All posts by Herb London

Herb London is president of the London Center for Policy Research.

Fraud Up and Down Our Educational System

wizard-of-oz.jpg

In Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz the Wizard says he wants an educated populace, “so by the power vested in me I will grant everyone diplomas.” Welcome to the education system of 2011. Much of what we now observe comes right out of the Baum novel.

When Charles Eliot was president of Harvard, he was asked why there is so much intelligence at this college, He replied, “because the freshmen bring so much in and the seniors take so little out.” My guess is if a university president were completely honest today, he might say the freshman bring almost nothing in and leave by taking nothing out.

The question is, if the society spends billions on primary, secondary and higher education, why is so little accomplished? There are many answers to this question, of course, but I would argue the overarching reason is fraud, fraud at every level in order to satisfy political demands.

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The Sad Transformation of the American University

This is the slightly edited introduction to the author’s new collection of essays, Decline and Revival in Higher Education ( Transaction Publishers ). Dr. London is president of the Hudson Institute, one of the founders of the National Association of Scholars, and the former John M. Olin Professor of the Humanities at New York University.
book_reg_B84A0192-DB43-AEA5-19F4316BB9740083.jpgWhen I entered Columbia College in 1956, the college had a deep commitment to liberal opinion. Father and son Van Doren (Mark and Charles), the recently appointed Dan Bell, my adviser named Sam Huntington, the legendary Lionel Trilling, and a brilliant lecturer named Amitai Etzioni graced the campus and, more or less, leaned left at the time, albeit over the years several had their political orientation change. Yet there was one constant: These professors eschewed orthodoxies, notwithstanding the fact that in a poll of faculty members Adlai Stevenson won the 1956 presidential sweepstakes hands down.
Different views were welcome. Controversy was invited. “Political correctness” had not yet entered the academic vocabulary, nor had it insinuated itself into debate and chastened nonconformists. I was intoxicated by the sheer variety of thought. For me this smorgasbord of ideas had delectable morsels at each setting. It was at some moment in my senior year that I became enchanted with the idea of an academic career.

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Creative Destruction In The Academy

At a recent conference on higher education organized by the National Association of Scholars there were several references to Schumpeter’s famous expression “creative destruction”. It was argued that technology was fomenting a change in pedagogy and the delivery of knowledge.
Presumably in an environment of tightening resources, the university as we known it will change and accommodate technologies that alter the university experience. Surely this is occurring to some degree. Computers can be found in the classroom and research has been made easier than the past because of the internet.
But despite an egalitarian spirit on the campus that often puts the instructor in the role of “peer in the rear” or “guide on the side”, or most professors their role is still the “sage on the stage”, standing in front of the room reading from yellowing notes or asking questions Socrates-like to their students.
It is remarkable that the Blackberry, the internet, the cell phone may have changed unalterably social relations and communication, but the university as a system of transmission has remained largely resistant to the dominate themes of technological change. The Academy has certainly not destroyed the conventions of the past, nor created the innovations of the future.

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Spreading Islam In The Academy

Prince Al Waleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, the world’s 19th richest man with a net worth of $21 billion, recently gave a 16 million British pound donation to the University of Cambridge and the University of Edinburgh to launch two research centers for Islamic studies. The signing ceremony was attended by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, and the chancellor of both universities.

The universities rank among the foremost institutions offering research on Islamic and Middle Eastern studies in the world.

Two years ago Prince Al Waleed donated $40 million to America’s Georgetown and Harvard Universities for the expansion of their Islamic studies programs. In each instance Al Waleed has indicated that the centers are designed for constructive and critical awareness of the role Islam plays across the globe. As he noted: “It is paramount for both Islam and the West to reach mutual ground for pro-active dialogue, respect, acceptance and tolerance.”

Presumably deeper understanding will emerge from these programs with their emphasis on “mutual understanding and cross cultural dialogue between Islam and the West.”

