It’s a culture-war commonplace that the Left has dumbed-down higher education with its namby-pamby political correctness, hostility to the Western canon, race- and gender-obsessed pseudo-scholarship, etc. What I’m finding, though, is that nothing dumbs down a professor like the culture war. Exhibit A is KC Johnson’s Durham-in-Wonderland (DIW), where a facade of PhD-quality analysis masks a hodgepodge of shortcut reasoning and simple-minded literalism. Recently I came across an article that can serve as Exhibit B—a piece by history professor Alan Kors in the May issue of the New Criterion, “On the sadness of higher education.” [That link won’t get you the full text, but the Wall Street Journal has it.]
It’s not surprising that DIW plays well to the anti-intellectual crowd, since Johnson is telling them exactly what they want to hear. I don’t understand how anyone who’s pro-intellectual can swallow the academic-culture side of DIW. It’s especially disconcerting that conservative academics—an embattled minority, or so they say, but presumably still pro-intellectual—are so pleased by Johnson’s dogged prosecution of the “loopy left” that they don’t care how many corners he cuts or how much he caters to ignorance to do it. As long as he’s nailing the guilt-presuming purveyors of bias and relativism, there seems to be no expectation that he should rise to a higher intellectual standard himself.
I’ve been browsing the academic blogosphere trying to understand this disconnect. A link from DIW led me to Erin O’Connor’s blog Critical Mass, where it seemed I might find a more reflective version of Johnson’s general perspective on academia. Her tone is less strident and her interests are more flexible. On the other hand, she describes her blog as “a running chronicle of cant on American campuses,” so the focus is not on what’s typical or representative, it’s on what’s outrageously or pathologically extreme (like the Aliza Shvarts scandal at Yale, which was her main topic during the latter half of April). Even if the targets are chosen from across the political spectrum, it’s a focus that’s good at generating horror and scorn but not so good at fostering understanding. And as far as I can tell, O’Connor’s radar is consistently aimed to the left—maybe she thinks that’s where cant always comes from. DIW is chock-full of right-wing cant, though it’s easy to be oblivious to it if you’re energized by the rhetoric or fooled by the smoke screens (this can’t be a right-wing blog, I support Obama!).
O’Connor posted a long excerpt of Kors’ article, adding a little commentary that highlights his role as co-founder, with Harvey Silverglate, of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). It’s an organization that seems to have a lot of credibility, and not just with the conservative set. I’m sympathetic to their stated cause, and as far as I can tell they’re above-board and effective in pursuing it. But I’m not impressed by the one-sided attention to the lacrosse case on their web site or by Silverglate’s pontification on the subject. I left a comment on O’Connor’s post wondering about some of this and suggesting that for Kors and Silverglate, as for Johnson, ideological considerations trump intellectual standards. The responses were pretty routine, though J.A. DeLater gets some brownie points for metaphorically linking career academics to cockroaches because “[they] can tolerate much higher levels of toxic radiation than humans.”
I tried to post a follow-up comment but apparently the dog ate it. For the record, I’ve attached it to the end of this post. I had the same experience with DIW a few weeks ago. I can’t see any good reason for rejecting either comment—it seems most likely that Johnson
and then O’Connor decided that it was easiest to duck the challenge (but I would think that, wouldn’t I?). Given his laissez-faire comment policy and the trivializing insinuation he’d put into my mouth, it was especially questionable coming from Johnson. But nobody owes it to me to post my comments, and it’s possible one or the other was lost through an error or a glitch. [O’Connor’s explanation, which I have no trouble accepting, is that it was knocked out by her spam filter]
When I read all of Kors’ article, it seemed like the product of a split personality, and that O’Connor’s quote only represented one side. In the first part of the article, he looks back at his formative years as a scholar, gracefully evoking the atmosphere of committed intellectualism that drew him in.
The academic world that I first encountered was one of both intellectual beauty and profound flaws. I was taught at Princeton, in the early 1960s—in history and literature, above all—before the congeries that we term “the Sixties” began. Most of my professors were probably men of the Left—that’s what the surveys tell me—but that fact was never apparent to me, because, except in rare cases, their politics or even their ideological leanings were not inferable from their teaching or syllabi. Reasoned and informed dissent from professorial devil’s advocacy or interpretation was encouraged and rewarded, including challenges to the very terms of an examination question. In retrospect, professors who must have disagreed fundamentally with works such as David Donald’s Lincoln Reconsidered (with its celebrated explanation of the abolitionists’ contempt for Lincoln in terms of the loss of status of their fathers’ once-privileged social group) assigned them for our open-minded academic consideration. My professor of Tudor-Stuart history, emerging from the bitter Oxbridge debates over explanations of the English Civil War in terms of class conflict, assigned Jack Hexter’s stunning Reappraisals in Social History to us. When I opined to him somewhat apprehensively that Hexter appeared to have exposed the tendentious use of statistics in my professor’s own prior work, he replied, “You’re absolutely correct.” These were not uncommon experiences in Princeton’s classrooms, and I knew, then and there, that I wanted both to do history and to teach.
In grad school at Harvard, while a few dates left in the midst of dinner on discovering my free- market and hawkish politics, and while I did get thrown out of a party for opposing, when asked, Eugene McCarthy’s view of Vietnam (this should have been a warning), the classroom remained open and, by design, intellectually pluralistic. In our graduate colloquium, we read the major historiographical debates, in works theoretical and monographic, and critical acumen was acknowledged in the force of an argument, not in its political provenance…. In the midst of the “cultural revolution” of the early 1970s, I co-founded a College House and lived warmly with students who mostly ranged from liberal Democrats to true believers of the New Left. They loved to discuss everything, and they did so in good faith and (almost) always ad rem. My students, whom I still meet frequently outside of class, still love to discuss everything, and they still do so in good faith and without ad hominem distractions from real conversation and debate. Critics of higher education who blame students for today’s catastrophes are categorically wrong about agency. It is the faculties (both the minority of zealots and the majority of cowards) and the administrations (both the minority of ideologues and the majority of careerists with double standards) who are to blame.
The academic world I so loved revealed itself best in an undergraduate course I’d taken on the history of Europe in the twentieth century. When the professor, a distinguished intellectual of the Left, returned the midterms to the hundred plus or so of us who were in his course, he said that we’d saddened and embarrassed him. “I gave you readings that allowed you to reach such diverse conclusions,” he explained, “but you all told me what you thought I wanted to hear.” He informed us that he would add a major section to the final exam: “I’m going to assign the book I disagree with most about the twentieth century. I’m not going to ask you to criticize it, but, instead, to re-create its arguments with intellectual empathy, demonstrating that you understand the perspectives from which he understands and analyzes the world.” I was moved by that. The work was Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, and it changed the course of my intellectual and moral life. It also showed me immediately how I wanted to teach as an intellectual historian. Each year, I teach thinkers as diverse as Pascal and Spinoza, Hobbes and Butler, Wesley and Diderot. I offer courses on intellectual history, and the goal of my teaching is to make certain that my students understand the perspectives and rich debates that have shaped the dialogue of the West. I don’t want disciples of my worldview. I want students who know how to read deeply, how to analyze, how to locate the essential points of similarity and divergence among thinkers, and, indeed, how to understand, with intellectual empathy, how the world looks from the diverse perspectives that constitute the history of European thought. I know that I am not alone, but I also know, alas, that I am in a distinct minority in my pedagogical goals in the humanities and the so-called social sciences.
Even with his admirable determination not to treat those times as a golden era—he acknowledges and deplores the racism, sexism, snobbery, and intolerance—there’s still some rose-coloring. If I wrote about my time at Reed College in the early 80s it would probably be colored in much the same way. I remember it as high-minded time and place, with some fine, challenging, dedicated teachers. What I see around me and what happens in my own classes never seems to rise to quite the same level.
Johnson has worked hard to portray a contingent of Duke professors as threats not only to students but to the integrity of the university. Those associated with African & African American Studies (AAAS) and Women’s Studies, especially, have been criticized for sacrificing academic standards to their extremist political agendas. I take the concern seriously, if not the rhetoric—it’s intellectual poison for professors to get into the business of indoctrination. Reading DIW did get me thinking about the issue, but I’ve waded through plenty of the alarmist rhetoric Johnson’s thrown at it and come up with virtually nothing of substance that’s either constructive or insightful. In three paragraphs that evoke a free-ranging dialog of ideas—an intellectual climate that’s not simply tolerant but actively seeks out challenging alternatives—Kors conveys more about the fundamental academic values at stake than Johnson has managed to fit into a few hundred thousand agenda-driven words.
When Johnson talks about the ideals of his profession, he seems to be referring to respect for due process and adherence to the faculty handbook—he doesn’t show any particular interest in the values that Kors highlights, so I probably shouldn’t expect his criticism to be guided by them. It’s harder to fathom why Kors lovingly wraps his souvenir only to toss the package out the window in order to grind his culture-war axe. He’s editorializing, not bouncing ideas around in a seminar, so it’s true that in the end scholarly neutrality has to take a back seat. But where is the spirit behind “read[ing] deeply,… locating essential points of similarity and divergence among thinkers,… [and] understand[ing], with intellectual empathy, how the world looks from the diverse perspectives that constitute the history of European thought”? If that’s the attitude that best serves students in the classroom, how is it that the readers of the New Criterion are best served by ditching it?
