Tag Archives: social

The University of Chicago Chooses Decline

The University of Chicago hit two mile-markers in its
decade-long transformation this week. The first, generally celebrated by
students, alumni, and their parents, is a new high-water mark in the school’s US News & World Report ranking. The
University now shares the fourth spot with Columbia, rising from 12 a few years
ago and leapfrogging Stanford, Penn, and MIT, among others.

The second is a reduction in the graduation requirements.
Starting next quarter, graduates will not have to pass a swimming test and either
pass a fitness test or take three PE classes to graduate. In an email to
students, the Dean of the College cited a rationale steeped in the lingo of a
marketing consultant:

The change in the College
physical education requirement occurs in the context of a larger decision by
the University to reimagine and expand our fitness and athletics programs to
meet growing demand and the diverse needs of our community.

These may seem like unrelated incidents, but they reflect
a massive paradigm shift in the way the University sees itself. Since it wants donations
from trustees who prize vacuous but still prestigious measures of schooling
excellence like the US News rankings,
the University has goaded itself into playing the rankings game.

US News‘s calculations
consider prospective students’ view of the institution as measured by the
admissions rate. But should  we determine a university’s quality based on
the preferences of seventeen year olds?
 The university is ultimately supposed
to shape its young and not be shaped by its young. It is supposed to tell the
naïve what is worth studying and what it takes to be a human being and a
citizen of good character.

The aim of increasing its ranking and pleasing high-schoolers
also inspired the University to pare down its Common Core in the mid-Nineties.  Though the Core still is large enough so that
the empiricist studies ethics and the ethicist empirics, the University threw
out the very notion behind the Core: a university only completes its duty if it
teaches its students several things.

The Core now consists of distribution requirements that
flatter young people’s instinct to set their own course. The humanities
requirement can be fulfilled by what is essentially an introductory linguistics
class, the social science requirement by an introduction to psychology class.
No one needs to read the classics of either field. Indeed, students must
consciously choose the courses which are watered-down relics of the traditional
path

Swimming and fitness requirements are, like a set Core
curriculum, decidedly uncool and anachronistic. The real argument for the
requirements–that human excellence is excellence in mind and body–doesn’t stand a chance when pitted against teenagers who
feel that such requirements are onerous or just plain weird.

This week the University got its best evidence yet that
its strategy is working. Seventeen year olds like what the University offers
and increasingly want to spend a few years in Hyde Park. What they do there,
though, is increasingly anyone’s guess. Ten years after the University of
Chicago made it possible  to hold its
bachelors degree without ever examining a page of either Plato or Shakespeare,
it now makes it possible to hold its bachelors degree without ever exerting a
muscle. Decline is a choice, and the University of Chicago has made its choice.

The Forty-Year Failure of American Sociology

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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.

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The Defense of Radical Teaching

For a few years now, distinguished literary scholar Gerald Graff has been disputing with “social justice” professors and “radical teachers” over the proper use of authority in the classroom. While president of the Modern Language Association, he spoke forcefully against the stigmatizing of conservatives, and in the pages of PMLA and Radical Teacher he has argued several times that an insidious coerciveness underlies the leftists’ claim to promote critical thinking, challenge hegemonies, and foster a more just society.
In last May’s PMLA, Graff weighed in again. In a previous issue, radical professors had responded critically to Graff’s presidential address and had Graff had replied at length. Here, another letter comes in from Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a cultural critic at Brandeis who specializes in “age studies” (web site: “Age studies from childhood on can be as powerful as studies of gender or race in empowering people to challenge American age culture”).
The letter opens with the standard premise that “views not informed by radical critique implicitly promote hegemonic values.” That is, if you don’t challenge the hegemony, the system, the Establishment, etc., you endorse it. Or, if you’re not against it, you’re with it.

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Reshape Universities Because of “Stereotype Threat”?

