Research As Self-Branding

By Mark Bauerlein

If you browse through the list of dissertations filed in American literary and cultural studies last year, you will find many conventional and sober projects that fit well with traditional notions of humanistic study. Here are a few sample titles:

– “Rethinking Arthur Miller: Symbol and structure”
– “Tragic investigations: The value of tragedy in American political and ethical life”
– “Reading and writing African American travel narrative”
– “From demons to dependents: American-Japanese social relations during the occupation, 1945-1952”
– “The culture club: A study of the Boston Athenaeum, 1807-1860 (Massachusetts)”
But amidst these works, you also find a fair portion of projects with titles that border on the bizarre.
– “The fluviographic poetics of Charles Warren Stoddard: An emergence of a modern gay male American textuality”
– “Transperformance: Transgendered reading strategies, contemporary American literature”
– “Cruising and queer counterpublics: Theories and fictions”
– “‘Skirts must be girded high’: Spaces of subjectivity and transgression in post-suffrage American women’s travel writing”
– “Roddenberry’s faith in ‘Star Trek’: ‘Star Trek”s humanism as an American apocalyptic vision of the future”
– “Exhibiting domesticity: The home, the museum, and queer space in American literature, 1914-1937”
– “From sodomy to Indian death: Sexuality, race and structures of feeling in early American execution narratives”
– “The sentimental touch: Hands in American novels during the rise of managerial capitalism”

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Ward Churchill And The ACLU

The Regents of the University of Colorado are meeting to determine Ward Churchill’s fate tomorrow, July 24th. The ACLU has written the University of Colorado arguing against Ward Churchill’s firing. This isn’t surprising – its letter repeats a central canard in the case – that the Churchill investigation was merely a pretext for larger, sinister pressures:

It is undisputed, however, that Professor Churchill’s views are protected by the First Amendment, and cannot serve as a legal basis for any adverse employment action. Nevertheless the University soon launched the investigation of Professor Churchill’s scholarship in an effort to find more defensible grounds for sanctioning him.

Churchill defenders willfully conflate all elements of the proceedings against Churchill – “the University” you notice, is here presented as judge, jury, and (perhaps) executioner. No difference is admitted in agency or person between the submission of a complaint as to Churchill’s work, and the creation of a University panel looking into the question; the processes are looked upon as one and the same. The timing of the complaint about Churchill’s research is viewed as an ineradicable taint, no matter what they unearth or how often they address the question directly of the reason for inquiry. Consider the Standing Committee on Research and Misconduct’s statement here:

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Only A Conservative Idiot Would Think I’m Biased

Peter Wood provides a much-needed rejoinder to critcisms of the Zogby poll on perceptions of professor bias. The poll, predictably, revealed that respondents were widely concerned about left-wing bias in the classroom. Nothing much new there – the true worth of the poll might have been in the sneering comments it provoked from those inclined to dismiss this as a sham. These criticisms ran something to the effect that simple-minded proles have been deluded by years of conservative rantings into thinking that professors are biased, when professors are, in fact, fairer than Jimmy Stewart, James Baker, or Solomon. Peter elaborates, with some piquant quotes from Inside Higher Education feedback:

Why do Americans think college classrooms are biased? The simplest explanation is that many college professors do indeed bring their biases to the classroom and many Americans have begun to notice. But some professors, having read the IHE summary, have reached for more elaborate explanations – along the lines that (a) the poll was poorly designed, (b) Americans are ill-informed and pretty stupid, or (c) Americans are gullible victims of conservative propaganda that has mis-portrayed the situation.

Zogby reported that 58.2 percent of 9,464 respondents believe bias is either a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem in college classrooms. No poll is perfect, but whatever the flaws in this one, the results closely match another poll, based on a completely different methodology, commissioned last year by the AAUP. The accusation that Zogby flubbed the research doesn’t hold up. What about the theory that Americans are ill-informed and stupid? Offering such a theory about one’s critics doesn’t seem an especially good way to shake an accusation of bias.

