All posts by Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory.

The Coming Ideological Takeover of Music

It has been nearly 30 years since Jesse Jackson led a group of protesters around the Stanford University campus chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has gotta go!”

The target back then was patriarchal Eurocentric content, the books, art, words, and ideas of Dead White Males.  The solution was a more multicultural syllabus, plus more non-white-male professors, the advocates said.  I went on the job market in 1987, the same year, and the word at the time in English was that it was going to be an all-female hiring season.

Once we had a revised syllabus, students would leave college with a wider sense of history and culture, not just Hemingway-Fitzgerald-Faulkner, but Cather, Hurston, and Ellison, too.  The High Modernism of Pound and Eliot, Joyce and Proust, would come down from the exclusive pinnacle of literary art and join other styles on a diverse plateau of interesting objects. The multiculturalists never said, “Don’t read James and Stevens.” They just wanted (so they claimed) equal time, and no more, “You MUST read James and Stevens.”  They didn’t even argue much for the excellence of new names added to the syllabus.  Sheer diversification was enough.

And so one Western Civ requirement after another has fallen out of the higher ed curriculum.  One recent episode unfolds in the work of a task force created by the College Music Society a consortium of post-secondary musicians and teachers housed in Missoula, Montana. The project was started in 2013 as a process to review the teaching of music theory and performance in the United States. The first draft of the report is the topic of a thoughtful essay at the Pope Center web site by Andrew Balio, which neatly points out the ideological nature of it.

The subtitle of the report sets the tone: “A Manifesto for Progressive Change in the Undergraduate Preparation of English Majors.”  You know what’s coming next.  The “creative and expressive dimensions of music have been progressing rapidly over the past several decades,” and academia hasn’t followed suit.  Instead, the “academy has remained isolated, resistant to change, and too frequently regressive rather than progressive in its approach to undergraduate education.”  This resistance is no virtue.  Indeed, the document takes entirely for granted the progressive premise that if the world changes the classroom must keep pace.

The authors add to the charge of hide bounded-ness the worry that enrollments may soon drop as “sophisticated high school students seek music career development outside the often rarefied environments and curricula” of U.S. colleges.

The solution, the authors say, is to change the focus.  Teachers need to shift away from “the prevailing model of training performers in the interpretation of older works.”  An “experience” should take its place: “in a global society, students must experience, through study and direct participation, music of diverse cultures, generations, and social contexts, and that the primary locus for cultivation of a genuine, cross-cultural musical and social awareness is the infusion of diverse influences in the creative artistic voice.”  The documents emphasize especially African-derived music.

All of this is so familiar and routine that it feels like a waste of time even to point out the many tendentious assumptions and biased aims in the statement. Balio quotes one of the most fatuous lines from the text:

A strong argument can also be made that the transformed model of music study advanced by TFUMM will shape a new generation of artists/visionaries who will transmit their broad and transformative wisdom to society and positively impact many of the most pressing issues of our times. Ecological crises, poverty, famine, disease, violence against women, child abuse, ideological and extremist tensions...

As he notes, a “laughably tall order.”  But it probably takes this kind of moral puffery to justify the changes on order.  After all, we read, the organization regards “the culturally narrow horizons of music study as nothing short of a social justice crisis.”  And the emphasis on the “European classical repertory” is more than just an overly narrow education. It is a denial of “genuine global artistic identity,” a hindrance to “responsible citizenship.”   It is “notably out of step with this broader reality.”

Reading these sentences is a dreary process.  There are no surprises along the way, the progressive agenda so scripted and witless that anybody can rehearse it.  Successful academics have learned how to play this game quite well.  Balio provides a good example in the official description of the new head of a state university music school.

An ethnomusicologist, her research interests include African American music, feminist theories, queer studies in music and the social sciences, and race in American popular culture. [She] pursues these interests in…a study that tracks the emergence of black feminist consciousness in women’s music. The latter is a network that emerged from a subculture of lesbian feminism in the early 1970s…. Her] research into the interactions of race, gender and sexuality concerning African American music cultures is complemented by her personal and professional advocacy on behalf of women, people of color, and other underrepresented constituencies in departments and schools of music. 

Note, as Balio does, that there is nothing here about her musical accomplishments.  That’s not what counts.  Instead, we have the race-gender-sexuality dance, along with a testament of her activism.  This is no armchair identity politician–she really means it!  The language is so worn and clichéd (“interactions of race, gender and sexuality,” “constituencies”) that you can’t even satirize it.  One could attach it to hundreds of other professors and administrators with no change, and the effect would be the same.  This is the right person for the job.

Young people just coming up in the academic profession don’t know that this routine went stale more than 25 years ago.  But it’s still the going habit, and (usually) it has to be carried out if hiring and advancement are to happen.  But if they expect this turn to relevance and diversity is going to boos enrollments, they should look at English and see if those very turns have made the discipline more popular and prestigious.

‘White Only’ and ‘Black Only’

A bizarre incident happened last week at University of Buffalo. Someone posted signs reading “White Only” or “Black Only” at the entrance to bathrooms and above drinking fountains around campus. Students were shocked and outraged, USA Today and other outlets reported. Police were called in to remove the signs and investigate.

The Black Student Union called a meeting to discuss the incident, in the course of which the affair crossed over into a wonderland. As the members deplored the signs and the racist legacy they invoked, a black graduate student rose and admitted that she placed the signs herself. It was a performance art project, she said, created to fulfill an assignment for a course, “Installation in Urban Spaces.”

Attendees got angry and walked out. Some started crying.

The student has followed up with a long letter to the Buffalo student newspaper that only aggravates the situation. After describing the course assignment, she switches abruptly to herself. “I am in pain,” she says. She studies art at Buffalo precisely to express her suffering and to advance the process of “healing.” Her “symptoms” (she uses the term) include self-hate, trauma, and “an unbearable and deafening indignation.”

The cause is white racism, inflicted upon her for years. Snide jokes, the n-word, and ubiquitous white privilege have taken their toll and produced a “frightening” reality she and others of her race must endure. The system “threatens, traumatizes, brutalizes, stunts, and literally kills non-white people every day in the United States.”

She apologizes for “the extreme trauma, fear, and actual hurt and pain these signs brought about.” To recall Jim Crow was no doubt distressing for students on their way to class that morning. But the student has no regrets: “I do not apologize for what I did. Once again, this is my art practice.” Suffering must be allowed its moment. Without expression, suffering simmers inside forever. Furthermore, “hurt was necessary to call us to action.”

The statement goes on for 2,170 words. As you can see, it is chock full of erratic, overheated identity-politics contentions that provide ample fodder for satire, ridicule, denunciation, and head shaking.

But it’s the kind of episode conservative and libertarian critics of the university should avoid. However misguided this student may be, and however much we might want to say that she misunderstands herself and U.S. history, there is no point in making judgments. No doubt, students on campus are talking non-stop about the incident, and any corrective to the student’s actions should be left to her peers, not to us.

It’s not just because we shouldn’t go after such an easy target, or because we shouldn’t wade into race issues that are already a dismay and an embarrassment for Buffalo students and teachers and administrators.

Rather, it is because the best way of dealing with them is to follow the university’s own course and pull back, letting it wear out in a process of “dialogue.” Here is the statement the administration issued in response to the whole affair.

The University at Buffalo is a community that strongly values inclusiveness and diversity. Faculty, staff and students from all backgrounds and cultures challenge and inspire each other to explore, discover and expand their world view.

We are committed to ensuring that the University at Buffalo is welcoming and supportive of all members of our community. On a daily basis, our faculty and students explore sensitive and difficult topics in an environment that values freedom of expression, and this week’s student art project is generating considerable dialogue.

The university is encouraging our community to discuss how we negotiate the boundaries of academic freedom in a safe and inclusive environment that values freedom of expression and further builds a culture of inclusion.   

The University at Buffalo stands strong in our commitment to ensuring that such discourse occurs in a safe, inclusive and intellectually open environment.

The idiom is familiar, and it serves a managerial function. When an affair like this happens, campus staff drowns it in bureaucratic words—“welcoming and supportive,” “inclusiveness and diversity,” “culture of inclusion,” “save and inclusive environment.” As the hack clichés pile up, your eyes glass over . . . and that’s precisely the point! The words don’t mean anything and they’re not supposed to mean anything. The point is to blunt and soften, deflect and delay, smile and nod, sympathize and support.

