In the wake of September’s hurricane Dorian, National Public Radio’s program On the Media featured an interview with John Morales, the Chief Meteorologist for WTVJ, Miami’s NBC Channel Six affiliate. Morales is a thirty-year veteran weather forecaster. When the topic came up of the unreliability of weather forecasting, Morales explained, “I fight tooth and nail against exaggeration and overhyping of weather situations.”
“I fight tooth and nail against exaggeration” is, of course, exaggeration. Metaphor often is. But I trust that Mr. Morales isn’t biting and scratching his colleagues when they say something like, “All of Florida will be washed into the Gulf of Mexico!”
Self-contradiction in this form probably has won its own Greek-sounding pseudo-accolade, but the closest one I have found in Richard Lanham’s Handbook of Rhetorical Terms is “aschematiston,” which means the “unskillful use of figures.” This doesn’t quite get to the I-boast-of-my-unsurpassed-humility quality of the meteorologist’s declaration. We clearly need a word for this at a time when masked and black-clad thugs beat innocent strangers in the name of anti-fascism and students justify as free speech their effort to shout down campus speakers with whom they disagree.
At the Intersections
Robby Soave, a young associate editor at the libertarian website Reason.com, has published a balanced and thoughtful account of today’s campus activism. His ironic title is Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump (All Points Books, 2019). Soave did his legwork for this book, interviewing dozens of seemingly unhinged partisans on campuses around the country, and managing to gather a cornucopia of arresting quotations. For example, he cites Ma’at, a student at American University: “I’m definitely not for censorship. However, when you start threatening identity, that’s when it needs to be addressed, because that’s past free speech.” (68)
Soave puts the concept of “intersectionality” at the center of his analysis of the new radicalism. It is, as he calls it, “the operating system for the modern left.” (17) He explains, “Intersectionality means that the various kinds of oppression—racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, economic inequality, and others—are simultaneously distinct from each other and inherently linked.” (17) Because they are linked, an activist who is determined to fight one kind of oppression is, in principle, committed to fighting all the others too. But because the oppressions are also distinct, that activist must defer constantly to the in-groups in question.
Soave’s book immediately brought to mind Bruce Bawer’s 2012 volume, The Victim’s Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind. Bawer based his observations on academic conferences he had frequented at that time and had returned with the discovery that when two or more “categories of analysis” in oppression studies “come together,” voilà, “intersectionality” emerges. In 2012, the term still seemed somewhere near the cutting edge of grievance rhetoric. Reading Soave seven years later, intersectionality seems more like the sweat-stained t-shirt of the protesters. There is nothing new in it except for the need of the instructors to sell it to the 17- and 18-year olds who are eager to assimilate to campus fashion.
Soave, who wears his libertarian credentials as a suit of armor, declares his non-aligned position more often than a Swiss diplomat. Panic Attack, however, can’t help but focus on the campus left’s rejection of free speech and refusal to tolerate contrary opinions. That’s the main story about student life these days, though Soave scrupulously takes notice of the substantial number of students who privately dissent. Soave also devotes a final chapter to the campus “alt right,” which he describes as a “white nationalist movement.” (267) This seems to be his exercise in straining after a gnat to prove his even-handedness, as though gnats and man-eating tigers pose similar dangers.
Conceived in Zinn
Intersectionality is to social theory what plastic straws are to global ecology: a distraction aimed at the simple-minded to keep them preoccupied with a larger ideological cause. Yes, various forms of bias can reinforce one another. Think of the reinforcing biases against capitalism, Western civilization, and Christianity. Or men, whiteness, and financial success. The biases against black women who are “gender non-conforming” are just one of a seemingly endless collection of overlapping identifications that can be jointly stigmatized. But it’s a childish exercise which begins and ends with the idea that the peopling of stigmatized social categories is the fundamental reality of social life. Intersectionality directs attention away from every other aspect of human flourishing.
The theory gained traction in recent decades because the old Marxist notions of class warfare failed so spectacularly to explain both American prosperity and the self-inflicted misery of socialist and communist regimes elsewhere. Identity politics famously became the left’s substitute for class envy and the longed-for-but-never-arriving revolt of the working class.