The sneer about the intelligence of the people who answered the questions, of course, blends into the accusation that conservatives have tricked people. Asks one respondent (who signs himself Skeptical) “How many of those who were polled had actually gone to college?” Blind Man adds “Hats off to the Coulters and their ilk for successfully alienating the public from academia.” Unapologetically Tenured writes, “We have confirmation that talk radio’s core demographic (older, white, male, conservative, and ignorant) has bought into the right-wing meme that dirty-hippie-commie professors are corrupting the minds of our impressionable young Eagle Scouts.”

Read on for more fine examples.

I’m A Quidditch Major

The Chronicle today reports on Harry Potter in the modern academy. It seems inevitable that Harry Potter would crop up in campus role-playing clubs, but now he’s being taught in the classroom?

Universities across the country are adding Harry Potter to the curriculum in a variety of disciplines – English, philosophy, Latin, history, and science – and professors say courses fill up as quickly as Honeydukes on a Hogsmeade weekend. When Sara C. Boland-Taylor, 21, picked up next year’s course schedule at Stephen F. Austin State University, she turned straight to philosophy. “I just saw ‘H Potter,’ and I completely flipped out,” she says. “I called Dr. Anne [Collins Smith], and I left a message – I was like, I will be there and I will bring all my friends.”

Philip W. Nel, an associate professor of English at Kansas State University, began teaching “Harry Potter’s Library” in 2002, advertising the course with fliers, “which now seems sort of quaint,” he says. Edmund M. Kern, an associate professor of history at Lawrence University and author of the reader’s guide The Wisdom of Harry Potter, says he could probably enroll more than 100 students in this fall’s course, but unless he falls under the sway of an “imperius curse,” he would like to preserve the university’s small class size.

Harry Potter’s Library – why, that must be just like Prospero’s books!

Diversity In Linguistics

Since the Supreme Court last week decided against Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky’s policies of assuring a certain degree of racial diversity in public schools, we have heard much about the undoing of Brown v. Board.

However, I have a hard time mourning the decision, though the brute notion that we must ignore race to get beyond it is, surely, simplistic.
Preliminarily, I think of the plethora of schools nationwide where all the students are brown and yet excellence is a norm. I think of the fact that to the extent that black teens tar excelling in school as “acting white,” it tends to be when they go to school with white people, as scholarly studies have shown.

Yet I openly admit that my discomfort with racial (as opposed to socioeconomic) preferences in education is also based in part on gut impressions – based on my own experiences in academia over, now, almost 20 years. Too often, commitment to “diversity” has nothing to do with recognizing the humanity and individuality of the persons in question, and much to do with reaffirming other people’s sense of moral legitimacy.

As it happens, it was ten years ago this week that I had one such experience.

Every two summers, linguists have a kind of summer camp, the Linguistic Society of America Institute, where linguists from around the world give mini-courses for students on a college campus. I was invited to teach at the one in 1997.

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Anthropology’s Holy Trinity

Karl Marx did everyone a huge favor when he announced that all history was the history of class struggle because then it was simple to analyze anything and everything confidently and crisply. But in Anthropology a new holy explanatory trinity has emerged to replace the good old simple one: Race/Class/Gender. You can barely refer to the weather without taking into firm account the now-triply-coercive impact of these factors. There are some immediate things to note about how these relatively reasonable independent variables are influenced by the prevailing ethos of the academic institutions which have affirmed their necessary role in peering at any social behavior. The first and in a way most dramatic feature is that the trinity is essentially composed of factors which are viewed as centrally negative. The use of Race (which is scientifically a hopeless, preposterous and dumb concept which should be embargoed from serious discussion) implies not that race is a positive matter but rather a source of inequity, loss of face, and the origin of variegated segments of oppression.

