On “Future of Capitalism,” Ira Stoll has excoriated two anonymous Harvard Kennedy School professors for their allegedly candid assessments of Paula Broadwell, who is at the center of one of those recurring sex and government scandals. Stoll’s account takes the anonymous professors to task for violating a trust, he insists, that is supposed to be implicit in the student-teacher relationship. He calls these professors hypocritical for condemning in Broadwell what they and others routinely do to promote themselves to the larger public. What Stoll does not observe is that by remaining anonymous, they do the sociological dirty work of institutional distancing, which can only be accomplished by holding the individual responsible for everything, despite the institution’s relentless efforts to take credit for anything that the individual did that positively accrued to the institution.
As simple as this may sound or appear, another layer beneath the surface of institutional embarrassment is also operating, and in full force. President Obama decided to define the consequences of adultery as a family matter, which it certainly is. The press has mostly focused on these consequences as a matter of concern for national security. Neither perspective captures the full force of the consequences of what is at stake in the kind of trust abrogated in what is still mostly recognized as adultery. Within the family, or more precisely, within a marriage, any manner of arrangements pertaining to judgments about sex may exist by consent, and this is why the President could conveniently avoid being “judgmental” except to infer without any concrete knowledge that pain had been caused in this “private” matter. Let’s assume that is true: why would inquiring minds want to know about the pain? On the other hand, the issue of national security is obviously about an entirely different scale of trust, but also about how when one is at the top, one is the institution, not simply its representative. General Petraeus’s position was the merging of individual and institution, what sociologists used to call “role models,” a term that had invested in it a moral meaning about obligations, responsibilities and integrity. All these terms have been effaced in the intense lights that shine on “roles” these days.
What does any of this have to do with higher education? Ira Stoll was incredulous about professors hiding behind their anonymity to trash a former student. But the real sin is the silence about what now is quaintly referred to as sex out of wedlock. To be opposed to sex out of wedlock means coming to terms with what also used to be called “premarital sex” and is now reduced to “hooking up”. The new so-called freedoms are heralded every day, even as real life and its personal and professional disasters play out for a public uncertain about what to make of its own incomprehension of what, if anything, is wrong with this picture.
Jonathan B. Imber is Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College and Editor-in-Chief of Society.
critics of higher education complain about a lack of “intellectual diversity,”
mostly what they deplore is the shortage of conservative professors. But there
is much more at stake than that.
climate change: As I write this, parts
of the nation have endured sweltering heat, serious drought, and treacherous
storms, at one point leaving millions of people without electricity for
days. The invocation of “climate change”
as the “cause” of more violent and extreme weather, worse forest fires and
flooding, indeed, of a host of calamities, has been used to assign culpability
to the whole human race, mimicking what irritates defenders of evolution about
the claimants of creation science, that debunking evolutionary theory is an
underhanded way of insinuating religious belief and its claims about the fallen
state of humanity.
turns out the wholesale secular embrace of science insinuates its own range of
pious beliefs. Climate theory pretends
both to the throne of reason and to public policies dictated as if they were
royal decrees. To question a royal
decree in this case is construed as treason again reason. But how did reason come to rely more on a
consensus of belief than skepticism about such grand causal claims? Unlike creation science, the advocates of
social engineering who believe that science is equivalent to policy intimidate
all doubters. The absence of intellectual
diversity is detrimental to public policy debate, not to mention how the
stranglehold of environmentalism in colleges and universities also steers any
debate toward predetermined conclusions.
Here the challenge becomes disentangling the science of climate change
from the policies that should follow from that science.
Continue reading Misunderstanding Intellectual Diversity
The Boston Globe recently reported that the journalist Fareed Zakaria delivered very similar if not identical addresses this commencement season at Harvard and at Duke. Zakaria was perfectly within his rights to imitate himself on the podiums of higher learning. He did nothing wrong. The article reporting his “sin” was intended, however opaquely, to rap him across the knuckles for lack of consideration that even if his speech was not unique for each occasion, his audience was. And there is the rub. In his defense, Zakaria noted that “These are students from two very similar institutions graduating within two weeks of each other. I don’t see how I could have come up with two completely different speeches without giving one group a second-rate talk. I’d rather come up with the same important message I think they need to hear.”
Continue reading Two Commencement Talks That Got Attention
In an engaging but ultimately unpersuasive essay on Minding The Campus (“Affirmative Action, the Bishops and Women’s Colleges”), Jonathan B. Imber, a sociologist at Wellesley College, argues that the dispensation given to private women’s colleges to discriminate against men provides a model that would allow Catholic institutions to protect their religious values from public encroachment and all private institutions to continue the racial and ethnic preferences that have become like a religion to them.