They are wise to do so. There is nothing to gain from going after this student for posting hate speech, summoning a police investigation, and bringing heaps of bad publicity down upon the school. She has freedom of expression and campus identity politics on her side. Better to reiterate the prevailing truisms and get back to work.

There is a lesson here for conservative and libertarian critics of the academy. Don’t waste time with single episodes unless or until they rise to a level of significant immorality or illegality. No sensible person needs to be guided through this affair, just as no informed person needs to be told that some nutty things happen on campus these days. Let us save our critique for the actions that deserve it.

The Duke lacrosse is an obvious qualifier, and K. C. Johnson’s blog and book (with Stuart Taylor) were gold standard models of how to proceed. Cases like this one isn’t.

College Prep: Put on a Suit and Tie

There is no shortage of silly proposals on college campuses.  We have, for instance, the University of Tennessee Office for Diversity and Inclusion asking students to use gender-neutral pronouns such as ze in order to create a more welcoming campus. Transgender people, you see, don’t fit this gender binary, and so a foundation stone of the English language must be changed.

But every once in a while a policy surfaces that is so wise and appropriate that it deserves applause from even the sharpest higher-ed critics. Dillard University has one in place, and it should spread across the country.  It’s a suggested dress code for male students.  As reported it two weeks ago,

when the academic year begins today at Dillard University, faculty are expecting to see far more professional attire, as male students are encouraged to don suits and ties for the first day of class.

Yes, 19-year-old males, who typically prefer t-shirts and caps and jeans and cargo-shorts and other middle-school-appropriate attire, are urged to dress up and look like professional men.  The initiative originated not in the administration, either.  It was the conception of a Dillard senior, one Jerome Bailey, who realized at the end of his undergraduate career in 2012 that he didn’t realize at the beginning the meaning and value of proper deportment, including the type of clothing you wear.

The goal of the program is “to elevate the standard for the appearance and image of Dillard men.”  That adds a peer-pressure factor to the idea, which probably ensures its success more than would faculty and administrative support.  For entering students who have no suit or tie, the school keeps a shared “closet” from which they can borrow the apparel they need. Professors and upper-classmen will assist them in learning how to tie a tie, too.

At present, about 40 percent of the undergraduate males show up on Day One looking like junior professionals. The dean of students tells the reporter, “On the first day now, there are suits everywhere on campus. And it’s a fantastic look.”

We might add another justification for sharp dress besides decency and manliness. When organizations query employers about the deficiencies they see in younger workers and candidates for jobs, the respondents often highlight poor “soft” skills. One poll by CareerBuilder asked them to name the skills recent college graduates lack the most. Topping the list was “Interpersonal or people skills,” which drew 52 percent. Math skills came in at only 15 percent, computing and technical prowess at 13 percent.

Another CareerBuilder poll reported that 77 percent workers report witnessing adolescent behaviors on the job, including whining, pouting, gossip and tattling, cliquishness, and outright tantrums.

Managers are worried, and any evidence of adolescence they see during the screening of candidates will be a disqualification. Another survey by the National Association of Manufacturers found that among the “most serious skill deficiencies” in the workplace was “Inadequate basic employability skills (attendance, timeliness, work ethic, etc.).

The suit-and-tie program at Dillard addresses these deficiencies by setting a better tone.  Males coming into college live largely in a world of pseudo-masculine youth culture. It is anti-intellectual, anti-eloquent, sloppy, irresponsible, and irreverent. Dillard is a historically black college, so we should add the hip-hop culture of misogyny and aggression to the mix.  The values that go with it are contrary to the values of most workplaces. You can’t talk in young male lingo in a job interview, and you can’t dress that way.  Everything must change—posture, diction, and manners. Put a young male in a suit and tie, and we see that process begin to happen.

The Dillard case forms a worthy contrast to what happened at Henderson State University recently when the school posted signs stating that saggy pants are prohibited.  One news story blasted, “’Sagging pants’ sign causes uproar at Henderson State University.” The sign included profanity, excessive loudness, and rude behavior, but the sagging pants got all the attention. That’s because many critics pointed out that this targets African American students, who make up around one-quarter of the student body. Two students have called for the university to hire an “official diversity officer” so that such racial insults don’t happen again. Henderson sign

The ACLU (of course) objects to all such bans as “an affront to the Constitution.” Its press release from a few years ago stated that such rules license police to stop people on the street and search them merely for committing a “fashion crime.”

In opposing ordinary rules of decency, critics borrow the old argument that standards are just social constructs and can be revised, especially when they have a disparate impact, if not a racist motivation.  If colleges buy that argument, then the only standards of conduct left are those demanded by political correctness. The sad consequence is that when many of these liberated and affirmed youths enter the job market, they’re going to hit a wall, and not all the cries of injustice and racism are going to help them one bit.

The Fading of Liberal Education

The best ranking of undergraduate institutions by their general education is ACTA’s What Will They Learn? project. The evaluation looks at seven core subjects (composition, literature, foreign languages, U.S. government or history, economics, math, and science) and tallies whether schools require all students to show sufficient knowledge and proficiency in each one. The ACTA approach goes straight to the heart of learning, the content of the curriculum. Not the applicant size and selectivity, not diversity, not faculty research or Federal dollars, but only the courses students have to take in core subjects. ACTA has reviewed the requirements of 1,098 schools and scored each one on the standard A to F scale.

The degree to which higher education in America has abandoned the mission of liberal education may be measured by the number of schools that made ACTA’s A List. Today, fully 43 percent of all grades given in college are A grades, a bizarre leap from the 15 percent rate in 1960. But ACTA gave only 22 schools its highest score, or really only 21 if we combine St. John’s Annapolis with St. John’s Santa Fe. That makes for a rate of less than 2 percent.

How are we to square this meager commitment to general education with the findings of Academically Adrift, the opinions employers have of the knowledge and skills of recent graduates, and the rising cost of tuition?

There is something else worth noticing in the A List, apart from its microscopic size. We have 21 schools. Three of them are military: West Point, Air Force Academy, and the Coast Guard Academy. Interestingly, the most represented state is Georgia, with Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, Kennesaw State, Georgia Southern, and University of Georgia. Most noteworthy of all is that ten schools, nearly half of the list, are religious colleges:

Bluefield College

Clark Atlanta University

Colorado Christian University

Gardner-Webb University

Pepperdine University

Regent University

Southwest Baptist University

Thomas Aquinas College

Thomas More College of Liberal Arts

University of Dallas

My secular colleagues at research universities might be surprised by this commitment to breadth at religious institutions. In the eyes of many, higher education means thinking your way out of parochial perspectives—and religion IS parochial. When Thomas Aquinas on its home page casts the goal of “A Liberating Education” as preparing youths “to live well the life of the free citizen and of the Christian,” it can only strike secularists as a narrowing process, not a broadening one. Bluefield designs the curriculum as the creation of a “Christian academic community,” a term the irreverent professors regard as oxymoronic. Academia and Christianity don’t go together. Does Southwest Baptist have a vibrant queer theory collective?

But here we have evidence of the opposite, religious schools demanding more history, languages, and science than do their worldly competitors. The number of religious institutions on the list suggests another conclusion: that religious understanding is an opening, not a closure—indeed, that the secular departure from religious aims in the curriculum counts as a constraint, not a freedom.

Progressives Shoot at Shakespeare

Dana Dusbiber’s statement in The Washington Post deploring the teaching of Shakespeare in high school English courses evoked universal scorn and laughter. Her thesis is simple: Shakespeare is too old, white, male, and European for 21st-century American students, especially those of color.  His language is dense and unfamiliar, enough so that Dusbiber herself can’t always understand it.  He is the result of white people’s tastes.  He’s a routine, not a fresh discovery.

The Common Core English Language Arts standards (quoted by Dusbiber) require a play by Shakespeare in high school, but she treats the rule as a hidebound imposition.  It makes for a boring and alien class experience.  When are bureaucrats going to realize that the student population needs something else?  When will they stop peddling old-time, non-diverse classics to youths who don’t like them—and with good reason?  We need to assign words, images, and ideas closer to their real lives.

