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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Two Views of Higher Ed

 I have been looking at two relatively recent books about higher education, both by successful academics.  The first, The Breakdown of Higher Education, came out quite recently.  Its author John Ellis, a scholar of literature, has been a vocal and trenchant critic of trends in higher ed in general and the humanities in particular for at least thirty years, contributing frequently to Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars.  The second, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, comes from Lani Guinier, a professor at Harvard Law School.  Both of them argue that higher ed is on the wrong track, but for completely different reasons.  Both also propose some solutions.  Combined with certain other recent indications, they leave me with a strong sense of where my old profession is going.

Ellis began teaching at UC Santa Cruz early in the revolution, in 1966.  Although I think he oversimplifies academia's problems just a bit, I have come to agree with him on the essentials.  A left wing ideology, one that I have discussed many times here, now dominates nearly every college and university in the country.  It is obsessed with real or imagined power differentials between men and women, whites and nonwhites, straights and gays, and so forth.  That intellectual approach--or, as Ellis and I would agree, anti-intellectual approach--not only dominates the humanities and social sciences, but has also spawned a huge bureaucracy of administrators designed to encourage and enforce it.  Most important of all, colleges and universities now regard advancing a "social justice" agenda as their primary mission--not studying and trying to add to the intellectual heritage of the past.  Ellis also shows that this approach is making inroads into STEM fields as well.  

I differ somewhat from Ellis as to exactly why this has happened.  He sees it, really, as a vast conspiracy of leftwing scholars trying to transform not only academia, but society at large.  In support of his position, he quotes effectively from the founding document of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the 1962 Port Huron statement, which stressed the university's role in spreading values, good or bad.  Here is some of what that document said:

 "These, at least, are facts, no matter how dull the teaching, how paternalistic the rules, how irrelevant the research that goes on. Social relevance, the accessibility to knowledge, and internal openness, these together make the university a potential base and agency in a movement of social change.

"1. Any new left in America must be, in large measure, a left with real intellectual skills, committed to deliberativeness, honesty, reflection as working tools. The university permits the political life to be an adjunct to the academic one, and action to be informed by reason.

"2. A new left must be distributed in significant social roles throughout the country. The universities are distributed in such a manner.

"3. A new left must consist of younger people who matured in the postwar world, and partially be directed to the recruitment of younger people. The university is an obvious beginning point.

"4. A new left must include liberals and socialists, the former for their relevance, the latter for their sense of thoroughgoing reforms in the system. The university is a more sensible place than a political party for these two traditions to begin to discuss their differences and look for political synthesis.

"5. A new left must start controversy across the land, if national policies and national apathy are to be reversed. The ideal university is a community of controversy, within itself and in its effects on communities beyond.

"6. A new left must transform modern complexity into issues that can be understood and felt close-up by every human being. It must give form to the feelings of helplessness and indifference, so that people may see the political, social and economic sources of their private troubles and organize to change society. In a time of supposed prosperity, moral complacency and political manipulation, a new left cannot rely on only aching stomachs to be the engine force of social reform. The case for change, for alternatives that will involve uncomfortable personal efforts, must be argued as never before. The university is a relevant place for all of these activities."

Fueled by the Vietnam War and the advent of the younger Boom generation, this document became extraordinarily influential over the rest of the decade, beginning with Mario Savio's speeches at Berkeley in late 1964,  which I have often quoted, referring to Berkeley students ruled just as severely by college bureaucracy as the black people of Mississippi were by white supremacy.  Activism on campus faded in the 1970s and particularly the 1980s, but it has returned over the last decade in particular, and I have to agree Ellis that these paragraphs now resemble the mission statements of many schools. I cannot agree however that all this adds up to a well-organized revolutionary conspiracy like Lenin's Bolsheviks (to be fair, I don't think Ellis actually makes that analogy).  Because the new left dedicated itself to self-expression, it repeatedly failed at organization--a tradition continued by its grandchildren in Occupy and BLM.  In my opinion, legions of mediocre academics--and the vast majority of today's academics are mediocre--have adopted social justice as a substitute for real intellectual achievement.  The most mediocre academics become administrators, and administrators have done this on behalf of their whole institution.  Hardly any college or university cares any more about offering a distinctive educational product, but they are all obsessed with diversity, equity and inclusion.  I have to agree, however, that the impact of the new academic ideology has now spread into the larger society, since it dominates the elite media, the entertainment industry, and, increasingly, the Democratic Party.  

