29.11.03

EVADING THE QUESTION. Soon-to-be-ex-Dean Stanley Fish continues to tilt against what The Leiter Report characterizes as a "right-wing attack" on the university. (Professor Leiter correctly points out that viewpoint diversity requires well-reasoned viewpoints, and that there's likely some bad teaching going on -- you get what you pay for -- but methinks he doth protest too much about a right-wing smear machine.)

Soon-to-be-ex-dean Fish, however, quickly goes from the polemical to the ridiculous. Let's start with his response to the second rhetorical question (from this website, which the soon-to-be-ex-dean brands dishonest):
If students or parents wanted to understand college financing (an understanding apparently beyond the reach of members of Congress), wouldn't it be their obligation first to frame the question (easier said than done) and then to do the research, just as it is the obligation of buyers in any marketplace to make themselves into informed consumers? I use the vocabulary of "consumers" and "marketplace" only because Boehner and McKeon do (I consider it wildly inappropriate), but in the mercantile contexts from which the vocabulary is drawn, the rule is still caveat emptor, and no vendor is expected to explain in detail how the product he offers is made.
Really? I guess you can get tenure and a reputation as a Milton scholar (or perhaps as enfant terrible) without ever having to understand nutrition labels, instruction manuals, Material Safety Data Sheets, or patents, not to mention the class of books (used to be called "boy's books;" the girl worth the while has read and understood such things) that revealed the inner workings of steel mill or cereal factory. Never mind that no such things exist for universities, and university administrators seem reluctant to reveal some of the more basic things.

None of which deters Dr. Fish:
The "consumers" for whom McKeon and Boehner show such solicitude are, in the jargon of any trade, lazy; and indeed it is the beauty of the question that it allows those who haven't bothered to learn how colleges work to transfer the culpability of their ignorance to another party. "I don't know what I'm doing; it must be your fault." Answering the question makes you feel good and even self-righteous about a failure that is finally yours.
The previous is a paradigm of disdain. First you produce glossy brochures that suggest that your students will work with professors working on cutting-edge stuff. You then give them the opportunity to enroll in the few sections that remain open, which might be staffed by graduate assistants just off the plane (why not make the case that professors CANNOT possibly be underworked and overpaid given the reluctance of lazy Americans to get into doctoral programs) or by temporary employees (start here and surf around for some additional career hassles.)

Not content to blame the students and their parents for discovering the university's bait-switch-and-drag-completion-out, the retiring dean tries a little sleight-of-hand with the issue of building construction.
But what would it be? Constructing laboratories? Dormitories? Libraries? Classroom buildings? Could an academic institution be doing its job and not be constructing facilities? What's the point of this question? No point really, except to add one more (underdefined) item to the list of crimes of which colleges and universities are presumed guilty in this indictment masquerading as a survey.
Sorry, Stosh, you're writing a lie masquerading as an essay. You neglected to mention jacuzzis, administration buildings, additional offices for therapists to prolong the fiction that the unprepared can finish college, and athletic facilities.

Add to the lie a whine: why is everyone always picking on me?
It is not an indictment solely constructed by Boehner and McKeon, who are merely playing their part in a coordinated effort to commandeer higher education by discrediting it. If the public can be persuaded that institutions of higher education are fiscally and pedagogically irresponsible, the way will be open to a double agenda: strip colleges and universities of both federal and state support and then tie whatever funds are left to "performance" measures in the name of accountability and assessment.
And why should the taxpayers pay for failed programs? For that matter, where is the refutation? I search the balance of the soon-to-be-ex-dean's post for anything resembling evidence that the money is being spent well or that the universities aren't taking on the task of certifying entry-level file clerks that the high schools (heck, the middle schools) used to do. I see more polemics:
The folks who gave us the Political Correctness scare in the '90s (and that was one of the best PR campaigns ever mounted) are once again in high gear and their message is simple: Higher education is too important to be left to the educators, who are wasting your money, teaching your children to be unpatriotic and irreligious (when they are teaching at all), and running a closed shop that is hostile to the values of mainstream America.
I see half-hearted attempts to defend research, but it's a muddle of talking points lacking coherence. Sometimes the essay gets silly:
I would say first, that it is a supply-side problem -- if conservatives really want to spend their lives teaching modern poetry and Byzantine art, they should stop whining and do the dissertations and write the books, and they'll get the jobs -- and second, that it's not a problem.
Interesting. These are two of the fields most in need of occupational birth control, and it might help to have like-minded advisors on the dissertation committees, something Stoshy doesn't care to address. Then comes this howler:
Brooks laments that students "often have no contact with adult conservatives" (a version of the "role model" argument that he and his friends usually reject as demeaning); but the real shame would be if students had no contact with highly qualified, cutting-edge instructors
The real shame is that the deans and curriculum committees have control over how many sections the cutting-edge instructors teach -- and those folks get first dibs on the graduate seminars and other classes with self-selected students. The real shame is that Illinois-Chicago appoints such a shameless hustler as a dean. Get this:
Intellectual diversity is not a respectable intellectual goal. The only respectable intellectual goal is the pursuit of truth, and if in the course of that pursuit many different approaches arise, as they will in some fields, that's fine; but it would also be fine if in a particular field there were (at least temporarily) a convergence of views and not very much diversity at all.
By that standard, who needs to study poetry? And doesn't it matter what the convergence of views is? If historians agree on the chronology of events, is that equivalent to the department agreeing that the liberation of Iraq is a bad thing? It is the lack of intellectual diversity of the second kind to which the academy's critics wish to speak.

Unfortunately, Dean Fish will leave his position believing that he and his Silent Generation brain-brothers had noble intentions and some primitives spoiled the party.
I could go on listing the signs. They are everywhere, and what they are signs of is the general project of taking higher education away from the educators -- by removing money, imposing controls, capping tuition, enforcing affirmative action for conservatives, stigmatizing research on partisan grounds, privatizing student loans (here McKeon is again a big player) -- and handing it over to a small group of ideologues who will tell colleges and universities what to do and back up their commands by swinging the two big sticks of financial deprivation and inflamed public opinion.
Again, note the bundling of a number of things. Privatizing student loans might make a lot of sense, as the primary beneficiary of a university degree is likely the recipient. Let the beneficiary bear the burden. And to claim that control will be handed over to a small group of ideologues is to distract people's attention from the reality that a small group of ideologues have hijacked the university and use it to their own ends. I for one will be happy to see the day when the Diversity Advisory Committee and the various Commissions on the Status of This Group and That Group stand down, and the remedial classes vanish from the catalog.

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