Camille, Larry, and the battle for the soul of higher ed

A lot of academics don’t like Camille Paglia. There’s a certain academic Leftist orthodoxy that scholars in the “social sciences” and Humanities are expected to toe, and those willing to question certain assumptions risk paying with their careers. Paglia can get away with it at this stage of her career, but a lot of younger academics – specifically, those who don’t yet have tenure – keep a lot of what they think to themselves. I don’t know how many, of course, but I’ve had the subject come up in enough personal conversations that I’m convinced it’s a significant number.

For my part, I’m not much afraid of ideas, so “Leftist” doesn’t bother me in the least. However, “orthodoxy” troubles me greatly, be it Left, Right, Christian, Atheist, or whatever. I never stop testing ideas – especially those closest to my heart and mind – and I get nervous in the presence of large groups of people who have stopped subjecting their own principles to the same scrutiny they apply to others.

So I’m sure Paglia is taking a whipping somewhere in the academic world tonight after her NY Times op-ed on the hounding out of office resignation of Harvard president Lawrence Summers. She’s frank about Summers’ failings, but she has plenty of brickbats to go around, and some of her worst criticism falls on the Humanities establishment. Note her conclusion (and the emphasis in boldface is mine):

It now remains to be seen whether Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences is capable of self-critique. Will its members acknowledge their own insularity and excesses, or will they continue down the path of smug self-congratulation and vanity? Harvard’s reputation for disinterested scholarship has been severely gored by the shadowy manipulations of the self-serving cabal who forced Mr. Summers’s premature resignation. That so few of the ostensibly aggrieved faculty members deigned to speak on the record to The Crimson, the student newspaper, illustrates the cagey hypocrisy that permeates fashionable campus leftism, which worships diversity in all things except diversity of thought.

If Harvard cannot correct itself in this crisis, it will signal that academe cannot be trusted to reform itself from within. There is a rising tide of off-campus discontent with the monolithic orthodoxies of humanities departments. David Horowitz, a 1960’s radical turned conservative, has researched the lopsided party registration of humanities professors (who tend to be Democrats like me) and proposed an “academic bill of rights” to guarantee fairness and political balance in the classroom. The conservative radio host Sean Hannity regularly broadcasts students’ justifiable complaints about biased teachers and urges students to take recording devices to class to gather evidence.

These efforts to hold professors accountable are welcome and bracing, but the danger is that such tactics can be abused. Tenure owes its very existence to past intrusions by state legislatures in the curricular business of state universities. If politicians start to meddle in campus governance, academic freedom will be the victim. And when students become snitches, we are heading toward dictatorship by Mao’s Red Guards or Hitler Youth.

Over the last three decades of trendy poststructuralism and postmodernism, American humanities professors fell under the sway of a ruthless guild mentality. Corruption and cronyism became systemic, spread by the ostentatious conference circuit and the new humanities centers of the 1980’s. Harvard did not begin that blight but became an extreme example of it. Amid the ruins of the Summers presidency, there is a tremendous opportunity for recovery and renewal of the humanities. Which way will Harvard go?

This is a subject I’ve been intensely concerned with since the early ’90s, when I still believed my future would be in the university (and I’ve also chimed in on the Summers case a couple times – in January of last year and again a month later when the text of Summers remarks was made available). For me, the problems facing academia were less about overt political ideology per se and more about the question of real-world relevance – in my view, way too much social and humanities research was being conducted so far from any possibility of affecting meaningful change in the real world that it might as well have been happening on Mars.

Of course, there’s a correlation between these two tendencies, and I’ll leave the in-depth for another day. But the point is that all of this is occurring against a particularly ominous backdrop – the rise of the corporate university and the government’s aggressive War on Education. The battle for the soul of Harvard is similar to battles being fought on hundreds of campuses across the country, and I can’t begin to stress the danger that they pose to the wellbeing of the culture.

I worry about the Forces of Darkness® – in this case, the corporate and political right alliance seeking to undo all that nasty free thinking and cost-inefficiency. But I also worry at how easy the established progressive orthodoxy is making it on them. As such, I’m glad to hear Paglia sounding off. She’s right, and I hope people are listening.

[THX: Cody Barstow at Mojo City News]


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