Academe vs. the Philistines of competition.

Today I found the latest issue of National Review (June 16 2008) on the dining room table, open to an article by John Hood called “Against the Cartel: How to reform higher education.”  The article certainly has some good points, particularly making a contribution to the fascinating debate of whether too many people are going to college: I don’t like to think that, because I have known people who were not instinctively intellectual who benefitted tremendously.  But just as much have I known students who didn’t even know why they were in the academy, when their only aspirations were to open a bakery, apprentice to a master carpenter, etc.  I agree with Hood that society shouldn’t ram these students into the four-year degree system, if they don’t want to go.

However: though Hood himself has a nice, clear prose style, undoubtedly thanks to his journalism degree from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the entire tone of his article denigrates the liberal arts and social sciences that “do little but restate the obvious and recycle the devious.”  Ouch.  As if we aren’t challenged enough by the daunting publishing industry to produce something “original,” now we’re both stupid and evil.  Funding these hooligans, he argues, is patently unconstitutional, despite the fact that the very founders of this country, with whose “original intent” we are to mystically commune, provided for federally funded public education in the Northwest Ordinance all the way back in 1787.  Oh wait, there is one exeption: 

The federal government does have a proper, constitutional, and likely indispensable role in funding some of the hard sciences, which often have national-security applications.  Conservatives need to push the government’s education policy in the right direction, rather than try to eliminate it altogether.

Seriously?  So the only reason the government would ever send out a grant for higher education, and I mean ever, would be to foster the creation of new military technologies?  Because it was my belief that the academy generally a). eschewed the merely pragmatic, b). democratically questioned the policies of government, and c). promoted humanitarian causes.  But military technology, though it’s a necessary evil, is a). 100% pragmatic and cannot participate in the aesthetic, b). is wholly created to serve the government’s most frightening power, and c). kills, maims, mutilates, and poisons.  Only a neoconservative would want campuses to be crawling with nationally funded “counterterrorism strategists” and missile technicians.  While we’re at it, why don’t we just replace a few “devious” ivory towers with columns of Cruise missiles?  At least the horrid, politically correct, gay-loving professors can’t kill anybody.  Sheesh.

Here’s another quotation from Hood, who remember has a journalism degree:

By weakening the connection between colleges and their consumers, subsidies enable much of the propaganda, political theater, and pseudo-intellectual twaddle that pervade American higher education today.  Private dollars tend to flow to the hard sciences, business programs, and other disciplines where practicalities militate against political bias.  Public dollars become handy resources to finance academic preening and political activism.

He’s not entirely wrong, you know — competition does favor the “practicalities” in higher education just as much as in other sectors.  Note to fiscal conservatives: just because people want to pay for it doesn’t make it right.  Otherwise, the Nintendo Wii would have to be judged superior to Salman Rushdie’s fiction.  And that, my friends, is a nightmare world.  Obviously, I’m not going to be tyrannical the other way and advocate the end of practical disciplines.  I’m aware that, at least in our current rat-race of a market society, these fields will always be better funded than mine.  All I’m asking is to survive, to have a chance to laugh at young national security specialists walking the hallowed corridors of the Halliburton Cheney WalMart Center for Counterterrorism from the dilapidated window of the Oliver H. Nobody Hasn’t-Been-Renovated-Since-1952 English building.  I just don’t want to be destroyed by zealous market-obsessed bottom-line-fanatics who find me irrelevant or downright evil.

One final word about the “tenured radicals” that Hood would like to drive out with the purifying whips of market dollars: I’ve known a lot of English professors, both at the universities I’ve attended and ones I’ve heard as guest speakers or at conferences, and plenty from departments like history, theology, political science, etc., and not a single one of them (even the most liberal) entered the department as a cloak for a sinister political agenda.  They enter because they love what they do.  If politics tend to follow that, it’s probably because these fields cannot help, by their very impractical nature, but eschew bottom-line thinking and focus on the “human” and “cultural” things that can bring us together.  Perhaps at the expense of super-efficient missile production.  Oops.


2 responses to “Academe vs. the Philistines of competition.

  1. Hi Robert,

    Interesting thoughts–I certainly agree with a lot of what you’ve said here. I’ll withold my true opinion about the Wii-Rushdie question, except to say that Saleem Sinai’s large nose has not brought me as much enjoyment as Mario’s. 😛

    As for the radicals: rest assured, they do exist, they are worthless, and they are, indeed, dangerous. I suspect that the truly ridiculous ones do not teach at the University of Dallas or Baylor–two religious, private institutions in Texas (which is not to say that there aren’t some). The proper response to this, in my opinion, would not be to further underfund the humanities, nor to threaten academic freedom, but to resist from within the academy itself. Obviously this is not an easy task, but it is the only acceptable way.

    I enjoy your posts!


  2. I’m so glad the Jonathan “oops” has made it into your writing.

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