One man who never gave up on the dream of a Stalinist take-over of America was Boston University professor of political science Howard Zinn. My years at Boston University substantially overlapped with his. I knew him slightly and had lots of opportunity to see his efforts to foment student and faculty rebellion against then-president John Silber. Zinn, who retired in 1988 and died in 2010, is still with us as the author of A People’s History of the United States (first edition, 1980). That book must stand as one of the most influential works on the American past ever written. It is widely assigned in high schools and colleges and adored by millions as the true key to America’s complex nature. It is, as I expect most readers of Academic Questions know, a work of intellectual effrontery and meretricious nonsense. Reputable historians from all points on the political compass have dismissed it for decades.
Mary Grabar, resident fellow of the Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, has now delivered Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation against America (Regnery, 2019). Grabar’s book begins by putting Zinn himself into history as a figure who has been celebrated in popular movies and American mass culture as well as higher education. Establishing the sheer size of Zinn’s monument is the necessary prelude to tearing down “Howard Zinn: Icon, Rock Star.” But from there on, Grabar focuses on the fissures in Zinn’s actual work—especially but not exclusively A People’s History.
Anticipating that Academic Questions will run a full-scale review of Debunking Howard Zinn, I’ll curtail my own comments, except to add that Zinn’s role as a communist faced with the failure of his longed-for revolution, led him to descend into a propagandistic effort to strip the legitimacy from American institutions of all sorts: political, economic, social, and religious. In this he struck a cynical chord in tune with the post-Vietnam generation of American teenagers who were already primed to believe the worst about their country. And the worst is what Zinn gave them, even if he had to make most of it up out of whole cloth. In an effort to escape stories of American greatness that they suspected exaggerated what really happened, young readers fell headlong into stories that weren’t exaggerations at all, but pure fictions. Zinn gives us, for example, a genocidal Christopher Columbus and a peaceful feminist paradise of American natives. Even the blood-thirsty, human-sacrificing Aztecs earn from Zinn “a certain innocence.” Zinn’s division of humanity into the exploiting and oppressive Europeans and the exploited and oppressed everybody else was the groundwork for the rise of the “intersectional left.”
The Anthropology of Babel
While I’m on the subject, let me mention a book published a few years back, Impulse to Act: A New Anthropology of Resistance and Social Justice, edited by Othon Alexandrakis, a professor of anthropology at York University (Indiana University Press, 2016). Not much in this collection of essays qualifies as “anthropology” in the old sense of an academic discipline aimed at an objective understanding of human universals and differences. As its subtitle enunciates, Impulse to Act is a left-wing call to change culture, rather than an attempt to see it for what it is. Chapters include a promotion of “queer activism in Istanbul,” a call for resistance among migrant farm workers in Italy, a celebration of the radical vision of the EarthFirst! bio-terrorists, a study of “Surreal Capitalism,” and so on. The essays are, as advertised, calls to action, but the calling includes a fair amount of immersion in a sea of up-to-date leftist jargon: cosmologicopolitics, precarity, emergenc(i)es, ex-sist, and polyphonic interlacing, among others. Such vocabulary is meant to some extent to deter trespassers, though it isn’t hard to make out the main arguments. Rather it is part of what one of the contributors candidly calls “epistemological activism.”
That phrase seems the perfect assessment of what Howard Zinn was doing.
Errare Medicum Est
The National Association of Scholars is holding a conference on the irreproducibility crisis in the sciences at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, February 7-8. So-called science that fails the test of reproduction falls into a gray category. Perhaps the efforts to reproduce the original findings fell short. Not coming to the same results doesn’t necessarily mean those results were wrong. Even multiple unsuccessful tries to reproduce the original results don’t completely rule out the possibility that the first observations were right and the follow-ups were flawed. Perhaps if I jump off the roof one more time and flap my arms in just the right way I will fly. Hope plummets eternal. As Melissa Click might put it, “We need some epistemological activism over here.”
