Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest

Peter Wood

No Argument

On August 4, the New York Times reported a significant drop in financial support for colleges, stemming from alumni distaste with how their alma maters have responded to recent student protests. The lead quotation came from Amherst alumnus Scott MacConnell (age seventy-seven), who was surely not alone in concluding, “As an alumnus of the college, I feel that I have been lied to, patronized and basically dismissed as an old, white bigot who is insensitive to the needs and feelings of the current college community.”

The hard news content of the article, “College Students Protest, Alumni’s Fondness Fades and Checks Shrink,” by Anemona Hartocollis, was that there had been a drop in the number of donors as well as the amount of the donations. The numbers are not large. At Princeton, for example, the financial total was off 6.5 percent, and the number of contributors had fallen 1.0 percent to 50.6 percent of total alumni. The direction of the changes, however, is ominous. The participation rate at Princeton was at its lowest level since 1975.

“Is there a way of making your case that doesn’t increase the tensions rather than damping them down?” Stanley Fish asks in his introduction to his new book, Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn’t Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom (HarperCollins, 2016). The simple answer is yes, and Fish offers some plausible advice on how to avoid exacerbating tensions.

But, of course, calming things down isn’t always the goal. Those student protesters at Amherst, Princeton, Yale, and hundreds of other colleges have not aimed at “winning arguments.” Their goals have been to win concessions and accrue power, and “argument” has played very little part in their tactics. And far from aiming to decrease tensions, their protests have generally aimed at inflaming them.

Those who seek to perturb, to agitate, and to disrupt, of course, can draw on a long history of utopian thinkers who provide rationalizations for attacking the existing order. Not far in the distance behind Black Lives Matter slumps the revolutionary pedagogue Frantz Fanon. And we have recently taken note of several books by conservative critics of the contemporary Left who have looked back to the Frankfurt School (Michael Walsh’s The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West, reviewed by Mary Grabar in Summer 2016) or postmodernism (Kim R. Holmes’s The Closing of the Liberal Mind: How Groupthink and Intolerance Define the Left, discussed in my Fall 2016 column) to understand the origins of today’s discontents. To these can be added Roger Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (Bloomsbury, 2015). Scruton’s new book is a thorough revision of his 1985 volume, Thinkers of the New Left. He dismisses some of the 1985 thinkers, such as R.D. Laing, as having “nothing to say to us today”—as devastating a verdict as one could pass on a “thinker”—and adds other thinkers who are all too familiar right now, including Edward Said and the neo-communist Slavoj Žižek.

Scruton writes with his characteristic verve and wit, and he is far more lucid in his explications of this collection of thinkers than many of the thinkers are in presenting their own arguments. For their followers, the argumentative obscurity of these writers is a virtue, not a defect. Picking through the obscurity is an initiation rite, and obscurity also helps to keep the inanity of many of the ideas from becoming too apparent.


Deirdre Nansen McCloskey’s Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (University of Chicago Press, 2016) concludes McCloskey’s massive trilogy. Volume 1, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (Chicago, 2006), praised the ideals of middle-class traders and inventors. Volume 2, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World (Chicago, 2010), focused on the ethos of the middle class as the core explanation of modernity. The new volume tracks the ways in which the ideals of equality, “betterment” (or progress), and liberal freedom contributed to prosperity and happiness for the many. McCloskey is an economist at war with the basic reductionism of the discipline of economics. At 650 pages, Bourgeois Equality is long as well as ambitious, but McCloskey frames the chapters as concise answers to key questions, takes opposing views seriously, and keeps the whole thing moving rapidly. The bourgeois virtue of respect for time and convenience of others is upheld.

The economist John Kenneth Galbraith (1908–2006) makes some brief appearances in Bourgeois Equality, as a target of ridicule for his 1952 idea that the state should regulate the economy in order to serve as a “countervailing power” to the economic interests of business. McCloskey considers this “prejudice against the middleman, the boss, the banker” that can “stop cold all discovery, betterment, and creative destruction.” And McCloskey credits Galbraith with having “installed the notion in the minds of American Democrats.”

Galbraith, as it happens, also comes in for excoriation in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, where Scruton sees him as an apostle of envy—a rhetorician vexed not at private property per se, but at the “private property of others.” Galbraith viewed American consumerism as a very bad thing: a grossness of appetite encouraged by capitalism and leading inevitably to squalor. In Galbraith’s view, says Scruton, competitive markets do not work in the “new industrial state,” and the individual consumer “is reduced from sovereign to subject.” Hence the need for the “countervailing power” of the state. Scruton also notices how deftly Galbraith conjured the idea that the “capitalist system” is every bit as “oppressive as its communist counterpart.” Galbraith’s political prescriptions, most famously put forth in The Affluent Society (1958), favor a welfare state that spends vast sums on public services and education.

