Is Campus Ruin The Left’s Fault?
Here is a post on the “should you go into academia?” threads (see this one and this one) that I want to highlight. The reader who sent it is an academic with an enviable position at a prestigious university. Yet he asked in a follow-up email for me not to post the text of what he sent, because he’s afraid it would be too easy to identify him. He did give me permission to paraphrase his argument, which I do below. Keep in mind that this is a prominent academic’s point of view, paraphrased by me. I’ll call him “Professor Jones.”
Jones says the intellectual decline and politicization of American universities is not exaggerated. It has at times forced him to consider abandoning academia, even though he has a plum position compared to many his age. It is also true that it is harder for people on the right — especially social and religious conservatives — to get by than for anyone on the left.
Though Prof. Jones identifies as a conservative, he objects to the idea typically propagated by conservatives: that “leftism” is destroying universities. It’s not that; it’s something else. It’s not a “left” that the 1960s radicals would recognize, he says. In fact, despite the weirdness around “Sex Weeks” at universities, and gender ideology, campuses are actually becoming far more restrained places. In some places, you can’t even teach some of the important left-wing thinkers and artists of the recent past without running the risk that you’ll be reported to the administration for sexually harassing sensitive students, simply for bringing these people up in class and expecting students to engage with their work.
Yes, says Prof. Jones, this is the triumph of a strand of leftism, but not leftism in the historically significant manifestations of left-wing thought, the kind that has made such an important mark on Western civilization.
The thing to note, he says, is the way that these campuses, for all their wokeness, are completely prostrate before global capital. Anybody under the impression that US universities are places where old-fashioned left-wing class politics has any meaningful presence is out of his mind. Embracing identity politics is a way of disguising the fact that the contemporary left has made peace with global capitalism.
What is political correctness, Jones asks, but a form of bourgeois speech policing designed to keep lower-class people marginalized from discussions of power and how it is distributed? Nobody who actually has to deal with the Wokesters can possibly maintain the fiction that these people actually care about lifting up the lowly and defending them. No, says Jones, what they are really all about is mastering certain forms of moral outrage, and moralistic discourse, for the sake of gaining and exercising political power. Spineless college administrators typically give in to them without meaningful pushback.
Yes, says Jones, this is what the left has become — but don’t think that this is what the left once was. How pleasurable it might have been to have worked alongside scholars of the Old Left, he says. Instead, what we have are universities ruled by ambitious power cliques driven by middle-class manners and identity politics — and these people (as well as the gutless bureaucrats who aid and abet them) are ruining university life.
What would save the universities? Not a crusade to make them less “left” in any historically meaningful sense of the term, but rather to return to older ideals of learning and scholarship. This, says Prof. Jones, requires restraining the administrative bureaucracies that assume totalitarian sovereignty over the thoughts, words, and deeds of teachers and students — all in service of crackpot ideological concepts invented the day before yesterday, and weaponized by unstable activists who would go away if we made our minds up to ignore them.
So says Professor Jones. An interesting theory. What says you?
UPDATE: A fascinating comment from a retired English professor:
I was an associate professor of English in a very small Midwestern state university, fully retired a year ago. I was a faculty member there for 29 years, tenured in 1996.
What I saw suggests to me that “Professor Jones” makes good points, but has left out something too rarely mentioned: the accrediting agencies, such as the North Central Association.
At my university, it was imperative to keep the accreditors happy. If they wanted to see a more “diverse” student population, then the institution would dedicate itself to recruiting accordingly. In practice, this meant that a small college whose tradition was largely that of training elementary and secondary teachers who would serve in our region, put a great deal of effort into recruiting black and Hispanic men to play football and basketball in order to such the accreditors that we were obedient.
We were already academically undistinguished. We were inevitably going to recruit minority students with weaker academic preparation. The emphasis on recruiting minority athletes — men from urban areas of California and Arizona and their girlfriends — exerted a further deleterious effect on us. I remember well a semester in which we had to open emergency section(s) of remedial English writing — and I should say that our regular comp program was already at a near-remedial level.
Retaining students was emphasized in order to keep not just the accreditors but the State Board happy. As would be expected, this eventually manifested itself in pressures on faculty. Our most distinguished professor was not included when the comp program was “assessed”; the “assessment,” in fact, seems to have been a put-up job designed to force her to submit to a curriculum students would find easier to pass, especially if they went to the “Writing Center,” newly created and staffed by student tutors who might be students who’d taken comp from me and been mediocre performers at best. The newly-hired created comp program coordinator was a recent master’s degree graduate who quickly influenced our literature curriculum towards the new usual (women’s writing) and away from sound tradition (wanted to drop a course in Shakespeare as a requirement for English majors).
Meanwhile, students from our traditional recruitment region — small towns in the upper Midwest — sat in classes with newly-arrived minority students who often did poorly. Was this a good experience for the white students to have, semester after semester — seeing the minority students withdrawing from required writing classes, or failing them? But we were not going to be able to recruit minority students who were better prepared academically — they would be recruited by universities with more to offer than we could.
I was offered a buyout. Buyouts are often offered to faculty who have been around for many years and thus risen high in the pay scale. But as a member of the English faculty, my salary was not high. Rather, I was out of step with the way things were going and, I suspect, this was a way to secure my departure. I bargained with them and got a nice deal, and have been happy to be away. But I am sorry for students in the English literature courses…
But the accreditors never seemed very concerned about our curriculum. As the English program declined in rigor, we had, so far as I know, never a peep from NCA.
So I see them as sharing in the blame for the state of things.
This is an important point: you can have an administration and faculty lined up against the Wokesters, but what if the accrediting authority demands that you meet their P.C. standards? What do you do, insofar as a diploma from a non-accredited school won’t be worth much?