All posts by Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory.

Let’s Reject This Endorsement of Free Speech on Campus

Today in the Wall Street Journal, an op-ed by Michael Bloomberg and Charles Koch explains “Why Free Speech Matters on Campus.”

Many conservatives might jump to endorse this article as a welcome indictment of liberal censorship and bias by two powerful campus donors. But that would be a mistake.  Look more closely at what Bloomberg and Koch are saying.  

Whether in economics, morality, politics or any other realm of study, progress has always depended upon human beings having the courage to challenge prevailing traditions and beliefs.

Got that?  Prevailing traditions and beliefs are a hindrance to progress. They are the obstacles to overcome. We must stand up to them, and that means saying things people are going to find uncomfortable. Bloomberg and Koch say nothing about education as the focusing of young minds on religious, political, and artistic traditions.  Nothing about how you cannot “challenge prevailing traditions and beliefs” intelligently until you have studied those things.  No, it’s all about innovation and reform and progress.

Bloomberg and Koch’s examples show how misguided is the approach.

Many ideas that the majority of Americans now hold dear–including that all people should have equal rights, women deserve the right to vote, and gays and lesbians should be free to marry whom they choose–were once unpopular minority views that many found offensive.

This is the standard justification, and it’s a misleading one.  It overlooks a giant contrary category: things that came along and were hailed as forms of progress but sooner or later exposed as terrible mistakes.  Some instances: early-20th-century eugenics, open classrooms in secondary education, the destruction of Penn Station . .

Bloomberg and Koch compound their blindness to the dangers of progress in the very next sentence.

They are now widely accepted because people were free to engage in a robust dialogue with their fellow citizens.

To claim that the same-sex marriage controversy has been settled through a “robust dialogue” is to rewrite history.  Has any conflict in recent times been less civil and open than this one? 

The progressives on this issue have used tactics of shaming, demonization, intimidation, and litigation, not those of debate.  There is no tolerance for differing opinions, which Bloomberg and Koch hail as a proper effect of liberal education.  They believe in a society in which “individuals need not fear reprisal, harassment or intimidation for airing controversial opinions.”  We don’t have one right now, not on this issue.

The problem in Bloomberg and Koch’s declaration is a discursive one.  They praise progress, in the process setting the status quo as a roadblock to it.  But what, then, about people who believe in the status quo?  And what if the conflict turns upon deeply held beliefs, perhaps religious ones, that won’t be managed and accommodated so smoothly by a marketplace of ideas. 

Let’s face it: some commitments run deeper than that.  Moral positions can be visceral.  Bloomberg and Koch think that “open minds and rational discourse” may proceed if we only show more tolerance. 

But to Bloomberg and Koch tolerance is simply a pathway to shedding principles important millions of students.

A Pointless Glut of Ph.Ds

After years of decline, the number of PhDs is rising again—despite obvious signs that the job prospects for the holders of all these new doctorates are far from good. In 2009, the number of doctorates awarded in the humanities dropped significantly.  In 2005, the fields in total produced 5,210 of them, but four years later only 4,891.  That was the year the housing crisis hit academia and created an even worse job market for tenure-track aspirants than had been the case in preceding decades.  (The market for humanities PhDs has been weak ever since the mid-1970s.)  But while the job market has only gotten worse since 2009, the opposite has happened on the production side.  The number of doctorates award in the humanities last year jumped to 5,486, a gain of 12 percent since 2009.

The numbers come from the Survey of Earned Doctorates.  They raise an obvious question: why increase supply when demand falls?  Why do humanities departments take in more people, many more, than there are jobs?

It can’t be over-optimism.  For a long time, nobody has predicted that the market for humanities professors is going to improve.  The last prominent claim I know of happened in 1989, when a study headed by William Bowen forecast a shortage of professors in the humanities and social sciences unless the pipeline flows wider and faster.  A New York Times story on the report termed it “a major shortage.”  Bowen was quoted as saying, “We need to increase overall production of new Ph.D.’s by two-thirds.  In the humanities and social sciences, we need to double the current numbers.”  The main reason for the coming “serious staffing problem” was the expected retirement of all those professors hired in the late-60s and early-70s.  Upcoming job candidates with advanced degree in hand would be in the driver’s seat.  It would be a buyer’s market, with only 30,934 new candidates and 37,091 positions.