But here is the rub. In all of these programs critical awareness is a one way street. The West is supposed to understand Islam, but what remains unsaid is that Islam is not obliged to understand the West. “Mutual understanding” is a high-sounding phrase that is exercised only in the breach. If tolerance is mutual as the Saudi benefactor contends, then he should put money into Muslim universities in the Middle East for an appreciation of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
It is already clear that British universities tolerate and promote Islamic studies. But where is there evidence of the reverse? Without reciprocity this emphasis on cross cultural dialogue is a sham. Western students are supposed to understand and appreciate Islamic traditions, while the Judeo-Christian tradition is trashed as polytheistic or misguided or worse. In fact, tolerance and Islam are largely incompatible.

It therefore seems most likely that Prince Al Waleed is donating his money to proselytize, to encourage students to gravitate to his faith. While the study of Islam is and can certainly be a serious source of scholarship, one wonders whether that will be the case in these two recent instances or whether the British universities are merely the equivalents of Middle East Studies programs compromised by Saudi money and influence.

It is also worth asking once Prince Al Waleed has left his footprint on the major British and American universities, whether he will turn to the less well known institutions that he can buy off for a mere pittance. He has already left his mark at Griffith College in Australia.
Money talks to academics in a most alluring way and Saudis have the money. The extent to which Middle East Studies programs have been compromised across the United States has prompted Bernard Lewis, the doyen of Islamic studies, and Fouad Ajami to launch their own Middle East Studies Association.

The Saudi plan to use universities as a launching pad to promote religious fervor is transparent. Obviously many scholars simply want to engage in and encourage Islamic scholarship, but that isn’t the motive of all scholars nor is it always the motive of Saudi benefactors.

The ‘Third Way’ At The University Of Chicago

Recently The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 9, 2008) devoted four full pages to a new book by two professors at the University of Chicago, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, one a professor of economics and behavioral science and the other a professor of law. The book, entitled Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness is intended to approach policies that encourage, but do not insist on, socially desirable directions.

Presumably cognitive limitations stand in the way of appropriate choices. Since people are basically inert, impulsive and often irrational they would be best off nudged into acceptable behavior, claim the authors. What they call for is “libertarian paternalism” which they argue is not an oxymoron.

A “nudge”, according to them, is a non-coercive alteration in the decision making process, e.g. innocuous details such as the pattern of lines on a road. Professor Sunstein explains that “For too long, the United States has been trapped in a debate between laissez-faire types who believe markets will solve all our problems and the command and control types who believe that if there is a market failure then you need a mandate.” He and his colleague stand astride arguing that an understanding of human irrationality can improve how public and private institutions shape policy. The presumption is that a nudge does not limit free choice; it merely provides a desirable direction.

One example used by the authors is the reluctance of employees to sign up for 401k plans even though it is in their best interest to do so. They suggest that companies adopt automatic enrollment, while retaining an opt-out provision. That would be seen as the right kind of nudge that still allows for free choice.

Professor Thaler has spent a career thinking about decision making and, in his judgment, people often opt for irrational or overly optimistic positions. For example, he notes they are more fearful of unlikely threats like a nuclear power accident then they are something more probable like a car accident.

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Think Tank Applicants

They call me in droves, recently minted PhD recipients often very talented, seeking employment at a think tank. In another more open period in our history, these same people would energically be seeking positions in the Academy.

Why, after all, should they be in the think tank business? As I see it there are two overarching reasons.

One, the tenure system along with the elimination of forced retirement for professors (Can Senator Moynihan ever be forgiven for his stand on this matter?) militate against the opening of positions. There aren’t jobs available. After all, why should someone give up the world’s best welfare program [four hours of teaching a week, two hours of advisement, 3 months vacation, all on a full time and generous salary].

Second, and perhaps most noteworthy, PhD recipients are eager to leave the political hothouse the university has become. According to many, these former students had to hold their nose and accede to the left wing agenda in order to get their advanced degrees. Now they want to be liberated.

That reminds me of a story from our national history. When Woodrow Wilson left Princeton where he served as president to run for governor of New Jersey, a reporter asked, “Why would you leave the comforts of university life for the turmoil of the governor’s position? Wilson thought for a moment and said, “Because I want to get out of politics.” Keep in mind that was roughly a century ago.
Conditions have certainly magnified since then with tenured radicals using academic space as the launching pad for reformist activity. Notions of objectivity having been relegated to the ash heap of history. Is it any wonder that serious scholars are turning away from their own breeding ground?

