6.6.12

LET US SPEAK FREELY

A self-described Obama Democrat explains why he is a board member of the National Association of Scholars despite the perception, in some circles, that the organization represents conservative voices.
In a word, because since I first heard about the NAS from the horse’s mouth some twenty years ago—Steve Balch’s son and my son were childhood playmates, I’ve long been an NAS member, and Steve and I have long been personal friends—I have believed passionately, and have told Steve (and more recently Peter Wood) often, that in my view he, they, and the NAS generally are doing vitally important work in seeking to preserve, and often (lamentably) to restore, the quality of higher education in America.

Moreover, because I believe equally strongly—as do Steve, Peter, and (I gather) NAS members generally—that unless higher education is rescued from the doctrinaire, ideologically skewed, politically correct mindset that has taken hold of academe since I was in graduate school in the early 1970s, not only the quality of higher education in America but, without exaggeration, the survival of Western civilization as we know it will be at grave risk.
Perhaps so, but perhaps the risk to higher education is in the circumlocutions with which he continues.
I believe there is no question that American society still has a long way to go before issues related to race, gender, and class cease to impose arbitrary and unfair limits on economic, social, and other opportunities and progress.
That "issues related to" or the similar "issues of" language looks less threatening than "American society still has a long way to go before endemic racismsexismhomophobia not to mention elitism and classism cease to impose arbitrary and unfair limits ..."  Never mind that institutions of higher learning achieve at least some of their status from determining who does or does not get in or who does or does not graduate or how well the football program fares in bowls.  All the same, that "issues ..." formulation is a dog-whistle for the more radical phrasing I proposed.   Test this hypothesis: suggest to your campus diversity enablers that primitive belief systems or erratic or non-existent life-management skills or just plain wishful thinking contribute to those arbitrary or unfair limits and see what reaction you get.

But there is hope.
I just don’t believe that shoehorning race, gender, class, social justice, sustainability, and/or any other social or political issue into every classroom discussion and aspect of college life is either the way to achieve meaningful progress on those issues or to fulfill the educational mission for which our colleges and universities were created.
Well, we economists have long understood that Marx is at best a minor post-Ricardian and that engaging in discriminations not based on productivity differences is unprofitable.  Perhaps, though, Professor Winnick has discovered, through his own efforts, that his discipline, too, is subject to market tests.
The lowering of academic standards and the dumbing-down of the curriculum—both while the cost of a college education continues to skyrocket—are equally disturbing long-term trends.

To insist that all that really matters in the study of literature are issues related to race, gender, and class is not to centralize, but to marginalize, literature as a subject worthy of serious thought and a source of meaningful knowledge about and understanding of the human experience—including but not limited to what it means to be black, female, gay, and/or poor.  It can only result, over time, in the abandonment of any study of literature at all.
The Theory meat-grinder makes the English electives less attractive, and with fewer students signing up for formulaic and tendentious literature courses, the Ph.D. in literature looks even less attractive, and there are fewer graduate students to supervise.
To make it optional for an English major to study Shakespeare, or for a history major to gain a broad knowledge and understanding of the major events and trends of human history, or for a humanities major to know something about science, or for a science major to know something about the humanities, or for anyone to know any foreign language, is to institutionalize ignorance, and to put at risk the breadth and depth of knowledge on which not just the value of higher education but the viability of our political system, society, and civilization depend.
Some of this sounds very much like an essay I wrote over twenty years ago, that opened thusly.
Universities are failing to carry out their mission. Contributing to this failure is a collection of ideas we call "politically correct." The intellectual foundation of these ideas is an extreme relativism that questions the possibility of objective knowledge and seeks to dispel "coherent beliefs of any kind." A university built on such a foundation cannot stand.
Welcome to the fight, Professor Winnick.
Releasing higher education, and educators, from the political and ideological bondage by which it and they have been confined in recent decades is something in which all of us, professional educators and “civilians” alike, have an enormous stake—and which all of us, regardless of what lever we pull in the voting booth, should be working together to achieve.

Whether we define ourselves as Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, independents or moderates, we should all be able to agree that colleges and universities have a duty to produce graduates who know how to think critically, evaluate complex evidence, ask difficult questions, and seek answers from books or other credible sources and not just blogs.

We should all be able to agree that every college graduate, regardless of major, should emerge from his or her undergraduate years not just with theoretical job skills and actual debt but with a greater understanding of and (we may hope) appreciation for our political system (both its genius and its imperfections), history (both proud and sometimes shameful), and cultural legacy (including the great books, music, and art our civilization has produced).

We should be able to agree that even in a stronger economy than prevails today, an education which fails to produce those results—be the student’s major English, History, Business Administration, or Physics—is not worth its cost.

We should be able to agree that the imposition of any political, social, economic, environmental, or other agenda on any student or faculty member as a condition of matriculation, academic success, employment, or tenure is unacceptable—and should be prohibited or purged from every institution of higher education worthy of the name.

Although there are no doubt many educators at every college and university who hold these truths to be self-evident, it must be recognized that in most such institutions they are badly outnumbered, under constant attack, or forced to keep their views and concerns on these issues to themselves.
The absence of an agenda is an agenda (sorry for the nit-pick), but the sentiments are proper.  It might be better to propose an agenda in which students learn that there are controversies, often with more than two sides, and that there might be compelling cases for each of the contending sides.  And the absence of that agenda might be holding back that stronger economy Professor Winnick hopes for.
Rising incomes may be rewards to people who learned careful reasoning, mathematics, and science, and who sold their skills to employers who valued them. That others are losing ground may be evidence of diminished skills of more recent graduates of high schools and universities. Economists are sorting out these hypotheses.
I'm closer to calling it a career now than I was in 2005, when that post went up, or in 1991, when I wrote the essay. It's taken more than one summer, but I continue to fight it out on this line.

No comments: