Where do we lay the blame for the deterioration of higher education, intellectual discourse, and the life of the mind in our time? There is certainly plenty of culpability to go around. At the root of it all has to be the decline in qualities of judgment and discernment, in standards of reason and argument, in the willingness to follow evidence and logic where they lead. Instead, political activism has been elevated, rooted in envy, anger, and resentment at the givens of human existence, and with this activism comes the intellectually slovenly resort to relativism in place of the demands of seeking truth.
In the second round of our “Verdicts” feature (the first appeared in Summer 2014 and covered James Kurth, Edward Said, Martin Heidegger, Martha Nussbaum, and the great Thomas Sowell), our authors analyze and judge the quality of the contributions of certain prominent figures who have had an influence on scholarship, policy, and culture, or have been the subject of academic interest. How have they used the intellectual, scholarly, artistic gifts granted them by God, Nature, or random mutation? How have they deployed their influence, prestige, fame to shape the debates to which their expertise took them or the areas of endeavor in which they labored? The moving finger writes.
Frances Fox Piven is one of the pioneers of the modern conception of poverty that has helped create an ever-proliferating welfare state, as David Stoesz details in “Unordering Liberty: The Legacy of Frances Fox Piven.” Stoesz counts Piven and her husband Richard A. Cloward among the “Romantics,” who wanted to fashion the poor into a class, on the order of labor, blacks, women, etc., and advance their interests through civil rights protest, as opposed to the “Empiricists” such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan and James Coleman, who wanted to analyze poverty for purposes of understanding and addressing it. Stoesz maintains that the Empiricists have gained a certain ascendancy, as evidenced in welfare reform in the 1990s.
Stoesz contributed “Social Work Agonistes” to our Summer 2008 issue, an account of how the schools of social work have turned toward political activism and second-rate scholarship that actually undermines the capacity of the profession to render service to those in need.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was on the cover of Time during that mid-twentieth century period when even the common reader was expected to know something about serious thinkers. New contributor Joseph E. Hartman, “Democracy and Sin: Doing Justice to Reinhold Niebuhr,” sees a resurgence of interest in Niebuhr and judges that his work, deeply informed by a Christian understanding of human fallibility and the consequent necessity of humility, constitutes a healthful antidote to the potential for hubris in democratic self-government.
In “Camille Paglia’s Ambiguous Critical Legacy,” Stephen Eide concludes that the redoubtable Paglia’s extensive theorizing can operate to the detriment of her better work in close reading and literary criticism.
Peter Wood finds a sensibility steeped in unappeasable fury in the music of Bob Dylan, “Eternal Protest: Bob Dylan’s Lasting Rage,” an updated excerpt from Wood’s book, A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now (2007), and the final “Verdicts” entry for this issue.
As it turns out, the authors of our remaining articles follow the pattern of exercising clear-eyed judgment in their approach to their subjects. The American Psychiatric Association manages to create a great deal of mischief and muddlement with its continual revisions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, including “ learning disorders” related to matters of education. Stewart Justman details some of these in “The Medicalization of Misspelling: DSM and the Management of Life.”
Ashley Thorne finds that the discourse on campus and in social media often falls short of what should characterize genuine debate among mature and educated beings in “Social Media, Civility and Free Expression,” adapted from a panel address given at the AAUP Conference on the State of Higher Education, held this past June, which celebrated the centennial of the American Association of University Professors and its landmark 1915 statement on academic freedom.
New contributor William L. Krayer laments that “The Goals of Public Education in the 1970s Have Been Realized,” and fixes much of the blame on John Dewey, whose pernicious influence moving us toward socialization as the primary academic goal has permeated American schooling at all levels and should have been consigned to oblivion long ago. Krayer draws upon his own experience as a member of a local school board in Pennsylvania, where he found that measures of student performance became behavioral and attitudinal more than academic and intellectual. He wonders if the contemporary pedagogical insistence on instilling unearned “self-esteem” in students—in direct contrast to Niebuhr’s call for humility, we might add—has not already cost us a couple of generations of genuine creativity as these young people have reached maturity and the age at which their powers should be flourishing.
The poem for this issue is “Northern Tour,” by a new contributor, Donald M. Hassler, and we have two review essays. The first, “Crisis or Priceless?” by Daniel Bonevac, considers two books, American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know, by Goldie Blumenstyk, and Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, by Michael S. Roth. Of the latter, Bonevac’s verdict is quietly bracing: “Roth’s project is to defend liberal education without reference to truth. In the end, I think, that project is hopeless. Liberal education is valuable and very much worth defending. But it rests on a portrait of the world as complex yet intelligible, of thought as in some respects representational, and of inquiry as aiming at more adequate representations.”
The second review essay is by James W. Springer, “The Dim Light of Academic Orthodoxy on the Gold Coin of Philosophy,” a consideration of Twelve Theories of Human Nature, by Leslie Stevenson, David L. Haberman, and Peter Matthews Wright, now in its sixth edition and much assigned in college classrooms. Springer questions why the authors rely so profoundly on current academic theories and give so little space to certain superior modes of understanding human nature, such as those delineated in the American Founding and the Scottish Enlightenment.
Edward Alexander reviews What Is Fiction For? Literary Humanism Restored, by Bernard Harrison, a philosopher who departs from the modern obscurities into which his discipline has descended (What would the world look like if mice were six feet tall?) to defend the intellectual and literary tradition exemplified by Matthew Arnold. Significantly, in contrast to the commissar-style emphasis on “informational texts” promulgated by the Common Core State Standards, Harrison sees literary language as key in transforming and elevating the mind. Literature professors having abandoned the tradition of literary humanism, it is perhaps left to philosophers to pick up the standard.
Peter Wood rounds out the issue with another extensive rundown of Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest.