Sunday, August 29, 2010

Last days of the academic ruling class

Higher education in America is an economic bubble that’s about to burst, Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit has been saying all summer. When Brooklyn College—a college with an undergraduate Jewish enrollment of twenty-seven percent—assigns a book to all incoming freshmen to serve as the basis of their “common experience,” and when that book is by a radical pro-Palestinian who claims that the government “limits the speech of Arab Americans in order to cement United States policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” you begin to suspect Reynolds may just be right.

The problem is not the assignment. In my experience, few if any of the Brooklyn Collge freshmen will even bother to open the book. I can remember the title of the book that was assigned to all incoming freshmen at U.C. Santa Cruz the year I went up there (it was Arthur Koestler’s Act of Creation), but that’s the sum of what I remember about the book. I bought a copy, but never heard it discussed anywhere on campus. Same for the various books that were assigned to incoming freshmen at Texas A&M University over the years. After the English department made a fuss over choosing them, they were never mentioned again.

The problem is the reaction to Brooklyn College’s choice, as reported by Bruce Kesler (h/t: Instapundit). Donna F. Wilson, dean of undergraduate studies, replied to objections from the retired sociologist Werner Cohn by saying:

Each year professors in the English Department and I select a common reading for our entering students. We choose memoirs (a genre familiar to students) set in New York City, often reflecting an immigrant experience, and written by authors who are available to visit campus. Students in freshman composition respond to the common reading by writing about their own experiences, many of them published in [a campus publication]. This year we selected How Does It Feel to be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America by one of our own faculty members, Professor Moustafa Bayoumi, because it is a well-written collection of stories by and about young Arab Brooklynites whose experiences may be familiar to our students, their neighbors, or the students with whom they will study and work at Brooklyn College. We appreciate your concerns. Rest assured that Brooklyn College values tolerance, diversity, and respect for differing points of view in all that we do.The invocation of the holy academic trinity of “tolerance, diversity, and respect for differing opinions” is the ceremonial means by which true tolerance, intellectual diversity, and recognition of differing opinions are released into the wilderness. Those who choose books for college study, no matter how politically tendentious and one-sided, are immune to objections from those on the outside.

Yesterday I made the personal acquaintance of such immunity. An English professor at a nearby college dismissed the complaints of the writing majors in a senior seminar, who did not see the point in reading Jacques Derrida.

Rather than an economic “bubble” that is about to “burst,” it is this self-satisfied immunity to public incomprehension and criticism which may at last be fading. There is no way to defend the time and expense of a four-year education which is founded, not upon its economic benefit nor upon the freedom-making greatness of the texts and authors that are assigned, but upon the soi-disant privilege of the book-choosing class.

Note: Welcome, Instapundit readers! Stay awhile, why don’t you? Have a look around. If you are interested in academic questions, this post on why university faculties are dominated by the Left might be to your taste. And here the opposite question is considered: namely, why aren’t there more conservatives in the university?


PMH said...

Immunity is perhaps another species of the lack of cultural leadership of academicians. It seems to be that what is often missing in decisions about books (about anything with any possible PR value) is courage. Academicians often speak about books that are indispensable for educated (or enlightened) people. How many of these indispensable texts are every choices for common reading?
Too often the books are ephemeral or popular and then ephemeral. (My college once assigned Harry Potter). IMHO, if one is asking an entire first year class to read a book, it had better be one that has passed the tests of time and critical judgment.
I'm impressed that the English department is involved (in the example you cite). In my college's entire history of its common reading program, no one has ever asked the English department to take a central role.

tsc said...

My college assigned, among others long forgotten, Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. That one, in particular, stuck with me because the main idea is simple enough to be explained in an 850 word op-ed, but it went on for some 300 pages of the most bloated obscurantist prose imaginable, to the extent that few of us could detect what it wanted to say. This was the fault of the author, and the publish or perish regime of the scholarly community, not the failure of the students.

Tom B. said...

Political content of the book aside, it strikes me as a conflict of interest (and cheesy) for a university to assign a volume written by a faculty member. Also, it's not a book that has stood the test of time, it's a new publication, which also seems a strange thing to try to get thousands of students to buy.

Sly Fox said...

The bubble can't burst fast enough for me. It is encouraging to see the recognition in the blogsphere but until the current generation that has experienced the farce called a "college education" become parents themselves it will continue unabated. Alas this is because today's middle class parents are compelled to do everything they can to give their kids a "leg up" in life. What else can they do?

Mark L said...

In the 1960s John W. Campbell (a great thinker, if not a true intellectual) posited that Lord Acton's aphorism "power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely" was not quite right.

Campbell asserted that immunity corrupted, but that power granted immunity. Even if you have no power, if you are immune from the consequences of your actions it was easy to become corrupt.

I think higher education is a marvelous illustration of Campbell's point.

D. G. Myers said...

[T]oday's middle class parents are compelled to do everything they can to give their kids a "leg up" in life. What else can they do?

More and more, when parents ask my advice about where to send their children to college, I suggest the U.S. military as an alternative.

Bob_R said...

While I agree with your premise, the Derrida example is terrible! An English major who didn't know about Derrida would be like a history major who didn't know about Hitler and Stalin. Derrida was wrong about most everything, but to allow an English major to avoid reading him is malpractice.

D. G. Myers said...


I kind of agree. My point, though, is that any professor who assigns Derrida ought to be able to defend his place in the curriculum.

And the question is also how he is to be taught. Elsewhere I have argued that Derrida cannot be taught in the way you hint at—that is, simply on the basis of his historical importance. To do so would be a betrayal of Derrida’s own objectives, which are to upset the cart of literary and philosophical history.

To teach Derrida as received wisdom, in short, is not to teach him as a deconstructionist. But that is precisely how he is usually taught, and how the English professor of my recent acquaintance was proposing to teach him—as a necessary familiarity.

Susan Messer said...

Hmmm. A timely subject for me, as the University of Michigan Honors College this year chose my novel (Grand River and Joy) as the summer reading book for freshman. The college gives copies to students (so they don't have to buy it). And one of the ideas behind the choice is to get students thinking in a broader way about the southeast region of Michigan and the problems therein. The faculty plans to discuss the book with students when they arrive on campus (next week, I believe), and then I'll visit in November, during parents' weekend to carry on the discussion. I don't know of any controversy around the choice (though I wouldn't necessarily have heard), and of course I'm curious about how 18 year olds will respond, if indeed they do read the book.

On another subject, D. G., did you stop in Chicago on your way north? I could have sworn I saw you in Millennium Park.

D. G. Myers said...

But Miss Messer: the difference is that your novel is actually distinguished. And can be defended on that ground.

Anonymous said...

Years ago, I turned down two tenure track appointments to a Colorado university after being quietly warned by professors in the department that it would be best to fly low on the political horizon. (This was a science department - and therefore most members were conservative - but could not openly express it.) I went to industry instead and have done far, far more for myself, my savings, and society.

Anonymous said...

If I were one of those English students forced to read Derrida, I'd say, "Why bother with Derrida when we could read Sayyid Qutb?" That ought to give that professor a jolt. I'd also declare that the postmodernists really ought to be called what they are, pre-Islamists, and that there was no point in reading pre-Islamists when one could read the Islamists themselves.

There's no need to worry that I'm trying to impose shari'a on the West. It's the exact opposite. Let's force these professors, who often don't even know what words like "shari'a" and "dhimmi" mean, to understand the danger that their attacks on the West are posing.

By the way, tsc, Kuhn is a model of clarity compared with Derrida.

John Pepple

Unknown said...

Students at Haifa University are taking their education in their own hands.
"Haifa University students prepare to rally against leftist teachers"

R/T said...

This is my university's not-so-enlightened selection for this year's batch of freshmen: The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders. I refuse to include it in my students' reading. Someone has to take a stand against PC drivel being passed off as worthwhile reading.

PMH said...

Since most social challenges are actually at their root ethical challenges, I'd prefer an indispensable book that dealt with ethical dilemmas and choices about them. Now that is old fashioned, I know. I also believe in reading lists across the curriculum (not just for English majors). Dumbing down is such a problem, but the consumer mentality is taking over everything. Also, sorry for my typos--not good when one complains about "dumbing down."

Susan Messer said...

Thank you, D. G. Meyers.