An Inside Higher Ed article yesterday by English professor Satya P. Mohanty of Cornell on “Diversity’s Next Challenges” constructs an elaborate house of cards but then inadvertently knocks the whole thing down. The piece features, in particular, an argument suggesting that “stereotype threat”—the claim that fear of being judged by a stereotype can cause minorities to do much less well on a test than they should—requires that universities and all of society must be restructured before minorities can be expected to succeed.
Stereotype-threat research regarding test performance has been widely used and abused. But, whatever its merits, Professor Mohanty has extrapolated its claimed findings to a broader one, that the “culture of our campuses,” indeed the entire “culture of learning,” needs to be restructured with the aim of fostering racial trust. Merely admitting a diverse student body is not enough: We must “think about what our campuses feel like to those who come to learn.” Campuses must be perceived as “trustworthy” by these students. And this means that campus culture must be “more open, democratic, and genuinely attentive to the experience of different social groups.” Again, there must be a focus not only on admitting a diverse student body, but on “the campus as a learning environment for different kinds of learners.”
Professor Mohanty then plugs the forthcoming book he has co-edited , The Future of Diversity (some of the arguments that follow here are fleshed out by the book’s various authors, and the op-ed apparently endorses them). That future is important not only for the success of the university per se, but because “university campuses have a special role to play in building the future of our multicultural and diverse society.”

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The Part-Time College Job

One often hears about stressed and stretched and over-scheduled college students, but every survey I’ve seen, including those issued by National Survey of Student Engagement (Indiana University) and the Higher Education Research Institute (at UCLA) shows dismayingly low levels of study time and academic engagement among undergraduates.
Another one came out the other day. It’s the summary of the Spring 2008 survey of undergraduates in the entire University of California system, produced by the Center for Studies in Higher Education at Berkeley. The report appears here.
The survey received more than 63,000 completed questionnaires (a response rate of 39 percent) that showed how students spend their time in an average week. Its 48 pages document, among other things, yet another body of evidence against the notion of the six-hours-of-homework-per-day-student. Here is the summary of time use breakdowns:

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“Waste Studies”, Anyone?

Here’s a field of academic endeavor that I’ll bet you’ve never heard of (and may not even want to know about): “waste studies.” And it’s not the study of sewage systems or waste-processing plants, either. It’s about, as its founder, Susan Signe Morrison, an English professor at Texas State University’s San Marcos campus, explained to me in an email: the way “societies are… structured around the control and regulation of excrement.” In other words, waste studies is about social attitudes, not facts on the ground. Heavy influenced by the fashionable-in-academia postmodernist idea that there’s no such thing as reality (there are only “texts”) and Marxist notions of class warfare, waste studies is (in Morrison’s words) about the way “societies are… structured around the control and regulation of excrement.” That means – again in Marxist terms – the way middle-class people maintain their social control by drawing “boundaries” between themselves and the lower classes that involve associating the latter with “filth, rubbish, garbage, and litter” (Morrison’s words).
Morrison, a specialist in medieval literature, introduced waste studies to the academic world early in May at the 43rd International Congress on Medieval Studies held at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan (to read more about the congress in my recent article for the Weekly Standard, click here). There, professors of literature offered their opinions about urine in French farce, the theology of latrines, and excrement in Icelandic sagas. None of the speakers expressed much interest in the way actual medieval latrines worked – because that wasn’t the point. Morrison. who has a book coming out titled Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer’s Fecopoetics, explained to me that she hoped to turn waste studies into an “interdisciplinary” program that would “both understand waste…and draw attention to it.”

Hmm, time was when an “interdisciplinary program” at a university meant what it said: a specialized course of study based on the bodies of knowledge and methodologies of two or more academic disciplines – such as Soviet studies, in which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice obtained her doctorate in 1981, a combination of intensive Russian-language training along with analysis of Soviet politics and history. Nowadays, however, an interdisciplinary program often means something quite different: training in a fashionable ideology, often based on the perceived victim status of some group and even more often embodying an animus against the white, heterosexual, European-origin males who are supposed to dominate Western society.

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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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