Turning to the contemporary university, Kors finds what seems to be an entirely new species of professor—careerists who mean no harm but are at the mercy of a reflexive ideology:
To understand why and to understand one of the few vulnerabilities of universities to actual accountability and reform, one must understand the hierarchy that predicts academic institutional behavior: sexuality (in their language, “sexual preference”) trumps neutrality; race properly conceived easily trumps sexuality; sex properly conceived (or, in their language, “gender”) easily trumps race; and careerism categorically trumps everything. From that perspective, the careerists who run our campuses have made a Faustian bargain (though they differ on which is the devil’s portion)….. From diverse motives of ideological sympathies and acute awareness of who can blackball their next career moves, they have given over the humanities, the soft social sciences, and the entire university in loco parentis to the zealots of oppression studies and coercive identity politics. In the latter case, it truly has been a conspiracy, with networking and common plans. In the former case—the professoriate and the curriculum—it is generally, with striking politicized exceptions, a soft tyranny of groupthink, unconscious bias, and self-inflated sense of a mission of demystification. Most of the professors I meet are kind, indeed sweet, and certainly mean no harm. It is profoundly sad to see what they have become.
One thing Kors and Silverglate have in common is ready access to the pathos of the decline and fall of the academy. Kors’ “profoundly sad” conclusion echos a remark Silverglate made about Duke chemistry professor Steven Baldwin—that it was “unbearably sad” that Baldwin ended up apologizing for the scathing criticism of Duke’s administration and some of its faculty in his October 2006 op-ed.
Kors’ facile reduction of a large segment of the university to a simplistic ideology brings the Baldwin incident to mind in other ways. According to Johnson and Silverglate, what happened after Baldwin’s op-ed was published was that left-wing ideologues—the group Kors is lamenting—ganging up on him because he dared to buck their agenda. That may or may not be what happened, as far as I can tell. What’s striking to me is that those who take Baldwin’s side are determined to reduce the incident to that one single thing, no matter what. They’re horrified by Robyn Weigman’s charge that Baldwin used “the language of lynching,” but they can’t seem to imagine any legitimate objections to Baldwin’s suggestion that certain (unnamed) colleagues should be tarred and feathered and then run out of the academy on a rail. That starts looking a lot like a self-serving delusion when you realize that the only trace of this onslaught against Baldwin that’s come to light is two letters—Weigman’s published response and Kerrie Haynie’s personal email—and the latter doesn’t fit the narrative of shrill pc outrage at all.
No professor at Duke was a more outspoken advocate of the university in loco parentis than Baldwin. Personally, I’m almost as bothered by his paternalistic certainty that we should all be treating our students as “our kids” as I am by his enthusiasm for summary justice. The parental overtones of the op-ed don’t seem to have been much on Silverglate’s mind, but it’s still ironic that he seems to find the philosophy laudable—he certainly doesn’t make any object to it—while Kors finds it deplorable.
It would be pretty fruitless to try to refute Kors’ sweeping conclusions, especially since they’re drawn from personal experience. I’ll pull up a few texts associated with the lacrosse case, though, to suggest that he’s chosen to face down a flock of cardboard cutouts instead of taking up the other side’s perspective as a challenge.
In the Social Text article that figured in my last two posts, Robyn Wiegman, Wahneema Lubiano, and Michael Hardt have quite a bit to say about the university in loco parentis. They see the university before the revolutions of the 60’s as an analogue of the patriarchal family. The student revolutions forced an end to that paternalism, but according to the authors the parental model has made a comeback in a somewhat different guise, serving the business interests of the institution, not the political interests of any of its faculty.
As various historians of the U.S. university have noted, the reemergence of parental logics in the aftermath of student revolts has been accomplished primarily by legal, not moral or ethical, debate. Kinship obligations manage the imaginary realm in which the university’s need to protect its students from mental health problems, addictive behaviors, and violence to the self or others arises from its need to protect itself from its students and their increasingly litigious parents. It’s a complicated negotiation: the cultivation of students as “our kids” functions in order to safeguard the university from the violence and abuse that our kids might do to themselves and to others, with the specter of lawsuits constantly looming in the background. …
The good parents of today’s university live in the student service sector. It functions as the relay between demands for the university to address the students’ needs as members of specific groups (whether gender, racial, ethnic, national, or sexual) and the institution’s investment in the renewed cultivation of the parental model. Under the auspices of student services, the new publics that accompanied student revolt can be corralled back into the cultivation of the student as the institution’s child and as its future donor. … To say, then, that student services becomes the means to acknowledge the importance of race and gender in the form of consigning them to the realm of student life is to mark the way that the force of student rebellions has been managed, in much the same way that the primary discourse mobilized by these agencies—of social justice, fairness, and equity—has been reproduced in the service of empowering those who were once its targets.