Well, many people did retire—and they were replaced with non-tenure-track teachers.  That led to a swelling population of adjuncts and one-year visitors and teaching post-docs, not regular professors.  And they’re bitter as hell.

We can’t blame them.  We should blame the departments that took them in and promised them a bright future, however implicitly.  The departments taught and trained them for seven or eight years.  They had students serve as teaching assistants in large survey courses and gave them their own freshman courses to run.  Then they pushed them out the door at age 30+, into the swirl of hiring, and forgot about them.

We can guess why the number of humanities PhDs jumped last year.  When the crash hit in 2008, college seniors faced a downsizing economy.  Why not go to graduate school?  You get a stipend, you’re good at reading and writing about books, and you can stay in the safe space of the campus.  Many of them, in fact, have spent little time working off-campus, and to continue in the academic realm when the real world is so competitive and unpredictable strikes them as a solution.

So applications went up in 2008, and now we have reached the time when many of them have finished.  The music they avoided facing eight years ago hits them today with the jolt of the opening chords of Schumann’s 4th.  Most of the people trying the job market in English this year, some for the 3rd, 4th, 5th time, walked away with nothing.

But the regular faculty couldn’t resist.  In 2008 and 2009, the applicant piles grew.  That thicker and stronger roster stroked their egos and met department needs.  “People want to come study with us!  We can have a few extra TAs to help with grading.  I can use a research assistant, too.”  More graduate seminars were needed, which allowed professors to shift from teaching a course with 35 more or less uninterested sophomores to a course with five graduate students who want to be in the teacher’s shoes.  When the thought of the job market crossed their minds, perhaps they rationalized it away by claiming to provide a superb humanities education that is sufficient justification for the graduate program.  Or, they believe that cream rises to the top and the rest must pay the price of inferior talents.

We would hear something different from the 32-year-old adjuncts and one-year lecturers who came to grad school with reasonable expectations of regular employment if they worked hard and did what they were told.  Any suggestion that their failure to get a tenure-track job was their own fault would be met with a huff.  “If I wasn’t good enough to join a college faculty, then why did you praise me in the seminars I took, pass me on the qualifying exams, approve of my teaching, sign off on my dissertation, and award me a doctorate?”

To the part-timers, the outcome feels like a betrayal or a dismissal.  It is especially annoying for them to see the number of PhDs rising at a time when they can’t get off the adjunct treadmill.  All those new ones are competitors!

But the fact remains: the numbers keep going up.  Or maybe not for long.  Perhaps fewer students enrolled in graduate humanities programs in 2012 and 2013, and we’ll see fewer completions in 2017 and ’18 and ’19.  But the problem of overproduction won’t be solved with but a tick of a few percentage points downward.  We have so many under-employed strivers piled up over the last ten years that it’s going to take years of large-scale retirements and a vastly shrinking pipeline for the market to even out.

Meanwhile, the craziness goes on.

Shrinking the White Male—and His Culture

Last September, the English Department at Colby College in Maine posted a job opening for Associate or Full Professor of American Literature. It’s a plum position, one that hundreds of professors would love to have.

As with all academic job listings, the ad files a diversity statement at the bottom, assuring applicants that some identities are more desirable than others. Bluntly put, Colby prefers anyone over white males.  Part of the statement reads:

Colby is an Equal Opportunity employer, committed to excellence through diversity, and encourages applications from qualified persons of color, women, persons with disabilities, military veterans and members of other under-represented groups. Colby complies with Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in an institution’s education programs and activities.

Nothing unusual there.  Every posting says pretty much the same thing.  But in this case there’s something wrong with the statement—factually so.  It doesn’t jibe with the actual demographics of the English faculty at Colby.

The department Website shows the full roster of faculty and staff, and I count 15 regular professors, tenured and tenure-track (not visitors or fellows). The advertisement lists “women” #2 in the list of identities that will improve diversity, but the faculty is already more than half female, with eight women. Women are not an under-represented group.

