Roger Kimball, editor of Encounter Books and co-editor of The New Criterion, delivered these remarks at a Manhattan Institute luncheon in New York City on November 19th. The occasion marked publication of the second revised edition of his influential 1990 book Tenured Radicals.
Joining so many old friends from the extended Manhattan Institute family inspires a feeling of what the philosopher Yogi Berra called “deja vu all over again.” I know I have been here before, talking about something suspiciously similar to what I am going to be talking to you about today. I am counting on you to agree with me that novelty is a much over-rated commodity and to take consolation, as I do, in the observation of the Sage of Ecclesiastes that “there is nothing new under the sun.”
When the first the edition of Tenured Radicals appeared lo, these many years ago, around the time movable type was coming into vogue, the American university, when it came to the humanities and social sciences, anyway, was essentially a left-wing monoculture gravely infected by the stultifying imperatives of political correctness, specious multiculturalism, and an addiction to a potpourri of intellectually dubious pseudo-radicalisms.
Well, that was then. In the meantime, some very talented people have weighed in on the problem. They have written articles and books about the university; they’ve organized conferences, symposia, and think-tank initiatives; they even managed to place scores of good people in various colleges and universities as a counterweight to the various intellectual and moral depredations I chronicle in Tenured Radicals. Today, two editions and nearly two decades later, we can look at the American university and what do we discover? That it is, essentially, a left-wing monoculture gravely infected by the stultifying imperatives of political correctness, specious multiculturalism, and an addiction to a potpourri of intellectually dubious pseudo-radicalisms.
The story of the contemporary university reminds me of that advertising slogan for Teacher’s Scotch one used to see on the sides of buses and other public conveyances. “In life,” it ran “experience is the great teacher. In Scotch, Teacher’s is the great experience.”
Clever, but I more and more wonder whether the first sentence is true. Is experience a great teacher? For some time now, whenever I think about reforming or the university, a little voice emerges to ask “Are you mad?” For the most part, I believe, candid opinion about the problem of reforming the university is divided into two camps. On the one hand there are those who think it cannot be done, that the university is beyond redemption, and more’s the pity. Then there are those who think that it cannot be done, the university is beyond redemption, and it doesn’t matter.
Of course, those alternatives do not exhaust the options. Shortly after I wrote an essay on the subject of “Retaking the University” in The New Criterion, one thoughtful internet commentator responded with an alternative that I must have had somewhere in the back of my mind but had never articulated explicitly. This forthright chap began by recalling an article on military affairs that poked fun at yesterday’s conventional wisdom that high tech gear would render old fashioned armor obsolete. Whatever else the war in Iraq showed, such tried and true military hardware was anything but obsolete. The moral is: some armor is good, more armor is better. “It makes sense,” this fellow concluded, “to have some tanks handy.”
He then segued into my piece on the university, outlining some of the criticisms and recommendations I’d made. By and large, he agreed with the criticisms, but he found my recommendations much too tame. “Try as I might,” he wrote, “I just can’t see meaningful change of the academic monstrosity our universities have become issuing from faculties, parents, alumni, and trustees.”
What was his alternative? In a word, “Tanks!” He called his plan Operation Academic Freedom and I think you will agree that it has the virtue of simplicity that William of Occam, for example, famously recommended. Here’s the plan:
We round up every tank we can find that isn’t actually being used in Iraq or Afghanistan. Next, we conduct a nationwide Internet poll to determine which institutions need to be retaken first. . . .
The actual battle plan is pretty simple. We drive our tanks up to the front doors of the universities and start shooting. Timing is important. We’ll have to wait till 11 a.m. or so, or else there won’t be anyone in class. Ammunition is important. We’ll need lots and lots of it. The firing plan is to keep blasting until there’s nothing left but smoldering ruins. Then we go on to the next on the list. If the first target is Harvard, for example, we would move on from there to, say, Yale. So fuel will be important too. There’s going to be some long distance driving involved between engagements.
Well, perhaps we can agree to call that plan “B,” a handy recourse if other proposals don’t pan out.
And there have, let’s face it, been plenty of other proposals. Indeed, the task of reforming higher education has become a vibrant cottage industry, with think tanks, conferences, and special programs, institutes, and even lunch talks cropping up like mushrooms after a rain. I think, for example, of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University, The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Robert George’s Madison Center at Princeton University and a dozen similar initiatives around the country.
Naturally, many of these initiatives–those whose home is at a college or university, anyway–run into stiff resistance. For example, when a couple of dissident professors at Hamilton College wanted to start a center named for Alexander Hamilton and dedicated to “excellence in scholarship through the study of freedom, democracy, and capitalism,” the roof caved in on them. You remember Hamilton College. It’s the wretched place that was only too proud to invite to campus people like the “post-porn feminist” Annie Sprinkle, a felon like Susan Rosenberg–the former Weather Underground member whose 58-year sentence was commuted under the watchful eye of Eric Holder, the man who is expected to be nominated to be our next Attorney General–and Ward “little Eichmanns” Churchill.