In this context, it is important to note how the early historical ties between student centers and the intellectual projects of race and gender studies have been disarticulated in this process. On many campuses, in fact, there is growing antagonism between the two entities. In the relation between women’s studies and women’s centers, for instance, it is often the stance toward sex and sex publics that generates a rift, especially when scholars who work in queer studies, human rights, and sex trafficking do not follow the reigning discourses of women’s empowerment that so closely analogize sex and oppression. University administrations have found a certain relief in the constituency languages that student services provides, in part because these languages displace the problem of attending to the knowledge challenges that rigorous attention to the study of gender and racial formation raises.
The only way I could really evaluate this analysis would be to work through some examples, taking into account the practical problems of managing a community of thousands of post-adolescents who are making their first steps into adulthood and independence. Right now all I want to point out is that what Kors portrays as a unit with a common purpose—the professors of “oppression studies” and the parental administrative apparatus—looks from the other side like two distinct things that are more and more at odds, despite their common roots.
The distinction between the corporate interests of the university and the political and intellectual interests of its faculty is an important one. History professor Claire Potter (aka Tenured Radical) sums it up well—she clearly isn’t a fan of the university’s “‘rights free’ zone.”
Johnson may have been correct that Duke did not handle the lacrosse case well… but this was not a symptom of the university’s liberalism as an institution—quite the reverse, in fact. It is the flip side of a university governance process, almost ubiquitously shared among institutions of higher education, that more or less declares the campus a “rights-free” zone. This elimination of civil rights in university processes is neither a liberal nor a conservative issue: it is a question of whether the private sphere—whether that be Walmart or Harvard—can make its own rules to protect its own interests as an institution. The law says they can, and they do.
Potter’s analysis is emphatically borne out by Elliott Wolf’s “Dude, where’s my rights…” series in the Duke Chronicle (there are annotated versions of the articles on his home page). Wolf documents eight years of steady erosion in respect for due process in the Duke Judicial Code. It’s first-rate student journalism that picks up on an issue central to the lacrosse case but without getting mired in lacrosse-case tunnel vision. He sums up his findings in the Coupe de Grace (his term):
Since 1999, the Office of Judicial Affairs has watered down or eliminated
every major due process right afforded students facing adjudication; it has so broadened
its policies and procedures that almost any student could be summarily subjected to
judicial action for any reason; it has eliminated all representative student involvement in
making and enforcing undergraduate policy; and lastly, it has begun colluding with local
law enforcement in ways that arguably undermine students’ basic constitutional rights.
Wolf’s last piece for the Chronicle, a covert look at the Student Affairs-Industrial Complex, meshes nicely with Wiegman, Lubiano, and Hardt’s observations about the “student services sector.” The overall impression I get from Wolf’s coverage is that student affairs (judicial or otherwise) is its own little fiefdom, largely independent of the faculty.
Kors works himself up to a fever pitch with a string of rhetorical questions about the “almost insoluble problem of time” faced by professors intent on indoctrination: “How, in only four years, can they disabuse students of the notion that the capital, risk, productivity, and military sacrifice of others have contributed to human dignity and to the prospects of a decent society?” etc., etc. He follows that a couple of paragraphs later with the statement of purpose that, in his opinion, would constitute “truth in advertising” for the leftist “academic enterprises” that have a grip on higher education:
Let colleges and universities have the courage, if they truly believe what they say privately to themselves and to me, to put it on page one of their catalogues, fundraising letters, and appeals to the State assembly: “This University believes that your sons and daughters are the racist, sexist, homophobic, Eurocentric progeny or victims of an oppressive society from which most of them receive unjust privilege. In return for tuition and massive taxpayer subsidy, we shall assign rights on a compensatory basis and undertake by coercion their moral and political enlightenment.”
I’ve come across this idea before—near the end of one of the earliest comments I got on a lacrosse-case post, for instance:
Why should I increase my law practice dramatically to earn more income to support the salaries of faculty members who think the constitution does not apply to their students? I don’t like that it comes down to money but it is a consideration. I understand the faculty believes I have raised a racist and sexist child who desperately needs their education.
