Restoring the Academic Gold Standard

Outside of the sciences and engineering, today’s colleges and universities are producing nonsense on an industrial scale while, conversely, little emerges that might help America’s current tribulations. No sane person expects university professors to solve problems of crime, housing, education, and the like unless they have an appetite for jargon-laden ideological claptrap.

This outpouring of babble is of recent vintage. It began in the 1970s, and its original impetus was the laudable goal of rewarding academic excellence. School administrators increasingly embraced a competitive market-themed model of a precisely calibrated “scholarly production” so “productive scholars” were to be financially rewarded and academic “dead wood” culled. An added advantage would be to insulate schools from frivolous racial discrimination litigation by assembling “objective” data to justify terminating underperforming black and female faculty. Bean counting had worked in business, so what could possibly go wrong? Answer: everything.

Unfortunately, bean counting flooded universities with fashionable nonsense all the while facilitated the Left’s take-over of the academy.

During the late 1960’s, one’s yearly activity form submitted to the chair lacked structure. You listed publications and honors, and that was pretty much it. Even Ivy League professors might publish little, and years might pass without doing much outside of an occasional book review or teaching a new course. An entire distinguished career might be built on just two magnum opuses. Scholarship was gentlemanlike and professors at elite schools often enjoyed a life of leisure. Department prestige often depended on a few stakhanovеts who diligently published books and journal articles. Pressure “to produce or else” was modest, especially post-tenure.

This relaxed informality soon vanished. Annual reports could now run for pages and specified almost every conceivable scholarly activity, no matter how minor. Included were participation in disciplinary meetings and conferences, serving on review committees, editorial responsibilities, the number of citations one received, attending symposia, grants received or reviewed, developing new inter-disciplinary programs, and countless other forms of academic busy work.

Faculty themselves helped define “productivity. For savvy academics this was the equivalent of allowing shoppers to print their own money. Professors would certify the prestige of disciplinary journals, the importance of sub-fields, what constituted an important disciplinary activity and so forth. Unfortunately, left unsaid in all this bean counting was assessing intellectual quality. It was not that intellectual value was explicitly dismissed. Rather, the inherent murkiness of “quality” pushed the metric toward the more easily measured “being busy.” A garbled rant in an obscure journal counted equally with a brief note of profound intellectual consequences. A bean is a bean, and the Soviet era’s a-shoe-is-a-shoe economy arrived on campus and produced ever more grander resumes that served as tickets to institutional power and, ultimately, shaping the culture.

Gaming the system soon flourished and it hardly required a genius-level IQ to excel. Popular tactics included mutual backscratching, for example, citing one’s friends in journal submissions to ensure acceptances or using reviews of book proposals to punish ideological enemies and reward fellow believers. Entrepreneurs assembled symposia where slightly modified paper were repeatedly counted as distinct articles then collected into multiple “books.” Whole new disciplinary subfields such as feminist phenomenology were created to assist colleagues and fellow believers to build their resumes quickly. Professional meetings and disciplinary committees now resembled big-city patronage machines. Political science national and regional meetings, for instance, added sections on “women’s politics,” “black politics,” and the like to enhance access to resume-building busy work.

The big academic “money” however came in creating entirely new academic specialties where ordinary professors and future graduate students could enlist in the fad de jour to advance up the greasy pole. The academy now resembled Silicon Valley where early investors became billionaires by getting in on the ground floor of Google or PayPal. Allen Sockel and Jean Bricmont recount how early champions of French deconstruction “theory” parlayed a talent for writing gibberish and misinterpreted hard science into well-paid academic sinecure. Early academic “investors” in Critical Race Theory and “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) similarly made “fortunes.” Savvy scholars could now earn handsome livelihoods in Whiteness Studies or be lauded with honors for creative ways to denounce Western civilization.

That these “investments were nothing but jargon-filled rants” was irrelevant. For on-the-make department chairs and Deans, the early “investors” were academic stars whose worthiness was certified by being constantly cited while enhancing a school’s star power. Academic feminists filled entire libraries with their books, and coining a term like “phallocentric” might make you an academic rock star. Indeed, the “theory’s” impenetrability only added to its attraction, and the mountains of gibberish cost a pittance compared to research in the physical sciences, no small advantage for budget conscious ambitious schools.