Another negative vitamin of the RCG Trinity is its unthinking association with the industrial way of life or of industry. Most folks in most of nature’s constituency don’t think in terms of class, unless they’ve been to the London School of Economics or any more expensive US college. Instead, kinship is all. Family, Uncle Dirk, Cousin Frank in Wichita – that’s the organizing principle of human as well as chimp and even bat society. You may be a big-city alderman or the owner of a Chevrolet dealership but you’re always a son or daughter or dim-bulb cousin first. Class as a construct was useful in trying to figure out how to deal with the conniptions of Europe when farmers had to leave the land either because of the Enclosure Acts or bad potato prices and moved to cities where they were obligated through the need for breakfast to work hard, usually for people who got to wear velvet. But as a cosmic imprimatur of how human life gets lived, sorry, class is rather particular as a tool and of course that’s why the gaseous term “middle class” serves countless suave commentators as a method of avoiding any punctilious analysis of the matter, as compared for example with folks who have tetanus and those who don’t.

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Professors And God: Any Connection?

By Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio

A report by Gary Shapiro in yesterday’s New York Sun carried some surprising information about the religiosity of college professors: though less religious than the general population, the majority believe in God. Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Barnard, was quoted as saying that the new data helps to refute the notion that academics are mostly atheists and agnostics.

But let’s turn on the caution light. The study of 1500 college professors at twenty top institutions that grant bachelors degrees, conducted by Neil Gross (Harvard) and Solon Simmons (George Mason), did indeed find that a slight majority claims to be religious. The numbers, not listed in the Sun, showed that 35.7 percent say “I know God really exists and I have no doubt about it,” while 16.9 percent reported “while I have my doubts, I feel I do believe in God.” Atheists and agnostics accounted for 23.4 percent of professors reporting.

The most heavily religious professors in the study teach accounting, followed by professors of elementary education, finance, marketing, art and criminal justice. The least religious professors were in biology, psychology, economics, political science and computer science. Research-oriented professors and faculty at elite institutions are significantly less religious than other academics. Only twenty percent of these academics “have no doubt that God exists.” The implications for the larger culture of these findings are crucial. Professors who are the least religious and most hostile to religion are the ones most likely to be writing textbooks, articles and monographs, and the ones whose opinions are most sought after by the media. It is these ideas of irreligious professors that carry the most prestige among the punditocracy, dominate elite discourse, and filter down to the general public. Liberal arts professors are much less likely than accounting professors to believe in God. The liberal arts and social science professors are the ones who most often express opinions on religion and deal with issues involving religion and morality in the classroom.

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Everything’s Great

A new Zogby poll confirms what everyone suspected:

58% of respondents found political bias on the part of college professors a “serious” problem. That’s encouraging. Who was concered? 91% of those self-described as “very conservative” found bias a problem while a scant 3% of liberals believed so. None of this is very surprising.

Somewhat more interestingly, 46% of respondents indicated that they believed that the quality of a college education was worse than it was 25 years ago. Only 29% believed that it had improved.
A stirring vote of confidence in American higher education.

Historically Black Colleges and Sciences

In anticipation of a new U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report on historically black colleges and universities, Gail Heriot at The Right Coast has been doing some reading.

These institutions, which produce only 20% of African-American students, launch a striking 40% of all African-American science and engineering graduates. Heriot wonders as to this:

Why might this be? In 1996, Rogers Elliott, A. Christopher Strenta, et al. took a look at the why African-American and Hispanic students are less likely to follow careers in science than white or Asian-American students in “The Role of Ethnicity in Choosing and Leaving Science in Highly Selective Institutions.” They found that African-American and Hispanic students at elite colleges and universities are about as likely as white or Asian-American students to start off intending to major in science. But they abandon those intentions in larger numbers. The authors concluded that mismatch probably played a major role.

Heriot cites segments from the report:

Why are so many talented minority students, especially blacks, abandoning their initial interests and dropping from science when they attend highly selective schools? The question has many possible answers, but we will begin with the factor we think most important, the relatively low preparation of black aspirants to science in these schools, hence their poor competitive position in what is a highly competitive course of study. As in most predominantly white institutions, and especially the more selective of them, whites and Asians were at a large comparative advantage by every science-relevant measure …

It’d be interesting to see the hypothesis tested against African-American students’ performance at non-elite, non-historically black colleges. The study’s attention to a common level of academic preparation (without the lags that dog black performance at elite colleges) seems the most convincing factor. Perhaps they’re additionally better at providing encouragement to minority science careers than institutions of comparable quality? Hopefully the Commission’s report will shed additional light on this.

