A Chat with Andrew Hacker

(The following is a transcript of a new podcast)

JOHN LEO: I’m John Leo, Editor of Minding the Campus, and I’m here
today with Professor Andrew Hacker, the well-known sociologist and
public intellectual and author of many excellent reviews in New York
Review of Books
. He’s also the co-author, with Claudia Dreifus, of the
recent and influential book, Higher Education?, which has a
question mark at the end, meaning: is this really higher education?
When I asked you what you wanted to talk about, Andrew, you said, “Don’t
blame the students.” What do you mean by that?


PROFESSOR HACKER: Very simply, whenever you talk with professors, as
often as not, they will complain about how students are indolent,
indifferent, and not ready or not willing to accept their assignments.
Claudia and I, on the basis of our experience and observations, feel
that is absolutely wrong.

JOHN LEO: In your book you have a broad array of criticisms of the
modern university cost, tenure, dependence on contingent faculty. Which
of those factors would you like to concentrate on today?

PROFESSOR HACKER: I’d like to concentrate on, well, John, my
colleagues–the faculty, the professors. I feel that they are simply
letting down today’s students.

JOHN LEO: How so?

PROFESSOR HACKER: First of all, as we know, there is tremendous
emphasis on research. Professors are judged by their publications.
When they teach, they bring their research interests, which can be very
esoteric, into the classroom–say the minor works of William Faulkner
or even the use of semicolons of William Faulkner. Then the professors
get dismayed when the students aren’t entranced by that kind of thing.

JOHN LEO: My favorite is “The Thinness of the Elizabethan Lyric, 1605-1607.” How many kids are going to take that course?

PROFESSOR HACKER: Not many, I’m afraid. Let’s take the Liberal Arts
seriously. On the basis of my teaching, I really think young people
are curious; they want to know about the world, but it has to be–not
dumbed down–but put in terms they understand, so they can follow and
follow up on the subject.

JOHN LEO: Do you think that the professors who bring their
specialized attention to the class are really helping to kill Liberal
Arts for the students?

PROFESSOR HACKER: I think they are. In fact, it’s bad wine in old
bottles. The bottle says Liberal Arts but it’s not really. It’s the
esoteric specialties of the teachers. By the way, professors
increasingly say if we take the elite colleges—Harvard, Yale,
Princeton, Columbia, and even Amherst and Williams—professors get
sabbaticals. Here’s a question, John. How often is a sabbatical? A
question; most people say sabbatical, every seven years. No. At the
schools I mentioned, the professors get every third year off–which
means, if you’re a senior, your thesis advisor is off in Padua.

JOHN LEO: Right. Let me switch subjects a bit. In one of your essays
years ago, I think you mentioned that it seemed like Berkeley had two
colleges on one campus. One of the colleges had whites and Asians, and
the other had blacks and Hispanics. Do you recall that reference?

PROFESSOR HACKER: Yes, I was writing about affirmative action in the New York Review of Books.

JOHN LEO: Is that still true and does it bother you?

PROFESSOR HACKER: First of all, at Berkeley there are far fewer
black and Hispanic students because the voters of California tossed out
affirmative action. That’s happened in a couple of other states also,
Michigan and the State of Washington. As a result, black and Hispanic
students tend more to be at, shall we say, second-tier campuses, like
Santa Cruz, Riverside, and Irvine, where the competition is not as
stiff. By the way, you do know–let’s go down to UCLA for a moment–at
UCLA Asians outnumber white students.

JOHN LEO: I think it’s 40% now.

PROFESSOR HACKER: Right. Do you know what UCLA now stands for?

JOHN LEO: No.

PROFESSOR HACKER: I’ll tell you. Unhappy Caucasians Lost among Asians.

JOHN LEO: [Laughter] I see. Let’s let that go by. At the
second-tier universities in California, is it still true that blacks and
Hispanics are isolated, or doing worse than the whites and Asians? My
impression is not, but what do you think?

