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Christian Smith Has Had It With B.S.

Woo, sit down before you read this absolutely superlative rant in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith [1], on how fed up he is with academia and society at large. I’m going to give you small excerpts here, to give you a flavor of it:

I have had nearly enough bullshit. The manure has piled up so deep in the hallways, classrooms, and administration buildings of American higher education that I am not sure how much longer I can wade through it and retain my sanity and integrity.

Even worse, the accumulated effects of all the academic BS are contributing to this country’s disastrous political condition and, ultimately, putting at risk the very viability and character of decent civilization. What do I mean by BS?

BS is the university’s loss of capacity to grapple with life’s Big Questions, because of our crisis of faith in truth, reality, reason, evidence, argument, civility, and our common humanity.

BS is the farce of what are actually “fragmentversities” claiming to be universities, of hyperspecialization and academic disciplines unable to talk with each other about obvious shared concerns.

BS is the expectation that a good education can be provided by institutions modeled organizationally on factories, state bureaucracies, and shopping malls — that is, by enormous universities processing hordes of students as if they were livestock, numbers waiting in line, and shopping consumers.

More:

BS is the ascendant “culture of offense” that shuts down the open exchange of ideas and mutual accountability to reason and argument. It is university leaders’ confused and fearful capitulation to that secular neo-fundamentalist speech-policing.

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BS is the invisible self-censorship that results among some students and faculty, and the subtle corrective training aimed at those who occasionally do not self-censor.

BS is the only semi-intelligible outbursts of antagonism from enraged outsiders incited by academe’s suppressions of open argument, which primarily work to validate and reinforce the self-assured superiority of the suppressors, and sometimes to silence other legitimate voices.

BS is the anxiety that haunts some faculty at public universities in very conservative states about expressing their well-considered but unorthodox beliefs, for fear of being hounded by closed-minded students and parents or targeted by grandstanding politicians.

The list goes on, like an artillery fusillade. Then Smith analyzes the problem. Excerpt:

Essential to realize in all of this is that most of the BS is produced not by pernicious individuals, but instead by complex dysfunctions in institutional systems. It is easy to be a really good academic or administrator and still actively contribute to the BS. So we need to think not individualistically, but systemically, about culture, institutions, and political economies. Pointing fingers at individual schools and people is not helpful here. Sociological analysis of systems and their consequences is.

This reminds me of a remark Sen. Ben Sasse made at a public gathering last fall that I attended. He said that before he got to the US Senate, he assumed that the institution was fine, but the people within it were the problem. Having been on the inside, he said, he now realizes that most of the people in the Senate, on both sides of the aisle, are fundamentally decent people who want to do a good job — but the institutional, systemic challenges they face to that goal are overwhelming. More Smith:

Many thoughtful people in higher education today are well aware of different piles of BS around them. Fewer seem to recognize the magnitude of the mounds of it that have accumulated and how badly they defile us. Most people involved also feel helpless to fight it, don’t want to risk careers that benefit from the status quo, or are professional boosters of the existing system and so are obliged to yammer on about how great everything is.

I too feel helpless. It seems the most I can do now is to try to preserve whatever valuable remains in undergraduate liberal-arts education. Real change will most likely happen long-term and be forced on academe from the outside against its own lumbering inertia. That will not be pretty, nor will it necessarily produce anything better. We cannot take for granted a happy self-correction. In my view, genuinely positive changes in higher education, if they ever do happen, will have to combine some forms of visionary traditionalism and organizational radicalism. We will need people with the capacity to retrieve and revitalize the best of higher education’s past and restructure it organizationally in ways that are most effective in the future.

Read the whole thing. [1]

“Some form of visionary traditionalism and organizational radicalism.” I’d love to hear from academics who read this blog as to what that might look like.

56 Comments (Open | Close)

56 Comments To "Christian Smith Has Had It With B.S."

#1 Comment By Leonidas On January 12, 2018 @ 12:36 am

Yes, this is what it feels like from within.

Here is my modest “Rad-trad” proposal (well, not mine, Mortimer Adler’s): divorce the college from the university.

We don’t need anymore universities, which in reality are what Patrick Deneen calls “multiversities”.

We desperately need small, nimble institutions laser-focused on liberal education.

Here is a good reading on the topic: [2]

#2 Comment By Gary On January 12, 2018 @ 9:55 am

Well said Dr. Smith. Respect to your courage to tell it like it really is. Wish more like you would speak up…if there are any left.

#3 Comment By midtown On January 12, 2018 @ 11:17 am

There are a lot of good comments here, from “both sides of the aisle.” It seems like education might be an area that could be common ground.

I agree with Dana Ames that, at the very least, colleges could reduce general education requirements, especially for the majors that are not really in the liberal arts area. This would be an acknowledgement of the reality that colleges are more for job training than personal development at this point. In fact, sometimes many of the major-related classes could be dropped in lieu of actual on-the-job training/internships.

#4 Comment By JonF On January 12, 2018 @ 1:20 pm

Antigone,
Your solutions are radical even if they’re not nostalgic. I’m conservative (small “c”) enough that I reject any solution that requires us to dynamite the foundations of existing institutions and then cast around in hopes we can build something better. The path of sensible reform is to build on what we have. Mass disruption is massively bad.

#5 Comment By grumpy realist On January 13, 2018 @ 11:27 pm

If universities didn’t vie with each other to offer the ultimate set of services to a set of pampered upper-class kids who think they “deserve” a comfortable cocooned nest…

I forget which TV show it was, (“Friends”? “Cheers”?), but several critics pointed out that the living quarters pictured in the show were definitely NOT what would have been affordable by the twenty-somethings at the jobs they supposedly had–at least not unless each of them had a trust fund with a few million stashed into it.

Someone did some work later and determined that quite a few college students have unrealistic ideas of exactly what lifestyles they will be able to afford (at average salaries of jobs associated with their major). Said researcher blamed it on the TV shows…

(Basically–learn how to live off lentils while you’re at university, kid–so that when you end up having to do it at your first job salary level it isn’t such a shock.)

#6 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 14, 2018 @ 10:44 am

As recently as the 1970s the average college dorm room was a twelve by twelve room with painted cinder block walls, a clean linoleum floor, two simply twin beds, a long desk, and a double closet.