Late in the book, Ellis talks revealingly about his attempts to get both his own university and the UC system as a whole to acknowledge the ubiquity of political indoctrination in the classroom, which violates long-standing regulations. The story he tells parallels many recent incidents of free speech controversies on campus.  On the one hand, faculty and administrators try to deny free speech to unfriendly ideas, or propagate specific political stances.  On the other hand, senior administrators insist on the record that their devotion to academic freedom remains unshaken and that they oppose politicizing the classroom.  That has in fact become their role: to stand between the ideologues on their faculty and in their administration on one side, and the broader public, including their trustees and major donors, on the other.  

What is to be done?  Ellis hopes that the legislatures of some states--presumably Republican ones--will use the power of the purse to defund politicized administrators and impose some requirements for intellectual diversity on faculties, where Republicans have nearly ceased to exist.  Once they have become more traditional and serious institutions of higher learning, he hopes, they can become a model for others.  Much as I have always admired Ellis, I can't share his optimism about this course of action.  Unfortunately we no longer have a cadre of young academics who could help restore the best intellectual and educational traditions of the west.   I was in the last generation of students trained to do this, and the most accomplished of us had little or no impact on the trends of the last 50 years. Instead, I think we should be focusing upon how to preserve the western tradition outside academia--but that is a subject for another day.

Professor Lani Guinier of Harvard Law became known to the nation in 1993, when President Clinton tried and failed to make her the head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.  Her views on how to increase black representation in government were too controversial for those days even for leading Democrats to push her nomination--although today I doubt they would raise an eyebrow.  Her book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America is equally critical of institutions of higher learning, led by her own, but for different reasons, and her solutions are very different as well.

Guinier argues that the SATs, in particular, have created a "testocracy," rule by those who perform best on the SATs.  She also claims that the testocracy is the new means of maintaining an oligarchy of the wealthy.  That was certainly not the role that the SATs originally played.  When they became common in the 1950s they helped democratize higher education, although administrators, fearing that their campuses would be dominated by bright Jewish applicants who in those days were the top performers on them, balanced their impact with quotas and new emphases on "geographical distribution."  Guinier doesn't mention that today, Asian students are the top SAT performers--including many who are not from well-off families at all--and that their numbers are now restricted in the same way that the Jews' numbers were.  She does have a point that test preparation, which didn't exist when I took them in 1964-5, has given wealthier kids an edge.  That  problem could largely be solved, I think, by forcing the College Board to put together about half a dozen very different kinds of SAT tests, each using a different approach, so that students wouldn't know which test they would face until D-Day.  Few indeed would take the time and money to prepare for every one.  But Guinier isn't interested in improving the tests, only in doing away with them.  She would put admissions on a completely different basis.

Guinier argues that institutions like her own are wasting the education they can offer on rich, pampered kids who don't really need it because they have already learned so much.  They should instead focus on less well off students, many of them nonwhite, who could benefit more.  She even criticizes Harvard's affirmative action policies for admitting too many middle-class, biracial, and immigrant black students who do not reflect in her view the average black experience.   (I can't help pointing out that Guinier, who was two years behind me at Harvard, was that kind of admit herself--her father became the chairman of the African-American Studies department while she was there.) She also wants to transform how American education takes place by insisting on collaborative work among students, which she says has been extraordinarily successful in certain experimental high schools and individual college classrooms. She uses it herself, allowing her law students to collaborate on final exams.  This is the way, she argues, to allow students who do not do well on standardized tests to excel.  Finding opportunities for those students, she argues, is crucial for our democracy.  She also expects the cooperative approach to transform the way our society grapples with its biggest problems.  

Since 1950 or so, several new developments have transformed higher education in the United States.  First of all, the student population expanded several times over--and the faculty and administration expanded much faster than the student population.   Secondly, television, and now computers, replaced books as sources of leisure.   Thirdly, as Ellis points out, higher education became more politicized (and this has happened now in K-12 as well, particularly in elite high schools.)  All this has reduced the amount of time that students spend studying considerably.  Ellis cites a study finding that students spent about 21 hours a week studying in 1961, but only 12 or 14 hours per week studying in 2010.  Course workloads have fallen way down as well.  In my opinion, society would have been much better served by holding back the growth of higher education, while continuing the trend of 1933-71 that opened up better opportunities for a decent life for people who had not had it.  It also should never have allowed the continuing growth in faculty and administration that has more than tripled the real cost of college since the mid-1960s.  

I think that in the current context, the changes Guinier proposes are more mainstream than those put forward by Ellis.  The Chronicle of Higher Education is filled with articles on how to throw out more elements of our educational tradition, including one I just read explaining how the author grades students by offering them several options for how much work they want to do, and simply giving the As to those who perform the largest assignments in a satisfactory manner.  Higher education, I think, must provide means to identify and nurture the tiny minority of truly gifted intellectuals who can make unique contributions for us all.  A lifetime in education has taught me that those individuals come from every economic class, both sexes, and every race--that they are in fact scattered pretty much at random throughout the population.  Higher education must also train professionals, including K-12 teachers, and help everyone share in our cultural heritage.  Meanwhile, we must make a better life more accessible, once again, to those who do not need four-year college.  The current system is now fueled by debt that many students will never be able to pay, and shows signs of collapsing under its own weight.  That, rather than conservative legislators, might give a few creative leaders the chance to make higher education more effective again.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

An American Hero

 Today's New York Times features a long account of how Nancy Pelosi shepherded the current version of the Build Back Better bill through the House of Representatives.  Working with younger progressives and older moderates, and talking one-on-one with Senate roadblock Joe Manchin, she managed first to get the infrastructure bill through, and then to pass a version of the second, larger bill that may well survive the Senate after a couple of changes.  That got me thinking about Pelosi's historical significance and that of her whole generation.

Pelosi, now 81, came--like quite a few prominent Democratic politicians today, and some Republicans--from a political dynasty.  Her father was Thomas d'Alessandro, a long-time mayor of Baltimore, who in the late 1950s had the honor (as I remember) of escorting Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth to a Naval Academy football game during a state visit to the US.  (With a little more research into the Queen's sporting interests, he might have taken her to Pimlico instead!)  Pelosi has been in and around politics all her life.  Like so many women of the Silent generation, she married right out of college and began having children, five in all.  Her family had moved to San Francisco, where she became a leader in Democratic Party politics without running for office.  She was very close to Congressman Phil Burton and Burton's wife Sala, who succeeded Burton after he died in 1982, and Sala Burton annointed Pelosi as her chosen successor to her very safe San Francisco seat when she herself was dying of cancer in 1987. Pelosi won a special election and has held the seat every since, for 34 years.  She became the House minority whip in 2001 after 14 years there, and the minority leader the following year.  It comes as rather a shock to realize that she has been Speaker of the House for only seven years--from 2007 through 2011, and from 2019 until now.  The Republicans have controlled the House for 19 of the 34 years she has served.  She seems likely to step down in another year whether they regain control next November or not.

Amazon.com shows a couple of short biographies of Pelosi and several collections of articles about her, but nothing close to a definitive biography appears to have been written  This is too bad.  No woman has yet held a more powerful position than Speaker of the House, and she must have been an extraordinary politician to reach the party leadership.  The Democratic class of 1974 was one of the largst and ost influential in House history, but she leapt over them all to become the party leader.  More astonishingly, the whole Boom generation never produced a significant member of the House leadership, and the other two top Democrats today, James Clyburn and Steny Hoyer, are also Silents. (Republican House leaders Newt Gingrich and John Boehner, on the other hand, were Boomers, and Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy are from Gen X.) Joe Biden climbed to the top of generational political heap last fall when he became the first Silent to reach the White House, but he is still quite obviously depending on Pelosi to get anything done.  Therein lies a broader historical tale.