But just let someone try celebrating the achievements of America and, bang, the predominantly left-wing faculty at Hamilton, starts whining about “governance” and “accountability.” Fifteen minutes later, the administration capitulates and kills the center.
This particular story has a happy ending, because the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization went ahead anyway–but not at Hamilton College. It’s just down the street in the old Alexander Hamilton Inn.
I applaud all of these initiatives–indeed, I am involved in one way or another with several of them. But I wonder what effect they will have on the intellectual and moral life of the university. They are important in any event because, even if they remain relegated to the sidelines of academic life, they demonstrate that real alternatives to reflexive academic left-wingery are possible.
I suspect, however, that they will remain minority enterprises, a handful of admirable gadflies buzzing about the left-lunging behemoth that is contemporary academia. Why? There are several reasons.
One reason is that that left-wing monoculture I mentioned is simply too deeply entrenched for these initiatives, laudable and necessary though they are, to make much difference. For the last few years, I have heard several commentators from sundry ideological points of view predict that the reign of political correctness and programmatic leftism on campus had peaked and was now about to recede. I wish I could be share that optimism. I see no evidence of it. Sure, students are quiescent. But indifference is not instauration, and besides faculties nearly everywhere form a self-perpetuating closed-shop.
It is the same with the fashion of “theory”–all that anemic sex-in-the-head politicized gibberish dressed up in reader-proof “philosophical” prose. It is true that names like Derrida and Foucault no longer produce the frisson of excitement they once did. But that is not because their “ideas” are widely disputed but rather because they are by now completely absorbed into the tissues of academic life. Something similar happened with Freud a couple decades ago: it’s not that his silly ideas were no longer influential; on the contrary, they had merely become commonplace assumptions: still toxic, but by now taken-for-granted.
A few years ago, American Enterprise magazine created a small stir when it published “The Shame of America’s One-Party Campuses,” providing some statistical evidence to bolster what everyone already knew: that American colleges and universities were overwhelming left-wing. You know the story, out of 30 English professors at college X, 29 are left-leaning Democrats and one is an Independent while in the history department of college Y, 33 profs are left-leaning Democrats and 1 is, or at least occasionally talks to, Republicans.
The key issue, I hasten to add, is not partisan politics but rather the subordinating of intellectual life to non-intellectual, i.e., political imperatives.
Indeed, it is this failure–a failure to check the colonization of intellectual life by politics–that stands behind and fuels the degradation of liberal education. The issue is not so much–or not only–the presence of bad politics as the absence of non-politics in the intellectual life of the university.
Let me mention a couple of distinctions that I think we have lost sight of in recent years. The first is the distinction between academic freedom and free speech. Every time some wacko like Ward Churchill comes along shouting about the evils of American capitalism and the beneficence of Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Native American Indians, or whoever, his defenders rally round and say, “Well, I may not like what he says, but he is simply exercising his right of free speech.”
I say, No he is not. He is violating his obligation as a teacher to eschew politics and impart knowledge. There is an important distinction between the right of free speech–our rights as citizens in a free society to peaceful political dissent–and academic freedom, the more limited privilege accorded to suitably enfranchised members of a college or university to to pursue knowledge. As the sociologist Edward Shils once noted, academic freedom is “the freedom to seek and transmit the truth.” It does not, Shils insisted, “extend to the conduct of political propaganda in teaching.” In short, academic freedom is the freedom to do academic things: for teachers “to teach the truth as they see it on the basis of prolonged and intensive study, to discuss their ideas freely with their colleagues, to publish the truth as they have arrived at it by systematic methodical research.”
Bottom line: Academic freedom is not the same thing as free speech. It is a more limited freedom, designed to nurture intellectual integrity and to protect those engaged in intellectual inquiry from the intrusion of partisan passions. The very limitation of academic freedom is part of its strength. By excluding the political, it makes room for the pursuit of truth.
The second distinction I want to mention bears on the great shibboleth of the contemporary university, “diversity.” Many people on my side of the argument look at the studies about the political complexion of universities and say, “But these institutions aren’t diverse. They’re Left-wing monocultures, just as Kimball says.” What’s missing, many of these chaps say, is intellectual diversity. This is true enough. But I’d like to raise a cautionary note about the whole diversity wheeze. First of all, there is the issue of hypocrisy, underwritten by political correctness. We all know that the louder institutions proclaim their allegiance to diversity, the more strenuously they seek to foster a homogeneity of opinion about any contentious subject. It’s the old Orwellian all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others gambit.