Commentators jumped on Dusbiber for anti-intellectualism, low standards, and incompetence. But why attack Dusbiber for voicing standard progressive premises? Her opinions are not the complaints of a narrow-minded and eccentric individual. They are entirely in keeping with multiculturalist notions.  True, she delivers a blunt and inexpert expression of them, but her conclusions and practices follow logically from the race and gender focus of reigning education theory of the progressive kind.  She says nothing that gainsays the following truisms about the English class:

  • Students need “representation”—black students need to see black authors and black characters (humanely portrayed), and it’s best if they are presented by a black teacher.
  • The past is irrelevant or worse—history evolves and mankind improves (if steered in the right social-justice directions); to emphasize the past is to preserve all the injustices and misconceptions of former times.
  • Contemporary literature is better—it’s more diverse and more real.
  •  Classics are authoritarian—they deny teachers and students the freedom to chart their own curriculum and take ownership of their learning.

Dusbiber adopts all of these assumptions.  Her error lay not in her ideas but in her inarticulate version of them.  A more sophisticated rendition would have blocked much of the hostile response, but reached the same conclusions.  We should aim criticism not at her, but at progressive education in general.  Everything she said she heard before in teacher training programs.  Shakespeare can’t survive hack teachers, and he can’t survive progressive principles, either.

One particular response recognized the threat progressivist to the Bard and aimed to dispel it on progressivist grounds.  Written by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, “The Progressive Case for Teaching Shakespeare” appeared in The New Republic. For Bruenig, Shakespeare is defensible even in the non-white urban American classroom for two reasons.

One, his distance from us compels us to reflect upon our own condition.  As we enter the world of Hamlet and Henry V, we must imagine a world of different values and beliefs and mores. This in turn excites in youths a “political imagination,” Bruenig says, that makes us regard our own time more critically.

The second rationale has a political meaning, too, but a concrete one.  Politicians often invoke historical references to bolster their positions.  It is crucial, then, for youths to know these references in order for them to assess their political uses and abuses.

It is hardly necessary to note that if this is the best progressive argument for Shakespeare, he hasn’t a prayer.  One doesn’t need to read a whole Shakespeare play in order to pick up historical allusions in contemporary politics.  A Wikipedia entry will do.  The same goes for encountering the strangeness of the past.  Why struggle through the scenes of King Lear in order to understand the situation of the poor in Renaissance Europe?  (Bruenig chooses the poor as her example.)  You could do the same by choosing more accessible materials such as paintings and videos and museum artifacts.  Nothing Bruenig contends justifies Shakespeare over anything else.

The problem is that progressivism can’t make the argument. Shakespeare endures in the classroom on aesthetic and cultural grounds that progressivism refuses.  It casts aesthetic excellence as a political tool, the imposition of one group’s tastes upon everyone else.  And it marks the culture at whose pinnacle Shakespeare stands (the English literary-historical canon) as an outdated authority.

To say that Shakespeare is central to our cultural inheritance—beloved by audiences in the 19th-century American west, quoted by presidents, source of countless American idioms—is to dispel the multiculturalist breakthrough of the mid-20th century.  If progressivism reigns in secondary and higher education, Shakespeare, Pope, and Wordsworth are doomed.

Why Is He $82,000 in Debt?

Kevin Carey hates college.  Or rather, he hates the higher education industry, the system, the establishment.  An encounter on page 39 of his new book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere indicates one reason why.  Carey sits down at a Starbucks in Washington, DC, with a junior at George Washington University, “Hugh,” a working-class kid with a “neat ginger beard” who wears a “standard collegiate uniform of hoodie, jeans, and sneakers.”  The chat turns on Carey’s question: how much money has Hugh borrowed to pay for college?

“Eighty-two thousand dollars,” he said.  “By the time I graduate, a hundred and ten.”

Carey has two reactions.  First, the raw amount shocks him.  It shocks me, too.  I secured a loan to cover tuition at UCLA in my fourth year, and the episode bothered me from beginning to end.  I didn’t want any debt at all, and I worked part-time throughout my undergraduate years.  When I signed that paper, I felt a handcuff tighten on my wrist.  You will laugh when you hear the total: $1,800.00.  At that point, UCLA cost less than $1,000 per year, so I didn’t need much, though cost of living in West Los Angeles was high.  But still, debt didn’t seem right, not at age 21 and with no regular job.

No Censure for Hugh

With that memory, I can’t get my head around Hugh’s burden.  It’s inconceivable, it’s insane.  That brings us to Carey’s second reaction.  Hugh mutters these numbers as if he were listing his height and weight, and that casual attitude shocks Carey even more than the six-figure dollar amount does.  He’s barely 20-years old, well short of graduation and with no job prospects lined up, but he doesn’t appear to recognize the risks of his decisions.  Carey writes, “I don’t think he entirely understood what it meant to have a six-figure indenture hanging around his neck.”  He assumes everything will work out.  He works hard, Carey notes, he’s ambitious, and he’s done all the right things: kept out of trouble, attended a good college, and remained goal-oriented.  Why shouldn’t everything end up okay?  Debt is just one of the hurdles high-achievers must leap.

In a way, Hugh’s cluelessness follows from the aspiration that landed him in deep debt.  You see, while finishing high school in Rhode Island, Hugh fixed upon a career in international relations.  But the job market in that field is tight, so candidates must attend a selective school and earn a high GPA.  George Washington University fit the profile, and it has the added attraction of a uniquely pertinent location, Foggy Bottom, home of American diplomatic thought.

But annual costs at GW are $60,000, and so Hugh had to max out on federal loans and add more from Sallie Mae.  Those funds will get him to graduation.  After that, he plans to work for a Swiss firm that runs international science conferences, then take the Foreign Service exam and begin a career as a foreign diplomat.  That’s the projection.  Nothing in Carey’s description indicates Hugh takes the monthly financial drag into his planning, or that he has a back-up plan should this streamlined one collapse.

Financial Quicksand

Carey has no censure for Hugh, but he should.  After all, High could have saved $100,000 by attending a public college, two-year or four-year, in his home state, then transferred to GW for junior and senior year.  Besides that, we can blame Hugh (and his parents, perhaps) for selecting a sole career path from Day One of college, and that one a competitive long-odds pursuit.  We shouldn’t allow 17-year-olds to solidify their aims and limit their options so early.  Unless they choose a field in which all graduates of Tier I-III schools are hired upon graduation (speech therapy, for instance), every youth needs to keep his options open.  To let Hugh attach so exclusively to international relations is to give in to follow-your-passion sentimentality without regard to consequences.

But that doesn’t fully explain why this vignette in The End of College imparts Carey’s anger at the higher education system.  Yes, the obvious blame goes to the $60,000 sticker price of GW.  If it were lower, so would Hugh’s debt.  But the guilt runs deeper than that, though Carey only implies it.  If Hugh graduates on time, gets his preferred job, passes the exam, and winds up a successful diplomat, all the while delaying gratification and paying his bills, the system swill have worked for everyone involved.  Hugh had some lean and hungry years, but he did what he loved.  If, however, a job at the Swiss firm never materializes, nor anything similar at another organization, or if a personal circumstance pulls him back to Rhode Island or keeps him in DC where he gets by with service jobs, then the whole plan will have proved a disaster for him.  If he couldn’t make his loan payments, he might be stuck in a financial quicksand for 20 years.  The dream of foreign service would end.  Taxpayers might have to cover his loans.  The banks would add another default to their books and feel more political pressure to stop these profitable loans that pass risks on to others.

GW, the Only Sure Winner

But no matter what Hugh’s fate, one party thrives: GW.  It gets paid before Hugh faces crucial thresholds.  Hugh leaves campus before financial success or failure happens.  This is the systemic culpability of higher education.  GW has no financial incentive to discourage Hugh from borrowing so much money and choosing a dicey major.  In fact, if the low-prospect offering of international relations is what lured Hugh to GW instead of to another school, then GW must count the field a triumph.

This is just one of many abominations Carey recites in the book.  The “limited learning” that happens from freshman year to graduation pops up in discussions with Richard Arum, and Carey mentions the overemphasis on research and other standard complaints, too.  What makes the book different from other critiques is Carey’s insistence on a looming historical answer to them all: none of them matter.

All the problems we find in higher education today are real and damaging, Carey agrees, but they have no future.  Digital technology has arrived, and in spite of all the false starts and annoying hype, it is going to transform higher education and nothing can stop it.  Carey terms this new formation “the University of Everywhere.”  In the near future, the physical campus will give way to the virtual campus.  Resources “that have been scarce and expensive for centuries will be abundant and free,” he predicts (p. 5).  The whole notion of admission to college will become a curious anachronism.  Instruction will be personalized and individualized, much of it enacted by artificial intelligence, not a human being.  Carey gets euphoric about this cheaper, easier, and more efficient higher education: “Students will be part of a rich global community as small as a half dozen people working intently together and as large as millions of students contending with timeless questions and monuments of human thinking at the same time” (p. 6).