The first category is “persons of color.” Here things are more complicated, but still inaccurate.  Two of the English professors count, an African American man and an Indian man, making the department 13 percent “persons of color.”  That rate nearly equals the rate of the persons-of-color in the student body and far exceeds the minority population of the state of Maine, which is 97 percent white.

In other words, the demographics of the Colby department are just fine on those identity categories.  No more diversity is needed for the department to meet realistic goals of proportionate representation.

If you were to point those numbers out to most academics at Colby and elsewhere, however, they wouldn’t carry much weight. That’s because diversity-by-proportion only operates as long as we have disproportions. If things balance out, another kind of diversity takes hold, hegemonic diversity.

If numbers of hirees balance out, another kind of diversity takes hold. It covers the ideas, values, outlooks, approaches, and practices of a discipline. It’s not enough to hire African Americans to teach in the English department.  We have to make the materials on the syllabus more African American, too. Feminism says that patriarchy isn’t just material dominance by men in the workplace.  Patriarchy also works by sedimenting “male” values into seemingly neutral practices and orientations. Efforts to create this kind of diversity can continue forever, since they apply to such fuzzy realities.” Call this hegemonic diversity.

So even when white males are scaled back to disproportionately small rates (they make up 33 percent of the English department, but they make up around 48 percent of the state population), we may still have a white-male-oriented curriculum and outlook. Because of the long history of white-male domination, we need more women and more persons of color, not just equal representation.

This will never stop. Today, girls make up nearly 60 percent of the undergraduate population, but one hears virtually nothing about the shrinking male side from diversity advocates.

Mismatch: The End of a Liberal Dream

The most disturbing thing about mismatch research (examining the contention that a student can be adversely affected attending a school where her level of preparation is substantially lower than that of her typical classmate ) is that it demonstrates a tense inequity: recipients of affirmative action at selective colleges are not as smart as non-recipients. That’s the blunt truth, and nobody likes to acknowledge it.

Smart means something specific and local, of course, in this case math and verbal aptitudes. Those are what the SAT and ACT tests measure, and they are what calculus, freshman composition, organic chemistry, and dozens of other first-year courses demand to greater and lesser degrees.

If two students enroll in a statistics course and #1 scored 150 points higher on the math SAT than #2, he is a whole lot smarter in that class. It is entirely possible that #2 exceeds #1 in other aptitudes, such as the skills that go into drawing and painting, but those won’t help in Statistics 202. Student #2 is inescapably cognitively disadvantaged. In order to compete with #1, #2 must work twice as hard, logging more hours of homework, stopping by the instructor’s office each week, and using the school’s math tutoring service. Sadly, that is unlikely to happen, and #2 shall soon enough shift out of STEM fields and head toward an easier (for him) major or drop out altogether.

This is the mismatch catastrophe of affirmative action, and the strongest current argument against it.

But progressives don’t believe it.  They can’t, because if mismatch is real, then a crucial article of progressive faith will fall.

The article is this: people are products of circumstances, and if we alter the circumstances, we can improve them. That premise obviously applies to affirmative action. Yes, the progressive admits, Student #2 comes into college less prepared than #1, but that’s not because he is less intelligent. It’s because he came out of an environment that didn’t cultivate math aptitudes as well as #1’s environment did. Once we place #2 in the same environment as #1, aptitudes will equalize sufficiently for #2 to function competitively among his peers. That’s the progressive rationale.

If only it were true. But the fact is that aptitudes are not so fluid. It is true that recent research has demonstrated that cognitive gains can happen among adults, but in those studies, the gains were highly specific relative to a single task such as the ability to comprehend patterns in matrices.  Furthermore, the subjects underwent specific training in completing it.

No cognitive psychologists believe that the ordinary life of a college student provides the kind of deep-intelligence training that will enable him to raise his SAT math score 100 points after a semester on campus. Even if we allow a near-total influence of environment on intelligence (that is, reducing the “heritability” factor to nothing), a change of environment cannot produce significant changes in aptitude fast enough to benefit Student #2 in the first year. By the time a person reaches age 19, intelligence has hardened too much to rise with a semester of higher education, no matter how much academic support and the company of high-achieving peers surrounds him. It takes longer than that, even with total and concentrated immersion.

The only way for affirmative action policies to overcome the mismatch problem is for colleges to create a wholly separate extracurricular habitat for recipients. This means extensive daily tutoring and other academic support. They won’t raise math aptitudes much, but they will enable students to complete the coursework and perform on exams at a higher level. Some of the campus protests made recently by African American students, including the Black Students at Emory (my home campus), add this component to the list of demands.  In this aspect, the students are correct. They need more help, and universities that have admitted underprepared students through affirmative action are duty-bound to provide it.

But it’s a necessity that proponents don’t want to acknowledge. Progressives don’t like genetic or other biological explanations for group differences in intelligence. They smack of fate, and they (supposedly) dissuade us from working for progressive reform. But environment, too, is fate, for all practical purposes. That’s the sad truth, and for supporters of affirmative action to ignore it is to show them as ideologues, dogmatic and anti-science.

More Bad Numbers for the Humanities

By Mark Bauerlein

In recent years, several critics have chided those of us who say the humanities are fading by citing statistics on undergraduate enrollments that show no real declines at all since the 1980s.

One reason for the rebuke is that many arguing the “crisis” do so on the basis of intellectual decline, specifically, the rise of identity politics in the humanities, which have often made the disciplines a joke across the quad. (See here.)

Liberal defenders of race-class-gender-sexuality-disability-queerness-etc. studies don’t like to admit that their enthusiasms haven’t brought more respect to the fields, much less any material gains in recent years. And so, they call upon the numbers and sprinkle smug remarks against the other side among them, as in this piece by a past president of the Modern Language Association.

But the bad news keeps coming. The Job List of the Modern Language Association came out this month, and for the third straight year, the openings declined significantly. The number of jobs in English (1,015) for 2014-15 fell 3 percent, while all the foreign languages (949) saw a decline of 7.6 percent.

If we go back to 2009-10, English jobs this year fall 7.7 percent, while foreign languages are 7.3 percent lower. When we pull out tenure-track positions, things look worse. This year, 67.3 percent of the jobs available are tenure-track, a tiny rise of 0.8 percent from last year, but still way below the number of doctorates awarded in any calendar year. For the foreign languages, tenure-track jobs make up only 50.4 percent of the whole list, a slip of 2.1 percentage points from 2013-14. In previous years, tenure-track positions made up 75-80 percent of English jobs and 60-65 percent of foreign language jobs. Clearly, schools are shifting more and more teaching duties to adjunct positions and one-year lectureships.

What this means is that the build-up of bitter, frustrated job seekers continues. Many of those PhDs from 2010, 2011, 2012 . . . who didn’t get tenure-track jobs in past years are still out there sending applications to every job listing that comes close to their expertise, creating a pool of thousands of qualified people for hundreds of jobs. Tell them that the humanities are doing fine.

There are two other trends to factor into this dismal picture. We had a crushing decline in job openings after the 2008 economic crisis. As the Inside Higher Ed story notes, “The low point for jobs in that economic downturn was 2009-10.” People expected that some good financial years for private university endowments and public university state budgets would yield a steady recovery.

But, as you see above, that hasn’t happened. The other trend that should have spurred tenure-track hiring was the retirement of Boomer professors. Many of those people hired in the 70s have lingered in their posts beyond the traditional retirement age of 65, holding their posts through the 00s. They are now leaving, but it appears they aren’t being replaced with regular faculty lines. I suspect this is because the number of majors in the departments doesn’t justify their full replacement.

This is a hard fact that the-humanities-are-doing-just-fine crowd can’t spin out of existence.

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory.

The University as Nursery

One of the implications of the shift of pressure against free speech from left-wing faculty and administrators to undergraduates is that the ideological framework of liberal bias doesn’t quite apply.  Yes, we have language of “racism” and “sexism,” along with demands that relics of US history that fail the PC test be torn down.  But the political thrust doesn’t gibe with talk about safe spaces and microaggressions.  That’s an idiom of therapy, not politics (even while it is used as a tool of power).