The Silent generation (b. 1925-46)--children during the Depression and the Second World War--belong to what Strauss and Howe called the Artist archetype.  Their counterparts from earlier eras were the Compromise generation (including Daniel Webster and especially Henry Clay) from the early Republic and pre-civil war era, and the Progressive generation (b. 1843-1862 or so), which produced Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.  After living through violent times in their childhood, these generations tend to become accommodators and conciliators, wary of the ideologues coming from the next-younger Prophet generation.  The Compromisers prevented the Civil War from breaking out until after their leading figures had passed from the scene, and the Progressives, who dreamed of universal peace during and after the First World War, gave way to the Missionaries who led the nation through the greatest war of all time.  The Silent generation--which also includes Mitch McConnell--have lasted so long at the highest levels of political power partly because they learned their trade when our politics still worked.  The Democratic ones in particular do not let ideology stand in the way of getting something done.  

Pelosi has already been credited by some with the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Barack Obama was reportedly ready to give up on it after Scott Brown's Senate victory in Massachusetts took away the Democrats' supermajority in early 2010, but she insisted on trying to get it through via reconciliation, which worked.  She has now managed a very demanding year of negotiations within her own party to get the Infrastructure and Build Back Better bills through a fractious House.  First she persuaded the Democratic left to allow the infrastructure bill to pass (even though some of its most fervent members insisted on voting against it.)  Now she got enough moderates on board for Build Back Better, and the Times story suggests that she has reached some kind of deal with Manchin as well. (It is not clear, however, that she has been in touch with Kristin Sinema.)  All this amounts to a replay, 171 years later, of Clay's Compromise of 1850.  Sadly, these compromise measures--like that one--will not put an end to the controversies that were, and are, fracturing the nation--but that was not Clay or Pelosi's fault.  It will soon be up to the Boom and Xer generations to show that they can do better than the Transcendentals like Davis and Lincoln and find a way to avoid a new breakup of the country or civil war. 

Pelosi's career has another interesting feature.  She has been subject to sexist attacks for the last 20 years.  Searching amazon for books about her, I also found on the same page ads for a Nancy Pelosi urinal target, a Fuck Nancy Pelosi daily planner, and Nancy Pelosi toilet paper.  Amazon shows no similar products for Donald Trump.  I am sure that Pelosi, like professional women of the GI generation (and yes, there were significant numbers of them), encountered plenty of sexism among fellow Democrats too--but she never makes much of a public issue of it.  This was also the attitude of many successful people from earlier generations about racial and ethnic prejudice: yes, it was there, yes, it was infuriating, but it seemed better not to dignify it by reacting and save one's energy for getting things done.  That has become a most unfashionable attitude in the age of microaggressions, and I hope some younger generation will revive it.

Monday, November 15, 2021

The Fall of the American Empire?

 Six years ago, in a post entitled "The Fourth Great Crisis in American National Life," I argued that the crisis in our civilization was ending in a new Gilded Age of personal individual freedom and massive corporate power and economic inequality.  I am now wondering whether I was too optimistic.  I did not foresee, at that moment in December 2015, the nomination and election of Donald Trump and his effective takeover of the Republican Party.  Corporate power was continually expanding regardless of which party held the White House, and had no need to rig elections.  I had already recognized the judicial coup d'├ętat that had given George W Bush the presidency in 2000, but I couldn't envision a sitting president inciting a riot to try to overturn clear results in four different states, or the amendment of state laws to allow gerrymandered legislatures to overturn the popular vote.  Nor did I imagine a great pandemic and what it would reveal about the United States in the 21st century.

Our nation, as I have seen clearly reading early presidential addresses, was founded on the principle that human reason could promote the greatest good for the greatest number, and that elected governments could work.  Lincoln explicitly began the war to suppress the confederate rebellion to prove that democratic government could survive.  Franklin Roosevelt justified his policies, both domestic and foreign, on the same grounds.  In the last two years, a new crisis--the pandemic--has split the nation over the question of the authority of science, with whole sections of the country defying it at the cost of the lives of tens of thousands of their citizens.  So hostile to our central government has the Republican party become that it now wants to strip it of perhaps the most fundamental attribute of a modern state, a monopoly of legitimate force.   And activists and bureaucrats on the other, Democratic side of the political fence have adopted a world view based upon identity instead of universal human reason.  People, and their ideas, are bad or good based upon the racial and gender characteristics of those who hold them, and many of them, implicitly or explicitly, also condemn the whole enterprise of western civilization as nothing more than a scheme for straight white male dominance.  And while Republicans reject all restrictions on private firearms, leftist legal reformers have decided that punishment is more of a problem than crime.  They also stand in the way of a consensus based upon data and reason that might restore faith in our institutions across party lines.

In the spring of 1969 I took the second half of a course on modern France taught by Stanley Hoffmann, who later became a good friend of mine.  That course began around 1890, when a new generation of intellectuals-- both left and right--rebelled against the highly bureaucratic and uninspiring Third Republic.  The same thing was already happening in Hoffmann's other ancestral home, the United States--I learned only much later that his father was American--but oddly, I do not remember him mentioning that, even when leftist revolution brought classes to a halt for about a week that April.  I had grown up believing in the New Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society, and for the most part I still do, but I have now concluded that there is something about a bureaucratic state based upon reason that repels significant elements of human nature.  The impulse towards nationalism and national pride that dominated western nations from the 18th century until the last third of the twentieth also seems to have proven to be just one historical phase.  One reason, ironically, has been the invention of nuclear weapons.  They have as it turned out eliminated war among the great powers, vastly reducing the size of national armies and removing another element of the glue that formerly held nations together.  Thus, even if war were to break out between China and the United States over Taiwan--which is quite possible--it might just as easily divide the US further as unite us, especially since we would probably fail to keep Taiwan out of Chinese hands.

Lastly, while so many millions of ordinary people have lost faith in our intellectual class, that class is more confident than ever of its right to rule based on its own beliefs.  That may be why the Democratic Party no longer bothers to make national effort to sell policies like Obamacare or the bills that Biden is now trying to get through Congress.  Their righteousness is supposed to be self-justifying.  Our foreign policy elite, despite the catastrophes into which both parties have led us in the last twenty years, still sets goals for all the world and zealously sanctions anyone who stands in their way.  

Where will all this end?  The Supreme Court may very well overturn Roe v. Wade by next spring, and the Republicans seem likely to win back control of at least the House, and possibly the Senate, next fall.  Those developments will, I suspect, accelerate demands to break up the country.  Faith in our institutions held us together for more than 200 years, but that faith is gone.  Prominent academics such as Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman are rewriting our history to undermine it.  Summarizing his new book, Feldman  two weeks ago in the New York Times argued in effect that Lincoln's decision to put down the rebellion in 1861 was unconstitutional and that the Emancipation Proclamation had no proper legal foundation.  Yesterday Professor Sean Wilentz, to his great credit, showed clearly how wrong Feldman's historical interpretation is, but he is one of the rare academics who has not repudiated the early American experiment. Feldman's view is mainstream.  Without a critical mass of Americans devoted to our best traditions, we cannot maintain them.  I do not see that critical mass today.

Saturday, November 06, 2021

Tuesday's elections--an analysis

[The last two paragraphs of this post have been updated.]

On Wednesday I posted in a facebook group about the elections in Virginia, where the Democrats lost the governorship, and in New Jersey, where it turns out that they won a close race.  I said at that time that those elections showed that large numbers of Republicans who had refused to vote for Donald Trump--including many who had voted Democratic--had returned to the Republican fold.  I have now looked at figures for the last three elections in each of those states--2017 (governor), 2020 (president), and 2021 (governor.)  It turns out that I was wrong.

Let's look at New Jersey first.  In 2017, the Democratic candidate for governor, Phil Murphy, won over Carlos Rendo, with 1.2 million votes to 900,000. a 56-42 per cent margin.  In the 2020 presidential election, the total vote more than doubled, and Joe Biden beat Donald Trump, 2.6 million votes to 1.9 million, a 57-41 per cent margin.    The turnout of 4.5 million represented a very substantial increase from the 3.9 million turnout in 2016, and Donald Trump increased his vote by nearly 300,000 votes.  What happened in this year's election is quite astonishing.  The Republican vote dropped from 1.9 million for Trump last year to 1.2 million for the Republican gubernatorial candidate.   The Democratic vote dropped from 2.6 million for Biden to just 1.3 million for Governor Murphy--a drop of more than 50%.  Republicans felt much more motivated to vote than Democrats.   The comparison with the 2017 gubernatorial election is even more striking. Murphy polled less than 100,000 votes more in 2021 than in 2017, while the Republican vote increased by about 320,000 votes. 

The Virginia results are similar, but even more striking.  In 2017 Ralph Northen (D) received 1.4 million votes against Ed Gillespie's 1.2 million, winning by 54-45 per cent.  Last year, turnout was up about 10% from the 2016 presidential election in Virginia, and Biden totaled 2.4 million votes to Trump's 2 million, winning 54-44 per cent--the same margin as in the governor's race.  This year, the Democratic vote for Terry McAuliffe increased by 180,000 votes from four years ago, reaching 1.6 million.   The Republican vote grew by almost half a million votes in four years, and Glenn Youngkin beat Terry McAuliffe by 1.7 million to 1.6 million votes.   Comparing the vote to last year's, we find that that the Republican vote declined only 300,000 votes--while the Democratic vote fell by 825,000 votes.  One in every three Democratic votes for Biden either failed to show up at the polls or voted Republican. Think about that.

 The CNN exit polls for 2020 and 2021 in Virginia show another interesting story.  In 2020, the voters they polled--presumably reflecting an attempt to get a representative sample--were 67 per cent white, 18 per cent black, 7 per cent Hispanic, and  4 per cent Asian.  This year those figures read 73 per cent white, 16 per cent black, 5 per cent Hispanic, and 3 per cent Asian.  The Republican share of the white vote rose from 53% for Trump to 62% for Youngkin, while Youngkin's percentage among the minority groups actually increased.  

Both county-by-county data from Virginia and a CNN exit poll that I had not noticed confirm my essential conclusion: Republicans crushed \Democrats in turn-out.  In Bath County, a white, rural area featured in a New York Times story on Sunday, November 7, Trump beat Biden by 1834 votes to 646.  Youngkin beat McAuliffe by 1534 to 395.  The Republican vote fell by 1/6, the Democratic vote by more than 1/3.  In Chesterfield county, a Richmond suburb that showed the biggest swing in its vote in the state, Biden won by 107,000 to 93,000, and Youngkin won by 82,000 to 74,000.  The Republican vote fell by a little more than 1/8; the Democratic vote fell by more than 1/4.  And in largely black Richmond, the Democratic vote fell from  92,000  to 60,000--essentially the same percentage as the Democratic vote in the state as a whole--while the Republican vote fell from 17,000 to 15,000.  Last but not least, the CNN poll asked voters not only for their vote this year, but last. 95% of Biden voters voted for McAuliffe; 98% of Trump voters voted for Youngkin. That, I believe, amounts to a net shift of about 1.5% from Democrats to Republicans, within an overall shift of 6% statewide. 

     This data suggests that Donald Trump may have left behind a far more united and determined Republican Party, one whose voters will turn out in much higher percentages than Democratic ones this fall, even in blue and purple states.  Barring unforeseen events--of which there is rarely a shortage these days--the Democrats, who look more divided than ever this week in Congress, do seem likely to lose both houses of Congress in November, putting an end to any hopes of new legislative achievements and setting the stage for two years of gridlock.