Commentary Magazine


The Universities

To the Editor:

Gertrude Himmelfarb [“What To Do About Education: The Universities,” October 1994] describes two “reformations” of higher education: its post-World War II expansion, both in size and in multiplicity of functions, and its post-60′s descent into trivia, obscurantism, and ersatz radicalism. Miss Himmelfarb then recommends that we forgo any “counter-reformation” meant to “undo the damage,” since it could not prevail against the “interests” that have become entrenched. Instead, she urges an “oasis” or “enclave” policy of reinforcing a “saving remnant” of professors and students—those who have managed to retain serious and unpoliticized scholarly interests. I believe, however, that Miss Himmelfarb has overestimated the difficulties that stand in the way of counter-reformation and underestimated the forces that, without counter-reformation, would undermine her strategy.

First: it is indeed correct that higher education suffers from a long-term case of gigantism and that this is one of the underlying causes of the post-60′s disaster. Yet it is only one cause, not the complete cause. It is, therefore, a mistake to suppose that a correction of the 60′s legacy must also confront those large interests created by the academy’s earlier expansion. We do not need to abolish schools of social work, education, and business or spin off research centers (both of which, Miss Himmelfarb implies, would have to be accomplished in a counter-reformation) in order to reverse the rising tide of trivia and politicization. Bloated administration, for example, is ripe for an attack, since it is a major factor driving up the cost of education. Reducing that bloat will remove from our campuses a large number of people who create work for themselves by pushing political causes, cranking up sexual-harassment scares, mandating sensitivity-training courses, running special programs that teach selected minorities to think like victims, and so on. One way in which Miss Himmelfarb overestimates the difficulty of counter-reformation is by demanding that it undo two reformations rather than one.

Second: Miss Himmelfarb mistakes the percentage of the professoriate that would resist counter-reformation. Those fighting the academy’s politicization may be a small minority, but so are the true ideologues and postmodern trendsetters. Between these two poles, there lies the majority of the professoriate (albeit shrinking rapidly due to politicized hiring), who would rather teach and study than fight. Whatever their fault in not opposing reformation, they are not likely to oppose counter-reformation. The crux of the problem really lies outside the faculty, among administrators and boards of trustees. The academy has been corrupted, in large part, from the top down, by a class of professional administrators whose Left-liberal ethos is that of the foundation executives and federal bureaucrats to whom they look for funds, approval, and their next job. These folk love radical faculty and anything trendy or anti-intellectual. But they are also extremely vulnerable to pressure from informed alumni, informed parents, and informed taxpayers. It is time to organize that pressure.

Third: counter-reformation does not have to be total in order to be worth attempting. Of course it would be nice if boards of trustees were woken up and made to hire administrators of principle and courage. Even then, it would need as many years to build a solid faculty as it has taken to debase the current one. But I have seen—at first hand, at Kenyon College—how pressure from informed alumni (sparked, as it happens, by an article in COMMENTARY: “Who’s Afraid of Women’s Studies?,” by Elizabeth Lilla, February 1986) forced a trendy administration to reverse course on some specific matters. More recently, exposure in the public media has had a similar effect at the Universities of Texas and Minnesota. These are small, temporary victories—but they matter. The formation of a national confederation of groups of dissident alumni, which could multiply pressures of this type, is long overdue.

Without some measure of counter-reformation, most universities and colleges will prove too hostile an environment for any oasis to thrive. Miss Himmelfarb is right that money talks nowhere more loudly than on our campuses. Yet the funds involved in supporting small programs will not be enough to prevail over the hostility of the well-funded PC crowd. Again, a first-hand observation: Kenyon College let a long-running, successful program die, even though funds for it were promised, rather than allow it to continue to be run by non-PC faculty.

But even if an oasis were established, life in it would soon be smothered by the circumambient atmosphere. Would the students in it really be immune to the ethos prevailing at the larger institution? How many students in their late teens would be able to resist the scorn and contumely directed at these programs?

Finally, how many students will be wise enough, or be guided by parents knowledgeable enough, to seek an oasis? Without a continued public attack on all that is wrong with higher education today—that is, without the beginnings of a counter-reformation—few will know the difference between oasis and desert. And what will happen when most of our ablest young people are denied unpoliticized exposure to classic works of literature, basic knowledge of political history, and reasoned debate on fundamental issues? This form of miseducation will not destroy America’s technological proficiency, industrial and financial muscle, etc., at least not immediately. But it will erase all in our civilization that makes life humane and democracy sustainable.

Thomas Short
Titusville, New Jersey

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To the Editor:

Gertrude Himmelfarb’s thoughtful article includes the suggestion, which has long been on the wish lists of liberal-arts advocates, of dropping independent institutes and “vocational” departments from the colleges. Whatever the arguments for such a purification, they are not right for the situation Miss Himmelfarb addresses. Members of business departments, to take one example, are often educated and cultivated people. More significantly, they have acquired this aspect of their education outside the standard academic channels, at least in part. Thus, they may be more likely to belong to Miss Himmelfarb’s “saving remnant” than are people in traditional liberal-arts departments. . . .