The person who wrote that is too articulate and thoughtful for me to dismiss, and I can see how someone who’s remote from university life could end up with the impression. It’s nutty stuff coming from a professor, though. Kors’ dire portrait goes far beyond reasonable concern about the cumulative effect of subtle, unconscious bias combined with the apparent willingness of a few professors to flirt with the line between education and indoctrination, and perhaps cross it. That may be a real problem, but in the context of the whole array of social and intellectual influences the students are navigating, it doesn’t justify the hyperbole. And if Kors is right about what an honest mission statement would look like, Duke is doing a miserable job of it.
It could be that I missed the memo laying out this brave new world of undergraduate education—I’ve never really been in the loop. But for what it’s worth, I’ll outline a few of the ways that Kors’ story clashes with my own experience. I’ve taught traditional music theory classes—thoroughly Eurocentric, if we have to use the word. I also taught Introduction to Jazz, a class that was cross-listed under AAAS. I’ve never imagined that I could arrange, much less coerce, any moral or political enlightenment from the students in my classes. I’m sure it would backfire if I tried, and I’d feel completely ridiculous in the process. If a student of mine has ever felt that they were being judged on some kind of political correctness it was either a misunderstanding or a failure on my part to live up to my professional commitments. I’ve never gotten an overt or covert message that I should teach to an approved ideology. In fact I’ve had closer to the opposite experience—in five semesters teaching Introduction to Jazz, which is a fairly large survey course, I never heard a thing from AAAS about what I should teach, or, for that matter, about anything else. From my experience if there’s a problem it’s the hands-off attitude, not pressure to conform.
As for as my own priorities, I can’t imagine wasting time and energy on indoctrination when I could be digging into the artistic and historical feast of, say, Louis Armstrong’s Dinah (check out the video!), Duke Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy, or Charlie Parker’s Ko-Ko, or guiding a class through the quasi-mathematical discipline of sixteenth-century counterpoint. I can’t imagine talking about Beethoven in order to dismiss him as a dead white male any more than I can imagine talking about the blues in order to trivialize it as salacious and primitive. I would hope to challenge students with either attitude to reconsider (last year I put up some thoughts about teaching classical music and the blues as well as a long post about my experience with Introduction to Jazz). I’ve never felt that I was out of step with my colleagues about any of this.
That’s just me, and I’m not denying that there’s a basis for Kors’ complaints. There’s no shortage of anti-Western sentiment in the humanities—some but not all of it is thoughtless and reflexive (it’s not too much for the edifice of Western civilization to bear, as far as I can tell). The clash of values has been heated in music departments—professors are great at turning big ideas and ideologies into a pretext for a turf war, so there’s been pettiness on both sides. But for many of us, if there’s a problem with today’s more inclusive concept of what music is worth studying, it’s that we’ve ended up with an embarrassment of riches.
Kors says, “I fight for intellectual pluralism, for legal equality, and for fairness simply because it is my duty to bear witness to the values I cherish, with no expectation of success.” It would be nice if he didn’t just bear witness but actually put those precious values into practice for the general public to see, instead of insulting them in order to fire up the anti-intellectual enemies of his enemy.
[O’Connor has now responded to this post, or at least complained about it. Her counterargument, if you can call it that, boils down to the observation that Kors is the kind of person that sensible people believe and all I’ve done is throw sour grapes at him. Natually I had to write a followup, too.]
The comment of mine that
wasn’t cleared on was rejected by the spam filter on Critical Mass:
DeLater’s impression of present-day academia, even more than Kors’, seems like a comic-book version of reality as I see it. It’s great for nursing grudges and fruitless to argue with.
I read all of Kors’ article after posting my comment. The earlier part, which I liked, is a description of an intellectual climate in which professors fostered intellectualism over ideology and valued independent thought on the part of their students, even encouraged students to follow lines of reasoning that challenged their professor’s political convictions. So it seems that his ideal for the university is very close to mine. I was thinking about that kind of intellectual openness when I commented (tongue in cheek, more or less) about my own relativism.
It’s exactly those values that I can’t reconcile with Johnson’s criticism. His argument is often circular and serious challenges are studiously avoided. And it thrives on false choices like the one implicit in TG’s challenge—to criticize it is not necessarily to make a “pro-Duke 88 argument.” This comment thread isn’t the place to spell the issues out in detail. If you’re interested in the basis for my opinion, go here. But don’t bother if you’ve got the controversy neatly packaged up and you want to keep it that way.