The redoubtable physician-essayist Theodore Dalrymple has just thrown a log on our fire in the form of False Positive: A Year of Error, Omission, and Political Correctness in the New England Journal of Medicine (Encounter, 2019). The year in question is 2017, and Dalrymple walks us through the most august of the world’s many medical journals, picking out article after article rife with elementary scientific errors that often bear on the credibility of the author’s main point, though sometimes are merely incidental. He starts, for example, with an “otherwise excellent article” on the 2010 cholera epidemic in Haiti, crisply noting that the authors use passive voice (cholera “was introduced” in Haiti in 2010) to avoid saying who introduced it and how. Evidence points to Nepali troops stationed there by the United Nations as part of its peacekeeping mission. Eight hundred thousand people were infected; at least 10,000 died, and perhaps as many as 80,000. Reporting the truth would have been awkward for the journal because, “No one could be against the United Nations.”(3)
Dalrymple’s reservations about other articles cut much deeper than his noticing such political evasions, though the omission of highly pertinent data seems to run as a leitmotif through the book. An article on testing for prostate cancer suggested that the rate of screening has saved many lives, but Dalrymple probes the claim, noting that the authors’ observation of “a decline of approximately 45 percent in U.S. prostate cancer mortality from the late 1980s to the present” is ambiguous. Do they mean “45 percent fewer of the population at risk are dying of the disease, or that 45 percent fewer of those diagnosed are dying of it?” Dalrymple thinks it is the former and the difference is due to better treatment not more diagnostic testing, which, as he notes, has a high incidence of false positives. This is a consequential mistake for the New England Journal of Medicine. The article will persuade a great many physicians to promote such testing, which is unnecessary and far more likely to lead to false positives than to catch a cancer in the making.
Irreproducibility is plainly not the only way in which science can wander into telling doubtful tales.
Unsafe at Any Speed
Dalrymple is a voice of skepticism against established authority. Let’s balance the table by introducing Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Andrew E. Scanlan’s Learning in the Fast Lane: The Past, Present, and Future of Advanced Placement (Princeton, 2019). This is a welcome history of the College Board’s Advanced Placement exams, but I am disappointed that the National Association of Scholars goes unmentioned. Who else has jarred the College Board sufficiently to prompt it to make significant revisions in its flagship Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) standards and its European History standards? We even published a book about the latter, The Disappearing Continent (2016). It is not as though the authors didn’t know about us. Finn served for many years on our advisory board, though we disagreed on the validity of the Common Core.
But Finn and Scanlan are not much interested in the critics of the College Board or the flaws in the Advanced Placement system. Learning in the Fast Lane celebrates what they take to be an unalloyed educational accomplishment. The 2013 revisions to APUSH are dealt with in a chapter titled “Advanced Placement Fights the Culture Wars,” including sections on “The US History Fracas” and “Enter David Coleman.” They write, “The new framework was roundly denounced, primarily by conservatives, for misrepresenting the essence of the American story and ignoring key figures and events.” True, and NAS was the leading critic that brought together academic historians from across the country who petitioned the College Board to make changes. That, however, escapes Finn and Scanlan’s narrative, apart from a footnote citing the petition itself.
The hero of the story in their telling is David Coleman, author of the Common Core, who became the College Board’s president in 2012 and who was “blindsided by the furor over the new APUSH framework.” But “he swiftly took ownership of the problem” and solved it by “responding constructively.” Finn and Scanlan conclude Coleman “deserves applause for threading such a sharp needle.”
In the NAS’s view, Coleman successfully evaded the substance of the criticism and the two major Advanced Placement history exams are a shadow of what they once were. What to make of the rest of Learning in the Fast Lane? Watch out for reckless drivers.
Have I Got a Sale for You
The College Board comes in for a few knocks in James D. Williams’s The Decline in Educational Standards: From a Public Good to a Quasi-Monopoly (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019). Williams, who has taught at various universities and is a founding member of Soka University in California, notes that the College Board has “imitated our public schools, attempting to narrow the gap [between white students and black and Hispanic students] by revising the test to make it easier.” (136) Williams is no fan of the steps the College Board has taken in this direction. “Rather than lowering the SAT bar, efforts should focus on lifting students up.” (138)
Williams’s book is not easy to summarize. He starts off in his opening sentence with a bit of Marxist jargon: “This book is about the ‘commodification’ of education and the factors that have changed education from a public good into a ‘commodity’ over the last fifty years.” (1) But he quickly brushes aside the academic left’s favorite explanations that “states have reduced their funding to colleges and universities,” as “simplistic” and “contrary to the facts.” Decline in academic performance, says Williams, is “related to parenting style, motivation, intelligence, self-efficacy, teacher ability and training, teacher expectations, education standards, learning environment, peer influence, and materials.” (2) Nothing Marxist about that list, but how does it comport with “commodification?”
