Impostors in the Temple

Corruption has become pervasive and ingrained in our modern-day universities.

A few decades ago, when Martin Anderson was but a grad student, he engaged (just once) in the kind of academic game he has now written a book to decry.

Anderson submitted a paper on trade relations for a course on international economics. It was a straightforward, descriptive treatment—no “theory,” no mathematics. The paper earned a B rather than an A, because, as his professor scribbled next to the grade, it was “empirical.” His paper sadly “didn’t have it.”

What was “it”? Anderson took a wild guess, and his next paper, also slim on theory, rippled with intimidating mathematical equations. “I handed that paper in with a certain foreboding. The theory was so simple, so trivial, that, if clearly understood, it could be laughed at. But, on the other hand, I was confident that [Professor] Kindleberger would not understand the mathematical equations I had used in the exposition of my ‘original theory.’ A few days later I got my grade: an A, with the written comment, ‘I like it’ . . . . That was the last mathematical, ‘original theory’ article I ever wrote.”

But others play the same game—Anderson calls it “the glass bead game”—without allowing any passing twinges of self-reproach to stop them. These are the professors who fill the academic journals with calculus-crammed elucidations of the trivial or incomprehensible for the sake of stuffing resumes, impressing indexers, and securing a firmer grip on the next rung of the ladder of academic success. These are the professors who shirk teaching, ruthlessly exploit their grad students, and squelch academic freedom in the name of political correctitude. Yes, there are still many individuals of integrity in our universities, men and women who produce worthy scholarship and are effective and dedicated teachers; but by Anderson’s reckoning they are an endangered breed. The institutional pressures for conformity are overwhelming.

Most of Anderson’s major contentions about the rot in higher education have already been aired in works like The Closing of the American Mind, Profscam, and Illiberal Education; there has been some debate about what these books have to say, but not yet enough to actually change things. Like all lumbering, entrenched bureaucracies, our colleges and universities are slow to reform. Hence, the more polemical kicks in the pants critical observers can give them, the better. And Impostors in the Temple does have quite a number of useful insights and observations to offer.

Anderson begins his investigation by distinguishing between two major types of intellectuals in our culture: the “academic” and the “professional” (or what George H. Smith would call the “market intellectual”). While there is some overlapping between the two groups, they are generally somewhat standoffish toward one another. The academic intellectual is tenured, insulated, simultaneously protected from the discipline of the marketplace and at the mercy of his institutional culture. If he plays by the rules, he need not worry about satisfying the customers. The “professional intellectual,” on the other hand, though he may be as arrogant as any denizen of the lumpenprofessoriat, must offer some ostensible value to his audience; he cannot afford merely to rack up glass beads in some unread journal, or mumble a disjointed lecture and go home. And however wrongheaded the professional intellectual may be, he tends at a minimum to be intelligible.

But how did the academic intellectual get to be so, well, academic (in the pejorative sense of the term)? A major impetus to the decline in standards has been the mushrooming of university enrollment since the 1960s. This engendered a corresponding increase in the demand for professors to teach all the new students. Only a certain small percentage of the general population, however, has both the intellectual capacity for scholarly studies and the patient temperament essential for teaching young and untutored minds. So, with the sudden increase in demand for professors, standards were trimmed. Then they were trimmed a little bit more. Finally, anyone willing to comply with all the academic rigmarole was accepted into the club. The influence of public funding, much expanded over the years, should also be mentioned, for it made it increasingly feasible for the university culture to ignore once venerable obligations to students and to scholarship.

Anderson also explicitly points the finger at “intellectual pace-setters.” In the end, though, he gives too little attention to the influence of philosophical currents, which certainly have been flowing for much longer than a few decades, and which ultimately do shape institutional trends. For this philosophical background, one has to go to books like Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind or Leonard Peikoff’s Ominous Parallels. Without that background the games academicians play are incomprehensible. Why, for example, is mathematics so widely insisted upon as crucial to argumentation in the social sciences? There’s more involved here than a tacit conspiracy among academic hacks; there is also the legacy of the scientific urge to apply the methods of the physical sciences, which investigate regular phenomena, to the study of the much less predictable activities of persons. Perhaps, though, expediency and philosophical error are comrades-in-arms, each abetting the other. Inscrutable jargon helps protect the perpetrators not only from the public, but from one another; nobody wants to be the first to admit a failure to understand.

Anderson has written a good book, if not a ground-breaking one. His personal experience is invaluable in fleshing out our picture of the modern-day university, showing us just how pervasive and ingrained the corruption has become—to the point where even the most outrageous deeds are met with indifference or hasty rank-closing. To combat this situation, he offers a constructive laundry list of reforms: “change the Ph.D. process,” “stop athletic corruption,” “end faculty tenure” (“the corrupting influence of a guaranteed job for life far outweighs any arguments in support of the idea”). The problem is not coming up with the right reforms, however, but getting them implemented.

How can tenure be ended, for example? Anderson is willing to let those who already have it, keep it, in a kind of grandfather clause. But then we would have a two-tiered academy, with untenured newcomers constituting a sort of second class, and perhaps a rather bitter one. Yet Anderson seems right to argue that it is hardly workable to strip tenure from those who have had it and counted on it for many years, at least not in the present context. This implies the need for a larger reform: getting government out of higher education and forcing our universities to be more competitive.

Whatever the best answers are, there’s a long haul ahead. By asking many of the right questions, Impostors in the Temple helps us draw a road map to a saner future. 

David M. Brown is a free-lance writer.