Monday, December 10, 2007

Leaning Tower

Chances are you've already seen this article by a former Clinton Administration official. He, like many, went into academe after the 2000 election, and found out his political position, which had been mildly left of center in the general population, was on the extreme right of the ivory tower, even in a relatively conservative school like Villanova.

[T]he public had determined by the 1970s that welfare wasn't working -- yet many sociology professors even now deny that '70s-style welfare programs were bad for their recipients. Similarly, despite New York City's 15-year-long decline in crime, most criminologists still struggle to attribute the increased safety to demographic shifts or even random statistical variations (which apparently skipped other cities) rather than more effective policing.

In my own area, public administration, it took years for bureaucracy-defending professors to realize that then-Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review (aka Reinventing Government) was not a reactionary attempt to destroy government agencies, but rather a centrist attempt to revitalize them. Most of the critics of the academy are conservatives or libertarians, but even the left-of-center E.D. Hirsch argues in "The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them" that academics in schools of education have harmed young people by promoting progressive dogma rather than examining what works in real classrooms.

All this is bad for society because academics' ideological blinders make it more difficult to solve domestic problems and to understand foreign challenges. Moreover, a leftist ideological monoculture is bad for universities, rendering them intellectually dull places imbued with careerism rather than the energy of contending ideas, a point made by academic critics across the ideological spectrum from Russell Jacoby on the left to Josiah Bunting III on the right.

It's odd that my university was one of only a handful in Pennsylvania to have held a debate on the Iraq War in 2003. That happened because left-leaning Villanova professors realized that to be fair they needed to expose students to views different from their own, so they invited three relatively conservative faculty members to take part in a discussion of the decision to invade. Though I was then a junior faculty member arguing the unpopular (pro-war) side, I knew that my senior colleagues would not hold it against me.

Yet a conservative friend at another university had an equal and opposite experience. When he told his department chair that he and a liberal colleague planned to publicly debate the decision to invade Iraq, his chair talked him out of it, saying that it could complicate his tenure decision two years down the road. On the one hand, the department chair was doing his job, protecting a junior faculty member from unfair treatment; on the other hand, he shouldn't have had to.

And so forth. It sets out for the umpty-umpth time anecdotal and statistical evidence that the colleges and universities are bastions of the old left, or obsessed new lefts. It doesn't mean it is universally true. Accepting the fact itself doesn't necessarily mean you accept it's a serious problem. After all, you come out of college with a head-full of ideas and definitions, but one doesn't stay 23 forever. And you don't have to approve of the often crude conservative push-back against it to accept that is so.

But evidently a lot of people can't or won't anymore do the kind of critical thinking that allows them to sift through something as simple as this. And so they deny it all. So many of them have college degrees, too! And that is a serious problem.

But in reading about that, I came across this excellent commentary by one Tom Smith. One of the left-side responses to the academic tilting is that, "well, of course we dominate in higher education, because leftists are smarter. Reason and mental application naturally lead to our conclusions, and if you haven't reached them on your own, it's because you don't have the kind of brain wattage that leads to a career in academe."

Bunk. I also work with a class of people who consider themselves mentally superior to the general population and who generally have the parchment to prove it, for whatever that's worth. My fellow journalists pride themselves in their powers of reason and their skeptical abilities at discerning fact from fiction. And, boy, do they think you're all a lot of rubes and boobs out there, though they generally keep the cruder expressions of that sentiment to in-house conversation.

Yet they fit exactly the image Smith presents of left-leaning academics, of people so clever in one sense, and so blind to their own dogmas and shibboleths. Which is more maddening, if I may say so, than simple innocent ignorance, which at least has an excuse.

But I have taught at schools where the most absurd, knee-jerk, dumb, soft left postures passed as assured academic wisdom. It is only comparable in terms of mental pain inflicted to having to endure the the numb-skulled cliches that would issue from the mouth of some poorly educated Babbit-type whom you can find in any midwestern town, for example. You just sit there and think "shoot me now" or "I wonder what the chances are that I would be acquitted if I speared this clod with my butter knife?" It is the sheer provincial, narrow-minded, unsophisticated, smug pusillanimity of it that really corrodes the soul. It is the exact opposite of that urge to follow the Life of the Mind that drew many of us in younger, more idealistic days to become academics in the first place.

Hence, an educated public that can't tell exposition from propaganda and a critical media that can't or won't tell facts from convenient lies. In the most powerful nation on earth. You may someday, after 23 is past, realize Maya Angelou is not, in fact, the greatest American poet ever and Polynesian social systems are not superior to Western ones. No real harm done there, though don't go asking for your $70,000 back. But critical thinking, like languages, is best learned young and is a damned difficult habit to acquire when you're already fully engaged and committed in life.