But I think the diversity imperative needs to be challenged in other ways as well. For one thing, if–and note I say “if”–if there are advantages to socially, ethnically, racially, economically, sexually diverse environments, there are also advantages to an environment in which people engaged in a common pursuit share values, backgrounds, and core assumptions about basic political and moral questions. The idea that colleges are better they more socially diverse they are is one assumption that has been insufficiently challenged.
Moreover, when it comes to the issue of “intellectual diversity,” I believe many on our side have been a little too hasty about advocating it. Or, to make the same point from a different perspective, they are too reticent about criticizing the many politically corrupt and intellectually bankrupt trends and professors who currently enjoy the hospitality of institutions supposedly devoted to educating the next generation of US citizens.
Let me say another word or two about this. In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom said that the essence of a liberal education consisted in a thoughtful engagement with the important alternative answers to questions like, How should I live my life? I think Bloom was right about that. But not every “point-of-view” is an alternative worth considering. There might be several valid approaches to the task of indoor plumbing. But stuffing cardboard into toilets and drilling holes in pipes aren’t among them. People who do that are not plumbers, but anti-plumbers.
There are a lot of toilet-stuffers and hole-drillers in academia these days, and we are derelict in our intellectual duty when we accord the various schools of intellectual anarchy an honored place in academia. My point is that meaningful “intellectual diversity” is not served by according parity between those who believe the university is an institution whose purpose is the transmission of knowledge and the values of our civilization and those who, in their various ways, wish to subvert those purposes. A cartoon now making the rounds dramatizes my point: Question: What’s more disturbing than William Ayers, terrorist and family friend of Obama. Answer: William Ayers, educator.
At the end of Until Proven Innocent, their masterly account of the Duke lacrosse scandal, KC Johnson and Stuart Taylor Jr., describe the “assault on excellence” currently taking place in the academy. They comment that “Absent outside intervention–from alumni, trustees, parents, the media–academic culture is likely to grow more, not less, extreme.”
I suspect that they are right about the ideological drift and “dumbing down” of the academy. But I am not so sanguine about the remedy they propose. I used to be . I used to think that appealing over the heads of the faculty to trustees, parents, alumni, and other concerned groups could make an important difference. After all, many parents are alarmed at the spectacle of their children going off to college one year and coming back the next having jettisoned every moral, religious, social, and political scruple with which they had been brought up. Why, many parents wonder, should they pay for the moral de-civilization of their children at the hands of tenured antinomians? Why should alumni generously support an alma mater whose political and educational principles nourish a world view that is not simply different from but diametrically opposed to the one they endorse? Why should trustees preside over an institution whose faculty systematically repudiates the pedagogical mission they, as trustees, have committed themselves to uphold?
Those are good questions. But I have become increasingly less confident that pressing them will make much difference. For one thing, it is extremely difficult to generate a sense of emergency sufficiently alarming that those groups will actually take action, let alone maintain that sense of emergency long enough to allow action to develop into meaningful, large-scale reform.
What’s more, those groups are increasingly impotent. Time was when a prospective hiccup in the annual fund would send shivers down the spine of an anxious college president. These days, as Jim Piereson pointed out in his essay on “The Left University” (The Weekly Standard, Oct. 2, 2005), many colleges and universities are so rich that they can afford to cock a snook at parents and alumni. Forget about Harvard and its $30 billion, or Princeton or Yale, or Stanford, or the other super-rich schools. Even many small colleges are sitting on huge fortunes.
Consider tiny Hamilton College once more. When I reported on the Susan Rosenberg case in The Wall Street Journal, the story appeared on the day that Hamilton kicked off a capital campaign at the New York Historical Society. My article was highly critical and generated a lot of comment. Donations to Hamilton, I am told, simply dried up. But so what? The last time I checked–before the current economic meltdown–the college boasted an endowment of some $780 million. That is more three-quarters of a billion dollars for a couple thousand students. So what if the annual fund is down a few millions this year? Big deal. They can afford to hunker down and wait out the criticism. Will the current economic crisis change things? Maybe. But early news is that colleges are reacting to shortfalls in their endowments by raising tuition.
In any event, deep and lasting change in the university depends on deep and lasting change in the culture at large. Bringing that about is a tall order. Criticism, satire, and ridicule all have an important role to play, but the point is that such criticism, to be successful, depends upon possessing an alternative vision of the good.
Do we possess that alternative vision? I believe we do. We all know, well enough, what a good liberal education looks like, just as we all know, well enough, what makes for a healthy society. It really isn’t that complicated. It doesn’t take a lot of money or sophistication. What it does require is candidness and courage, moral virtues that are in short supply wherever political correctness reigns triumphant. The bottom line is that those who want to retake the university must devote themselves cultivating those virtues and perhaps even more to cultivating the virtue of patience, capitalizing wherever possible on whatever local opportunities present themselves.
That is my plan A. Of course, it may fail; there are no guarantees. But in that case we can always avail ourselves of the more dramatic plan B I outlined above.