The ideologues have transformed the academy—and, to a remarkable extent, driven out the enemy. They’ve taken over the shop and remade it in their image. And there’s no easy route back. After all, there’s nothing more entrenched than a tenured professor. ~ Ch 7: Is There Hope?
As the value of university education in the Western world continues to rise—as enrollment rates have grown and tuition fees have climbed— institutions of higher learning have changed. They have, of course, changed physically and financially—gotten bigger, grown richer—but they have also changed in fundamental ways, ways involving methodology, curricula, and most especially epistemology, that field of knowledge concerned with the very nature of knowledge, including how it is divided by discipline. Such changes are, for the most part, however, insider secrets. Like democratic governments, the images and reputations of universities continue to foster raw, even romantic idealism, emphasizing broad, philosophical generalities rather than administrative or pedagogical specifics. Universities, many still believe, are places of free thought and unreserved intellectual excitement. They are the ivy-filigreed sanctuaries where the greatest works and ideas of humankind are traded like sports cards, where, at any moment, a roaming professor—like a tweedy Socrates—will deliver an impromptu lecture alfresco, where minds are laid open to the stars.
Whether higher learning was ever quite like this is, of course, up for debate. Universities are noble institutions, at least they’re supposed to be, and like any noble institution—be it a church, police force, or nonprofit organization—their flaws are held as evidence of something much more insidious than human imperfection. Where there are people, there are politics, and, as Henry Kissinger (or Wallace Sayre, or Woodrow Wilson) is reputed to have once said, “academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” The venerable Yale English professor Harold Bloom, who began teaching in the mid-fifties, is on the record as saying that “[t]he ‘good old days,’ in fact, were not so good: universities, in my youth, were staffed mostly by an assemblage of know-nothing bigots, academic impostors, inchoate rhapsodes, and time-serving trimmers […].” It goes back further than this, of course; the English poet Thomas De Quincey and Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard offer similar indictments of academic quality in the nineteenth century, for example.
Whatever the case may have been in the past, there is growing alarm in the present day—from both sides of the traditional political spectrum, though most often from the right—over the state of the arts and sciences (but especially the arts) on university campuses. The warning: individual thought and the journey-centred orienteering central to the humanities have been predisposed by ideological chauvinism. Aesthetic and intellectual merit has been subordinated to radical activist agendas, whereby students become disciples rather than thinkers, and grades become the flails of a sectarian winnowing. Jonah Goldberg’s Tyranny of Clichés looks, for example, at how conservatism is approached by some researchers as evidence of inferior cognition. Susan Cain’s Quiet considers how introversion—in many respects the yardstick for sensitivity and deep thought—is treated in Harvard Business School as a social maladjustment. Emphasis on and cultivation of an extroverted alpha-complex, she argues, may even be partly responsible for the thinking and practices that led to the 2008 financial meltdown.
Criticism has also come from within, though Allan Bloom, Harold Bloom, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Stanley Fish have been sounding different alarms for decades. Quite often, these tocsins are issued from the relative safety of retirement; in an editorial for the Canadian National Post in 2008, Ian Hunter, emeritus professor of the University of Western Ontario, referred to universities as “intellectual daycares,” places where minds are coddled and not challenged, groomed to seek constant validation rather than constructive evaluation.
According to Bruce Bawer and the American experience, it all went wrong sometime in the nineteen-sixties. It was then that the civil rights movement—the goal of which, he says, “could not have been more consistent with America’s founding ideals”—became a kind of reverse Pandora’s Box, radiating spirits of hope, equality, and goodwill, but carrying among them a single, destructive value. Multiculturalism, he argues, emerged to subordinate the identities and liberties of individuals to those of groups, and to balkanize the sense of unity upon which nationalism, liberalism, and academic freedom are all premised. Like a toxin, multiculturalism went on to poison the ideals of the civil rights movement, entrenching the grievances of minority groups and validating them as legitimate cultural values. When being oppressed became a matter of identity— essentially something to be celebrated rather than overcome—the victims’ revolution had begun. As Bawer writes,
[t]he ideas that have increasingly dominated American universities since the sixties have followed the graduates of those institutions out into the larger society. The results are all around us, from workplaces where an innocuous statement can brand one as a bigot and destroy one’s career to election campaigns in which legitimate criticism of a black or female candidate can be discounted as “racist” or “sexist” on its merits. Yet those ideas themselves, and the form in which they are presented in thousands of classrooms around the United States, remain an almost complete mystery to a great many otherwise well-informed and responsible citizens.
From Women’s Studies through Black Studies, Queer Studies through Chicano (or Latino) Studies to Cultural Studies in general, The Victims’ Revolution follows each from the earliest ripples of activism to the overwhelming victimological vogues they have in many places become.
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