[This article appeared in the May 1990 issue of Conservative Review, pp. 29, 31.] 

 

The Crisis in Our Universities 

Dwight D. Murphey 

 

            From what, besides Leftist ideology, does American higher education suffer?

           Plenty.  And there’s a growing literature about the problem.  All conservatives, indeed all Americans, are well advised to become familiar with that literature, and hence with the disease within academia.

            Starting in the late 19th century, American higher education became entangled in a tightly spun web of specialization, credentialism, frequent pseudo-science, trivialization and mediocrity—all interwoven with leftist ideology—that is every bit as Byzantine in its complexity and narrowness as was Scholasticism at the end of the Middle Ages.  It’s about time we gave the affliction a name, and called it “The New Scholasticism.”

 

Imposing Leftist Ideology as Orthodoxy

            One of its elements is leftist ideology, which is an evil in itself, both for its own sake and because it is one of the spawning grounds for the alienated warpings that are so evident elsewhere in our culture: in our mass media, in much of our entertainment and the arts, and among so many public school teachers.

            The leftist focus within universities is centered heavily in the opinion-forming departments such as the social sciences, the humanities and the arts.  It deserves attention in itself, and will be the subject of many of these columns.  But the New Scholasticism is something distinguishable from that content; it is the institutional form in which the academic orthodoxy has entrenched itself.  As a self-enforcing orthodoxy, it would be stifling even if it weren’t leftist.

            The rapidly expanding literature about this orthodoxy contains several eminently readable books.  Four or five years ago, Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind made quite a sensation (although it became bogged down in a long discourse about the influence of Nietzsche in American education, a debatable point).  More recently, Charles Sykes’ ProfScam has laid out a comprehensive critique of the professoriate and of the modern academic disciplines.  And now this year, Page Smith, an academic historian, has come forth with his Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America.

            Each of these follows in the footsteps of a 1972 book, Social Sciences as Sorcery, by Stanislav Andreski.  Despite the overdramatization in its title, Andreski’s book is an incisive and thoughtful dissection of the stultifying effects of the orthodoxy, although he limits his discussion, as the title suggests, to the social sciences.

             A point of emphasis in most of these books—and especially in the more recent ones by Bloom, Sykes and Smith—is that students are being slighted by academia’s unconcern over teaching and almost total preoccupation with “research.”  Complaints are voiced, quite validly, about such things as the size of lecture sections, the widespread use of teaching assistants and part-time lecturers in place of regular faculty, the language problems of foreign teaching assistants who often can be barely understood, and the inaccessibility of the professors.

            What seems to me to be of equal importance is the effect of the New Scholasticism on the quality of thought and of “research” taking place within the academy.  As with all orthodoxies, the current one is unwilling to admit to its stultifying effects.  Indeed, it insists, with an all-knowing confidence in the absolute correctness of its preferences, that only what it recognizes and rewards is worth doing.  All orthodoxies feel this way.  But the orthodoxy is suffocating, nonetheless. 

Dangers of Credentialism

            How are thought, scholarship and research affected?  Here, briefly, are some of the ways:

*   The influence of the German Historical School in the closing years of the nineteenth century, when thousands of American graduate students migrated to Germany for advanced degrees, established the doctorate as a prerequisite for a college position.  This has led into the iron-clad credentialism that afflicts American universities.  A faculty member typically earns a “terminal degree” in a narrow specialty in his or her mid-twenties.  Thereafter—for the next 40 to 45 years!—anything that person does outside that area “doesn’t count,” since he’s deemed to have wandered outside his area of expertise!

            A little scrutiny shows how ridiculous this is. Is there any major thinker in the history of human thought who confined his mind to so narrow a channel, or who cared about credentialism at all as a precondition to his mind’s reaching out to engage the subjects that came to interest him?  True, universities have a valid concern about the competence of their faculty.  But that concern cannot validly be translated into an institutionalized strait-jacket insisting that each mind stay affixed to a narrow track that the person chose in his youth.

*   The insistence that a professor work only in the area of his terminal degree, and that only what he publishes in the “refereed (juried) journals” in his specialty can count, becomes militantly exclusionary, ruling out vast areas of productive thought and activity.  One professor I’ve know devoted years to heading up a mined-land reclamation project—and suffered for it when it came time for promotion, since such activity didn’t amount to “publishing in refereed journals.”  Another has committed himself to leading the efforts of the city’s World Trade Council.  For my part, I write on social philosophy and history, only to be told that none of it has any relevance to a lawyer (with a Jurisdoctor degree) hired to teach business law.

*   When publication in “refereed journals” is made the sole source of academic validation, monopolistic power is vested in esoteric cliques—“the discipline”—who set themselves up as judge and jury over what’s worthwhile and what isn’t. 

            Superficially, “professional control” over each area of academic study seems justified.  Who better to judge the merits of academic work than the specialists themselves?  All anyone has to do in rebuttal, though, is to look at history: Would such a system have proven anything other than stultifying in fourteenth century France?  In early nineteenth century America?

*   The specialization into narrowly-defined disciplines could, in theory, produce a more and more elaborated body of knowledge.  And to some extent it does accomplish that.  But it also produces, given the inanities of so much contemporary thought: trivialization; puffed up and incomprehensible jargon that involves deliberately avoiding what is readable and expressive; a loss of contact with the real world and real problems; a pretentious use of mathematics in ways that often don’t add to, but even detract from, understanding; a pseudo-empiricism that worships the “survey” regardless of a frequent lack of regard for correct sampling and for meaningful content.

 *   The emphasis is exclusively on “research”—which in practice is defined to include only surveys and mathematical modeling.  “Thought” and “scholarship” are hardly recognized.  (Outside of academia, I saw this same bias manifested in a comical way in the large law firm I entered after I graduated from law school.  I entered “thinking about the Scott case” on my time sheet, attributing a quarter of an hour to it.  The partner handling the billing later called me in to explain that “we can’t tell clients we’ve spent time ‘thinking about’ their cases.  Put down, ‘writing a memo,’ or something of that sort.”  So the characteristics I’m talking about aren’t limited to academia.)

*   Needless to say, all of this credentialism and entrenched power serves the Left in academia well, giving it institutional legitimacy and making it an ultimate censor over much that is done in academia today.