Beware Of Elites Bearing Racial Theories

In his concurring opinion of June 28, 2007 about the use of race in student placement in elementary and secondary public schools, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas gave the American people some very valuable advice: “If our history has taught us anything, it has taught us to beware of elites bearing racial theories.”

Throughout our history, Americans have been confronted with a host of theories about race, from the early notion that blacks were inferior to the current view that racial integration is crucial to equal opportunity for blacks in education. It might be useful to take a look at a few of these theories.

The first commandment in the bible of racial theories is the view that “diversity equals excellence.” Until recently, this theory has been described in the elementary and secondary education settings as “racial integration.” For more than 50 years, public school districts throughout the nation have been engaged in efforts to racially integrate their schools. They have been subjected to mandatory court desegregation orders and they have implemented “voluntary desegregation plans.” The overall impetus for these activities has been the premise that a racially integrated America is socially desirable and that the process of racial integration should begin in the earliest years of education.

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Letters To The Times

A colleague forwarded the following to me, found in The New York Times

Re “Young Americans Are Leaning Left, New Poll Finds” (front page, June 27):

As a professor who for years has spoken on the virtues of liberalism, I find it extremely pleasing to know that young Americans are once again beginning to lean on the left.
It gives me great hope that this new generation will go on to restore what has been taken away from us in the last seven years of the ultraconservative Bush administration and its collaborators in Congress.

While your conservative readers will accuse me of being yet another liberal professor indoctrinating students, it is more important to have voters who support universal health coverage for all, believe that gay marriage and abortion should be legal and that global warming is a serious problem, and finally, willing to vote for a presidential candidate who smoked marijuana, who is a woman or African-American.

In short, these voters will turn our nation into a kinder and gentler place and that is so much better than the current divisive, religion-suffocating, anti-science and war-filled living conditions.

Michael Hadjiargyrou
Stony Brook, N.Y., June 27, 2007

Well, if it makes the students kinder and gentler…

New Orientalism?

Why is the jailing of Haleh Esfandiari to be regretted? Well… because it will encourage Orientalists, of course.

Look to a novel account in this week’s Chronicle, where Fatameh Keshvarz registers her distaste for Azar Nafisi, Khaled Hosseini, and Asne Seierstad. Their fault? Well, failing to depict the “complexities” of life in the worse-governed portions of the modern Middle East. This troika simply plays to Western Orientalism (and Imperialism), Keshvarz asserts, by failing to depict Tehran, Kabul, and the like in suitably complex terms, or to provide sufficient attention to local culture. Nafisi, for one, is assailed for oversimplification (her 18 years at the University of Tehran are evidently insufficient experience for Keshvarz) while a number of bright lights in the Iranian cultural scene are highlighted as offering a better composite picture.

She highlights Shahrnush Parsipur,

a powerful postrevolutionary author of many successful novels, including The Dog and the Long Winter (1976) and Tuba and the Meaning of the Night (1989). Parsipur is also the author of Women Without Men: A Novella. I purchased the latter two novels in Iran last summer, although they are supposedly “banned.” In Women Without Men, she gives us Zarrinkolah, the charming prostitute. Shortly after the onset of the revolution, Parsipur’s women are out to “see the world,” and no one is going to stop them. When Zarrinkolah, a “little woman of 26 with a heart open like the sea,” decides to leave the brothel, she needs no one’s permission, no blessing from a holy man. She is her own source of holiness, the ray of light that brightens the brothel’s miserable life. A holy prostitute in postrevolutionary Iran has to be a miracle, you say. But that is exactly the point. Postrevolutionary Iran has towering women writers who make miracles possible.