It turns out that what Williams means by the word is the effort of colleges and universities to persuade Americans that a college degree is an essential: everyone should go to college. Williams sees this as a capitalist victory of marketing over common sense.
The key word on the path to this idea is “neoliberalism.” Williams connects neoliberalism to “an economic shift to what is called ‘debt-based consumerism.’” What follows are thirty-two densely argued short chapters connecting his socio-economic theory with the particulars of American higher education. It seems fascinating, but would require a week of solid study to get the actual contours of the argument. Williams ends up calling for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education. He also calls for higher standards in hiring faculty, less reliance on student evaluations of their teachers, and relocation of “general education” from college to high school. The Decline in Educational Standards looks like a much richer and more provocative book than the usual run of what’s-wrong-with-college-and-how-to-fix-it books. As for the “commodification” and “neo-liberalism” stuff, perhaps he has been reading too much Hayek.
An Incompleteness Theorem
Among the few issues that Williams does not take up is the dismal completion rate among students who begin college. This is the subject David Kirp’s new book, The College Dropout Scandal (Oxford, 2019). About 40 percent of entering freshmen in the U.S. leave without a degree—and at community colleges it is 60 percent. These numbers surely justify Kirp’s title, though is the scandal the departure of these students once they are admitted or the decision to admit them in the first place? Kirp, who is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and a writer for the New York Times, is emphatically on the side of helping those who begin to reach the finish line. The book opens with the sad tale of a very bright African American young man at the University of Texas, who withdraws after blowing his first calculus test. He failed it because he stayed up all night trying to talk his girlfriend out of breaking up with him. Kirk, I suppose, wants us to see this as a typical case, but a typical case of what? Bad judgment? Failure of impulse control? Bright freshmen often make mistakes, but the student who quits after one such mistake may just not be ready for college.
Kirp has many helpful suggestions such as making sure that students actually show up on time to start their freshman year. While I agree this is a wise first step, I wonder at the need for a book to recommend it. Kirp also calls for “making undergraduates more resilient,” but I wonder as well at the idea that students can gain determined independence by having administrators alongside reliably urging them not to rely on others.
The College Dropout Scandal is mostly mush. The target audience appears to be those for whom the central problem in American higher education is the disparity between black graduation rates and the graduation rates of other groups. It is a real issue, but one not likely to be solved by a policy of advanced hand-wringing.
Making It, Guiltily
Jennifer M. Morton’s Moving Up Without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility (Princeton University Press, 2019) treads some ground adjacent to that covered by Kirp in The College Dropout Scandal. What happens to the first generation college students who do not drop out? Morton is a professor of philosophy at the City College of New York. She begins by pointing out how much is stacked against an individual by happenstance of birth. Being black, female, and from a low income family in the South is not a recipe for a lot of upward mobility. But, “Education transformed my life prospects.” Morton herself grew up in a working class neighborhood in Lima, Peru, but benefited from opportunities that eventually led her to graduate from Princeton. She attributes this to “luck,” but presumably she counts herself among the “strivers” who overcome unpromising circumstances to achieve academic success.
But what makes Morton’s book of passing interest is her focus on “the painful sacrifices that strivers make as they journey along their path,” (8) and her special concern for the “weakening or loss of relationships with family and friends and ties to one’s community.” Morton’s own guilt in this regard is assuaged by her teaching position at CUNY, which puts her in touch with the moral equivalent of the homies she left behind on her climb up the ladder.
College changes everyone, not just “strivers,” and childhood friendships often fray along the way. Morton’s students may experience more of a disconnection than students from an affluent suburb, but this is a difference in degree rather than kind. There is something just a little bit silly about a book counseling “strivers” on “resisting complicity” with the upward mobility they are striving for. The “ethical costs” in becoming “complicit in the socioeconomic structures” perhaps should be weighed against the ethical costs of squandering opportunities and betraying the hopes of those who sacrificed to create those opportunities.
Morton’s book can be thought of as a self-help guide for the successful student. The self-help category might also include James W. Dean, Jr. and Deborah Y. Clarke’s The Insider’s Guide to Working with Universities (University of North Carolina Press, 2019). Dean and Clarke had the genial idea of explaining to “board members, businesspeople, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, alumni, parents and administrators” how universities go about their work. This is pretty simple stuff and the book is festooned with cartoons, diagrams, and informative pictures of what an academic building looks like and how a chemistry professor walks through a contemporary classroom. But for those in need of an explanation of how a business differs from a university, this is a good place to begin. “The closest that colleges come to a bottom line is the pursuit of something that could be called prestige, reputation, or quality.”
