Tag Archives: knowledge

Here’s How the Scholar Disappears

Political scientists Gary King (Harvard University) and Maya Sen (University of Rochester) recently produced a working paper titled, “The Troubled Future of Colleges and Universities.” Everyone interested in higher education should read it. The paper is instructive for those who want to understand how little most academics understand the crisis universities face. The problems with the paper are numerous, but I will just focus on one–their ambivalence about learning, or what they call “education.”

King and Sen uncritically assume that “education” is a unit of computer data. They define the purpose of the “modern university” as the “creation, preservation, and distribution of knowledge,” like how computers produce and distribute data to consumers. University research generates knowledge, and professors then distribution that knowledge in university classes which, until recently, were “the most sought way to get educated.”

However, the university is experiencing competition from the Internet and for-profit schools, and it may lose its ability to provide knowledge, especially considering how the University of Phoenix has apps (apps!) that put that knowledge on smartphones. Imagine the efficiency of getting educated in between rounds of Food Ninja.

The metaphor completely misrepresents how learning works; it is not a piling up of data until amount equals the common measure for “educated.” What King and Sen do reveal is their ambivalence about education itself. They say nothing of how the financial troubles of universities might deprive generations of a liberal education, as Joseph Epstein fears. Their ambivalence explains the relatively low esteem with which Harvard holds teaching, as Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus detail. Harvard faculty place greater emphasis on research, largely for professional and institutional reasons. As a result, we should not be surprised that teaching suffered, since it amounts to an obstacle to research. Unsurprisingly, King and Sen recommend that traditional universities compete with Internet-based alternatives by putting undergraduates to work in faculty research projects, which is something University of Phoenix Online and Udacity cannot offer.

The solution is strange. It is hard to imagine luring students into college with promises of data coding, regression analysis, and grant-writing; worse, this solution is simply admitting defeat–universities are no longer places of learning but training facilities in quantitative methods. As Martin Heidegger prophesied in “The Age of the World View”:

The decisive development of the modern business character of science, therefore, forms people of a different stamp. The scholar disappears. He is replaced by the individual engaged in research projects. This, rather than the pursuit of scholarship, gives his work its keen atmosphere. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Besides, he is always moving about. He does business at meetings and gets information at congresses. He contracts to work for commissions from publishers, who now help to determine what books must be written.”

On a final note, the recommendation that undergraduates simply start apprenticing as research assistants comes at an unusual time for those like King and Sen, who advocate quantitative social science research. NassimTaleb, Jim Manzi, and Emanuel Derman are part of growing movement of former “quants” skeptical of the attempts to quantify human behavior and afraid of the dangers that come from living and governing as if such quantification were possible. Increasingly, the moment seems right for a heartfelt defense of the university as a place of learning, tradition, and contemplation. There is no app for that.

Look Who’s Endorsing a Race-Based View of Knowledge

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The campus diversity warriors are once again pounding at the gates. This time the pounding comes from on high–the American Political Science Association (APSA) itself. It is a serious clamor: a 76 page report called Political Science in the 21st Century authored by fourteen professors, many from elite research-oriented schools such as Berkeley and UCLA. The report received National Science Foundation money plus ample professional funding.

It is a curious document since nearly every university, top to bottom, has for decades sought diversity, and has even been willing to over-pay and compromise traditional academic standards. The Task Force includes Diane Pinderhuges, past president of the APSA and my former colleague (and friend) for 20-plus years. The two of us regularly sat in the same room discussing how our department could be more inclusive and heard all the administration entreatments to hire yet more blacks and Hispanics.

The obvious question, then, is why yet one more plea is necessary, given that scores of university bureaucrats are already striving to admit more minority graduate students and hire more black and Hispanic professors, and once hired, help them get tenure. Moreover, since many those currently admitted to graduate school or hired are barely qualified, the additional recruits will bring even more problems (many of these potential recruits will also have ample better-paying private sector opportunities). What can possibly necessitate yet more inclusionary vigor? Have these fourteen academics discovered a better solution to a seemingly intractable problem?

Nothing in the real world justifies the report, but that said, Political Science in the 21st Century is still worth scrutinizing for informing us about the latest wrinkle in what might be called, “The Life of the Diversity Mind.” Most important, for those uncomfortable with incessant demands for inclusion uber alles, the report provides advance warning in what seems to be a long war of attrition.

Why should any department double or even triple its efforts to hire more blacks and Hispanics when demand already outstrips supply? Might the reason be that newly emerging problems requiring expertise are currently in short supply, for example, hiring Middle Eastern experts in the wake of 9/11? The report’s justification is remarkably vacuous: demography is altering the political landscape, and the profession must adjust. In their words, “Is political science positioned to embrace and incorporate the changing demographics, increasing multicultural diversity, and ever-growing disparities in the concentration of wealth present in many nation-states? Can political science do so within its research, teaching, and professional development.”  A bit further on, “Task Force assessed the practice of political science to determine whether it is living up to its full potential as a scholarly discipline to enrich the discourse, broaden the understanding, and model the behavior necessary to build strong nation-states in a rapidly changing world where population shifts and related issues regarding race, ethnicity, immigration, and equal opportunity structure some of the most significant conflicts affecting politics and policymaking.”