Well, that’s great. So what’s become of her? “Parsipur has since left for exile in the United States.” Keshvarz’s principal example of overlooked Iranian female expression is… in exile? Keshvarz can buy Parsipur’s novels in Iran, but Parsipur can’t live there? Is that the societal complexity that the “New Orientalists” are missing?

Once again, Orientalist theory displays an exquisite sensitivity to any and all depictions of the Middle East, yet posits a monolithic West (which seems to consist, in their minds, of Dick Cheney, Fouad Ajami, and Bernard Lewis). Spirited criticism of problems in the Middle East, from any quarter, is always met by enfevered shushing – don’t encourage the neo-cons! Orientalism is a theory absurd enough when guiding readings of historical expression – it’s positively malignant when labeling frank criticism some sort of Imperialist collaborationist sentiment. When the Esfandiari jailing is occasion first for worries about Western Imperialism and only second about the Iranian political climate, it’s clear something’s gone wrong.

DePaul Flubs Up On Finkelstein

It’s difficult to be anything but pleased by the failure of Norman Finkelstein’s DePaul tenure bid. He’s a figure of repulsive opinions, given to frequent invective and doubtful scholarship. Yet all should look more carefully at DePaul University’s explanation of the step before celebrating. The logical foregrounding for their tenure decision would have been problems with his published scholarship; instead, DePaul justified their decision chiefly with talk of “respect for colleagues.” There’s little doubt that Finkelstein is a jerk, but DePaul’s grounding of its refusal in that fact – instead of holes in his academic work – leaves it open to justified criticism. “Collegiality” is a potentially insidious concept – just ask Walter Kehowski, a professor at Glendale Community College, who was just released from a forced administrative leave for the crime of emailing George Washington’s Thanksgiving address to fellow professors. The crime? Creating a “hostile environment.” Finkelstein’s faults are clearly of a higher order than this, but all should be wary of arguments premised upon a professor’s sociability, instead of his scholarship.

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Immigration And Bowling Alone

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, is very nervous about the release of his new work. Understandably so. His five-year study shows that immigration and ethnic diversity have a devastating impact on social capital, the fabric of associations, trust and neighborliness that create and sustain communities. In the short to medium range, that is, because in the long run, new communities and new ties are formed, Putnam says. What he fears – correctly – is that his work on the surprisingly negative impact of diversity will become part of the immigration debate.

His study found that immigration and diversity not only reduce social capital between ethnic groups, but also within the groups. Trust, even of one’s own race, is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer. The problem is not ethnic conflict or worse racial relations, but withdrawal and isolation. Putnam writes: “In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down,’ – that is, to pull in like a turtle.”

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The Lessons of Antioch

Cary Nelson’s belle lettre to Antioch in this week’s Chronicle is enough to make anyone want to nail another board over the school’s windows. What did Antioch teach? Spunky ideas, like the following:

I used some of Lyndon Johnson’s antipoverty money to hire buses to take the program participants [inner-city children] to an antiwar demonstration in Washington, D.C. Needless to say, that experience was new to them as well. Bureaucracy being what it is, my little expenditure was never noticed.

The piece ends:

I always tell people, though they never believe me, that I could never have made it through any other college. There was no place like Antioch, with its mix of intellectual freedom, commitment to justice, and innovative program of courses and work experience. And if Antioch does indeed close, there may be no such place at all.

Yes. And?

Twenty Years in the Vineyards of Higher Education Reform

This month the National Association of Scholars celebrates its twentieth anniversary. Twenty years ago, Ronald Reagan sat in the White House. Twenty years ago a wall stood in Berlin. Twenty years ago the world wide web was only a gleam in Al Gore’s eye. Twenty years is enough time to have fought all the declared wars of the United States, as well as the Civil War, back to back. Twenty years doesn’t quite count as an era, an epoch, or even a full generation, but it’s not an inconsiderable span, and certainly one sufficient for taking stock. So, after twenty years of struggle for higher education reform, how do things stand, and, more significantly, what has been learned about feasible routes to remedy?

