Celebrating Academics’ Irrelevance

In early October, Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn proposed prohibiting the National Science Foundation from “wasting any federal research funding on political science projects,” citing the heavy emphasis that the funded projects had placed on quantitative research projects. Such methodology is currently much in fashion among political scientists, even though the research usually yields findings so arcane to be of little use to anyone outside certain segments of political science departments.
Coburn is, perhaps, the upper chamber’s most passionate opponent of all non-defense federal spending, so in one respect his criticism of the political science funding came as little surprise. But the merits of Coburn’s criticism are also difficult to dismiss. If the goal of government funding is to produce material relevant for contemporary policy debates, why would anyone expect such insight to come from most quarters of contemporary academia?
Barack Obama is a president more attractive to professors than any chief executive since FDR. Obama’s campaign, of course, received overwhelming support (both in votes and donations) from the nation’s professoriate. As president, he has demonstrated a cerebral style that suggests openness to internal debate and dissenting ideas. Perhaps most important, Obama is of the academy himself: he spent several years teaching at the University of Chicago Law School and was a published author before entering national politics.

Yet the academics nominated for service in the Obama administration have come almost exclusively from two disciplines: law and economics. Since its curriculum must reflect requirements set by state bar organizations, law is a field somewhat resistant to the effects of academic groupthink. And economics is perhaps the only field in the social sciences or the humanities that has largely escaped the ever-tightening grip of adherents of the race/class/gender trinity.
Beyond law and economics, it’s hard to imagine virtually any mainstream academic who could survive a Senate confirmation process or who would not expose the administration to massive embarrassment in public debate. With both pedagogical and intellectual diversity in sharp decline elsewhere, the academy has become an almost textbook case of groupthink, with increasingly extreme articulations of the common assumptions about race, class, and gender passing for mainstream opinions. Such positions make professors in the academic mainstream all but toxic for political appointment.
Take, for instance, the nomination of law professor Chai Feldblum to a position on the EEOC. Feldblum’s nomination, appropriately, attracted attention after it came to light that she signed a petition expressing support for “committed, loving households in which there is more than one conjugal partner” (what people in the reality-based community call polygamy) and endorsing (in only-in-the-academy language) “queer couples who decide to jointly create and raise a child with another queer person or couple, in two households.” Where all the people are who make such “committed, loving households” the petition didn’t reveal.
Feldblum’s explanation as to why she publicly endorsed such an extreme position was nothing short of extraordinary. In a line that could have come from some members of Duke’s Group of 88, Feldblum said she signed when asked to do so by “another [unnamed] academic from Columbia”; and that she concluded that she “agreed with the general thrust of the statement.” She recently underwent a confirmation conversion and asked that her name be removed from the petition. Feldblum didn’t explain when, precisely, she decided she didn’t support the petition’s demands. (The petition signatories, by the way, still include anti-lacrosse extremist Robyn Weigman, former director of Duke’s women’s studies program.)
The irrelevance of academic insights to important political issues extends beyond the administration. Take, for instance, the recent national conference of J Street, the organization that first attracted substantial attention when it opposed the Gaza war. (That stance put the so-called “pro-Israel” group to the left of even the far-left Meretz Party in Israel, suggesting that J Street has an unusual conception of what it takes to be considered “pro-Israel.”) With such an agenda, J Street might have seemed a possible source for alliance with Middle East experts in the academy. Yet the J Street conference agenda was almost barren of professorial presenters: the Middle East Studies mindset, it seems, is too extreme even for J Street.
In many ways, the academy and the political world have entered into a marriage of convenience. Politicians will largely ignore the increasing abandonment of the academy’s commitment to free exchange of ideas and impartial pursuit of new research. In exchange, most quarters of the academy will explore issues so arcane or ideologically extreme to be irrelevant to contemporary political debate. Race/class/gender academics, in short, will get their fiefdoms, but will have no influence outside the Ivory Tower.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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