No Help for the Curriculum

For some conservative and libertarian critics who have for years decried the distortions of higher education, the first response to Carey’s vision may be: “You mean all our efforts to expose and dispel liberal bias have been pointless?”  If digital technology breaks the monopolistic grip the higher education industry has had on the higher education of American youth, then right-oriented reformers and commentators, if would seem, shall find their labors unnecessary.

Sadly, this isn’t the case.  The break-up of traditional campuses and the spread of digital modes of delivery will affect the personnel of higher education, reducing the dissemination of progressivist ideology through the teaching corps.  But it won’t affect the content of the curriculum, not on this score.  A traditional course in U.S. history may stack the syllabi with Howard Zinn-like materials, and an innovative virtual course in U.S. history may do the same.  Bias and indoctrination can happen through a screen as easily as in a lecture hall.  Carey’s University of Everywhere doesn’t change this need for conservative reform at all.

Bill Moyers’ America—Ugh!

At Salon Magazine, Bill Moyers has an essay penned in direct response to criticism of Barack Obama for his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast.

People have assailed Obama for his scolding tone, bad timing , poor history, and moral equivocation.

And here is Bill Moyers expanding President Obama’s point, an opinion piece entitled: “When America behaved like ISIS: Jesse Washington and the Bible Belt’s dark history of public lynchings.”

It is a tissue of misrepresentations, recounted in Moyers’ typical insufferable pseudo-solemnity.

Moyers recalls a gruesome lynching that took place in Waco, Texas in 1916.  First, we have a photo of Klansmen in regalia, then an account of the savage torture and murder of this young black man.  A photo of his charred body tied to a tree trunk follows. Moyers notes the cheering crowds, 15,000 people, and the distribution of relics and souvenirs after the barbaric ritual ended.

Moyers offers the case as an example of America’s violent racial past, then asserts the existence of Continue reading Bill Moyers’ America—Ugh!

Would These Profs Make You Major in English?

A recent Inside Higher Ed story documented an alarming trend in the English departments at University of Maryland, George Mason University, and Florida State University.  The numbers of English majors there have plummeted in the last few years.

Maryland lost 88 majors in 2012, 79 majors the next year, and 128 majors 12 months later, the story reports.  That makes a 40 percent drop overall.  The former chair of English terms it a “death spiral.”

George Mason had 800 English majors 20 years ago.  Now it has 422.

Florida State has suffered a smaller decline, only 10 percent since 2013.

Those numbers don’t surprise me. When I joined Continue reading Would These Profs Make You Major in English?

Presidents and Students, Adults and Children

Last month, we had two cases of college presidents at high-profile universities join in student protests over the grand jury’s decision in the Ferguson case.  Here is a story on President Eric Barron, head of Penn State, standing amidst students with hands raised.  The students had spent two days gathering on campus, shouting slogans (“Black lives matter!”), and laying on the ground in a “die-in,” mimicking Michael Brown’s body on the street.  In the photograph, Barron adopts the “hand up, don’t shoot!” posture along with the 20-year-olds in the crowd.

And here is Amy Gutmann, head of University of Pennsylvania, at a campus Christmas party at which protesters showed up and stretched out on the floor in a die-in.  Gutmann played her part, too, lying down and crossing her arms as you would a corpse, as you can see in the photograph under the headline.

The reactions to each action were severe, with politicians and police officers denouncing the presidents for indulging uninformed undergraduates and trashing policemen.  The president’s offices came back with customary bureaucratese, such as this from Penn:

I can assure you that her laying on the ground was not solidarity against police.  It was solidarity with students who are expressing their personal opinions. There’s not a doubt in my mind Continue reading Presidents and Students, Adults and Children

A Way Past the Asian-American Challenge

There was a thoughtful op-ed in the New York Times last week on the Asian American challenge to admissions procedures at Harvard University.  It was written by a political theorist who teaches writing at Harvard, and it acknowledges that Harvard “engages in ‘racial balancing,’” a procedure that keeps Asian American admissions to the college at a consistent 17-20 percent even though the group’s competitiveness has risen significantly over the years.  Yascha Mounk, the author, compares the practice to Harvard’s restrictions on Jewish enrollments earlier in the 20th century.

But then Mounk takes in interesting turn.  He explains the general tolerance for this discrimination on the grounds that many academics think that if Asian American enrollments would go up, African American enrollments would have to go down.  This is a common sense assumption, and we may imagine that it puts affirmative action proponents in an uncomfortable position of discriminating against one minority in order to help another one.

But Mounk has a nifty way out for them, and it’s an argument conservatives and libertarians should recognize, if only to inform themselves of the other side’s thinking.

Continue reading A Way Past the Asian-American Challenge

The Battered Humanities–Are They Worth Saving?

A particular nostalgia is at work in academic discussion.  We still talk about of liberal education, the liberal arts, and the humanities as if they remain viable activities in higher education, threatened, yes, and losing ground, but open to revival.  Universities have grown ever more “corporate,” students flock to business and vocational programs, the sciences get all the money, parents want kids to major in job-related fields, and humanities professors have social sciences interests (race, imperialism, sexuality), but commentators nonetheless regret the impact of those trends on liberal education as if it were still an active conception.

The latest example is a thoughtful essay by Gilbert Meilaender in The New Atlantis, “Who Needs a Liberal Education?” In it, Meilaender makes several accurate observations.

Continue reading The Battered Humanities–Are They Worth Saving?

Yale Muslims: Hurt Feelings but No Arguments

As Lauren Noble wrote two days ago here at Minding the Campus, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s speech at Yale on Monday night was a success, despite the discomfort felt by the Yale Muslim Students Association (MSA).

I say “discomfort” because that is what the MSA itself emphasized in its September 10th letter to the Yale community protesting her visit.  Hearing about the invitation to Ali, a resolute critic of Islam, the MSA drafted this nine-paragraph statement and posted it on Facebook, and it circulated quickly throughout Yale and the conservative media.  The tone and content are worth examining because they mark the most illustrative aspect of the whole affair.

Continue reading Yale Muslims: Hurt Feelings but No Arguments

US News Rankings: Not Quite Ho-Hum

Well, the 2015 U. S. News & World Report rankings are out, and here are the elite Top 10 for “National Universities”:

1. Princeton
2. Harvard
3. Yale
4. Columbia
4. Stanford
4. University of Chicago
7. MIT
8. Duke
8. Penn
10. California Institute of Technology

And here are the rankings of the Top 10 liberal arts schools:

1. Williams
2. Amherst
3. Swarthmore
4. Wellesley
5. Bowdoin
5. Pomona
7. Middlebury
8. Carleton
8. Claremont McKenna
8. Haverford

Nothing to notice here.  Princeton was #1 last year and so was Williams.  Middlebury slipped from 4th to 7th, while Dartmouth fell out of the top 10 . . . to number 11.  My university, Emory, tied with Georgetown at number 21.