Professional sounding verbiage aside, this is an unmitigated race-based view of knowledge. In effect, the world is increasingly dominated by people of color, and only people of color can understand the transformation. Let there be no misunderstanding, whites are inherently unable to grapple with this altered new world order, the scholarly equivalent of saying that since whites lack “soul” they cannot relate to Hip Hop or Rap. Again, in their own words, “Moreover, who does political science does not currently include scholars with backgrounds from the full range of positionalities (sic) including race, class, gender, and sexual orientation that are often the most marginalized in societies.” So forget about whites becoming experts on black politics as home-grown Americans once mastered Soviet politics. Race may be socially constructed but not when it comes to employment. Whites are disqualified since they lack the “positionalities.”

To appreciate the absurdity of this view, imagine if black or Latino/a political scientists were told that they could not, say, study Swedish politics since only Nordic types could relate to fellow Norsepeople? Might a single homosexual experience qualify one to study gay politics? We are not being sarcastic–this is intellectual biology-based apartheid.

It gets worse. Not only are whites, males and heterosexuals unqualified to understand blacks, women and gays, but not even science can overcome this limitation. Yet again, in their own words, “The tendency to accept its approaches as ‘objective’ science, for example, tend to inhibit the development of a more critical debate about the potential phenomenological bases of much empirical social science.” In the search for truth the researcher’s genes (or for gays, just preference) trump the scientific method. Truth is a matter of authenticity, something that comes with certain chromosomes and enzymes, not something  uncovered by experiments and statistical analysis. To paraphrase Descartes, “I know because of who I am.”

But, obstacles arise in today’s intellectual climate–top graduate schools demand rigorous training in the scientific approach, including statistics, and these requirements can be barriers to black and Hispanic students despite their otherwise vital inborn abilities. The report’s solution is to expand the definition of “training” to include approaches seldom found in research-oriented Ph.D. programs. “Methodological training must also be much more inclusive of critical analytical approaches and more self-reflective of potential biases in the use of accepted methodological categories.” In practice this new training will resemble Critical Race Theory–the endless search and destroy missions to expose unearned “white privilege” everywhere. Now while white graduate students master Intermediate Statistics, students from historically disadvantaged groups pass the methodology requirement by learning about the inherent racism of the SAT.

And what happens when the freshly minted faculty are hired and must compete with “privileged” professors skilled in the latest scientific skills? This is especially troublesome since top journals use anonymous reviews and accepting race/ethnic screeds will inevitably lower the journal’s prestige. Again, no problem: “Departments should also be more inclusive of the types of journals valued in the assessment of scholarly productivity.” And these alternative approaches should also be amply funded–“Faculties must receive substantial technical, institutional, and departmental support if alternative strategies are to be widely developed, implemented, and assessed.” As an academic lifer, let me translate: the MasterCard approach to research funding–you cannot be turned down.

Let me be blunt. More than access is involved here. The report is an attack on the very essence of the modern university, at least those precincts committed to the pursuit of objective scientific truth. These academics are putting jobs for fellow tribe members ahead of the search for truth. The Rev. Al Sharpton in a tweed sport coat. Perhaps a decade-long frustration of receiving what appears to be only crumbs from the table has instilled a smoldering tribe-based hatred for those who have succeeded in ways that these self-defined outsiders do not grasp. They want to replace “The data show….” with “I feel this to be the truth and don’t contradict me since my genes tell me that….”

That the American Political Science Association legitimizes this profoundly anti-scientific and racialist (“white knowledge, black knowledge”) view, and the National Science Foundation funds it, is remarkable. Alas, this is not one more crackpot idea destined to fade once the adults catch wind of it. Those committed to biology diversity hardly need much encouragement. In fact, almost immediately after the report’s release, Wheelock College, in Boston, Mass., announced a new Political Science major based on the report to put “the voices, experiences, and struggles of marginalized groups at the center of scholarly inquiry.”  According to the Chair of the Political Science Department,  “For us, the major will take the issues they say are ignored — race, inequality, gender, marginalization — and make them front and center.”

Needless to say, Wheelock will not set the standard for Yale or Harvard. Traditional political science will be safe at top schools. But, far more likely will be the spread of this new approach to third- and fourth-tier schools, schools that often attract large numbers of black and Hispanic students. Now, rather than learn traditional political science, even a bit of the scientific method, they will just have their victimhood certified and legitimized. Replacing “How a bill becomes a law” will be, “How white-dominated institution pass laws to sustain institutional racism and inequality.” Yet one more time, the substitution of ideological claptrap will further debilitate youngsters who need real knowledge, not just empty slogans.

How the Law Schools Went Astray

wolson.jpgThis is an excerpt from Schools for Misrule, Legal Academia and an Overlawyered America, to be published March 1 by Encounter Books. Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is author of The Litigation Explosion and creator of the popular blog Overlawyered.com. *** In his 1918 book The Higher Education in America, the gadfly sociologist Thorstein Veblen warned universities that they were making a mistake in their rapid expansion to include professional schools and related departments. These essentially vocational extensions of the university, he argued, put at risk “that disinterested intellectual enterprise which is the university’s peculiar domain.” He reserved special disdain for the new vogue for academic business schools, which dealt in ideas that were “unscientific and unscholarly” and of a general “uselessness to the community.” To impart skills in a field such as marketing was (he imagined) simply to give some clever members of the community an edge against others in the competition for wealth and power. What had that to do with the university’s search for useful knowledge, beauty, and truth for its own sake? Continue reading How the Law Schools Went Astray