Moreover, these independent educational centers often deal with skills that cannot be faked. Graduating managers will be harshly tested in the marketplace; musicians can engage in self-deception only to a limited extent; faulty science can hide only so long. Wanted or not, a bias in favor of accuracy, of truth, comes with membership in these centers. This is a bias we want to preserve.

Finally, a suggestion: could the National Association of Scholars (NAS) set up an alternative accrediting organization?

James J. Strom
Center Valley, Pennsylvania

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To the Editor:

Gertrude Himmelfarb makes a telling distinction between education as end and education as means. I would go further and suggest that in a society where almost every decent job now requires at least a B.A. (and high-status positions considerably more), university education will inevitably be degraded to vocational training (like church and state, they are better off separated).

Exacerbating this trend is the aggressive merchandising of colleges as upscale consumer goods, ranked and profiled like so many sports franchises in periodicals such as U.S. News & World Report, which cater to the middle and upper-middle class. The general inclination is to view the universities in a utilitarian, hierarchical, and rather cynical fashion as befits a bureaucracy or corporate enterprise; thus has laudable “merit” spawned lamentable “meritocracy.”

Compared to this, the ongoing Sturm und Drang over political correctness, affirmative action, etc. seems almost a red herring. But were liberal-arts programs effectively isolated, as Miss Himmelfarb wishes, might they not become even more vulnerable to ideological coups d’état? PC will always be limited where most students are exclusively interested in getting into law, medical, or business school; not necessarily so where the college is populated by “pure” intellectuals. . . .

Seth A. Halpern
Scarsdale, New York

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To the Editor:

As someone who has recently made the transition from college to medical school, I believe my experience is relevant to Gertrude Himmelfarb’s article. . . .

Miss Himmelfarb writes: “What happens in the university is apt to be replicated, and in a remarkably short time, at all levels.” I can attest that this is true even of medical school, a supposedly non-political entity. At Baylor College of Medicine, “Human Sexuality and Development” is required of all first-year students. One might assume that the class would focus upon the biology of normal and abnormal sexual functioning. Unfortunately, the class, having been taken over by an emissary of Planned Parenthood, became a forum for the left-wing political causes championed by our chattering classes: a blatant promotion of Kinsey’s flawed sexual-orientation continuum, complete with a panel of individuals “sharing” their sexual experiences; and a lecture on America’s dysfunctional sexual history, during which we were treated to pictures of gay men engaged in “rimming,” accompanied by the professor’s commentary, “Nothing wrong with that!” (Of course, medically speaking, and the class was offered by a medical school, there is much wrong with this practice.) In my four undergraduate years immersed in political correctness, never had I witnessed a more brazenly prejudiced spectacle. . . .

But the real question is: how did a historically Baptist institution give way to this radicalism? The answer should by now be clear: academic liberalism knows no boundaries. It is as comfortable, when given the chance, in a Southern medical school as it is in a Northeastern liberal-arts college. Those who abhor the private sector, who cannot countenance bourgeois values, have fled in the direction of least resistance. Quite simply, Americans, and conservatives in particular, have lost the courage to defend their institutions.

In my case, I chose to challenge the professor during class, citing evidence discrediting the flawed Kinsey report. I was met by silence, followed by a stammering, timid defense. Perhaps if a critical mass of students at each institution would do the same, the real work of dismantling liberalism could begin, for relativism must eventually collapse under its own weight, its own unwillingness to defend the truth of its assumptions.

Jon F. Fielder
Houston, Texas

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To the Editor:

In the penultimate paragraph of her article, Gertrude Himmelfarb remarks that if women and blacks were to be released from the “shackles of gender and race,” they would experience a “sense of liberation” and would then be free “to participate in a culture that transcends the mundane conditions of their lives and elevates and dignifies them.”

I am not sure whether women and blacks regard gender and race as “shackles”; on the contrary, they have reason to believe that gender and race have, in fact, created the culture which, for them, transcends the mundane conditions of their lives. Also, in their view, gender and race have elevated, dignified, and empowered them. Why then should they wish to be unshackled?

Kalman I. Nulman
New York City

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To the Editor:

I do not find all that offensive Houston Baker’s statement (quoted by Gertrude Himmelfarb) that choosing between Pearl Buck and Virginia Woolf is “no different from choosing between a hoagy and a pizza,” but then I have a rather low opinion of both authors. On the other hand, the difference between, say, Edith Wharton (or Henry James) and Pearl Buck is very much like the difference between a Wiener schnitzel cordon bleu and a corn dog: both are breaded-meat concoctions, and there are millions of people who would rather have the corn dog, but the Wiener schnitzel is simply better, and those who prefer corn dogs on any grounds other than price have no taste. . . .