As to how things stand, let’s start with the plus. First, we have a genuine academic reform movement where twenty years ago there was none. A sizeable community of organizations, with distinct missions and partially distinct if overlapping bases of support, now act in concert. Some, like the American Academy for Liberal Education, the American Council for Trustees and Alumni, the Association for the Study of Free Institutions, the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, and The Historical Society, came into existence, in large measure, because of the NAS. Others, like that indispensable campus civil liberties watchdog, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, took shape under their own inspired leadership. Another, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, has a productive history reaching back to the fifties, but, over the past two decades, has assumed a great many new and vital reformist roles. Groups like the American Civil Rights Institute, the Center for Equal Opportunity, and the Center for Individual Rights, while not confined in their concerns to higher education, are the vanguard in the fight against academe’s entrenched and emblematic system of ethnic preference. Donor organizations like the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, and the Manhattan Institute’s own Veritas Fund, have also come into being, with the promise of generating the financial resources which any growing movement requires.

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Student Loans: All Better Now

Peter Wood has been active at the NAS site, issuing additional comment on the latest permutation of the ongoing student loan scandal (if you haven’t, do catch his initial summing-up of the case Those Scandlous Student Loans). This week, George Miller, Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, introduced a bill to reduce federal subsidies of private loan providers and shift the related funds to direct federal loans. Democrats such as Miller have had considerable fun railing against fat-cat student loan companies in recent days (with good reason), but student-loans hardly ever qualified as a “private” enterprise in any traditional sense of the term. As Wood observes:

For decades, Republicans have been stalwart supporters of “private” lending for higher education, as opposed to direct federal spending. Of course, an industry addicted to federal subsidies and guarantees is private in a highly qualified sense. It has socialized its risks and privatized its profits. It would take rather advanced financial modeling to figure out whether the residual benefits of the private sector save the taxpayer more money than the industry managed to scam from the program.
In any case, the political balance has decidedly shifted in favor of a renewed effort to use direct federal loans to students. The opportunities for malfeasance, corruption, and inefficiency in this program are not to be underestimated either. But at least it will be a different malfeasance, corruption, and inefficiency — and that will feel good. Of course, the private student loan industry won’t be shutting down. The price of Sallie Mae has fallen, but the business will continue at a slightly less robust profit margin.

In other words, a sunny future. Read all of his thoughts at NAS.

Antioch: Gone

Antioch College, of fame for strident sexual interaction policies, and Abu-Jamal commencement speeches, has ceased to be.

American colleges are not in the habit of disappearing, but then, there are few colleges anything quite like Antioch, as Peter Wood today notes in What Happened To Antioch? on the site today. In a universe of left-inclined colleges, Antioch was really something tremendous:

So a plain and simple answer to “What happened to Antioch?” is that the college is no longer financially viable. The administrators admit that Antioch’s $36.2 million endowment cannot cover the shortfalls. We live, however, in a nation where over 16 million students attend college and in which many colleges that have pretensions to academic seriousness have long waiting lists. In this environment, colleges and universities can get away with offering programs of tic-tac-toe levels of triviality; and they charge tuitions equivalent to buying a new Prius twice a year – with no trade-in.

In other words, for a college to go under, it is not enough for it to be intellectually bogus; it has to take its misfeasance to a spectacular level. It has to get parents, in effect, to what might be called the “anyplace-but-Antioch” moment; and it has to persuade a fair number of otherwise curious students, “Maybe I’ll enlist instead. How bad can Baghdad be?”

Read the full account of Antioch’s curious history.

What Happened to Antioch?

Antioch is no more. The venerable college is closing its doors this fall. Antioch University – which has other operations – will continue, but its flagship college is finished.

Its namesake, the ancient city in Turkey, had its ups and downs too, after it was founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Earthquakes, invasions, rebellions. The usual stuff. At one point Antioch was the world’s third-largest city, behind Rome and Alexandria, perhaps topping 600,000 people. But it was down to 200,000 by the fourth century AD.

