Friday, March 15, 2013

In black and white

Rarely, if ever, is there a shortage of things to write about as a week draws to a close here. I had thought earlier this week about discussing the crisis on the Korean peninsula. While I am no expert on it and the North Korean regime is hard to interpret, the steps that it has taken, and particularly the denunciation of the nearly 60-year old armistice agreement, would in other times have been an almost certain prelude to an imminent war. I was reliably informed by a rare American visitor to North Korea about 15 years ago that that nation would not possibly be capable of sustained military action, but. . stranger things have happened. However, before I could begin, my email led me to something else.

I do not think there are very many professional academics among my 2-3000 regular weekly readers here, although I know there are some. I have discussed the states of academia, and particularly the humanities, from time to time, and I always worry when I do that I'm not making much of an impression, because I don't think the lay world has had much of an idea of what is happening on campuses for several decades. What reached me today was an opportunity which I simply cannot pass up.

It began with an email reporting on the recent annual meeting of the National Association of Scholars, which was founded in 1988 to try to preserve traditional values in universities. At that time it attracted a wide variety of impressive scholars, including an above-average number of conservative academics, but also some traditional liberals like myself, and even Eugene Genovese, one of the greatest Marxist historians the United States has ever produced. I joined in the early 1990s and I wrote one article, "My War with the AHA," for its journal, Academic Questions, although I've never attended an annual meeting. The organization was dedicated to maintaining traditional values of scholarship and to opposing postmodernism and poltiical correctness. Academic Questions has run wonderful articles skewering the work of some of the most prominent academics in America, including Stephen Greenblatt, Martha Nussbaum, Frederic Jameson (who gave perhaps the single most brilliant course I ever took in college before he became a postmodernist), and Louis Menand. In recent years, however, its membershpi has aged, shrunk, and moved very measurably to the right. I still belong and read the journal, but I feel much less at home in the organization than I used to.

Well, today I got an NAS email reporting on the recent annual meeting at the Harvard Club in New York, which, to repeat, I did not attend. But it referred to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the NAS that appeared in the issue of March 1, "National Scholars' Group Turns 25, Showing Its Age," by one Peter Schmidt. The NAS, it began, like many professional higher education associations, is in trouble financially for a variety of reasons. "But most other such groups," Schmidt continues, "exist to represent specific sonstituencies, like admissions officers or language professors, and can alter their messages to keep up with the times. The NAS cannot change its message because its message is its reason for being."

And then came the sentence that nearly made me shriek, right in the middle of Sawyer library here at Williams College.

"That message is that colleges should be meritocracies focused on teaching, research, reasoned discourse, and the scientific method, and should resist tailoring their policies and instruction to conform with anyone's political views."

I don't think there's a way to insert a poll in these blog posts, but if there were, I would do so, asking everyone to indicate whether they regard that sentence as a controversial statement. Because you see, if you don't think it's controversial--and I sure as hell don't--then you evidently, pace The Chronicle, an intellectual dinosaur peddling snake oil. Schmidt continues:

"It is a message rooted in romanticized recollections of how America's colleges operated in the middle of the 20th century, before the advent of affirmative action, ethnic studies departments, and other products of the 1960s that the association regards as anathema."

Now I am very eager to test this statement out on my current class, but unfortunately it crossed my path at the worst possible time, the day before the start of spring break, so that will have to wait for two weeks. I did ask a random undergraduate in the library whether he regarded the summary of the NAS message as controversial or debatable, and he replied, interestingly enough, that it might be, but only because simple, straightforward intellectual tasks are now being outsourced or performed by computers and that colleges therefore might need to be more "conceptual." I then showed it to the inhabitant of the next office over, an economist, who found nothing controversial in it at all. But Schmidt and his editors apparently do.

If you asked him for his alternative vision, he would probably begin by saying that the job of a university was to offer a diversity of viewpoints reflecting the diversity of the world's population, which is divided into different races, genders, classes, and religions. Many would argue that there was never a single truth that universities could try to teach, merely European white male truth which the ruling group used universities to promulgate in an effort to maintain their "hegemony," intellectual and otherwise. That was indeed the rationale for founding ethnic and gender studies departments and it is at least part of the rationale for affirmative action in universities for everyone from undergraduates to faculty. That is the reality. Now to understand how this happened, and what it means for the future, let's go back to Schmidt's original statement, which I think is accurate, of the NAS view.