Continue reading A Reply to Jonathan Imber
Here’s something to think about when debating the position of the Catholic bishops on religious liberty and contraception: all-women colleges are allowed under Federal law to discriminate against men in admissions, at least on the undergraduate level. Because they are private, these colleges are free under the law to design their mission (the education of women) and their undergraduate admissions system (no men) their own way.
Until the 1970s, Wellesley College, where I teach, had several graduate programs in the sciences (and in other fields before that).Then federal law dictated that graduate programs in both private and public institutions could not discriminate on the basis of sex. Rather than admit men into those formal degree programs, Wellesley dropped its graduate program. This may be a special case, but it suggests one of the most precious freedoms in a democratic and pluralistic society, namely, the right of private educational institutions to preserve a space for their own design about how to educate their central mission.
Continue reading Affirmative Action, the Bishops and Women’s Colleges
One of the finest virtues of mindingthecampus.com, in addition to its willingness to permit me to speak my mind on many matters, is its mix of insiders and outsiders who comment about this crazy quilt called academia. The word itself is interesting – Merriam-Webster online reports its first use in 1946, which leaves over two thousand years for the now less-used academe with the quaint reminder in the OED: “The best academe, a mother’s knee.” Indeed, the best academe has been a subject of intense debate for as long as something like it has existed, though, I reckon that mothers know best that sometimes you have to step back and take a deep breath.
Continue reading The Journalistic Encounter with Academia
Jonathan B. Imber, the Jean Glasscock professor of sociology at Wellesley and editor of Society, offered a tribute in the April 27 Chronicle of Higher Education to Irving Louis Horowitz, who died last month at the age of 82. Horowitz, a renowned sociologist, was the founder of Society, and a major academic publisher. An excerpt:
Continue reading The Sociologist as Ethical Entrepreneur
College students have been protesting lately in many different settings, from Occupy Wall Street to classroom walkouts, to the riots at Penn State. Each incident recommends its own separate analysis and explanation, but it is important to recognize what they share in common as well. Philip C. Altbach and Patti Peterson reminded us that student protest is as old as the Republic, though it received national attention and serious analysis only in the 1960s: “In 1823, half the Harvard senior class was expelled shortly before graduation for participating in disruptive activity, and students were involved in anti-conscription campaigns during the Civil War. Student activism before 1960, however, had no major impact on national policy, and prior to 1900, no organized student activist groups emerged. Yet there is a tradition of student involvement in politics in the United States, and many of the concerns of the activists of the sixties are reflected in the past.” (Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1971.)
Continue reading When Adolescent Culture Goes to College
Many in the academy, whether on the left or right, will agree that in the late 1960s, a fundamental change took place in the balance between student demands and faculty authority. At about the same moment when many schools began eliminating comprehensive examinations to assess the competence of students in their major subjects, these same schools introduced what has become known as teaching evaluations. These evaluations have become the staple of administrations everywhere. They are used to decide tenure and promotion decisions, and in some cases they are mandatory (e.g., a student cannot know her final grade for a course until she fills out an evaluation, provided conveniently online). Such enforced democratic participation is pursued with the kind of determination once attributed to the enforcement practices of grade-school teachers.
It seems nearly impossible to imagine that once-upon-a-time, such institutions as Columbia University struggled over whether to promote to tenure someone whose politics were considered “radical”. The origins of the American Association of University Professors, founded in 1915, devoted itself for forty years to the protection of dissent and academic freedom. Students played no more than a whispering role in such disputes.
Continue reading Who Wants to Be Evaluated by Students?
By Jonathan B. Imber
Until 1969, on the campus where I teach, all students were required to take two semester s of Bible, which made the Department of Religion a central force in the life of the institution. When I arrived twelve years later, with no Bible requirement any longer in place, the only remnant of a mutually reinforcing dynamic of religion and religiosity was the continuing office of the college chaplain. In fact, my first committee assignment was to the Chaplaincy Policy Committee. The chaplain sought the faculty’s counsel about how to integrate the role of the chaplaincy into the life of the College. Alas, in my early years, the Chaplaincy Policy Committee was eliminated, representing more than a lack of purpose. The truth was that the office of chaplain needed to be reinvented.
The Long Escape
Before describing that reinvention, let me look back at one of the grand traditions of American Protestantism, which, after all, was the central force in the creation of most of the small, liberal arts colleges across America. In New England, until well into the nineteenth century, a large number of the men who attended these private colleges went on to become ministers. The public universities were already well ahead in providing opportunities for other occupations, but it was not until the end of the nineteenth century, with the founding of such universities as Johns Hopkins, that the shape and mission of most elite schools took on their modern and quite similar character.
