Would it not be wonderful to be a Greek god? Imagine being Poseidon, god of the sea, who was able to create storms, earthquakes, and even horses. Or Ares, god of war, who possessed superhuman powers of speed and strength, allowing him to destroy his enemies, even entire armies, at will.
This is pure mythology, of course, but such godlike power does exist in today’s academy. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that, if they so choose, professors can shape the world in ways that even Zeus might envy. No wonder joining the professoriate is so attractive. Where else can a mere mortal explain to a captive, rapt audience that sex is just a social convention, and that people are free to choose their own? And no listener dares to object? Where else can he claim that America is awash in transphobia and racism, all the while being paid handsomely for conveying this “knowledge”?
Such power is virtually built into the job. As the officially certified expert in one’s field, a Master of the Universe (even though it’s only a tiny sliver of the universe), you have total power to assign required readings, choose lecture topics, write and grade exams, and reward or punish those who speak in class. Add to this writing letters of recommendation and bestowing jobs, and you can see why this power is seductive.
Indeed, professors who deeply involve themselves in students’ lives may be celebrated as role models and mentors, perhaps with a little extra pay and a plaque. At the highest level, they supervise dissertations and, thus, help create an entire new generation of gods. Most importantly, this grip on reality is protected by academic freedom, particularly tenure, and provided the professor honors the current academic orthodoxies, the power to expound even the nuttiest ideas is sacrosanct. Yes, outsiders may grumble about one-sided reading lists, but no administrator would dare dictate changes. Short of failing to show up for class or senility, there is little to stop professors from playing God.
This power over reality has always existed, but today it is stronger than ever since students have transformed the pursuit of knowledge into the pursuit of good grades. If the professor explains that 2+2=5, and the test asks for the sum of 2 and 2, students “know” the correct answer to be “5.” Only a fool would publicly contradict his professor’s musings and risk a lower grade—heroism is exceedingly rare on today’s campuses.
The cost of kowtowing to professors who explicate cockeyed fantasies far exceeds an acceptance of misinformation. Memorizing 2+2=5 and then regurgitating it on the exam is more akin to eating a spicy meal than to acquiring a profound truth. Like much of what is taught in today’s classrooms, it is probably quickly forgotten. The sponges then leave campus, where misinformation often conflicts with hard reality, and so they must deal with life.
Far more serious are the opportunity costs—what could have been learned rather than hearing, yet again, that the capitalist patriarchy exploits women by paying them less than what men earn in identical jobs, or that America is hopelessly racist. To be sure, savvy students frequently learn to game the system—skip class, anticipate what the professor wants to see on exams and papers, and just supply what is demanded. Still, even if successfully gamed, such classes misallocate enormous amounts of time and effort, not to mention misspent tuition.
Less obvious is the cost of devaluing critical intellectual skills, particularly among those students who are inclined to blindly accept pronouncements from Mount Olympus. Now the vigorous give-and-take of learning that defines a good education becomes a catechism: Why are we doomed by climate change? Because of capitalistic exploitation of the environment. Why are all the polar bears dying? Because the government is controlled by the fossil fuel industry. Moreover, as predictable catechisms replace robust debate, honest differences of opinion, even when based on hard evidence, become heresies against revealed Truth to be shouted down and condemned, not refuted. Universities become Schools of Theology.
Parallel to this preach-the-gospel mentality is the neglect of evidence-based inquiry. Truth by authority—that is, the professor—becomes the norm. Woe to the student who suggests that systemic racism is unscientific since it is unfalsifiable. This is not merely a dispute over the evidence per se; it is a challenge to how truth is determined, one which also applies to the humanities. It’s not easy for a student to argue with his professor, who pronounces from on high that anything written by Dead White European Males is irrelevant to women of color.
This godlike power to control reality also means that what occurs in the classroom seldom travels outside the academy. Few of today’s academics are public intellectuals, people like James Q. Wilson, whose expertise was sought by the government and the media. Why would anybody outside of academe listen to those who’ve made a career of announcing that 2+2=5 and then forcing captive students to concur? Indeed, professorial proclamations have become notable for their wacky, comical character, not their insights. How, for example, can one take seriously efforts to “decolonialize light”? Or a professor of music who calls his black father a white supremacist for liking J.S. Bach? Media pundits like Tucker Carlson thrive on highlighting such idiocy, not on asking professors for their learned insights.
Clearly, the gods of the classroom are unlikely to mend their ways, and the universities are unlikely to dethrone them. If there is hope, it comes from the parallel with religion. When religion no longer offers what people want, the pews go empty. At some point, fewer and fewer students will want to listen to sermons about the oppression of gays, white privilege, or the BLM movement. Disgruntled church congregants vote with their feet, and a similar pattern is now occurring in higher education—enrollments are down, especially in the liberal arts, where preachy wokeism runs rampant. This flight will only grow as tuition soars and as degrees in such fields as gender studies become costly luxuries. Professors will preach to a dwindling choir. Remember that the once-mighty Greek gods never lost their power; they became irrelevant and vanished as historical curiosities when the Greeks themselves stopped believing.