The devoutly Christian founders of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, however, were no doubt less moved by the exceptional regard that Roman Emperors had for the strategic site than they were by the city’s key role in the book of Acts. Barnabas and Paul begin (Acts 11) their proselytizing there; Paul preaches in the synagogue; but Antioch also becomes the first city in which the followers of Jesus reach out to the gentiles, and the first place the followers were called Christians. Antioch is also the base for Paul’s subsequent missionary voyages.

When Judge William Mills, the Rev. Derostus F. Ladley, the Rev. Henry Whitney Bellows, Elder J. McKee and other Unitarians and members of the liberal denomination that called itself simply “the Christian Church” founded a new college in 1852, they chose the name for their enterprise audaciously. Calling it Antioch College enunciated an emphatically outward-looking Christian mission and a “we’re-going-to-change-the-world” attitude. They asked Horace Mann to be the College’s first president and it took many by surprise when the nation’s leading educational reformer accepted the offer. Mann plunged ahead with building a college that made it strongest stands in admitting women; eschewing “sectarian influence,” and promoting hygiene. The College’s first Catalogue also preached self-control:

The best knowledge is no match for bad habits. But true knowledge and virtuous habits will say to the demons of appetite and sensuality, Get ye behind me.

Continue reading What Happened to Antioch?

Identity Group Commencements

Commencement weekend is hard to plan at the University of California, Los Angeles. The university now has so many separate identity-group graduations that scheduling them not to conflict with one another is a challenge. The women’s studies graduation and the Chicana/Chicano studies graduation are both set for 10 a.m. Saturday. The broader Hispanic graduation, La Raza, is in near-conflict with the black graduation, which starts an hour later at 5 p.m. this Sunday.

Planning was easier before a new crop of ethnic groups pushed for inclusion. Students of Asian heritage were once content with the Asian-Pacific Islanders ceremony. But now there are separate Filipino and Vietnamese commencements, and some talk of a Cambodian one in the future. Years ago, UCLA sponsored an Iranian graduation, but the school’s commencement office couldn’t tell me if the event is still going. The entire Middle East may yet be a fertile source for UCLA commencements.

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On Constitution Day

We’re featuring Brad Wilson’s excellent piece on Constitution Day from Academic Questions. He notes that colleges seemed taken aback, or positively dyspeptic, when faced with a 2005 federal requirement to make some sort of observation or commemoration for “Constitution Day” – September 17. Universities were widely alarmed at such an “intrusion” – even in very vaguely defined form. Many seemed to have no idea what might constitute such a commemoration, or actively regarded the thought of such an event as offensive. The author wonders:

Was the absence of a recognition of Constitution Day in our colleges (and no doubt our high schools) explicable in terms of a turning away, in a spirit of tolerance and inclusion, from prideful rituals of a broadly political nature – rituals that may make some alien, or alienated, group feel like it is not a full and respected member of the campus community? Perhaps that is what was meant by an emeritus professor of English in his letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Such a [federal] mandate is deeply troubling and reflects a blind jingoism that should not be confused with patriotism.” But then how to account for the omnipresence of public campus celebrations of various “identities” that by their very nature are exclusive – to take one of countless examples, Princeton University’s annual celebration of National Coming Out Day, announced with great relish to faculty, staff, and students by the Dean of the College’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center? Political, to be sure, and bound to annoy or alienate some parts of the campus community.

Read Wilson’s full thoughts on the Universities’ path away from civic education.

Tear Down What Wall?

According to a 2007 poll, 95% of Sweden’s young people between the ages of fifteen and twenty know what Auschwitz was, yet 90% don’t know what the word ‘Gulag’ refers to, despite the Russians having dispatched to these infamous labor camps thousands of innocent people.