Never mind the business people, the real action is in getting the students fired up. Here to help are Joseph L. DeVitis and Pietro A. Sasso, who have edited a volume of essays, Student Activism in the Academy: Its Struggle and Promise (Myers Education Press, 2019). This is yet another how-to book. DeVitis and Sasso aim to help “administrators, faculty, students, and student life personnel,” who, they must believe, are hungry for lots more identity-based campus protest. Why an administrator would want this perplexes me, but I can see the interest of the other market segments. Some of the contributors to the volume see in social media a tool for making student activism “better.” (Better at doxing? Better at organizing flash mobs?) One contributor worries that free speech is “a highway to hell.” Another comments on the shift from “internationalism to identity politics.” The “living wage movement” gets a lively chapter, as does “resistance” to “campus-based sexual violence.” “Latinx Student Activism” and “Queer Student Community Perspectives” are on offer, as is disability activism. Missing, I lament to say, is a section on intersectionality. In light of that, I have to say the book is problematic.
Writing this quarterly column I must say exhausts me. It is like shoveling snow in a blizzard. You turn around and the path you have cleared is already covered in new snow. I pray this will end soon.
At hand is John Tagg’s The Instruction Myth: Why Higher Education Is Hard to Change, and How to Change It (Rutgers, 2019). Tagg is a professor emeritus in English at Palomar College in California. I have long believed that every retired professor thinks about writing a book on higher education, and all too many succumb. What is needed to break into this marketplace is a contrarian idea. Tagg’s contrarian idea is that “instruction alone is worthless.” By this he means that student learning is what really counts. How are students to learn without instruction? We will need research to find out, “given the enormous barriers to change.” Tagg concludes, “The only way of breaking this logjam is to introduce new information to the system, information about fundamental functions that is not available today.”
The biggest puzzle posed by The Instruction Myth is why Rutgers University Press considered this thumb-twiddling worthy of being published.
Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness likewise look on higher education in America and see the need for change. In Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education (Oxford, 2019) Brennan and Magness offer what they characterize as a moral argument, and it is that in part. They indict the university on many grounds: “academic marketing is semi-fraudulent; grading is largely nonsense; students don’t study or learn much; students cheat frequently; liberal arts education fails because it presumes a false theory of learning; professors and administrators waste students’ money and time to line their own pockets; everyone engages in self-righteous moral grandstanding to disguise their selfish cronyism; professors pump out unemployable graduate students into oversaturated job markets for self-serving reasons; and so on.” The deeper theme of this list is deception, deception high and low.
Brennan is a public policy professor in the School of Business at Georgetown University. Magness is a senior research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research in Massachusetts. Their book covers familiar ground for readers of Academic Questions, and it has some of the wit and much of the cynicism of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education (2018). Their chapters bear such bracing titles as “Why Most Academic Advertising Is Immoral Bullshit.” (As distinguished from the moral kind?) And “The Gen Ed Hustle” and “Cheaters, Cheaters Everywhere.”
I am heartened to see my estimate of the total annual cost of American higher education independently put at $500 billion. Brennan and Magness also humbly confess that their dismal picture is far from complete. “We’ve almost entirely ignored how faculty from all over the political spectrum use the university for political activism.” They’ve likewise ignored college sports, bias in admissions, and still more. The cheerfulness with which they walk through and then away from this desolation without any hint of remedy and without invoking any grand underlying cause (Cf. Williams’ “commodification”) deserves a nod of appreciation.
Still, the world they conjure is too dark to live in, and I must say matches only the worst things I’ve seen in my long academic career. Bad as things are, they aren’t quite this bad.
And Miles to Go before I Sleep
The snow is still piling up behind me, but my back aches and I am ready to call it a night. The only item of academic interest I can think of right now is the lumbar pillow that keeps me almost upright as I slave away the hours at the computer. It is shaped a bit like a bone, and if an Ankylosaurus tibia were made of foam and covered in stretchy cloth, it might resemble my pillow. It is high time for me to get up, lest like the dinosaur, I go extinct. Every academic, I suspect, has a pillow of some sort on which to rest his weary bones.