The moral is that eating corn dogs or reading Pearl Buck is its own punishment, and that poor Houston Baker will probably never know what he is missing.

Michael Hendry
Tuscaloosa, Alabama

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To the Editor:

As usual, Gertrude Himmelfarb has distilled a critical social problem to its essence. . . .

During my sophomore year at Williams College (from which I was graduated in 1994), I was invited to a faculty symposium on multiculturalism and the canon. Expecting to find defenses of an educational system that did not offer a course on the Bible and did not even suggest to eighteen-year-olds what they should study, I was greatly surprised. The professors at the symposium (and there must have been 25) were as opposed to multiculturalism and as supportive of a core curriculum as COMMENTARY writers are. The one professor who impugned traditional scholarship with the usual litany of charges (racism, sexism, etc.) was treated with the disdain due an intellectual charlatan. I left the symposium pleased in a sense, but confused as well. If these people—the senior faculty, the most respected professors—were so opposed to the rot, why did the rot exist?

During the next two years, as I became friendly with several of those professors, I had my answer. Dedicated to their scholarship and to their mission as teachers, they simply had no patience for the multiculturalists. They would rather discuss Tocqueville with a group of students over coffee for five hours than argue with a faculty philistine for five minutes. They were fully aware of how bad things were; any professional can easily recognize impostors in his own field. But for the dedicated and traditional professors with whom I studied, the energy that would be required of them to change the university has so far proved to be an insurmountable obstacle. However, there is hope for change. These professors care deeply about their students. Perhaps when they realize that their students do not know (as Miss Himmelfarb points out) “the authors of works by Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton,” they will force themselves to defend the disciplines they cherish.

Mark Gerson
Short Hills, New Jersey

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To the Editor:

A modest group of independent-minded scholars at Stanford is answering Gertrude Himmelfarb’s call for protest against the arrant politicization of the universities. We plan to publish a statement soon, though we agree it will do no immediate large-scale good. On the other hand, this kind of stand has always evoked retaliation here at Stanford, including ostracism and boycott. A number of distinguished figures have sought refuge in early retirement. . . .

Many recall the march (led by Jesse Jackson) chanting “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Western Civ Has Got to Go,” and, earlier, the rocks that were thrown at a Hoover Institution building, breaking every window and causing personal injury as well: a prominent historian still bears a scar on his forehead from those rocks. . . .

Things are not so lively now, but when I went around soliciting signatures on the above-mentioned text, the usual reaction—sometimes candidly expressed—was fear. A number of eminent professors vented something like total disgust with Stanford but none would say so, or really say anything at all, publicly, for obvious reasons of professional survival. . . .

Gertrude Himmelfarb will not be surprised by any of this, no doubt. Outside of a few like her, our only ally is the truth. . . .

Robert Greer Cohn
Stanford University
Stanford, California

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Gertrude Himmelfarb writes:

To Thomas Short, who aspires to nothing less than a “counter-reformation,” I can only say, “Good luck. I wish you well.” But I would also remind him of that old adage, “The best can be the enemy of the good.” If he thinks that vested interests will undermine my “oasis” strategy, surely they will mobilize all the more forcefully against his counter-reformation strategy—especially a counter-reformation designed to reverse the second reformation, in which they have an ideological as well as a personal stake.

Mr. Short’s own experiences at Kenyon College would seem to support my more modest expectations: one victory and one defeat—hardly cause for excessive optimism. Moreover, my oasis strategy does not at all preclude the “continued public attack” that he urges. Indeed, his proposals are exactly those I recommended: education, publicity, organization. I specifically suggested the creation of a national organization of alumni that would be mindful of the proper mission of the university and be alert to abuses and infractions of that mission. (Such an organization is now in the process of being founded. James J. Strom will be pleased to hear that the NAS has already established an alternative accrediting organization.)

It is quite true, as Mr. Strom and Seth A. Halpern suggest, that professional schools are generally less afflicted by PC than liberal-arts schools. But they are not entirely immune, as Jon F. Fielder testifies in respect to his medical school, and as has become abundantly evident in law schools in recent years. Nor are business schools and corporations impervious to PC. Nor are science departments, as my article points out.

Kalman I. Nulman objects to my remark about women and blacks being liberated from the shackles of gender and race. I do believe that the way gender and race function in the current intellectual climate is deterministic and reductive, and to that extent repressive and demeaning. Gender and race have only in part “created the culture” in which women and blacks live. There is much in the culture that is not created by race and gender and that reflects the common humanity of all people. To appreciate that culture and to fulfill their own humanity, women and blacks do transcend their own gender and race, even as they take pride in themselves as women and blacks.

I am grateful to the other respondents—Michael Hendry, Mark Gerson, and Robert Greer Cohn—for their thoughtful letters confirming my anxieties about the state of higher education and some of my recommendations for reform.

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