This lack of knowledge is not the fault of the young, but of the media and of other social institutions, whose proper role is the capturing and transmission of truth. Sweden is a Socialist country, and one suspects that the failure to accurately portray Communism is a consequence of the sense of kinship the Swedish Left feels for Socialism’s rabid brother. Because of this betrayal of the truth, the generation about to assume leadership in Sweden will face that grave responsibility stuffed with false information. For example, some 43% of those polled believe that Communism has spread prosperity – not famine – wherever its chill grip has extended. Although they realize Communism has cost some innocent lives, 20% of these young people estimate that loss of life at 10,000. 43% come slightly closer to the mark, with an estimate of 1 million. Few, however, realize that the actual total exceeds, by 50%, the combined total deaths of the two World Wars. The correct estimate of lives destroyed by Communism already exceeds 100 million, a tally that continues to mount today.

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Robert George and Cornel West: Partners.

Robert George and Cornel West have teamed up in an unlikely enterprise – co-teaching a Freshmen Seminar, “Great Books and Arguments” at Princeton. You can find the full story in the June issue of the Princeton Alumni magazine.

George and West seem to radiate enthusiasm about the collaboration, and, particularly, about the challenges to their ideas that it posed. It’s a fascinating example of genuine intellectual diversity at work. Here’s a piquant excerpt:

After alluding to certain groups that feel alienated on the Princeton campus, West finally identifies one such group as African-Americans.

“Ahhh,” says George, as if finally seeing the light. “I thought you were talking about conservatives.” Everyone laughs.

“We had a wonderful dialogue about it,” recalls West later. “And we began to see that actually there was significant overlap [in our views]. Robby wanted colorblindness precisely because he wanted to affirm humanity.”

Do read the whole piece.

The Unchastened Radicals

Among the many lovely qualities that define today’s student radicals – their smugness, their historical ignorance, their blithe contempt for the rights of others – perhaps the most galling of all is their sense of total invincibility. They know full well they can go about the business of mayhem and general anti-intellectual thuggery with the utter certainty that they will never face any serious consequences. It may have been Columbia that got a little unwelcome publicity when its president, “free speech expert” Lee Bollinger, let off students who assaulted a Minuteman spokesman with a tap on the wrist, but more or less the same thing likely would have happened on countless campuses across America. Indeed, it is by no means even an American phenomenon; the Parisian students who recently celebrated the election of their new president are equally assured as their brethren across the sea of getting off scot-free.

How did such indulgence become the norm? How did our most prestigious institutions of higher learning become so astonishingly weak-willed and craven?

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Praising Discomfort at Middlebury

Stop the presses. The president of a well-known college has actually come out for diversity of ideas, rather than just the narrow form of diversity prized on campus (skin color, gender, sexual orientation). In a baccalaureate address at Middlebury College’s graduation, President Ronald D. Liebowitz talked about the “value of discomfort” in listening to and grappling with new ideas. Liebowitz said, “If the wariness about discomfort is stronger than the desire to hear different viewpoints because engaging difference is uncomfortable, then the quest for diversity is hollow, no matter what the demographic statistics on a campus reflect.” If the pursuit of diversity is to be intellectually defensible, he said, Middlebury can’t just exchange one orthodoxy for another.

At colleges, “discomfort” is a familiar buzzword justifying censorship or punishment for offending the sensibilities of students designated as “underrepresented.” That’s why coming out in favor of discomfort is a near-heresy in the campus monoculture.

Some students objected to Bill Clinton as this year’s commencement speaker, while a larger and more irritated group objected to Middlebury’s endowed professorship in American history and culture honoring William Rehnquist. Liebowitz noted that some members of minority groups on campus felt “invisible and disrespected” by the decision to honor Rehnquist and considered it an offense against diversity. Indignant objections to conservative supreme court judges are an old story on campus, including attempts to boycott Antonin Scalia at Amherst and Clarence Thomas at the University of North Carolina Law School.

Some objectors to the Rehnquist professorship claimed that the goal of a liberal education should be to advance social change, and since Rehnquist failed this test, he should not be honored. “I do not share in that narrow definition of a liberal education,” Liebowitz said. “Rather, liberal education must be first and foremost about ensuring a broad range of views and opinion in the classrooms and across campus…” Good idea. Will it apply to the hiring of professors as well?