As a job applicant said to me recently, “there is simply more openness and fairness in a think tank, than any major university.” Moreover, think tanks advertise their ideological agenda if they have one while universities conceal theirs behind fluorid rhetoric.

I shouldn’t be surprised by the expression of frustration, but I am disappointed that an institution predicated on the free exchange of opinion has now become the purveyor of a political orthodoxy that drives likely professorial candidates from the campus.

Northwestern Makes The Cold War Disappear

In order to fulfill the requirements for a major in history at Northwestern University, my daughter took a course called “The Cold War At Home.” As one might imagine in the hothouse of the college system, left wing views predominate. The students read Ellen Shrecker, not Ronald Radosh. Joseph McCarthy has been transmogrified into Adolf Hitler. And victimology stands as the overarching theme of the course.

Communists in the United States are merely benign civil rights advocates and union supporters. The word espionage never once crossed the lips of the instructor.

An extraordinary amount of time and energy has been devoted to the “lavender persecution” – harm imposed on gay Americans. Presumably, this group was more adversely affected by McCarthy’s allegations than others.

Despite the recent scholarship on the period such as Alan Weinstein’s well researched book on Alger Hiss or Stanton Evanss biography of Senator McCarthy, views that do not fit the prevailing orthodoxy aren’t entertained. Pounded into students is the view that America engaged in “totalitarian practices” not unlike the Soviet enemy we decried.

Although the course is entitled the Cold War at Home, you might think the instructor would be inclined to ask who the enemy is, why was the Soviet Union an enemy and what tactics did this nation employ against us. But these issues are not addressed.

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A Donkey At Berkeley

[a speech originally given at the University of Texas]

What is an appropriate curriculum for our students? What happened to the consensus on which the college curriculum once rested? Together these comprise two of the most urgent questions in contemporary American higher education. It seems to me that the criticisms of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind of a decade ago are symptomatic of the problems we are facing. High standards are described as elitism, a pejorative of scathing proportions. A call for the assertion of Western traditions is characterized as racist and anti-democratic. And Bloom’s critique of radical feminism as a virus let loose on the curriculum is greeted with cries of “phallocentrism.”

The college curriculum as the source of youthful enlightenment free of the impediments of bias and prejudice has unraveled. While Stanley Katz, president of the American Council of Learned Societies, recently noted that “scholars are less politicized in the United States than in any country in the developed world,” he neglected to point out that a profound and revolutionary change has occurred on American campuses since the 1960’s, resulting in the institutionalization of a radical agenda.

For a generation students have been fed on the “studies” curriculum, whether it is women’s studies, gay studies, environmental studies, peace studies, Chicano studies that are designed to indoctrinate students about pathologies in contemporary American culture – specifically race, class, gender, and environmental oppression.

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Radical Discourse at Columbia

It is hard to exaggerate the extent to which a left-wing ideology has captivated university life. I sometimes get the impression that the ghost of Antonio Gramsci is parading among academic faculties spreading his soteriology to “useful dupes.”

I recently participated in a discussion on Iran at Columbia University sponsored by the college Democrats, Republicans, Hillel and various political action committees on campus. Although it was not a formal debate, one member of the panel, a self described expert on Islam, injected a rather contentious spirit into the discussion by noting:

– Ahmadinejad is a legitimate political leader like others in the world
– There isn’t any difference between the Enlightenment world-view in the West and Islam
– Iran is not a threat to Western interests
– We should do nothing about its nuclear weapons program
– The U.S. is suffering from a form of national hysteria over Iran
– Suicide bombers could be compared to soldiers in World War I who were cannon fodder
– Ahmadinejad never said he wanted to wipe Israel off the map
– What difference does it make if Iran possesses a few nuclear weapons?
– There isn’t any movement within Iran to oust Ahmadinejad as its national leader

It was hard for me to believe that a serious scholar circa 2007 would be making claims of this variety. It was equally difficult for me to think that the majority of those assembled would embrace these fatuities. But I was wrong. As David Horowitz once pointed out, it is hard to caricature university life.

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