"That message is that colleges should be meritocracies focused on teaching, research, reasoned discourse, and the scientific method, and should resist tailoring their policies and instruction to conform with anyone's political views."

That is a good statement of what universities in the western world aspired to be for approximately a century, i would argue, from around 1870 to 1970. Many would argue that the picture was an idealized one. They are right. No generation produces enough men and women with the curiosity, dedication, passion and self-discipline that is required to do that kind of serious intellectual work and show others how to do it. A great historian or literary critic isn't any more common than a great hitter--which shouldn't be in the least surprising, since both skills require a rare mix of talent and dedication. But as long as this remained the ideal, universities and colleges could thrive and perform a critical function for the rest of society. It was the abandonment of that idea about forty years ago that has led to the catastrophic situation that they face today.

Yes, Virginia, the modern western intellectual tradition was a great thing, but it was not a natural outcome of the human mind. It had to be founded, built upon, and continually revised. Several generations spent substantial portions of their youth in libraries and archives introducing themselves to it. (I was really one of the lucky ones, because that was about as hard for me as it is for a pig to lie in mud. But to repeat, that's very unusual.) That's why it has been so much easier to tear it down than to build it up. That's why it's future is now extremely uncertain. Remember, more than a Millennium passed between the end of the first great era of rationalism in Greek and Rome and its revival in the Renaissance.

Those like myself, who were introduced to that tradition when it was still vibrant and swam against the tide of their adulthood to keep it alive, now face an interesting dilemma. What in fact could we do to try to keep it alive? As I remarked here very recently, it's not clear how that could happen in universities, where newly minted graduate students have never been exposed to it. What other forum exists that could, crucially, attract younger people and in turn give them a chance to replicate themselves? I don't know.

My students at Williams still can, and do, respond to opportunities to do serious historical work, but there are fewer and fewer such opportunities in colleges. Ironically, the resources available on line have made serious historical work easier than ever, and the book I am completing on U.S. entry into the Second World War is much better, drawing on far more sources, than it could have been when I started out, because I could access and store so much more data so efficiently. And there will be readers for this book. How many people under 40 remain who might write one like it, however, is an entirely different question--and one that makes me very sad.



Ray C Neill said...

I agree with your representation of intellectualism's gradual erosion in the last four decades. We have succumbed steadily to the lowest common denominator in so many areas such as books, art, film, television and I am convinced that many graduates today have little concern for the advancement of knowledge or thought. Newtonian physics can explain the result. Without increased energy being applied, the system will enter a state of entropy. In short, if we do not make an effort to revere intellectualism it will disappear into chaos. And, although an argument could be made that America has never been the most germinating soil for intellectuals, authors like Richard Hofstadter have documented its further demise. Ask anyone who the Poet Laureate of America is currently, for example, and then wait for a response....
While I appreciate anyone who tries to maintain traditions, I feel that you may be playing the role of Tevye to a very sparse audience. The sad fact is that we are floating in a morass of mediocrity that is sustained in a culture that mistrusts "eggheads" and Universities have contributed to this dumbing down process through their preoccupation with full ride scholarships for students who have a talent with some sort of sports equipment such as (in the case of Harvard and Yale) hitting a yellow dot squash ball. Unfortunately, many institutes of higher learning have adopted the business model and filling the lecture halls means that the faculty gets paid. Let's all hope that it doesn't degenerate into another Enron or Lehman Brothers debacle.
Ray C Neill

kingpinbravo said...

My grandfather prepared students for East Coast Universities from a one room school house in Collegeville, California in San Joaquin County in the 1860's . His qualifications were a decent grammar school education which consisted of Latin, Greek & the Bible and a curiosity for the truth. I don't see those basics today, anywhere .--Alohamac

Prior Friar said...

I am about the same age as you, and was an undergraduate from 1968-72. at a large Big 10 university. The contrast between the traditional and post-modernist values (and the beginning of change) was exemplified by the differences among my professors.