Continue reading US News Rankings: Not Quite Ho-Hum

The Undead Are Rising on Campus

Scores of colleges, from Goucher to Harvard, now feature “Undead Studies,” that is, academic work on zombies and vampires. Depending on your point of view, this is either yet another indicator of the debasement of higher education, or a playful way to attach serious thinking to not very serious expressions of popular culture. Frivolous or not, it takes its place among all the  other “studies” that  have come and gone (and sometimes stayed) in teaching research.  This one will last as long as the popularity of the canonical texts of Undeadness do, including movies and TV shows such as Night of the Living Dead, The Walking Dead and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The Undead made a lively breakthrough this summer as one of the nation’s best legal blogs, The Volokh Conspiracy, edited by  UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh, opened itself to an ecomomic analysis of how humans could respond to  a serious assault from zombies.
The lead bloggers were Glen Whitman and James Dow, editors of a new book of essays on the undead, Economics of the Undead: Zombies, Vampires, and the Dismal Science. The book includes chapters on the investing secrets of wealthy vampires, preparation for economic recovery after the zombie apocalypse, and optimal taxation of zombie labor. The book has been praised, sort of, by economics columnist Megan McArdle, who wrote: “Those who are looking to get their finances in order for the coming Zombie apocalypse should definitely buy this book…”
The rise of the undead in academia owes something  to despair (“These kids don’t read and we have to do something to engage them” ) and something to faculty leisure, and bloggers this time are nicely free of resentment in their discussion. To traditionalists who favor high culture over mass culture and pop culture products, Whitman and Dow have two responses.  “First, lighten up!” they say.  Let’s not get over-earnest about our jobs and kill the joy—”Zombies and vampires are fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”  That’s a refreshing admission, and one can appreciate the authors’ common-sense perspective on their topic.  I have seen enough of the opposite, humanities professors talking about Terminator films and Lost as if they were heralds of 21st-century thought, the only thing, in their rendition, more significant than Arnold’s inhumanity being their own recognition of it.
The second response reminds readers that the field is economics, not the humanities where legitimacy has become a real question, in part because many humanities professors have so often relished provocatively frivolous topics.  Added to that, the authors claim to handle their discipline rigorously in the volume, ever “scrupulous about making sure the economic concepts and reasoning were sound.”
Indeed, they even concede that the substitution of “schlocky zombie novels” for Shakespeare and Jane Austen in English courses “might be a problem.”  While off-campus observers from Right and Left would largely agree, among academics this counts as a significant concession.  To uphold a hierarchy of art objects, to raise high culture above mass culture and popular culture, is to rehearse malicious social hierarchies, the objection runs, especially if one can track the division in racial or class terms.  That Whitman and Dow can maintain it, even half-heartedly, suggests that economics departments are in better shape than humanities departments.
But then come three statements that show precisely how far economics departments are from understanding the doubtful trends affecting humanities curricula.
First, they assert, “if the goal is to impart basic writing skills . . . those skills can be learned by writing about pretty much anything.”  Not so.  Writing about zombie novels is not just as helpful in inculcating comp skills as writing about Shakespeare, precisely because working with Shakespeare acquaints students to richer vocabulary, syntax, metaphor, irony, and the rest of the resources of language.  Writing is a habit that follows from exposure and practice, and exposure to better expression makes for better student stylists.  The thing one studies isn’t as benign as the authors think.
Next, they ask, “Why must English composition always be paired with (classic) English literature?”  Here we have a remarkable anachronism.  What the authors don’t realize is that composition studies rejected classic English literature in the freshman writing classroom long ago.  Starting in the 1970s, an anti-literature animus emerged and spread until literary classics became a decidedly backward approach to writing.  Look at the syllabi of freshman writing classes today and you find a mishmash of digital media, visual culture, topical readings, writing-across-the-curriculum, and identity politics.  The old tradition of English prose masters from Addison to Charles Lamb to Chesterton looks like a dinosaur these days.
Finally, the authors betray precisely the anti-intellectualism that has proven so damaging to the humanities.  They refer to topics that “are equally pointless in terms of students’ long-term prospects,” then ask a rhetorical question: “How much good did that whole semester on Faulkner do you, anyway?”  A query like this one undercuts precisely the common-sense distinction between great art and “fun stuff” that made the blog post enjoyable in the opening paragraphs.  Why take a shot at a canonical author whose corpus includes four of the most important American novels of the century?  The act suggests that the authors aren’t fully confident that their escapade in undead art can stand on its own unless further deterioration of the monuments takes place.   


Why the Millennials are Doing So Poorly


The thesis of my 2008 book, The Dumbest Generation, was that digital tools and media have become so prominent in teens’ and 20-somethings’ thoughts and acts that their intellectual and civic capacities are bound to deteriorate.  While devices and social networks allow the possibility of intellectual and civic engagement, I argued, they mean something else entirely for the young, in a word, contact with one another, anywhere and anytime.  Because of the anti-intellectual nature of peer pressure, the more they communicate with one another, the less they acquire historical knowledge and cultural literacy (of the non-youth culture kind), both of which are essential to responsible citizenship.

Moreover, I said, the lessons in school that might counteract digital youth culture were happening less and less.  In colleges, for instance, U.S. history general education requirements have given way to some version of a “History, Society, Culture” umbrella which covers copious identity and diversity offerings, in part because my colleagues have lost faith in American greatness and feel that it would be chauvinistic and authoritarian to impose a core tradition of events, figures, texts, and values upon the rising generation.  In high school, too, instruction in the Puritans, the Founding and Founders, natural rights, World War II, the Cold War, and other accomplishments of the nation has diminished, and when they are taught, the manner of presentation is often skeptical and critical, highlighting the sins and victims of the past.  Students leave school feeling little pride in their country.  The Gettysburg Address is just a syllabus assignment, that’s all.  Youths complete their homework as quickly as possible, then get back to reading and writing the 3,500 text messages they rack up each month.

Liberal and libertarian commentators cast judgments like that as a case of reactionary nostalgia, moral panic, or golden-age thinking, but results keep coming in that prove the traditionalists’ dismay.  SAT scores at their lowest point in decades, rising rates of narcissism, the number of students who need remediation in college, employers who can’t find young workers with technical skills, practical aptitudes, and professional behavior. . . the disappointments are proliferating.

Continue reading Why the Millennials are Doing So Poorly

How to Answer the White-Privilegers

The sad debate over “white privilege” education sessions on elite campuses has reached its low point with a comment in a New York Magazine article by a Harvard student Reetu Mody, a graduate student in public policy and “campus activist.” Mentioning Princeton student Tal Fortgang’s protest against these privilege-consciousness-raising programs, the article continues:

“Mody has some sympathy for Fortgang and his ilk. ‘If what you’ve been told all your life is you’re really talented and you deserve what you have, it’s going to be really hard to find out Maybe I don’t deserve it, and all these other people equally deserve it but never even had a shot,’ she says. ‘Schools are not giving students a space to manage that loss of identity.'”

Do you hear the voice of the re-educator? Mody (and others like her) have a social condition in mind, whether it exists in reality for this and that individual or not, every selective-college student is to undergo and accommodate its cure. One can sense an entire world view based on victimhood behind those phrases, and one hears the confidence of an insecure ego having suddenly discovered a reliable ground. The moralism is astounding, the ease with which the re-educator puts words in others’ mouths and thoughts in their heads. The condescension is high–“it’s going to be really hard”–and the recommendation is stern. And note the final, feeble, confession of helplessness (not being “given” a “space to manage that loss of identity,” as if a school doesn’t provide it, these 20-year-olds can’t do it on their own). After Mody’s comment ends, one is left with a pathetic question: “Don’t you have anything better to do than drag others down?”

Of course, if asked, that question would only evoke louder volumes of accusation. It is a waste of time to engage at all. In his declaration in the Princeton Tory, Fortgang made a crucial mistake. He cited his own personal history (a family background in the Holocaust) to show the privilege merchants that he didn’t enjoy quite the precious legacy that white-privilege allegations assume. But this was to play the personal history game that white-privilegers ask us to, to join the rivalry of suffering on which the whole deplorable strategy rests.

The better way is to go to the source, not the history and pseudo-history of white privilege in America, but the psycho-social syndrome that underlies it. That takes us back to Nietzsche and his repeated and trenchant analysis of ressentiment. It is the method of “lambs” who bear a grudge, the consolidation of feelings of weakness and inferiority and failure into a force of aggression, the way in which the “herd” responds to power. Under Nietzschean eyes, white-privilege appears in its actual being as a tactic, an intimidation. To take it seriously as something else, for instance, a historical truth or a social injustice, is to enter the debate disarmed and set up.

You don’t argue with a pathology, you ignore it. Or, if it goes on the offensive, you mock it. It is easy for white males to believe that their accusers have all the momentum on their side, but given the latter’s insistence that white males have all the power, one wonders just how firm is their certitude. They have numbers on their side, of course, and righteousness, but it takes little to explode the attitude and frustrate the academic crowd, which relies overmuch on, precisely, numbers and righteousness, not facts and arguments. In fact, the school of resentment (as Harold Bloom memorably called the identity-politicians) needs privileged people to play along with the instruction for it to work. If we didn’t have white men admitting their guilt, confessing their past sins, and agreeing to programs and policies (overt and covert) that discriminate against them, this bilious atmosphere would never have prospered. So, when they find themselves in white-privilege situations on campus, white male students should reply with a “Whatever” shrug or a smiling, “Yeah, I love my privilege, and I’m not giving it up just because you tell me to.”

Student Loan Forgiveness–A Get-Out-the-Vote Rip-off

The news in the Wall Street Journal this week about college loans was unsurprising. A special plan passed by the Democratic Congress in 2007 and expanded by the Obama Administration, “Pay As You Earn,” has grown wildly, “nearly 40% in just six months, to include at least 1.3 million Americans owing around $72 billion,” the story reports, citing Department of Education figures.