This “business model” expanded beyond the grievance studies department into traditional disciplines in the humanities and social science departments. An academic version of Gresham’s Law: easy-to-conduct, trendy ideologically driven research quickly crowded out stogy traditional rivals. Far easier to “queer” the Constitution than spend years mastering constitutional law. Manufacturing terminology such as “de-colonizing,” “structural racism,” and “heteronormativity” becomes conflated with making genuine scientific breakthroughs and those able to toss around this vocabulary gained reputations for their “serious theorizing.”

The internet super-charged Gresham’s Law. Feminists, for example, have a plethora of online journals to help them build hefty resumes and no Dean would dare question an essay in the Canadian Journal of Online Queer Studies in Education. Unlike the past, creating novel scholarly “breakthroughs” is undemanding and fast—no need to agonize over time-consuming journal reviews, being asked to revise and re-submit, or waiting for final print copies. Just e-mail an essay in on Monday to your fellow believers and be a “published author” by Friday.

Clearly, much of the Left’s conquest of higher education rests on its ability to produce mountains of “scholarship,” which, thanks to the bean counters, is then converted into institutional power. That little of this stuff, if actually read, let alone carefully scrutinized, only enhances the value of this business model. Now even a mediocre “scholar,” particularly one from an under-represented or marginalized group, can quickly build a credible academic record to gain tenure, serve on university committees—especially tenure committees—and rapidly move up the chain of command to then assist fellow ideologues. Perhaps the poster child here is Claudine Gay, currently the first black president of Harvard.

Honoring the campus god of DEI only requires accepting outward appearances as “genuine scholarship,” so a vita of ideologically infused screeds “published” in a peer-reviewed online journal notable for its blatant political bias must politically count as pure gold. Who can possibly deny to contribution to human knowledge of Queer Experiences Within the Bounds of International Relations?

This was a brilliant putsch. Mountains of trendy gibberish was catnip for the campus apparatchiki enamored of being at the “cutting edge” of new disciplines and approaches. Yes, it was indecipherable rubbish, but it was endlessly cited, discussed, and imitated. How many administrators giving their stamp of approval read it?

Elsewhere, saner administrators were thrilled to see the number of women, blacks, and Hispanics hired in so as “to make the numbers.” Moreover, they were hired in low-prestige departments such as Gender Studies and thus unlikely to damage the school’s reputation. Better there than in the traditional departments “that counted.”

The costs of this busy work business model were extensive, though seldom fully recognized. Fewer incentives now exist for professors to “waste” time on long-term projects with uncertain outcomes. Forget about learning new languages, analytical skills, or seeking major funding. These time-consuming endeavors show up poorly on annual activity reports that stress here and now “production.” Similarly, avoid all research that might offend those who review journal articles and book proposals since multiple rejections and re-submissions consume time that hinders busy work. Play it safe, honor the orthodoxy, and go for volume to appear “hard-working.” Careers require playing the fame.

There is a dire need for academic birth control, though this would hardly be easy, given that overpopulation has succeeded beyond all expectations for decades. Happily, however, it is possible. There are still some scholars, regardless of their political leaning, able to evaluate research and conclude that it is nonsense. That is, the busy work “scholarship” substitutes murky jargon for logic, leaves key terms undefined, abounds in nonsequiturs, misrepresents well-understood terms, lacks any scientific rigor, abounds with contradictions, and on and on. Yes, this requires courage, but there is an economic self-interest here: traditional, hard-nosed academics will eventually suffer when this tsunami of rubbish becomes the official coin of the realm. The academy is, ultimately, a zero-sum game. The history of hype-inflation is well known. Better to kill it off sooner than later.

Article 1, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution declares, “No State shall … make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts.” The purpose of this provision was to stop states from printing up their own paper money, a tactic that guaranteed financial disaster. Time to return the marketplace of ideas to the gold, or at least the silver standard. The exercise of intellectual judgment, intellectual discrimination to be blunt is, after all, the raison d’être of our existence. If you can’t do that, you don’t deserve the title “Professor.”

Photo by Jared Gould — Adobe — Text to Image


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