One prominent critic of higher education discerned the difference at work way back in May 1992 in a commentary in TLS.  The title was “The Nursery-School Campus,” and the author was Camille Paglia.  Here is the relevant passage:

By the early 1970s, American universities had become top-heavy with full-time administrators who took to speaking of the campus as a “community,” which faculty soon discovered was governed by invisible codes of acceptable speech, opinions, and behavior. . . . Many of the students, neglected by their prosperous, professional parents, are pathetically grateful for these attentions. Such coddling has led, in my view, to the outrageous speech codes, which are designed to shield students from the realities of life.  The campus is now not an arena of ideas but a nursery school where adulthood can be postponed. Faculty who are committed to the great principle of free speech are therefore at war with paternalistic administrators in league with misguided parents. 

Paglia gets right at what stands out in the protests today: not the political content, but the childish demands.  Grownups listen to them march, chant and think that it all looks more like a tantrum than a revolution.

This is not a trivial point, or a dismissive one.  We should take the brattiness seriously, but see it as a result we have created, not a starting point to which we should respond.  Paglia locates the evolution in the hiring back in the 1970s of higher-Ed administrators who had no teaching duties and no academic research background—in other words, bureaucrats.  They were hired to manage the swelling population of Baby Boomers flooding the colleges and requiring more and more investment in the overall college experience (and less focus on coursework).

Hence the emphasis on “community.”  It’s a word nearly all my colleagues, even the most liberal ones, wouldn’t use to describe their classrooms. But administrators loved it, especially those most invested in attracting and keeping female and minority students.  The term sounds warm and welcoming, especially, the administrators assumed, to youths whose parents never went to college and who might feel out of place.  The message was simple: “We shall take care of you—we care about you.”

But the old story of paternalistic dreams played out once again.  To create utopia, the social engineers had to order and regulate the conduct of the inhabitants.  The “codes” arrived, the underside of community organizing.  I’ve seen it happen repeatedly.  The people most fired with goodness and concern are the first to act—and overreact—against disrupters.  It’s not enough to maintain liberal principles of free speech and freedom of association and rights of conscience.  Those are formal rules that don’t have any positive content.  They don’t tell people what the True and the Good are.  They allow people the space to form their own conceptions of the True and the Good.  With that freedom, unless everyone arrives at the same ones, the community foundations crack and tumble.

When the campus engineers say, “We need to build a stronger sense of community,” then, what they really mean is, “We need to suppress the dissenters in the room, across the campus, throughout the discipline.”  People who oppose affirmative action, revere the classics, vote Republican, oppose abortion . . . they spoil the local culture. They make others feel bad.  How smooth and positive might our school and our department be if they were gone.

You see how the bureaucracy prospers in this set-up, whether it fails in its aims or achieves them.  To create a community in academia, you need a lot more than professors. You also need a legion of counselors, diversity officers, and various “campus life” personnel.  And when the inevitable frictions arise, such as disputes over admissions policies and student-faculty relations, you need more administrators, including lawyers to draft new speech and conduct codes. And when THOSE cause more collisions between a student religious group and anti-discrimination policies, then you need more officers to handle infractions and . . . . That’s how bureaucracy works: the more it stumbles, the bigger it gets.  And it justifies itself in the right and proper name of “community,” which is to say, student well-being.

As long as those efforts were confined to administrators, “community-building” practices were usually contained to passive-aggressive forms of advocacy and policing.  Officials generally knew not to step over the line into outright censorship or harassment.  They knew that bad publicity and upright alumni and donors wouldn’t like it.

But now that the safe-and-secure, racism-free, sexism-free, homophobia-free community-building vision has been adopted by the undergraduates, those constraints are gone.  Sophomores don’t care about bad press. They don’t listen to donors and alumni. They can demand and occupy and march all they want, and nobody will tell them “Stop!” They have lots of time on their hands—after all, they study only 14 hours a week—and they have solid peer pressure backing them up, which means a lot more to them than the authority of the faculty and president and deans.  We are, indeed, in the nursery-school campus. The difference is that the day-care providers don’t know how to say “No.”

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.