And why shouldn’t more and more students sign up?  An op-ed the next day in the Journal explains how it works.  In certain cases, students may borrow as much as they need or want, and once they graduate and go to work, they can limit monthly payments to 10% of their income.  The Federal government makes up the difference.  And that’s not all.  If they work in the private sector, those payments end entirely in 20 years, the remaining balance covered by the taxpayers.  And there is another component: if they work in the public sector or for non-profit organizations, loan payments terminate in 10 years.

That final ingredient is a thoroughly ideological one, a means to expand the state.  It’s a neat formula.  The Federal government pays for part of your education, and if you go to work for the Federal (or other government), you pay less!  That’s a clever way to recruit youths to the statist mentality, and the carrot of pure cash is hard for 20-year-olds to resist.  On those terms, why not borrow $120K instead of $50K?  And why not love “Uncle Sugar” (as the Journal says) and favor him over free markets for the rest of your life?  And vote Democrat?

The purely political nature of the program was signaled in a speech President Obama delivered at University of Colorado in April 2012 during the election season. Obama knew he had to mobilize the youth vote as he had in 2008, and continuing weakness in employment for college grads threatened to quash the enthusiasm and keep the youth vote home in the coming November.  So he scheduled appearances at several campuses and delivered promises like this one to idolatrous crowds.

First, he yukked-it-up in his customarily cool manner:

“Now, I’ve just come from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill — (applause.)  I was talking to another good-looking group of students.  Jimmy Fallon and I taped his show there tonight — make sure to tune in. (Laughter.) But we saved the prime-time event for Boulder. (Applause.)”

Then he recounted his and Michelle’s experience with student loans:

“And I want to point out — listen, I know about this firsthand. Michelle and I, we know about this firsthand. This is not something I read in a briefing book. (Laughter.) This is not some abstract idea for us. We’ve been in your shoes. When we graduated from college and law school, we had a mountain of debt, both of us. That means when we got married, we got poorer together. (Laughter.) We added our assets together, and they were zero. (Laughter.) And then we added our liabilities together, and they were a lot. (Laughter.)”

And then came the policy boast:

“And then last fall, I acted to cap student loan payments faster, so that nearly 1.6 million students who make their payments on time, they have the option of only paying 10 percent of their monthly income towards loans once they graduate. And that means if you decide to be a teacher, or you decide to be a social worker, or you’re going into a profession that doesn’t pay a lot of money, you still have that option, because you know that your monthly payment will be manageable. (Applause.)”

It was a clear example of clientism, a “vote-for-me-and-you’ll-get-this” pledge, and the students loved it.  We may judge their reaction as an indication of how far civic virtue has been destroyed by self-interest and entitlement programs.

The current finances of the program now indicate just how irresponsible that promise was.  According to the White House’s own calculations, the cost of the program in 2013 was $3.5 billion.  In 2014, it more than doubled to $7.6 billion!  The news story cites a Brookings Institution report claiming that the most popular plan could cost taxpayers $14 billion each year.  The original purpose of the legislation was to assist only a small number of students, the “neediest borrowers,” and not encourage colleges to raise tuition, but the current rates of students enrolling in the debt forgiveness plan prove the naivete of that intention. 

One 29-year-old cited in the story graduated from law school with $172,000 in debt and currently makes $60,000 a year.  That means he will have $225,000 of debt forgiven after ten years.  That was the idea from the start, he says: “My intent the whole time in going through law school was to take advantage of this program.”

The remarkable thing about this whole situation is that inability of backers of it to realize what would happen once it got underway.  Did they really expect the old perverse-incentives factor wouldn’t arise?  Late-adolescents were going to borrow too much and schools would raise their prices–OBVIOUSLY. 

Let’s not call this ideology–we’re past that.  It is flat incompetence and mismanagement, an embarrassing inability of statists in the White House and Congress to act as responsible stewards.

Procedures and MLA Delegate Assembly

The MLA meeting of the delegate assembly to debate the resolution criticizing Israeli policies has received ample publicity, including Cary Nelson’s vehement opposition in the Wall Street Journal and the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Nelson’s statement elicited a reply at the Chronicle by one of the sponsors of the resolution, Bruce Robbins of Columbia University, the title reading “Procedure, Politics, and the MLA Resolution.”  It contains an assertion that is worth scrutinizing, for it goes to the heart of one of the fundamental dividing lines between left-wing thought and conservatism of the classical-liberal type.

One of Nelson’s central complaints was that the person presiding over the meeting, MLA vice president Margaret Ferguson, lacked standing to do so, as she had already declared her support for the “U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel.” Nelson judges it a clear conflict of interest and claims that it clouds the results of the meeting.

“She should have recused herself,” he writes.  “She didn’t.  If members of the staff or Executive Council had known about the conflict, they should have urged her to step down from running the meeting.  The process and the vote were compromised.  The vote should be voided.”
Robbins takes up this charge and nullifies it as follows:

“Nelson writes that Margaret Ferguson, chair of the Delegate Assembly, has signed a petition in favor of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel.  What difference does that possibly make?  Human beings, if they are sentient and morally sensitive to the world around them, take positions.  How could someone climb to a position of public eminence without having spoken forcefully and left a trail of opinions?  Where would you go to find a presiding officer who had never done so?  (Would you want one if you could find one?)”

This is a remarkable statement and a symptomatic one in that it doesn’t address the specific case at all.  Robbins mentions Ferguson’s “proper disinterest and neutrality” later in the post, but here he raises the issue of Ferguson’s position to a generalized condition, the presence of political opinions in all intelligent and thoughtful individuals.  It follows the standard leftist principle that we are all political in one way or another, even in our seemingly objective judgments.  Of course, Ferguson has an opinion, how can she not? Robbins blurts, as if that settled the charges in Ferguson’s favor.

But the issue isn’t whether a person has political opinions or not, but rather whether that opinion interferes with a person’s ability to remain impartial when the occasion demands.  If we avoid the general point and focus specifically on Ferguson’s conduct during the meeting, then we have a different question on the table: whether she did anything to bias the discussion.  Robbins quickly says that she does not, and I haven’t seen any clear evidence that she did, and in my limited contact with Ferguson she strikes me overall as a fair person.  But we should question the principle offered here: So what if she’s taken a stand?  We all do it, and if that disqualified you, then nobody could ever take charge of anything.

This is an obtuse conception.  It never touches the question of fairness and impartiality.  As a practical matter, if a controversial issue comes up on which one has already declared a firm opinion, and one has to preside over the debate, not join one side or another, one should withdraw until the debate ends, then re-assume the podium and move on to other things.  But Robbins apparently considers this practical step which is commonly taken all the time an imposition.

This is, in fact, consistent with the leftist outlook that he and others in the MLA share, which doesn’t raise issues of fairness because fairness itself is a myth.  (Robbins was one of the editors of Social Text duped by Alan Sokal into publishing postmodernist gibberish as trenchant philosophy of science.)  Leftists connect sensitivity and thoughtfulness with the possession of opinions about the world, and they go so far as to assert that the effort not to act upon those opinions only forces one’s biases underground where they operate in subtle and misdirecting ways.  It’s the old argument against enlightenment objectivity, knowledge always conditioned by human interests.

Here we have a crucial division between leftists and conservatives.  The latter don’t believe fairness is possible, and so they don’t worry much about procedures, proprieties, political conflicts, and personal investments.  Once in a committee meeting at Emory when we denied a theater professor’s request that her course be cross-listed with English because only a few of the works on the syllabus were originally written in English, one of the profs worried about how the theater professor would take the rejection.  I replied, “It’s not personal–we have a simple rule of 50 percent English.”  She answered, “No, it’s VERY personal.”

A conservative doesn’t know how to answer this interpretation of rules and procedures.  We think they are objective, that they are the basis for smooth and fair operations.  Leftists believe they are political and, therefore, malleable.  One tactic is to pose the question from the other side: “Would you be so blithe about a past opinion if the presider had declared openly against any boycotts or resolutions against Israel?”  But that would not alter this procedural divide.

Academia is a Seller’s Market

There is a mini-argument amongst some academic bloggers over the way UC-Riverside’s English department scheduled job interviews at the Modern Language Association’s annual convention.  As Megan McArdle recounts at Bloomberg, Riverside emailed applicants to schedule interviews only five days (!) before the convention was to start in Chicag).  For some applicants, that might have meant a flight close to $1,000 (not to mention lodging), a huge bill for a graduate student or fresh PhD, especially given the long odds on eventually winning the job.