Today, with major American political leaders calling for exactly this approach, it would be hard to say that Galbraith’s ideas have been extinguished. Galbraith’s son, James K. Galbraith, also a celebrated economist, spent some months advising Greece’s finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, on his government’s fight with the European Union. The younger Prof. Galbraith has collected his thoughts on that failed venture in Welcome to the Poisoned Chalice: The Destruction of Greece and the Future of Europe (Yale University Press, 2016). We know where we are in this account from the opening sentence, which blames Britain for “abandoning” the Communist partisans after World War II and the U.S. for overthrowing Greek democracy in 1967. Greece is always the victim and its financial troubles are all the result of predatory decisions made elsewhere, especially Germany.

The fate of Greece in Galbraith’s view is that it will become “much less like a proud and self-sufficient European nation, and much more like (say) a Caribbean dependency of the United States.” In this analysis, Greece’s transformation into a debt-financed welfare state with very low incentives for work and entrepreneurship had nothing to do with its insolvency. Greece’s troubles are, in Galbraith’s eyes, the results of actions by the “community of creditors and institutions that make up the European system.”

Blaming “the system” is a Galbraith family tradition, which comes with the added irony that the Galbraith family has long sat close to established political power in both the United States and Greece.

What McCloskey calls the bourgeois virtues are, of course, also the qualities of character that made liberal arts education in America possible: a desire for personal betterment aligned with a sense of social equality and hope that the larger community would also thrive. Our American version of liberal arts education, unlike that of, say, England, embraced the pursuit of virtuous citizenship in which individual responsibility was part of what it meant to seek the common good. The decay in liberal arts education today keeps pace with the growing hatred of bourgeois virtues among what could be called the college dis-educated elite.

Goodbye, Manatees!

Blaming the system also happens to be the foundational idea of contemporary campus protest. Universities, which are the nearest embodiment of “the system” to most students, seem ready to concede the point and make corrections. As I write, Princeton’s human resources department has announced a policy of jettisoning the word “man” in favor of gender-neutral expressions. HR provided a helpful chart:

Utilizing Gender Inclusive Language




camera operator


chair, chairperson, convenor




foreperson, supervisor


mail carrier, letter carrier, postal worker


police officer





to man

to operate or to staff

Source: Princeton University, Office of Human Resources, ‘‘Using Gender Inclusive Language,’’ September 2016,

There is behind this recommendation considerable ignorance of linguistics as well as willful ideological imposition. How will Princeton now maintain its bona fides as a supporter of the hypothesis of catastrophic manmade global warming? “Handmade global warming” doesn’t ring the same ding-dong of doom. It sounds like a large quilt made by an arts co-op in Brooklyn. And what will Princetonians do when faced with the crime of manslaughter?

A Snitch in Time

One step forward for political correctness, but at the University of Iowa, one step back. In the August 18 Iowa City Press-Citizen (“University of Iowa Changing Course on Bias Response Team”), Jeff Charis-Carlson reported that Georgina Dodge, the university’s chief diversity officer, is dropping her plan for Bias Assessment and Response Team (BART). BARTs are now a popular part of the administrative state at many colleges and universities. They are essentially a system to get students to snitch on one another, and they are becoming infamous for the abuses they all but beg for. Students report one another for the insensitivity of appropriating the hairstyle favored by a different ethnic group, or for all manner of innocent phrases. No doubt BARTs have been busy in many places tracking down malefactors who say the word “man.” But Chief Diversity Officer Dodge has decided the University of Iowa is going to risk going BART-less.

It appears her decision came by way of her worry about the abuses to which BARTs are prone, rather than a deeper recognition that BARTs are by their nature infantilizing and an assault on intellectual freedom. To return to Stanley Fish’s constructive book, Winning Arguments, bias reporting systems have no argument at all. They are vehicles of grievance, magnifying lenses for petty irritations, inflatable balloons of identitarian victimhood, and billboards for fragility. A college that sets one up perhaps gets what it deserves, but it does actual harm to its students since the invitation to find and report bias undermines qualities of character such as judgment and self-reliance that college should foster.

Cutting Edge

Within the recollection of people still living there was a time when the mail included a considerable number of personal letters. Today the U.S. Postal Service survives on bills, solicitations, advertisements, and perhaps greeting cards. Even these face ferocious competition from digital alternatives. But back in the day, the postman—I mean mail carrier—would reliably supply a day’s worth of handwritten and typed epistles. Some might say, “Sir, I return your scurrilous missive unopened.” But most would offer news, opinion, argument, and consolation as the vicissitudes of life demanded.

And each required the touch, serrated or smooth, of this quarter’s item of academic interest: the letter opener. I now possess a drawer full of letter openers: tiger’s-eye inlaid, mahogany carved as a crocodile, sterling silver, Japonism-motif spiral, brass, steel, nickel, and zinc.

They are, except when repurposed as weapons or props, mere relics. But I have no heart to dispose of them. Occasionally a practical use shows up, such as slicing open the uncut pages of an antique book. But mostly they memorialize the time when pen and ink or typewriter and onionskin had yet to be supplanted by pixel. E-mail and its even more evanescent cousins, however, deny us something important. If you wish to tell your alma mater, “Sir, I return your scurrilous missive unopened,” it requires that the alma mater actually used an envelope.

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