Continue reading Religion on Campus, Then and Now
In 2008, when all the writing was on the wall but the wall was still believed to be surmountable, the various strategies to rescue the nation were largely about putting more money into the economy. Now, up against the wall, the strategy is about taking it out. That counter-movement has begun to reveal a few things that strike us all as very unpleasant, regardless of which political side we may take. Because public and private universities are beholden to very different kinds of constituencies, it is particularly painful to watch, for example, as Harvard recovers from its losses with cuts that are more akin to losing a little weight than losing a limb, while at the same time such public universities as the University of Las Vegas at Nevada struggle with whether to retain some departments in the liberal arts, including philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and women’s studies.
It is easy to see how a triumphal politics on the left or the right can weigh in on all this. In Harvard’s case, it has been more publicly embarrassing than fiscally consequential that some of its more ambitious programs have had to be scaled back or delayed, including a large development project in the sciences in nearby Allston. But Lawrence Summers, who has returned to Harvard after his stint in the Obama administration, is now feted in the pages of The Boston Globe as a popular and inspiring teacher. This follows his earlier departure as President of Harvard for making remarks confirming that no university administrator should ever risk high position for the sake of personal integrity and candor.
Continue reading A Minor Cut at Harvard Is an Amputation at UNLV
Teaching periodically reaches the public’s attention, as in a recent statement by a group of scientists about the failure of research universities to train their students to be good teachers. The New York Times ran a report on a study published in Science that led its lead researcher to contend: “I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge,” said the lead author, Jeffrey Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University. “I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.” This undoubtedly prompts teachers to feel more pressed to teach “to the brain.” Is learning finally “all about retrieving”? And the veiled acknowledgment that students might fare better by being tested more regularly, a staple of language learning, for example, can now be imagined as one more panacea for our cultural ADD. I do not think Professor Karpicke and his associates are off-base, I think they are tinkerers at the base of a vast cultural inheritance of teaching and learning that deserves its own acknowledgment.
When my graduate advisor, Philip Rieff wrote Fellow Teachers, which began as a lecture/conversation he conducted at Skidmore College in the early 1970s, few were prepared to read about the vocation of teaching—not about how to teach. The latter has become the ball and chain wrapped around the ankles of so many teachers. No reputable institution of higher education today is without a teaching and learning center. (Curiously at my own institution, it is called the Learning and Teaching Center, suggesting that many carts (i.e. students) are entitled to go before the horse in keeping with a consumer-driven logic that drives up the cost of everything.) Fellow Teachers marked an important point of departure in the culture wars that spread throughout many institutions, first in the American university. It had been preceded a year or so by Robert Nisbet’s equally important The Degradation of the Academic Dogma. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind upped the ante considerably, by then, already fifteen years later, but also by then, the arguments had assumed a life of their own far beyond the university as they do today.
I do not mean to disparage the craft of teaching. The Socratic Method, for example, is intended to engage students effectively in a public setting, insisting that they learn how to think on their feet. A film illustration of this made Orson Welles’s early collaborator, John Houseman, the cultural icon of teaching as Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase. The film celebrated the autocratic, distant figure in authority who could drill and humiliate while teaching the law. The film’s final scene marked, however inadvertently, the end of that kind of figure. Kingsfield’s best student folds his final grade report into a paper airplane and sends it into the sea without opening it. For him the encounter with such an inspiring teacher counted more than the final grade. What more needs to be said today about how much has changed?
Continue reading What Else Do Professors Do? They Teach.
One consistent challenge in teaching is remembering how little students really know and how much they think they know. This is not a putdown of students. On the contrary, it is a celebration of optimism in the best sense of the word, the same optimism that was supposed to have inspired Winston Churchill to observe: “Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has not heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.” Apparently Churchill may have never said this, the original formulation about youth and optimism, and age and realism, being attributed to one of Alexis de Tocqueville’s mentors, the historian and political intellectual, Francois Guizot (1787-1874) who concluded that “Not to be a republican at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.” French Premier Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), is said to have restated Guizot’s aphorism: “Not to be a socialist at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.”
I cannot verify any of these aphorisms attributed to these important figures, but in one way it does not matter because all three speak to a common wisdom about youth and maturity with which most are familiar both in theory and in practice. One of the first lessons of conservatism is to observe how so much of what is familiar to us is not learned in school but rather in growing up in the worlds we live in day to day. Teaching students about the great intellectual tradition of conservatism in a liberal arts college in the northeast has been a personal and pedagogic mission for me for the past decade. If you ask me whether I am “a conservative” or whether I am “conservative” I will insist on at least an hour to explain myself. I ask students whether or not it matters that I profess a conviction about being conservative or being a conservative in order to understand conservatism. By professing to be conservative, does it mean that you automatically assume to know my opinions on everything from abortion to welfare policy, if I even have such opinions? Does it mean my teaching of the subject must inevitably be “biased,” a term that has been wielded by both left and right against each other?