The initial story on Riverside’s communication was published on Jan 2 on Inside Higher Ed and evoked lots of angry comments.  They were anticipated by this denunciation, dated December 20th, which termed Riverside professors “Overlords,” “elitist and out of touch,” and “unconscionable,” along with a few f-words.

Tenured Radical, a blogger who uses a name that lost its edgy irony 20 years ago, criticized that response by noting that it might not have been the English department’s fault. Perhaps funding didn’t come through until late, she suggests, or an affirmative action officer delayed the process.

But Inside Higher Ed blames the department:

the committee — using a new system for reviewing applications — discovered two weeks ago that some applications had been read by only one search committee member, and others hadn’t been read at all. The committee tried to catch up, but was still behind. Applications had only started to be reviewed November 25, and there just wasn’t enough time, she said [“she” is the head of the search committee].

Ah, one month, not “enough time,” applications left unread, a “new system” . . .

And then the department chair, Deborah Willis, adds this condescending note which seems perfectly calculated to infuriate every person who has ever failed to earn a regular job or even get an interview.

The job search is, especially for entry-level positions, a stressful, challenging, exhausting process, and I can understand why job seekers would be upset about anything that makes it more stressful. We all have a lot of sympathy for our applicants — especially since we’ve all been through it ourselves. But the big problems are the things that make the job market so terrible in the first place — budget cuts, dwindling support for public universities, the increasing reliance on adjunct faculty, etc. The timing of an interview request seems pretty minor in the great scheme of things.

Does Willis not know that for a graduate student or recent PhD, getting an interview and finding a job is, precisely, the “great scheme of things”?  She seems to act out every allegation of entitlement and incognizance that the adjuncts have leveled against tenured professors for years.

But nothing will come of this.  Neither the errors of judgment and slack organization by the professors nor the warranted indignation of the aspirants nor the sympathy of outsiders changes anything.  As someone said in conversation recently about the drawbacks of the professorate: “Doesn’t matter–they have the jobs.”

McArdle ends her commentary on precisely this realization:

It’s hard to see any alternative to fix the problem, however.  The fundamental issue in the academic job market is not that administrators are cheap and greedy, or that adjuncts lack a union. It’s that there are many more people who want to be research professors than there are jobs for them. And since all those people have invested the better part of a decade in earning their job qualifications, they will hang around on the edges of academia rather than trying to start over. Such a gigantic glut of labor is bound to push down wages and working conditions.

When you have many, many more qualified people than there are positions for them, and when they have spent their 20s preparing to become teachers like those have had since they were 18 years old and won’t give up on the profession until something forces them to, then they will continue to be disregarded.  It’s a seller’s market, and if the buyers (the job applicants) are willing to endure dismissal and condescension on the slim promise of that golden tenure-track post, then it will continue.

Fewer Jobs in the Humanities

Last summer, when a flurry of reports and commentaries declared a material crisis for the humanities, many commentators denied the claim, for instance, this statement entitled “The Humanities Aren’t Really in ‘Crisis'” (note the gratuitous sneer-quotes).

But the bad news keeps coming.  Last week, Inside Higher Ed  reported, “History Jobs Down 7.3%.” Data from the American Historical Association show only 686 openings, a reversal of the small increases posted from the previous two years and far below the pre-recession tally of 1,064 jobs.

The trend matches that of the Modern Language Association, the story notes, which recorded a significant drop in job openings in English after three years of gains. While tenure-track openings rose 101 slots to 729 in 2010-11 and another 28 slots in 2011-12, for 2012-13 they slipped down to 713, way below the 1,244 openings in 2007-08.

Nevertheless, programs continue to churn out several hundred more PhDs than the academic job market can take.  To ameliorate the problem, the MLA and the AHA have devised an initiative to develop alternative job markets for PhDs, funded by the Mellon Foundation. Cynics might regard this project as simply a way to keep unnecessary graduate programs afloat, but there may be an interesting consequence to them.  If, over time, an alternative job market is created, researchers might examine which candidates landed those jobs.  What knowledge and skills did they possess?  In which subfields did they specialize?  Were race-class-gender-sexuality expertises favored, or more traditional foci?  It could be an experiment in off-campus interest in historical and literary studies.

Understanding Today’s Campus Left

Several years ago, my Emory University hosted former Black Panther Elaine Brown for a couple of days of lecture, discussion, conversation, and meals.  I attended one event and don’t remember what Brown said, but caught firmly the demeanor and cadence of the delivery.  It was hip, knowing, coy, and canny, not an argument or a thesis, but clipped observations and half-articulated notions about racial and gender identity.  The audience, on the other hand, was dutiful and attentive and admiring, and the question and answer session provided none of the customary quibbling and speechifying.

I didn’t understand this odd deference until I read The Black Book of the American Left, the new two-volume collection of David Horowitz’s writings. Horowitz had known Brown in the 1970s when she was a lieutenant of the Black Panthers’ Huey Newton. In The Black Book, he describes a menacing and erratic woman who had two personalities: one for “the Party’s wealthy liberal supporters” and another for “the violent world of the street gang.”  Brown had even charmed Horowitz for a time, until he came across evidence that Brown had conspired to murder a woman he’d brought into a Panthers-run school.

I don’t think that the people in the room at Emory that afternoon knew about Elaine Brown’s role in the Panthers.  By then she had developed programs to help underprivileged children and stood popularly as a dedicated enemy of racism, sexism, and poverty.  But one could sense more than simple admiration in the audience, a subtle excitement over a former-Black Panther in the room.  It wasn’t quite “radical chic,” because none of the attendees earned any social standing from the support, more a specimen of academic chic, a chance to make contact with genuine radicalism, even if it had ended years earlier.  Here was someone with first-hand experience of ideologically-motivated violent protest, and it heightened the excitement of the event.

Horowitz’ memoirs demonstrate where that frisson originated and helps explain current examples of political malfeasance on campus.  Many of the outrageous acts of left-wing activists today have no effect except to degrade academic standards. However, these actions allow leftist students and professors to feel connected to the old days of SDS, the Free Speech Movement, and the Chicago Seven. To be sure, the extremes of the New Left aren’t common in academia, but they carry over as lingering resentment, feats of intimidation, and coercive versions of political correctness.  To understand them, it isn’t enough to examine local conditions; observers need to go back to the Sixties and Seventies. Horowitz’s book allows us to do just that.

A Solution to Galloping Grade Inflation

A story in the Harvard Crimson last week reported on a meeting at the university that produced an exchange that should surprise nobody. Professor Harvey Mansfield rose in the midst of a session with faculty and administrators to pose a discomfiting question:

“A little bird has told me that the most frequently given grade at Harvard College right now is an A-.  If this is true, or nearly true, it represents a failure on the part of this faculty and its leadership to maintain our academic standards.”

Dean Michael Smith answered with the fact that the median grade is A-, but the most commonly-awarded grade is a straight A.

What does it mean when in a system with a five-part scale, with pluses and minuses added in, the most popular measure is the very top?  It means that the scale is poorly calibrated and unreliable.  The solution, of course, is to revise it downward so that the median score falls more closely to the center.  IQ tests do the same all the time (to account for the Flynn Effect of rising scores), and the SAT has been re-normed in the other direction, too, when scores fell (mostly) in the 70s.

The A, B, C, D, F system also has to be changed–but that isn’t going to happen.  it can’t, the pressures of grade inflation are too strong.  Think of what happens if a professor, on his or her own, alters the yardstick.  Students howl and lower course evaluations, department chairs get complaints, parents call the dean.  Nobody accepts the principled professor, who ends up suffering the most.

So, the change has to be systemic, but that means entire colleges, or at least departments, have to set limits on the number of high grades allowed for each course.  Princeton did this a few years ago, as the Crimson article mentions.  It told professors to restrict A grades to 35 percent of the students in undergrad courses.  I’m not sure how the Princeton policy has worked out, but one can immediately spot its weakness.  One-third A grades leaves two-thirds for B+ grades, which might still get you to A- as the median.  If outsiders complain about the minor impact fo the 35-percent rule, Princeton can always reply, “Well, these are Princeton students, you know.”

I have another suggestion.  Let’s add another grade to the transcript besides the individual grade.  For each course listed, show the student’s grade and also show the average grade in the course.  it would give employers looking over a student’s record a better picture of ability.  A B+ in a course with an average grade of B looks a lot better than an A- in a course with an average grade of A.

