9.4.18

EVERYTHING ELSE IS ELABORATION.

The "academic culture" label is, by a wide margin, the most frequently used label for Cold Spring Shops posts.  The margin would likely be even wider had such classifications been available in 2002, when we started.

A fair number of those posts are elaborations of points I raised a quarter century ago in an essay I was invited to provide to the Northern Illinois University Faculty Bulletin (long since withdrawn from print) that I titled "The Costs of Correctness."

I recently referred to the opening paragraph.
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. "Politically correct" activists are actively correcting "insensitivity," especially on the part of white males, toward women and minorities. That activism may be misguided, and it diverts attention from other, more serious failings of universities.
The good news from that recent post is that people with bigger platforms than mine are paying attention to those more serious failings.  When I wrote the essay, it was with the hope of persuading people to pursue a different course from the one the trendy scholarship was pursuing.
The words university and universal have common roots: a university is a storage of universal knowledge. Its mission is to acquire, expand, and transmit knowledge. Universities are failing at that mission. For example, some students wonder why people refer to a "second" World War; and large numbers believe that "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" is a constitutional right. Students in this country do not perform as well on multi-step mathematical problems as their counterparts in other countries. University graduates teach high school students, and, according to the National Association of Manufacturers, high school graduates write poorly (many cannot fill out a job application) and can't do simple mathematics.
Another quarter century of credential inflation, but at last Our President is making the case for the vocational arts (gripe about his speaking style if you must) and some states are naming the names of underachieving high schools.  I fear, though, that writing properly is lost, until voice-recognition writing programs become more accurate.  Essays that a columnist dictated to a smart-'phone leave clues throughout.  Try it.

I offered a defense of the Canon and the Curriculum, but what came in the next 25 years was beyond my anticipation.
Objective knowledge is all around us. It is costly to acquire and makes no allowance for "diversity." The Challenger crew, a diverse group of astronauts, all died when their shuttle exploded. This is objective knowledge in its starkest form: let a rubber gasket freeze, a joint fails and people die. Examples of objective knowledge abound in any course catalog. Divide by zero: most illogical. Promise "free" medical care without regard for the productive capability of your economy: welcome to Soviet life. Deny coherent beliefs of any kind: enjoy incoherence. Although objective, universal knowledge is difficult to grasp, to expand, or to transmit, imagine how much more difficult it would be for each generation to relearn it from scratch.
I could not have anticipated the Soviet Union shutting down for good, six months after the essay appeared, but the same thing manifesting itself in Venezuela and in the two-lies-for-the-price-of-one Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  Heck, I wrote that essay before anyone seriously anticipated a Bill Clinton presidency, and Hillarycare.

Relearning from scratch, though, seems to be where we are headed.  Consider privilege.  We could apply the argument to any other emergent phenomenon.  Take seriously the arguments from outrage about "inherited" or "unearned" advantage or privilege or custom or what have you: aren't you reduced to having to construct your rules of interaction ab initio?  Just for fun, dear reader, consider a future privilege training session in which a novice, skeptical of the message yet alert to the irony, asks the trainer what he (or she, or it, or whatever the pronoun conventions are) did to earn the right to conduct the training and introduce that material.  Sometimes you undermine them with mockery, and sometimes, you undermine them by asking difficult questions.

I then shifted to the perceived wrongs the politically correct were endeavoring to right.
There is incivility on campus. It may be a continuation of past prejudices, a lack of good manners, or a reaction to the excesses of institutional reverse discrimination. The "politically correct" accept the first explanation and "solve" the problem by creating "protected categories" of people, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment; by punishing "insensitive" statements about people in protected categories, in violation of the First Amendment, and by branding as "oppressive" some researchers who study problems facing "protected" people, in violation of the Fifth Amendment.
That's standard stuff, but a quarter century ago, the spats were in a few of the social sciences.  Is higher education better off now that mathematics is oppressive, and hegemonic masculinity taints the technical disciplines (and everything else?)

I then called for more research, as well as getting a zinger off.
In addition to being unconstitutional, the "politically correct" response to incivility may be the wrong therapy, since we have not yet established the cause of campus incivility. The therapy may nevertheless have value: the lack of basic skills in our youth will provide them with many opportunities to be "sensitive" to each others' ineptitude at work.
Unfortunately, the intersectionality disease has infected the human resources departments in the corporate world.  Left for future research: is the expansion of the gig economy and outsourcing a way for managers to limit the reach of the human resources types and deal more directly with the ineptitude they see?

