmetic. Tuition consistently rises more rapidly than inflation, as the public is asked to pay ever more for ever more inferior instruction. Education really is a zero-sum game of a finite number of hours in the life of a harried college student: A politicized and therapeutic curriculum comes at the expense of literature, history, and philosophy. It is, after all, easier to talk about gender bias than take a student through Paradise Lost or Hegel.

Although the faculty is a bastion of “progressive” thinking, some of the worst sorts of labor exploitation are also routine on campus. Part-time Ph.D.’s without medical or retirement benefits teach an increasing number of units, creating a 19th-century caste system of tenured versus temporary faculty, a divide that has no real counterpart in the coal mine or steel mill. The creation of all sorts of nonacademic and outreach programs, new administrative positions, and the general reduction of teaching loads from 30 years ago often require cash-strapped universities to cut costs in instruction. Consequently, students at many elite graduate universities rarely encounter full professors in their first two years, but instead are taught by postdoctoral lecturers and graduate-student teaching assistants — often paid per class at 25 percent or less of the tenured-faculty rate — who are often less qualified and experienced than junior-college teachers.

There are many explanations for this disturbing picture, both institutional and generational. Lifelong employment through tenure can breed complacency, ensure mediocrity, and foster insularity. Underachieving but tenured academics, despite dismal teaching evaluations and nonexistent scholarship, are virtually immune from meaningful censure — docked pay or dismissal — from their peers. Instead, they are like Brahmins from their seventh year to retirement — essentially three decades and more of institutional unaccountability.

Oddly, tenure often does not even achieve its one professed goal of protecting academic independence and eccentricity, as the one-sidedness of those recent academic-senate votes demonstrates. Instead, whether out of peer pressure or in constant pursuit of promotion, grants, good reviews, and book contracts — most adjudicated through peer review and faculty governance — professors who cannot be fired still rarely voice any sentiments at odds with prevailing academic mantras. Saying that George W. Bush is a warmonger might be a brave thing to do in Toledo or Fort Worth, but not in New Haven, Palo Alto, or Madison, where such sentiments are utterly unexceptional.

Principled faculty critics cite the new vocationalism that has ruined the university — the inclusion of nonacademic curricula like hotel management and leisure studies — or the dishonesty of mercenary athletic departments dressed up as amateur collegiate-sports programs. Yet they grow silent when similarly tough questions are asked about their own overspecialization, the use of public grants and sabbaticals to pursue esoteric and often irrelevant research, and the near absence of any readership for academic articles and subsidized university-press books.

An eight-month work year — most of us teach only 30 of 52 weeks — without regular hours required at school outside of class also lends an unreality, a starry-eyed utopianism to professors who count on steady pay raises, permanent work, and an insulation from the hurly-burly of the workplace. That most tenured faculty members in the humanities have never run a business, been laid off, or had their pay cut makes it unlikely that they have suffered dire economic consequences for bad decisions or quirks of fate.

The expansion of the university in the late 1950s and 1960s explains much as well. With over one million bachelor’s degrees granted annually, academia has now become a multibillion-dollar industry, one that must certify rather than educate 21-year-olds for future employment. The boom years of the 1960s created a need for tens of thousands of Ph.D.’s, many of whom simply did not have the talent or training of the far smaller cohort of their predecessors a half-century past. Imagine the quality of athletes and play if we suddenly expanded the National Basketball League to 500 teams, or the NFL to 100.

But more than the institutionalized academic culture or the absence of talent explains the hostility of most academics to those values held by mainstream America. Something very different, something very unusual, transpired in the 1960s when a combination of events altered the perceived mission of the American university. If the tree-lined campus of old was a home to elbow-patched eccentrics and tweedy idealism, by the time of the Vietnam War it had transmogrified into a counterculture that offered a comprehensive alternative to politics as usual. For thousands of young men facing the draft in an unpopular war, and with sexual, racial, and environmental reform on the nation’s agenda, the university responded with new curricula, new campus policies, and new faculty aimed at righting society’s wrongs by proper training and indoctrination. The old Socratic idea that through give and take students might learn a method of inductive reasoning was considered passé, since the mastery of dialectic could only ensure a method for acquiring wisdom, not ipso facto the “right” thinking.

In the past, humanities professors taught a body of knowledge — historical facts, philosophical doctrines, time-honored themes in novels and plays — that might offer a student the ability to translate the daily chaos of the present into some abstract wisdom of the ages, with an appreciation for beauty thrown into the bargain. But of what immediate relevance were all such distant facts and ideas when old white men in the here and now had ensured that young people were dying in Vietnam and that the planet was suffocated in a gaseous cloud?

In response, the university took on the Sisyphean task of guaranteeing social change according to the idealistic visions of an often out-of-touch and ill-prepared faculty. The deductive thinking of predetermined results and theories — the ancient creed of the sophists — now triumphed, as the old notions of fairness and two sides to every issue were deemed less important. The right politics were alone the proper corrective: If students were to leave the university equipped to counterbalance the power of corporate America, white males, the Republican party, and the global reach of the United States, there were only four brief years of preparation and no time or need to offer competing “discourses.”

Sometimes we see the results in the proliferation of “Studies” programs — “Ethnic Studies,” “Women’s Studies,” “Environmental Studies,” or “Peace Studies” — as if the traditional missions of philosophy, literature, and history suddenly about 1970 had been found incapable of dealing with age-old issues of class, race, gender, war, and the environment. Take, for example, the list of classes from the University of California, Santa Barbara, for the academic year 2001-2. There are some 62 different courses listed under “Chicano Studies,” among them Introduction to Chicano Spanish; Methodology of the Oppressed; Barrio Popular Culture; Body, Culture, and Power; Chicana Feminism; History of the Chicano; History of the Chicano Movement; History of Chicano and Chicana Workers; Racism in American History; Chicano Political Organizing; Chicana Writers; De-colonizing Cyber-Cinema; and Dance of the Chicanos. In the history department are listed 13 similar courses on Latino and Chicano issues, in addition to more generic classes on race and oppression. In contrast, the entire catalogue has few classes listed on the Civil War, and no real courses dedicated to either the Revolutionary War or World War II.

It is not just that many of these classes are politicized — imagine writing a paper on past corruption in the United Farm Workers Union’s health fund, the fascist Sinarquismo movement of the early 20th century that favored both Prussian militarism and later German Nazism, or ritualized mass murder in pre-Cortés Mexico City in “Methodology of the Oppressed” or “History of the Chicano.” The problem is also that such therapeutic classes as “De-colonizing Cyber-Cinema” do not necessarily teach a broad body of disinterested knowledge — elements of the ancient world, Renaissance, Reformation, or Enlightenment — that is subject to debate and differing analysis, the building blocks of a true liberal education. Instead they reinforce the most unfortunate of youthful tendencies — arrogance coupled with ignorance — as activists with incomplete historical knowledge and without writing and speaking fluency claim wisdom on the basis of their commitment or zealotry in a particular cause.

Two other developments may account for the academy’s sinking reputation. If during the Vietnam War such pernicious ideas about education were confined to activist young professors and graduate students, they are the common currency of that generation now come of age and into institutional authority and responsibility. Yesterday’s assistant professor is today’s college dean, provost, or president. Like swallowed prey making its way through the digestive tract of a snake, the 1960s generation has gone from newly minted Ph.D.’s to tenured radicals and on to university administrators, thus explaining why today’s institutional hierarchies tend to support rather than mitigate often extremist views.

The other development involves the glaring issue of privilege. It is one thing for the public to see poorly paid assistant professors demonstrating against the pathologies of American capitalism in Berkeley’s Free Speech Plaza, quite another to witness the smug disdain of the United States voiced by well-off endowed professors and elite faculty. One of the reasons that a Noam Chomsky or Edward Said wears so thin is precisely that his own radical politics are so at odds with the compensation he receives, the house he lives in, and the places he jets to — all greater than those enjoyed by most of the middle-class Americans whom the professoriate so smugly dismisses. So it is no surprise that the hotspots of activism against the Iraq war were places like Westwood, Santa Cruz, La Jolla, the Berkeley Hills, and Davis rather than Bakersfield and Tulare. Affluence, leisure, and security are an integral part of campus radicalism.

But revolutionary politics and elite tastes are always a bad match. The public that is often a paycheck away from penury has little tolerance for affluent professors who preach American pathology while living off the country’s largess. Perhaps guilt about living lives so at odds with professed radical politics explains unquestioning faculty support for affirmative-action quotas, suspicion of Western civilization, and empathy for opponents of the U.S. military. For every trip to Europe or each child at prep school, psychological penance is achieved by weighing in at little cost on the side of the happily distant other.

Does this campus tragedy have repercussions in wider society other than the fact that so many of today’s socially aware graduates cannot write well, speak clearly, or do basic computation? The three meae culpae that emerged after September 11 — multiculturalism, cultural relativism, and utopian pacifism — either to excuse or to mitigate the horror of the mass murderers are all explicable only in terms of a contemporary academic ideology that has filtered down to millions in America well beyond our elite media and universities. Multiculturalism on our campuses taught us that the customs of all peoples are more or less equal, one society — whether the Taliban or Saddam Hussein’s Baathists — not being qualitatively better or worse than another. But the public saw that the theocracy in Afghanistan is a different sort of rule from democracy — an exclusive product of Western civilization — and results in the subjugation of women and the crushing of homosexuals by toppled stone walls, not electoral disputes in Florida.

Cultural relativism reprimanded a generation not to judge a people on its customs and practices; there can be no objective criterion of worth, since the very concept is an arbitrary “construct,” created by those in power to maintain their control and privilege. Yet burkas transcend culture: They are hot, make daily tasks excruciatingly difficult, and are often demeaning for women forced to wear them across time and space.

