Monday, April 03, 2006

Comes the Revolution (Part Two)

A century ago there were many hundreds, perhaps a thousand or more professors of physics in the universities of the West. Many of these professors were famous, publicly expounding their theories of phlogiston and aether – substances which were believed to be in existence throughout the universe but which had not been confirmed.
At the same time that those professors were receiving great adulation and acclaim, a clerk working in a German patent office – a man in his twenties with no connection to academia – was quietly working out the theory of relativity. I don’t need to tell you his name – you and everyone you know already know it.
As for the professors who received so much acclaim in their time, they are now nearly all forgotten. This raises the obvious question: if they are not worthy of adulation now, why were they ever? The product which they had to offer – which is to say, their ideas as to how the universe worked – would in time, except in a very few cases, prove to offer nothing of lasting value. And yet they were given the salaries, the freedom from drudgery, and the prestige which eminent professors have always enjoyed. They insisted on these privileges because they assured their benefactors – the universities – that there would be a payoff which would benefit both the university and mankind.
Thus, the universities underwrote the bill for failure, which is the price which must be paid in the furtherance of fundamental knowledge. Even so, no one would say that this approach is unfruitful: Einstein was able to draw from the work of Ernst Mach and a few other scientist-professors in order to create order out of the chaos.
But how is this story of the development of physics fundamentally different from what we see now in the various departments of Women’s Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies, Queer Studies, Peace and Justice Studies, and so forth, which David Horowitz catalogues in his book The Professors?
I would like to answer that question in this essay; but first, you’ll note that I used the term "product" in referring to the theories which the various physicists espoused.
That’s not an unreasonable use of that term. What Horowitz has done is to say, in effect, that education is a product, the same as any other. Information and facts constitute the raw materials of education and the job of the scholar-professor is to take this raw information and distill it and refine it in such a way that students can learn from it. The accumulation and dissemination of knowledge, then, are – or ought to be – distillations of information as opposed to distillations of personal opinion.
Assuming, then, that education is a product, let’s consider the cost of buying that product.
Take a class of thirty Ivy League students seated in a classroom awaiting an hour-long lecture. With a price tag of $40,000 per year per student, the total cost to educate those thirty students over four years will run to $4,800,000, or nearly $5,000,000. That’s somewhere between $3,000 and $4,000 per three-credit-hour class per student per semester.
Who is shelling out those millions? In some cases, the parents. In other cases, students take out loans. In many cases, scholarship money reduces the burden – scholarship money which comes, ultimately, out of the profits earned by donors which universities work so hard to lure.
All Horowitz is doing is asking this question: Why should a department of, say, "Social Justice" or "Queer Studies" be exempt from the same serious evaluation that any other producer of a product destined for the marketplace must undergo?
Who would spend $4,000 on legal fees without having a clear sense that the lawyer is qualified in his field of practice, that he is not simply spouting his personal opinion, but that he is using a thoroughly ingrained understanding of the law when he advises his client?
Who would want to use any professional service – that of a financial adviser, a doctor – even a car repairman – which operates under the premise that personal opinion is just as good a basis as any other from which to form an evaluation or develop a solution to a problem?
The benefit to be derived from spending fifty or sixty hours listening to a professor lecture on any given topic during the course of a typical semester – hours which are worth, again at the Ivy League level, $70 per student per class period – ought to be a benefit of measurable quality.
That’s not a controversial idea throughout most of the American economy, but it is an incendiary idea in some sectors of the university. Why, then, should Horowitz – or anyone, for that matter – be surprised that these professors would create a defense founded almost entirely on obfuscation, distortion and denial of the obvious? Corrupt institutions attract corruption. Intellectually corrupt institutions foster intellectual corruption. It wouldn’t be different from going back to a car repair place which ripped you off only to be met with a flurry of denials, a twisting of facts, and the refusal to look honestly at the record.
We all understand that there are dishonest car repairmen – always have been. But what Horowitz is trying to show is something which, though not entirely new, has not yet been fully realized by the buying public: that there are numerous universities which have outstanding reputations but which have added onto their rosters new departments and staffs which are, in effect, corrupt.
These are academic departments which exist not to produce towering works of genuine scholarship; rather, they exist to indoctrinate students into a self-perpetuating political system. Those who wish to study sociology and who advocate a "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" approach to social betterment would probably not find a warm welcome at many sociology departments around the country. On the other hand, if you are eager to see the expansion of government bureaucracies and hand-out programs, you may be just the kind of candidate they’re looking for.
What Horowitz is asking is this: if only one point of view is desirable, and the others are suppressed, where’s the scholarship? Where’s the battle of ideas which characterizes healthy academic departments? And if so many departments have ceased debating the fundamentals, have excluded opposing points of view, and have in effect excluded many professors capable of teaching alternate points of view, or the students to learn from them, then where’s the value for the parents who want their children to get the best possible education? Where’s the value for the donors who expect their money to be used for the furtherance of fundamental knowledge?
What Horowitz is saying to these constituencies of the university is ‘caveat emptor’. And ‘caveat donor’, for that matter.