Thus I called for rigor, as well as getting another zinger off.
Universities best serve their students through rigorous development of reasoning skills and respect for what we have learned. Rigor is likely to diminish incivility on campus, because students kept busy grappling with intellectual problems will have less time to fight with each other. Better that they be unhappy with a few demanding professors.
Alas, it has become easier to get rid of the demanding professors.  Complicating matters, though, is higher education's growing reliance on contingent faculty.

I also noted the trendy stuff crowding out the real learning once the high school graduates hit college.
The attention "correctness" receives is diverted from more serious problems in the university. For example, our Northern Star's editorializing on the "tenured radicals" of our English department who impose "political correctness" in writing conceals more serious problems. As an economist, I view language as useful if it is accurate. If women operate trains or win national sailing championships alongside men, an accurate language reflects those facts. In my experience, students are aware of those facts. They avoid using "him" or "his" as generic pronouns, but many have trouble spelling or arranging sentences coherently.
Yes, once upon a time student journalism asked difficult questions, rather than being complicit in the indoctrination.

I fear, though, that the difficulties I noted with speak-and-transcribe earlier are going to hamper the ability of students, going forward, to write properly.

The next quarter century was not going to turn out well for higher education.
We are only beginning to see the consequences of our failure to carry out our mission. The employers who hire our students and the legislators who underwrite our efforts are questioning our effectiveness. There is some evidence that those earning higher incomes in the U.S. are getting rich more rapidly. One explanation blames cuts in marginal tax rates. A competing hypothesis views incomes as rewards that reflect the relative scarcity of human capital. 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 the diminished skills of more recent graduates of high schools and universities. Economists are sorting out these hypotheses, and we will soon have a better understanding of what has happened.
Where are we now?  Regular "college bubble updates" on Pajamas Media.  A political economy of inequality that touches on tax cuts at the same time the U.S. News problem suggests a flight to perceived quality of higher education, a flight that I fear is more about being able to mingle with and form networks of high achievers, rather than to hear from the very best Mr Chips regularly.

I was pessimistic then, and I'm pessimistic still.
I have drawn most of my examples of objective knowledge from economics, engineering, and the physical sciences. The costs of "political correctness" may be highest in the humanities, from which its relativistic theory comes. That theory undermines standards. When protestors at Stanford University inverted civil rights to establish a Western Civilization course because of the color of the authors' skins rather than the content of their writings, nobody asked them to make a case that Aristotle, Bacon, or Marx had nothing universal to say. Given all the competing demands on our time, that people have continued to read and appreciate these dead white males suggests that their work has value. I am not persuaded that their works have been replaced by other works of equal or greater value. The University of Pennsylvania's Houston Baker argues that choosing between Virginia Woolf and Pearl Buck is "no different than choosing between a hoagy and a pizza." I'm sympathetic to his claim: specifically, I prefer any Tom Clancy novel to anything I've ever read in a literature class. But what Baker means is that art and literature are purely private matters. Universities therefore could replace humanities requirements in their catalogs with one sentence: "Satisfy yourself." They could close music, art, and literature programs. Governments could abolish programs such as the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. Imagine how many resources would be freed for further transmission of objective knowledge, or for further tax cuts. In addition to ruining the livelihoods of my colleagues in the humanities, such steps would hurt the rest of us. For example, Supreme Court opinions are full of allusions to classic works. Future students may never hear Dave Brubeck's rhythms or see Rembrandt's portraits, which were fringe benefits of my college years. As with the speculative philosophers, the work of some composers, painters, novelists, and poets continues to appeal to people, which suggest their works have value, and that there will be costs if those works are replaced by other works that do not have equal or greater value.
But others are making similar points, and perhaps the academy can yet be restored to a state of good repairThe music, too.

That is where I stood.  That is pretty much where I still stand, although the School of Tom Clancy sometimes pleases, sometimes disappoints.

Time for a sabbatical.  Perhaps posting will resume early in the summer.  Thanks for looking in.

3 comments:

pericles42 said...

I hope your sabbatical does not last too long. I find your posts a rare dose of sanity, and they are so often done with humor and flair. I look forward to your return!

MSS said...

I sure hope posting resumes.

I came looking because I realized I'd not seen a Facebook update from you for a while, Stephen. And then I could not find your page, which I suppose means you deleted it? I will miss your posts there, and here. I just hope it is a short sabbatical.

I've been reading your posts for something like 12 years. I may not always agree--though I often do--but I always am moved to think.

Be well, and come back soon.

Stephen Karlson said...

Thanks for the kind words, and the encouragement. As you'll soon see, all is well.