Or does it mean that I have a fiduciary responsibility, as a teacher, to present as best I can what those who profess to be conservative understand by that idea? Does it mean that you may learn something less about me than through me about what conservatism professes and how conservatives think? The first day of class I explain that I am a registered Republican (which remains an astonishing confession to more than a few of my colleagues), and I emphasize that my political opinions have been deeply informed by what I read. I tell the students that they have arrived in my classroom not to be turned into conservatives but to understand the relationship between their already developing convictions and what they read. If those convictions are “conservative” or “liberal” my aim is to strengthen both. Whether or not I believe conservatism is superior to liberalism or liberalism to conservatism, the second lesson to remember in my classroom is that disagreement is a good thing, especially when it is founded on principles and facts, neither of which points us always in the same direction in any sure way.
Continue reading On Teaching Conservatism
I hesitate to criticize sociology or sociologists. After all I am now at nearly a lifetime in the discipline, which I have taught for more than thirty years. But I would be dishonest if I did not acknowledge that throughout that time I have been a dissident in the field, a role, protected by tenure, which has challenged a complacency that some–mistakenly–now put at the doorstep of tenure. The problem for sociology was never complacency, but rather irrelevance, a misguided regard for political conviction rarely overcome by facts.
Consider divorce in America: it has taken sociologists forty years to conclude that divorce, in a strictly statistical sense, is not good for children. Many sociologists of my generation were at the forefront of arguing for more liberal divorce laws in the 1960s, and they devoted their careers to studying carefully the consequences of the social changes wrought. The news was not surprising, really. Kids adapt, no question about that, but adaptation is not the only lesson or goal in life. Divorced families are financially poorer; the children of divorced families do more poorly in school, and they suffer more from depression; and the list of collateral damages goes on.
The liberal sentiments of the 1960s did what J.S. Mill’s critic, James Fitzjames Stephen, said Mill did in his time: “Strenuously preach and rigorously practice the doctrine that our neighbor’s private character is nothing to us, and the number of unfavorable judgments formed, and therefore the number of inconveniences inflicted by them, can be reduced as much as we please, and the province of liberty can be enlarged in a corresponding ratio. Does any reasonable man wish for this?” Sociologists, once responsible for understanding the nature of moral and social life, grew silent in their regard for moral judgment, except as political judgment. Sociology as a field and through its professional association simply became a mouthpiece for progressive politics, sounding evermore peculiar to all but the most elite Americans still enmeshed in the daily problems and struggles of moral and social existence.
Continue reading The Forty-Year Failure of American Sociology
By Jonathan B. Imber
It is now nearly forty years since the sociologist Robert A. Nisbet published The Degradation of the Academic Dogma, followed two years later by Philip Rieff’s Fellow Teachers. Then in the late 1980s, Allan Bloom’s best-selling bombshell, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students took pride of place in the sublime critiques of the university. Taken together, these three books stood against a tide that could not be contained, leaving in its wake an even more emboldened organization determined to survive regardless of what it might discard as no longer relevant to its mission.
Nisbet’s principal concern was about the emergence of what Clark Kerr called the “multiversity.” He objected to the separation of research from teaching, and of teaching from research and anticipated that research might become so specialized that its teaching would crowd out the kinds of courses (and research) that could reach (and benefit) a larger number of students. He also recognized that for all the noses turned up at the professional schools (e.g., law and medicine), they succeeded for a time to bring teachers and students closely together: “Rare indeed during the two decades following the war was the law school that took to itself the kind of institute or project, the batteries of technicians and assistants, that one found in rising intensity coming out of allegedly liberal arts departments. To the present moment I dare say one is far more likely to come upon individual teaching (complete with reading of student examinations and frequent hours of consultation) and individual research in, say, the Harvard Law School than in the Harvard departments of sociology, English, and biology – much less physics and chemistry.”
The transformative seeds were already planted in post-war enthusiasms for an academic culture in which gaining grants would eventually be matched by how many “public intellectuals” a school can boast. New opportunities to escape the timeless responsibilities of teaching abound. A controversy has ensued over what is being called the “outsourcing” of grading, taken out of the hands of the instructor (and/or teaching assistants) and given to companies who employ graders in Singapore, India and Malaysia. Along with accounts of the growth of adjunct faculty hired to teach a lot for very little, students and their families, it is argued, are hardly getting their money’s worth. Editorialists at the Harvard Crimson complained that outsourcing evaluation “brings up concerns about the quality of contact that students are receiving in large classes.” Outsourcing is the wrong description for giving over this particular responsibility of teaching to anyone other than the teacher. After all, teaching assistants have been overseeing grading in large lecture courses in universities for many decades. But this oversight was in principle part of learning to teach by learning to evaluate. Of course, it is easy to view such a principle cynically and to acknowledge that graduate students seeking to unionize have been given over to another kind of class struggle that marks the end of teaching as it once was embraced and practiced.
Continue reading Degrading The Academic Vocation