Horowitz’ book, as it is discussed and reviewed, and as the ideas behind the Students for Academic Freedom campaign are discussed in more statehouses and on more editorial pages, will tap into one very powerful truth which no Ward Churchill, Angela Davis or bell hooks can wish away: that parents are, by and large, very competitive when it comes to furthering the interests of their children, and the fulfilling of their needs. Parents want to send their children to the most competitive and most prestigious schools they can. And no parent wants to be seen as a fool. Spending $160,000 and having one’s kid educated in "social justice" or "gender studies" is one thing. Having one’s friends, neighbors and relatives find out that these departments are staffed by individuals with dubious backgrounds, that they produce no scholarship of value, and that their kids learn almost nothing which has any value in the marketplace – well, that’s a whole ’nother kettle of fish.
Look at how important the U.S. News and World Report college rankings are: the rankings of private, public, undergraduate and graduate schools has become an industry. Why is that?
Because parents are competitive; but schools are competitive too, as are cities and states. If Horowitz’ book serves as an instigation for taking a systematic look at these programs – looking at where the graduates of these departments end up, the difficulties they have finding jobs, the little that they are in time able to give back to society and the university – such data will be far more effective in reining in or even eliminating these programs than will be the endless task of arguing with the professors currently ensconced in these departments.
And so I return to my original question: How is the story of the development of physics different from what we see now in the various departments of Women’s Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies, and so forth?
The answer is that, since there is no real scholarship taking place in the latter, there can be no building towards an ‘ultimate theory’. The precepts of today are going to be the precepts of a generation from now: that minorities are sometimes discriminated against, that men create ‘patriarchal structures’, that gays and lesbians are not always recognized as people of worth, and that people with power sometimes misuse it.
If these truths are the great cornerstone precepts of academic departments such as Horowitz catalogues, then what is there to add to this? If there is no other point of view, and if there are no new precepts which can be discovered and pitted against the existing view, then by definition there is no scholarship going on.
To make an analogy, consider the subject called arithmetic. Everybody needs to know arithmetic, and its workings are logical and incredibly useful. And yet arithmetic is not a field of study, nor is it a college major, nor is it the subject of graduate research. This is because arithmetic is not merely well-understood, it is completely understood. There are no controversies about its basic workings, or the results it provides. Since there is nothing to add to its truths, nothing to debate about its workings, it is not a proper subject for research, and thus not a proper subject for university teaching. So it is with the basic precepts of these politicized courses and departments or, to be more precise, courses and departments which were created for the purpose of politicization.
The benefactors of great universities understand that they must underwrite a great deal of bad scholarship and research with the expectation that a few rare researchers will come up with some true breakthroughs which will move entire fields ahead. This is true in the hard sciences, the cognitive sciences, in engineering, and in the liberal arts as well. But in the sorts of fields that Horowitz writes about, the problem is not that there is a great deal of poor scholarship and a small amount of good. That would at least offer some justification for their continued existence. The problem is that, in fields where the fundamental precepts never change and cannot be challenged, there can be no scholarship at all going on. And if there’s no scholarship, there’s nothing there worth teaching.
The political truths which these departments espouse, if they are to change, will change through the political process. As Horowitz says, a course in ‘social justice’ ought to be taught by the organizers of the Democratic Party, not by a university academic department. To endlessly teach the same stagnant political precepts, as though this were scholarship, constitutes fraud.
And so when you tell the parents of the $160,000 students that their kids have been partying a bit too much for their own good, the parents will say, "I was a college student once. I know what it’s like to have a good time." If you tell the parents that their kids are doing C work when they are capable of A work, the parents will say, "I want a well-rounded kid."
But if the lady across the street, whose daughter is studying nuclear engineering at Cal Poly, shows her neighbor that her own daughter’s degree in Women’s Studies from Barnard College is being taught by ex-piano tuners and that the degree is worth minimum wage at graduation…well, like I said, nobody likes to be seen as a damn fool.
There is a joke going around: What can you do with a degree in ‘gender studies’? Answer: Teach ‘gender studies.’ Even that cannot hold true for long, as there can never be enough university teaching positions to accommodate all of the graduates in a given field. Some of them are going to have to sell their skills in the marketplace. And those who want to ‘change the world’ are going to find that the time they spent studying ‘Peace and Justice’ would have been far better spent earning a law degree.
The publication of The Professors has raised quite a stir. If you stand back and watch the furious battle between David Horowitz and supporters and those who attack him – many of them "the professors" named in the eponymous book – it will soon become obvious that the very professors who attack him are determined to ignore, thoroughly distort, or utterly reconfigure the words he writes, the claims he makes and the goals he espouses.
This has to be enormously frustrating, but contained in that frustration are the seeds of eventual victory; for the inability or unwillingness of the subjects of the book to discuss the issues honestly will not in the long run save them from themselves.
I liken the publication of The Professors to that of Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader’s historic indictment of the safety standards of the auto industry. The exposure of that industry’s willingness to put profits ahead of basic auto safety transformed the automobile industry, saved many lives, and made Nader into a bona fide hero.
Will any lives be saved if Horowitz’ ideas take hold? I think it would be more accurate to say that the thinking of a great many people will be affected, a number of careers will be altered, and a number of lives which might have been wasted in unprofitable pursuits will be channeled more productively. And that’s not a bad legacy for one book.
An Anti-Chomsky article published by John Williamson on The Anti-Chomskyan Redoubt.