Friday, May 02, 2008

The coming fall of PCU*

It is one thing to wish to have truth on our side, and another to wish sincerely to be on the side of truth.

- Richard Whately, Archbishop of Dublin

In the last generation, something terrible has gone wrong with American colleges and universities. They've become grotesquely overpriced, anti-intellectual, and increasingly repressive backwaters. Outsiders looking in can see it, and, remarkably, so can a growing number of insiders. Outsider Michael Barone:
I am old enough to remember when America's colleges and universities seemed to be the most open-minded and intellectually rigorous institutions in our society. Today, something very much like the opposite is true: America's colleges and universities have become, and have been for some decades, the most closed-minded and intellectually dishonest institutions in our society.
Barone points out that there's no reason why taxpayers, trustees, parents, and students have to continue supporting this. It's unlikely they will continue for much longer. And for its insiders, academia has become a gilded cage, locking up its brightest minds in narrow, obscure corners and conditioning them on a steady diet of the Three Cs: conformism, credentialism, and careerism. William Stuntz of Harvard Law School said it a couple years ago, after the Larry Summers fracas, when he declared Harvard the "General Motors of academia":
... rich, bureaucratic, and confident - a deadly combination. Fifty years from now, Larry Summers's resignation will be known as the moment when Harvard embraced GM's fate.
Political correctness isn't the whole problem, but it is a large part of it. Universities, especially the elite ones, no longer know what to do with their undergraduates. They used to have something called "liberal education," but that has disappeared:
The humanities have destroyed themselves over the past 30 years…. Through an obsession with European jargon and a shallow politicization of discourse, the humanities have imploded…. There’s hardly a campus you can name where the most exciting things that are happening on campus are coming from the humanities departments…. I think the entire profession is in withdrawal at the moment. (Camille Paglia)
I hope people don't think P.C. was just some early 90s fad, like grunge. It's institutionalized - that was the whole point: a generation of tenured intellectual corruption. Along the way the P.C. faculty pressured the non-P.C. to leave or retire and made sure younger non-P.C. faculty weren't hired. They continue to use superficially liberal language for profoundly illiberal ends - it's called "postmodernism," and there's nothing liberal about it. As in 1968, they don't believe in truth or reason; they believe in the fist.

The intellectual origins of this debacle lie in the prestigious 19th century German academia, as Allan Bloom tried to communicate in his prickly classic The Closing of the American Mind, published in 1986, just before the rise of P.C. Occasionally, brave thinkers, such as South African Nobel literature laureate Doris Lessing, will press home the same point. Like Bloom, but coming from a different political direction, she put her finger on the origins of "political correctness":
...the pedantries and verbosity of Communism had their roots in German academia. And now that has become a kind of mildew blighting the whole world.
It's a sad legacy for the great German Enlightenment thinkers, Kant and Hegel. Their style set the stage for later mystagogues and obscurantists to peddle banalities or poisonous nonsense with profound-sounding mumbo-jumbo. Their modern avatar is Heidegger.

We're still suffering the consequences, which came about demographically by the rise of the Boomers to positions of authority in academic institutions. Remember this is the generation that 40 years ago rejected facts-as-such and independent truth. Paul Goodman, one of the best of the 60s radical thinkers (anarchist, founder of gestalt therapy, two generations older than the Boomers), discovered the hard truth about America's Worst Generation in a late 1969 graduate seminar on professionalism:
Didn't every society, however just, require experts? ... [No, his students insisted.] ... Suddenly, I realized that they did not really believe that there was a nature of things. Somehow all functions could be reduced to interpersonal relations and power. There was no knowledge, but only the sociology of knowledge .... they did not believe there was such a thing as the simple truth. To be required to learn something was a trap by which the young were put down and co-opted. Then I knew that I could not get through to them. I had imagined that the world-wide student protest had to do with changing political and moral institutions, to which I was sympathetic, but I now saw that we had to do with a religious crisis of the magnitude of the Reformation in the fifteen hundreds, when not only all institutions but all learning had been corrupted by the Whore of Babylon [the Church].
This is not a generation that can "speak truth to power" - quite the contrary. Political correctness is all about speaking power to truth.**

The most blatant abuses of this type occur when particular individuals are targeted by militant faculty out to "make examples" of designated hate objects. The Larry Summers affair was one. (See here and here.) Another, far worse, was the false case against the Duke lacrosse team, where academic intolerance merged with prosecutorial abuse and media hysteria. We've met the abusive prosecutor before in, for example, the "Scooter" Libby case. And the media: it can't run, it seems, on anything but fake "narrative" expressly built to demonize its targets. It's extravagant spectacle, never mind the facts.***

The problem is not faculty tenure, which American universities and colleges have had since the 1920s and 30s. That privilege was originally balanced off of a small set of powerful administrators who could get things done, while letting faculty go about their teaching and research business. Powerful administrator presence also deterred the worst tendencies of the worst faculty. After academic administrators lost their authority in the 1960s and 70s, concentrated power and responsibility were diffused into "faculty self-governance." Since most faculty are busy with teaching and research, a power vacuum opened up, one filled by the small but vocal and aggressive minority of irresponsible faculty who, more and more, wield veto power over departmental and college decisions and are invariably at the center of eruptions of identity politics and P.C. Contrary to an old misimpression left from the 1960s, it's generally not students, who are in any case too transient a population to do sustained damage to universities.

Political correctness blends with other university trends to produce something beyond just simple closed-mindedness and petty dogmatism. Universities are also big businesses, for-profit in all but name, yet not run the way normal businesses are run to keep costs and waste under control. Instead, being heavily subsidized with little oversight, they're run as "cost-plus" institutions that pass on costs to everyone else, because they can get away with it. Much of higher ed is simply a racket.

Curiously, it's generally not faculty who benefit. While older, tenured faculty have done well in the last 40 years, younger faculty hired since the 1980s are doing much more poorly. They are not only less likely to get tenure, they're increasingly hired off the tenure track; instead, they end up as adjunct or part-time faculty.

You then might wonder what is driving costs up. The answer is found in university budgets: it's "other" - everything else not connected with the university's business of knowledge. It includes vastly expanded student services and athletic departments (which, contrary to myth, rarely make money for their schools). Above all, rising costs are driven by massive growth in administration. As once-powerful academic administrators have lost authority, they have compensated by hiring armies of underlings. Top administrators, in any case, no longer do as much administering as they once did; their jobs have been redefined as money-chasing.

Here's Marty Nemko in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Colleges should be held at least as accountable as tire companies are. When some Firestone tires were believed to be defective, government investigations, combined with news-media scrutiny, led to higher tire-safety standards. Yet year after year, colleges and universities turn out millions of defective products: students who drop out or graduate with far too little benefit for the time and money spent. Not only do colleges escape punishment, but they are rewarded with taxpayer-financed student grants and loans, which allow them to raise their tuitions even more.

I ask colleges to do no more than tire manufacturers are required to do.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has attempted to counter the mounting criticism with a lame and beside-the-point statement that evades the real issue and astonishingly implies a blank check to universities and doctrinal infallibility to their faculties, with everyone else footing the bill. Conservative critics are saying it (see here and here), but remarkably, even liberal academics are too (here and here). Taxpayers, parents, and alumni continue to pay to be abused in this way. But there's no reason for them to, and I predict that postmodern academia has no more than a decade of life left.

Academia was originally granted its special privileges and status, along with bucketloads of money, to serve a bundle of larger purposes connected with knowledge. It has drifted far from that mandate. Until a few years ago, we might have held hope that universities and colleges could be reformed from within. But the Larry Summers case, more than any other, showed that sympathetic liberal insiders can't pull it off. Summers was the last of his kind. Change will come, but the reformers will not be liberal, sympathetic, or insiders. As Harvard's Stuntz put it, academia, and in fact, America's whole liberal elite, including its fake aristocracy of celebrity, feels a lot like the French aristocracy before 1789, although without the latter's powerful residue of taste and refinement. But for now, it's 1786 - say - and life's good.

POSTSCRIPT: Hat tips to the terrific blogs out there kept by academics, especially those of Ann Althouse, Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit), and Eugene Volokh (The Volokh Conspiracy).
* Politically Correct University, like the movie :)

** Here's another striking example, one of many, from the crazy anthropology department at Columbia/Barnard, an incorrigible center of the rot of "Middle East studies." After reading this, my first reaction was, why didn't Reinharz and other liberals like her raise these objections to the wave of P.C. and postmodernism when it started 20 years ago? Columbia is the same place Ahmadinejad got his fawning reception.

*** There's a rich online and print literature on the Duke travesty, starting with Johnson and Taylor's Until Proven Innocent and the Durham-in-Wonderland blog. Check out these items, from the New Yorker and Harvard's George Borjas, as well this review. (The link above goes to the Economist's review.) The concentrated essence of PCU is all there in one ugly case.

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