My parents were both teachers, and my father in particular (a science teacher) helped shape my beliefs. However, he never told me what to think, he would only ask me questions. This was exasperating when I was a child, but as I got older I understood. He was a firm believer in the Socratic method, and wanted me to come to my own conclusions. He just asked questions to make sure I considered all sides of a problem. (Note: he did believe it was necessary to force feed some basic scientific facts to his students before it would work).

I never became a teacher because of the young professor of my Education Psychology course. The first day of class he sat on the front desk in a lotus position and said "Everybody do your own thing". I knew then that the demise of public education was imminent.

However, I have used what I learned from my father in training newly hired employees wherever I have worked. Your article brings back wonderful memories of my father, and it makes me sad that I agree with your conclusions.

tructor man said...

In my early career in college textbook publishing I called upon a variety of colleges, from Ivy League to great land-grant universities, to state teachers colleges (now "universities"). By the early '70s, the decline in standards had begun, largely as result of the 'culture wars' of the '60s. The decline was most pronounced in the "soft" discplines of history, English & the arts, and less so in the "hard" sciences: math, biology, physics, etc, as these disciplines perhaps had firmer external standards.
Today's debacle seems linked to the general decline in our K-12 public schools, despite the US spending more per pupil than other nations. (Causes are legion: single-parent homes, working mothers, unassimiulation of immigrants, rigid teachers unions, municipal austerity, etc).
This general trend of dumbing-down has also occurred in our legislative process, and there is probably some profound causality.
The old academia was dominated by "WASPs" at predominantly northeast elite colleges, just as the previous era's government was also dominated by NE WASP and to a lesser extent, by remanants of the southern aristocrcy.
These broad trends are difficult to reverse or supercede. The coming insolvency of US and Euro governments, combined with the rise of China, the inhumane thrust of much of Islam may result in a cataclysm out of which will emerge a new order. What will it be?

Bozon said...

Great short essay. Many thanks for publishing it.

Re Schmidt, especially this bit:
"It is a message rooted in romanticized recollections of how America's colleges operated in the middle of the 20th century, before the advent of affirmative action, ethnic studies departments, and other products of the 1960s that the association regards as anathema."

While I would agree with him that it is a 'romanticized recollection', I would have to say that romanticism of a rather different sort went back to the beginning of higher education over here, having as it often did a religious aspect connected with its economic underpinnings almost everywhere. I like to advert to Randall Collins' works on such a topic, as he made a study of the history of higher education, for sociologists perhaps.

He was also skeptical of a meritocracy at work within it, either after WWII or before.

all the best,

galacticsurfer said...

It appears scientists are starting to define precisely cultural differences with brain scans and testing economic concepts across cultures and upsetting the idea of universal beliefs in humanity. So basically ignoring differences and
saying we are all the same (PC thinking) or just saying some dogma that western ideas are universal are wrong. We "Westerners" are just one "planet in the solar system" and not the middle of the universe. However cultural relativism should not be unscientific. My culture from my speific upbringing should be deifned precisely in my mind to obtain the results of skew for me in comparison to you in your cultural upbringing, so to speak scientifically. So the result of the new studies will be simplicity on the other side of complexity, therefore, "progress" in human transcultural understanding without PC talk or pure stereotypism.

"Given the data, they concluded that social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations (social/economic testing on US students). Researchers had been doing the equivalent of studying penguins while believing that they were learning insights applicable to all birds."

"And here is the rub: the culturally shaped analytic /individualistic mind-sets may partly explain why Western researchers have so dramatically failed to take into account the interplay between culture and cognition. In the end, the goal of boiling down human psychology to hardwiring is not surprising given the type of mind that has been designing the studies. Taking an object (in this case the human mind) out of its context is, after all, what distinguishes the analytic reasoning style prevalent in the West. Similarly, we may have underestimated the impact of culture because the very ideas of being subject to the will of larger historical currents and of unconsciously mimicking the cognition of those around us challenges our Western conception of the self as independent and self-determined. "

This article and scientific paper fits nicley into your topic above although I am a week late.