PROFESSOR HACKER: No, I don’t see that. First of all, when it comes
to the Asian students nobody can beat them. I mean you and I, John–I
know this is a podcast and people can’t see us–but you and I belong to
the pink race. We’re really rather pale people, and we often thought we
are the apotheosis of culture and civilization.

JOHN LEO: You mean we’re not?

PROFESSOR HACKER: I’m afraid not. If you take the tests that we
invented, the SAT, the Asians just run all rings around us. Just let me
add one thing. Have you heard that women aren’t as good at math as
men?

JOHN LEO: I’ve heard that, yes.

PROFESSOR HACKER: Actually, Asian women do better on the SAT than white guys.

JOHN LEO: Interesting. Let’s talk a bit about your book, “Higher
Education?
“. Most of the books criticizing the university come from the
right and you’re a man of the left. Was your new book surprising to
people who follow your work?

PROFESSOR HACKER: I’m afraid it was. As you say, there’s a question
mark. We’re questioning first whether it’s higher, and second whether
it’s education, and our answer to both is no. Yes, Claudia and I are on
the left. I guess we can admit that.

JOHN LEO: Okay.

PROFESSOR HACKER: Even though we no longer have tenure but we’ll
still admit to that. We looked at tenure–lifetime employment–and we
said left, right, it doesn’t matter. We’re talking about 60-year-old
men mainly who are making $100,000 salaries and continuing this with
tenure. They can stay until they’re 90 if they want. I say left or
right, that’s got to go.

JOHN LEO: Let me get your opinion on one of the things that bother
the right so much. I know it bothers me and that is that in financial
uncertainty. The University of California system is in real trouble and
cutting a lot of classes and firing a lot of people. Yet, the diversity
monster, all those people–dozens and dozens of people on each campus
who are diversity officials–why aren’t some of those cut? Why is it so
sacrosanct?

PROFESSOR HACKER: Well, John, we’re less concerned with let’s say
the diversity officers. There are a lot of them, and I’ve met lots of
them. They are far outweighed by, oh let’s say, the psychological
counselors. You’ve got at Williams College a full-time person dealing
with eating disorders.

JOHN LEO: Wow.

PROFESSOR HACKER: Columbia University has an anti-smoking office.

JOHN LEO: With a staff, too?

PROFESSOR HACKER: Of course, with a secretary, an assistant, and a
travel budget to go to the national or international meeting on smoking
disorders.

JOHN LEO: Right.

PROFESSOR HACKER: It’s the generic or the general, as we say,
administrative apparatus that bothers us because every new smoking
specialist you have means one less associate professor of Philosophy.

JOHN LEO: Now that you’ve laid out the general problem with
universities today, can you tell us in two minutes or less how you’re
going to solve them?

PROFESSOR HACKER: The biggest problem for us is the cost of college. I mean this is outrageous….

JOHN LEO: [Interposing] Nearing $50,000.

PROFESSOR HACKER: …Fifty thousand, that’s just the beginning for
tuition, room and board. There are going to be fees, travel, not to
mention maybe that summer semester in Padua which is going to cost a bit
more. How can we bring this down? At one point, our President, whom I
support, suggested we’ve got to put a lid on higher education costs.
The head of their chief lobby, the American Council of Education, said,
“Oh my, that’s going to be price controls.” You know what, John? I’m
in favor of price controls.

JOHN LEO: It doesn’t always work, though. Did it work under Nixon? No.

PROFESSOR HACKER: It worked during World War II.

JOHN LEO: Thank you very much, Professor Hacker, for being with us today.

PROFESSOR HACKER: Well, John, I’ve enjoyed this, too. Thank you.
————–
Listen to the original podcast here.

One thought on “A Chat with Andrew Hacker”

  1. Are you sure that really fits everyone? In my field an undergraduate *that* convinced of what their PhD project was ahead of time would probably not be competitive, and a professor in their right mind would only commit to a student before they saw how they did *in graduate school* if they had some sort of nepotistic reason to do it!!!

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