Conflict-resolution classes suggested that war is a product of exploitation, oppression, poverty, or miscommunication — rarely attributable to the aggressive policies of an autocrat who seeks power, fame, status, and honor through attack on perceived enemies. Terrorists must have material, not imaginary religious or ideological, grievances — and thus upscale brats like Mohamed Atta and Osama bin Laden surely must somewhere have been deprived of nutrition, education, or enlightenment in some way that can be traced to an act, policy, or idea of the West.

Thus war is “resolved” through greater understanding and “mediation,” as if we could achieve peace by sitting down with the murderous Mullah Omar — some in our State Department, remember, even floated the idea of a coalition government to include the Taliban — rather than by defeating him. That terrorism is often the domain of the pampered, bored, and conniving makes no sense to academics who have been schooled in the material determinism of Marx and his epigones — and who have never seen anything quite like an Osama or Saddam in the faculty lounge or the halls of the academic senate. Unprofessional deans and hurtful chairmen are one thing; cold-blooded killers who enjoy blowing up children with plastic explosives, nails, and rat poison are quite another — and, of course, usually a world away.

The past two years have done untold damage to the reputation of the contemporary university. Its experts — who neither read nor teach the history of wars — often predicted military defeat in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Campus protests against America and Israel offered anti-Semitic slogans and were organized by creepy neo-Communists who professed support for Fidel Castro and North Korea. The sexism, homophobia, and racism of bin Laden’s fanatics discredited the idea that such pathologies were uniquely Western. And what we saw of the Pakistani street, the parades of ten-year-olds with suicide belts in Gaza, and the madrassas, all gave the lie to the canard that there is no abstract measure to distinguish good from bad.

In contrast, American armed forces, drawing on a deadly military tradition unique to the Western world and subject to civilian oversight, not only obliterated Saddam’s military in a few weeks but ended the conflict of some twelve years that began in August 1990 through force leading to victory, not negotiations facilitating appeasement. Contrary to university gospel, the military proved not merely strong but moral as well, as it seeks to implant democracy in the difficult arena of postbellum Iraq. In response to all that, what is a postcolonial-studies professor or a lecturer in conflict-resolution theory to do?

Worse still for the campuses, embedded reporting of the American military offered a sharp contrast with the more elite culture of the university that was shown wanting in everything from race relations and inculcating maturity to tolerating dissent. If Hispanic and black Americans often are voluntarily segregated in university “theme houses” and dining halls or participate in racially segregated graduation ceremonies on “liberal” campuses, the military force-feeds integration and allows no such separatism. If 19-year-olds on campus engage in heated debates over perceived slights in campus newspapers and endlessly waste time over strange things like “lookism” and the rights of the “transgendered,” their generational counterparts on aircraft carriers are busy shepherding $40 million jets around crowded tarmacs, death or dismemberment always a few inches away. If faculty and students chant about perceived oppression abroad, college-educated officers and their rugged enlistees brave rifle fire to depose fascists and install democracies in their place.

Nor do Harvard or Stanford undergraduates have any monopoly on popular culture, as their peers in the Marines listen to the same music, wear the same style of sunglasses, and use the same jargon — the military and its officer corps more attuned to today’s adolescents than are frustrated professors who claim contemporary youth do not listen to them as they should. They don’t, and for good reason. If you asked today’s undergraduates at most campuses whether they respected a Gen. Tommy Franks or a Joint Chiefs chairman Richard Myers more than most of their college professors, the vast majority might well weigh in with the military.

Not all is doom and gloom on our campuses. If the faculty was lopsided in its opposition to the American effort in Iraq, according to most polls the students were evenly divided, or in fact favored military intervention. If the complaints of professors about the ideology of today’s undergraduates are any indication, a river of change is about to burst through the Augean stables of most American campuses. With civil rights legislation long ago enacted, the draft now history, controversy on campus about inviting rather than expelling ROTC, far more female than male undergraduates, and the U.S. military at war with right-wing fascists like Noriega, Milosevic, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein, today students do not believe that their own culture is necessarily racist, warmongering, or sexist.

In real dollars, tuition has steadily increased, lending a sense of the practical to today’s undergraduate “consumer.” Maybe it is the characteristic of youth to question authority; maybe today’s indebted students want tangible results for their investment. But whatever the cause, undergraduates more than ever are questioning their professors’ ideology, resent “off topic” meanderings into contemporary politics, and don’t think it is the university’s business to offer bias as “balance” to the supposed wrongs of the dominant culture they will soon enter.

In short, much of our present academic pathology is the cargo of a particular generation, one that is slowly making its way out of the university. Its influence is felt most acutely today as it reaches the apex of power, but as this generation nursed on campus protest passes — and it soon will — there is reason to hope that it may not have replicated itself and so will be remembered as a sad artifact of our recent history.

Mr. Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a professor of classics at California State University, Fresno, and the author of Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (Encounter).

Posted by dan at October 22, 2003 1:16 PM