The Gods of the Academy

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.

[Related: “Reaping Postmodernism’s Violent Whirlwind”]

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.

[Related: “Using Your University’s DEI Office: A Call to Action for Conservative Students and Faculty”]

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.


Image: Paolo Veronese, The Creation of the Elements: Chronos and Cybele with Zeus, Hera and Poseidon, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

10 thoughts on “The Gods of the Academy

  1. I think a part of this has been due to the impact of globalization on the working class. The days when someone can make a good living with only a high school diploma are long gone, so the best bet for students is to get some kind of post-secondary education. At the same time, to manage this glut, professions have instituted credentialing requirements which are staffed by the laptop class; they are the enforcers of this new religion. Thus, unbelievers are shunned, and their ability to make an earning is likewise diminished, which is why many students just keep their heads down. Eventually, some may find themselves to have become true believers after years of parroting the right catechisms.

    One point of disagreement: I don’t believe the older professors are the ones enforcing this ideology. There are older professors getting fired for standing up against administration and younger academics (hungry for tenure, which is getting ever-more difficult to get) who are essentially toppling the old order (one of post-enlightenment liberal principles) and instituting their own. I’ve seen this happening myself; I have friends and family in academia, and have recently returned for my 3rd degree. The situation is dire, but it is the nouveau intellectual class (generally) that is enforcing this, not the older, tenured professors. An important thing to understand about this nouveau-intelligentsia is that this is the generation that was raised on social media and tumblr, and they come into undergraduate studies already knowing the answer to life’s big question, thanks to 140 character tweets and hot tumblr-takes. They lobby to take the professors who tell them, “No, life is more complicated than that” down.

    Tl;dr: the new crop of intellectuals are a result of their upbringing and a terrible education system that eschewed critical thinking and academic excellence for “no child left behind”. They, and the generation coming into the academy behind them, are largely the face of the new intellectuals. This, alongside the increased need for post-secondary degrees and the rapid rise of professional gate-keeping, makes the prediction in this piece highly unlikely in the near future. The barbarians aren’t at the gates. They’re already inside the gates, and they took over quietly and without much furor. The only thing left is to clean house.

    As a last note, I could have done without the sarcastic potshots that mixed both real issues and wokie non-issues together; this only confuses the problem and discredits the writer.

    1. “At the same time, to manage this glut, professions have instituted credentialing requirements which are staffed by the laptop class; they are the enforcers of this new religion”

      It isn’t exactly the same thing, but I am reminded of the union rules of now-defunct railroads and the Detroit “Big Three” automakers.

      Globalization aside, knowing the 31 flavors of sexuality is not going to make companies money, and hence it is only a matter of time until knowing this is not a marketable skill.

      1. Yes, but that’s why the DEI AKA DIE edifice has been created and propped up. Not only do they serve as conversion centers, they also create jobs for the grievance studies crowd.

        Is it sustainable? Probably not. But they will serve as gatekeepers, which means even engineers, lawyers, etc. who do have marketable skills will have to bend the knee to be and stay employed. That’s the point.

  2. speaking of Gods… how do these compare to the current contenders?

    “As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
    I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market-Place.
    Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
    And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.”
    (Kipling, 1919)

  3. Comrade Bob: This is kinda sloppy. Enrollments down since the Great Recession? Sure, but there as a peak then. And most of the decline has been in community colleges and for-profit places. The four-years haven’t done so badly. Maybe the enrollment cliff will kill them, but I wouldn’t count on it. One thing I will bet: the people with elite backgrounds touting trades education will continue to channel their children and grandchildren into four-year and graduate education — the more elite, the better. And no matter how woke the medical people become, we will still go to them when we need them.

    1. My college (a 4 year public college) was down 5% in enrollment this year and is expected to be down another 5% next year. We are cutting tenured faculty positions in 4 departments because of lack of students. I’m willing to pay for my granddaughter’s college, but only if she attends a school like Hillsdale College.

      As far as doctors are concerned, in the future I will enquire where they went to medical school. I will decide whether or not to seek another doctor based on their response.

      1. Yeah, the public regionals are hurting along with small private liberal arts and of course the CCs. The big woke places will probably do OK.

        Good luck with the docs!

  4. The proverbial hand is already writing on the wall. People have finally begun to realize that, with the exception of STEM and some business-related degrees, college isn’t worth it. It’s just one big con job.

    Some companies and local government departments no longer require a degree to get hired. Ever wonder why that is? People fixing your morning cappucino lament the fact they spent all that money getting that utterly worthless womens studies or race studies degree. Think they will encourage their kids to go to college? Then there’s demographics. There just aren’t that many 18 year olds around any more (at least enough prepared to go).

    The college enrollments will continue to drop. And that will be a good thing.

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