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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Trembling in the Ivory Tower: Excesses in the Pursuit of Truth and Tenure

The Intellectual Climate in American Higher Education Is Suffering

If you listen to spokesmen for the higher-education establishment, America’s colleges and universities are the envy of the world, propelling our economy forward with brilliantly educated young minds. Look only at the bright spots in American higher education and you might well conclude that such praise is merited. But to assume that something is true of the whole because it is true for some of the parts is fallacious—the fallacy of composition. That’s pertinent here. Just because our universities turn out world-class scientists and engineers doesn’t mean that our higher education system is world-class.

Beneath its lovely façade, there’s a great deal of decay in American higher education. At many schools, the curriculum is feeble and academic standards have sunk out of sight. The paramount concern of administrators and professors is keeping the students happy—the “beer and circus” syndrome, as Murray Sperber calls it.

And then there is the problem of the intellectual climate. Thanks to the mania for “diversity” sweeping through American higher education, we’ve reached the point where many ideas can no longer be discussed because someone in a “protected group” might be offended. It is mainly to this degradation of academic discourse that Trembling in the Ivory Tower is addressed. Kenneth Lasson, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore, finds that our colleges and universities are becoming increasingly hostile to intellectual freedom, their focus changing from open debate and inquiry to ensuring that students come away from their college years with “correct” attitudes.

Lasson’s book is chock full of evidence that things have gone badly awry. Students now typically graduate “with inferior backgrounds in the humanities, weak language and writing skills, and little respect for their professors.” One reason they have little respect for their professors is that the professors don’t do much to earn it. Increasingly, they’re preoccupied with their “research”—that is, writing articles and books that help them obtain tenure and higher pay. Teaching plays second fiddle. That’s bad enough, but Lasson regards most of the “research” to be drivel. An incredible number of specialized academic journals filled with pretentious and impenetrable writing are produced every year to no purpose other than resumé padding.

Worse still, in many academic disciplines the radicals of the ’60s and ’70s have taken control and insist on turning their courses into platforms for the propagation of their ideology. Radical feminists are among the worst culprits in that regard. “Good people of both sexes have been stampeded into corners of stilted parlance and tortured logic by the self-appointed thought police,” Lasson writes, “Big Sister has imposed herself upon all of us.” The “radfems” don’t just hold sway in the almost ubiquitous “Women’s Studies” programs, but have also unleashed their embittered view of the world in English, sociology, and other fields. They have succeeded not only in poisoning the minds of some students, but also in poisoning campus discourse.

And if radical feminism has eroded the foundations of higher education with its acid, the “diversity” movement has attacked those foundations with jackhammers. Students and professors are harassed with speech codes and “diversity czars” who are eager to find bigotry, discrimination, or mere “insensitivity” everywhere. “Instead of blending ethnicity fairly into a melting pot, we have allowed multiculturalism to boil over into a seething cauldron of conflict,” Lasson rightly observes. Here’s an example he gives.

A group of students launched a protest in 1999 at Berkeley, demanding an increase in the number of faculty members in the school’s Ethnic Studies Department—even though the department had low enrollment. More than 100 students were arrested after they took over a campus building, but the administration caved in when six of them went on a hunger strike. It agreed to hire eight new full-time faculty members, to provide funding for an Institute of Race and Gender Studies, and to pay for a mural depicting the student takeover.

What can be done? Most of the book is devoted to the explication of the problem, and Lasson doesn’t do much to show the way out of the morass. “If eternal vigilance is the price of freedom,” he writes, “then we must be especially alert that the trustees of the academic enterprise are forever honest in perpetuating the vigorous exchange of ideas, values, and convictions . . . and that they are consistent and critical in their pursuit of truth.” Yes, of course, but those trustees are the very people who have looked on with indifference as the academic degradation proceeded apace. Why expect them to arise from their torpor?

Even if Lasson doesn’t have a solution at hand—and I don’t think anyone does—he has done a superb job of identifying the problem. His witty and engrossing book is must reading for everyone concerned about higher education.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.