The averages might also put pressure on professors to exert a little more discrimination in their assessment.  If they give all A’s to students, ambitious enrollees might themselves complain and pressure administrators to demand grade deflation, the opposite of what we’ve seen in the last four decades.  Indeed, reform here may have to come from the students themselves, the ones who have to bear the impact of the policy.  As the recipients, they have the most to gain or lose from the system, which gives them the moral standing the demand change.

The Humanities–in a Weak State with Weak Defenders

This is an excerpt from the article, “What Dido Did, Satan Saw and O’Keeffe Painted,” from the November issue of The New Criterion. The full text is here.

Starting in June, a flurry of reports and commentaries appeared, projecting a dim present and dark future for the fields (of the humanities). A Harvard report warned that since the mid-twentieth century, degrees in the fields have plummeted from 36 percent of graduates to 20 percent. A June 22 statement in The New York Times by Vernon Klinkenborg bore the title “The Decline and Fall of the English Major,” while Leon Wieseltier’s 2013 commencement address at Brandeis opened, “Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?”

In response, those who regretted the numbers offered arguments against them. The American Academy report praised the humanities because they help us manage a world undergoing profound change. In Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010). Martha Nussbaum advocates urgently for the fields because they provide “skills that are needed to keep democracy alive.”

These statements and others on how the humanities foster critical thinking, cultivate Information Economy skills, help enact social change, resist utilitarianism in human affairs, etc., may be challenged in one aspect or another, but they are all reasonable and they pop up in education discussions all the time. Their commonplace status, however, shouldn’t obscure the fact that they share an extraordinary characteristic. They affirm, extol, and sanctify the humanities, but they hardly ever mention any specific humanities content. The American Academy report terms the humanities “the keeper of the republic,” but the names Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Bernini, Leonardo, Gibbon, Austen, Beethoven, Monet, Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Martha Graham never surface. In the Boston Globe (“Humanities: The Practical Degree,” June 21). The works of the ages that fill actual humanities syllabi barely exist in these heartfelt defenses. Instead of highlighting assigned authors, artists, writings, and artworks, they signal what happens after the class ends: the moral, civic, and workplace outcomes.

In a word, the defenders rely on what the humanities do, not what they are. If you take humanities courses, they assure, you will become a good person, a critical thinker, a skilled worker, a cosmopolitan citizen. What matters is how grads today think and act, not what Swift wrote, Kant thought, or O’Keeffe painted.  The approach resembles the very utilitarianism the defenders despise, the conversion of liberal education into a set of instruments for producing selected mentalities and capabilities.

What an odd angle, and an ineffectual one.

No Real Crisis in the Decline of the Humanities?

The New York Times has a Room for Debate forum on the humanities this week, and one of the contributors, Ben Schmidt, takes the opportunity to chide those who repeat “the persistent idea that the humanities are imploding in on themselves.” Citing numbers from the U.S. Department of Education and the Modern Language Association, he announces his conclusion in the title: “The Data Shows [sic] There’s No Real Crisis.”  Since they don’t have the evidence to back up claims of decline, those who “cry ‘crisis,'” Schmidt alleges, have a different motive.  They just don’t like all the “liberal focus on race, class and gender,” and so they manipulate statistics in order to insist that “the humanities need to return to an old canon.”

Schmidt has made the charge before.  Here, Schmidt cites some of the same sources to refute those who assert a crisis condition, and Schmidt even speaks of them as “sell[ing] a crisis.”

But take a look at the source Schmidt terms “the best data about the health of the humanities,” and his contention weakens.  It’s a table from the education statistics office of the U.S. Department of Education that calculates bachelor’s degrees by field of student since 1971.  Schmidt says that the doomsayers choose a misleading year from which to date the decline of the humanities, 1971, when the major was at its height.  On that score, yes, English and foreign languages in 2010 (the last year given) look abysmal, dropping from 7.6 percent and 2.5 percent of all four-year degrees, respectively, to  3.2 percent and 1.3 percent.

Schmidt suggests a different year, “a quarter-century ago,” and notes that history jumped impressively since then.  I presume he means 1986 (the next closest year in the table would be 1991, only 20 years preceding the last year, 2010).  In that year, English made up 3.4 percent of bachelor’s degrees, foreign languages 1.1 percent, which gives us a trend of English only slightly down and foreign languages slightly up.

But this selection of year 1986 only inverts the previous selection, from a high to a low.  If we move from the mid-80s to the early-90s, we have a striking rise in English from 3.4 percent to 4.7 percent, while foreign languages climb a bit from 1.1 percent to 1.3 percent.  Taking 1991, then, we can repeat the claim Schmidt disparages and regret that English has fallen significantly (while foreign languages have stayed the same).

This is to say that Schmidt’s sneering dismissal doesn’t deserve the confidence he gives it.  It also ignores many other cases of decline, for instance, the market for monographs in English and foreign language, the closure of foreign language departments, and the fact that many students select a major that is part of English but misclassified as one of the humanities, that is, creative writing, which belongs in the fine arts.

In fact, the creative writing issue calls out for clarification.  Of course, the creative writing major has exploded since the mid-80s, and if those majors fall under “English” in the Department of Education classification, then the decline of English looks a lot worse no matter what year we choose for comparison.

Bleak Defenses of the Humanities

People under 40 years of age don’t remember what it was like in the humanities circa 1990.  The academic theater of the Culture Wars was tense and vibrant, with national publications debating what was going on in English departments.  Books decrying trends in the humanities by Allan Bloom and Roger Kimball and Dinesh D’Souza were best sellers, and Bill Bennett and Lynne Cheney targeted politicization and race-class-gender emphases from the bully pulpit of the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Within the fields, exotic new formations developed–queer theory, post-colonialism, ecocriticism, etc.–that looked like a fresh explosion of thinking equal to the advents of the 60s (structuralism, deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, etc.).  Professors were intoxicated with their edginess and roguishness and notoriety, and the more outside, mainly conservative critics chided them, the more they proceeded with their transgressions.

Reading the story on the humanities in the New York Times yesterday, one realizes just how much that enthusiasm has departed. Reporter Tamar Lewin notes the pertinent material evidence: at Stanford, only 15 percent of students are in the humanities, at Harvard and at Virginia humanities majors have declined 20 percent (at Harvard, most incoming students who say they want to major in the humanities switch their focus); and many universities have closed humanities programs altogether.

A sequence of distinguished humanities professors comments on the trend, and here is where we see the drastic change in tone and attitude.  Andrew del Banco  notes that the “intellectual power” seems to lie elsewhere, and that humanities people themselves believe it as much as outsiders do.

Louis Menand acknowledges that nobody reads books by English professors any more, while Anthony Grafton compares himself to a “comic strip character whose face is getting smaller and smaller.”  Franco Moretti concedes the dangers to the humanities, but offers this tepid reply: “you can be threatened, or you can be invigorated.  I’m choosing to be invigorated.”

Harvard’s Jill Lapore offers a humorous remark on the case of a student who came to her home for an event focused on Harvard’s history and literature program.  The student’s parents texted her: “leave right now, get out of there, that is a house of pain.”

At least Virginia’s Mark Edmundson can declare, “In the end, we can’t lose.  We have William Shakespeare”–though he puts in in the negative, “can’t lose,” instead of the positive, “we will win again and again!”

Edmundson is right in that the humanities will never entirely disappear, and the reason is that the canonical figures still matter and inspire and entertain.  But as a relative question, the humanities have already lost, having slipped from a central position on the campus and in public life to a minor one.  Defeat and cynicism and regret have replaced intrigue and excitement.  The stimulations of 1990 are gone; the idea that English professors are at the vanguard of thinking is a comical notion.

The evidence is in the article when Lewin cites two programs at Stanford that exemplify “vigor,” one a course in which graduate students use “Rap Genius,” a web site normally devoted to annotations of rap lyrics, to annotate Homer and Virgil; the other a Literary Lab in which students study “a database of nearly 2,000 early books to tease out when ‘romances,’ ‘tales’ and ‘histories first emerged as novels.”

Interesting yes, but hardly something that will ignite the kind of headiness that deconstruction did in 1976 and gender studies did in 1992.  If the most successful members of the field can’t show more optimism and energy, if reporters can’t find better examples of humanities prosperity, than it is time for the humanities to prepare for a reduced role in higher education for decades to come.