Rod Dreher defends the “Little Hitler” philosophy professor at Taylor University

In my post on the firing of Taylor University philosophy professor Jim Spiegel, I wrote:

Should he be fired for “Little Hitler”? I can’t answer that question. I would need to know more about the local culture on campus at Taylor and the way Spiegel and his song fit into that culture. Perhaps there is a larger story here. Maybe this is more than just an academic freedom issue.

I do know, however, that Taylor University Provost Michael Hammond, a historian of American evangelicalism during the civil rights movement, is a good man with the best interest of Taylor in mind.

Over at the American Conservative, Rod Dreher comments on Spiegel’s firing. His entire post relies on a New York Post article defending Spiegel. Here is what Dreher wrote:

You want to commit yourself to taking out loans to pay for a college at which the administration will not support faculty, and presumably not students who cross an invisible line? The firing of Spiegel sends a signal to every other professor on campus, and every other student: you could be next. All it takes is a single absurd accusation, based on even the simplest joke, to ruin a professor’s life.

Some of you think I’m exaggerating when, citing the testimony of Soviet-bloc emigres, I say that life in the US is starting to resemble life under Soviet totalitarianism. Here is the connection: under the Soviet system, all it took was an accusation of disloyalty — including telling a joke that offended the Party — to lose your job and even be sent to prison or into exile. This happened over and over. Last year, I visited Rudolf Dobias, an 84-year-old Slovak former political prisoner, sentenced to 18 years of hard labor in a uranium mine on a false accusation that he had drawn a cartoon making fun of Stalin and Czechoslovak communist leader Klement Gottwald. After release from prison, Dobias and his family lived a life of internal exile; he couldn’t get a decent job, his kids suffered from their father’s punishment, and so forth. All because of a single joke, one that he didn’t even tell! After our interview, Dobias mentioned to my Slovak translator that he was in constant pain now, the result of all the beatings he took in prison as a young man.

Obviously — obviously — Jim Spiegel is not Rudolf Dobias. But he’s on a spectrum. As more than a few Rudolf Dobiases told me for Live Not By Lies, free people have to resist this stuff the moment it starts. Jim Spiegel was absolutely right to refuse to take down his satirical song. The prissy authoritarians at Taylor University ought to apologize to him and hire him back. And they had better make it clear that they have done so, because this is a black mark on the school’s reputation, and a warning to students about an emerging climate of censorship, at a time when liberal arts colleges cannot afford them.

If I were a Taylor student — presuming that they are back on campus this fall — I would gather with a group every day outside Provost Michael Hammond’s office, and sing “Little Hitler” cheerfully, to cause Hammond and the university’s leadership to reflect on the nature of what they have done to a professor who has wronged no one.

Read the entire screed here.

A few thoughts:

  1. Dreher, with very little knowledge of Taylor University, its culture, or the history of the administration’s relationship with Spiegel, compares this situation to Soviet totalitarianism. (Dreher doesn’t even know if Taylor is currently holding face-to-face classes). Soviet totalitarianism at Taylor University? Again, his piece shows absolutely no understanding of Taylor or Christian colleges.
  2. Dreher’s ignorance about schools like Taylor is surprising since he is the author of a book titled The Benedict Option which argues that serious Christians should form intentional communities designed to uphold traditional beliefs. On one level, Taylor University is such an institution. I have no doubt that the administration’s decision to remove Spiegel was made in this context. For whatever reason, Taylor University concluded that Spiegel’s continued employment at Taylor was detrimental to the Christian community that they were trying to sustain. Wouldn’t the Bruderhof, an intentional Anabaptist group Dreher likes, make a similar move if one of its members was undermining community?
  3. Dreher has now put himself into a position where his anger about “cancel culture” and “academic freedom” seems to be butting-up against the Benedict Option.
  4. Finally, my sources at Taylor tell me that the reasons for Spiegel’s firing go well beyond his song “Little Hitler.”

Was Liberty University a school or Jerry Falwell Jr.’s personal business?

Aram Roston and Joshua Schneyer of Reuters are uncovering things. Here is a taste of their recent piece:

Falwell, who took over as president of Liberty in 2007 after years as a lawyer handling its real estate interests, intertwined his personal finances with those of the evangelical Christian university founded by his father.

He put his two sons – and their wives as well – on the university’s payroll. He arranged the transfer of a multi-acre Liberty facility to his personal trainer. He enlisted a friend’s construction company to manage an ambitious campus expansion costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

And before becoming school president, Falwell set up two companies that enabled him to cut property deals with one of the many nonprofit entities affiliated with the university, Reuters found. In each of the deals, Falwell played multiple roles with potentially conflicting interests: He was an officer of the university, a board member for the nonprofit selling the land, and a private developer who could profit from the transactions.

“It’s very worrisome to have these sorts of financial arrangements going on and they deserve intense scrutiny,” said Michael Bastedo of the University of Michigan School of Education.

In 2001, property records show, Falwell set up a private company while he was a lawyer for Liberty, used it to buy an undeveloped tract of land from the school, and then developed a strip mall on the plot. The company sold the property five years later at a significant premium.

In 2005, property records show, Falwell again acted as a private businessman when a university nonprofit affiliate and a company he operated joined together to sell land to a third company – controlled by Falwell’s real estate partner.

And in 2012, in a project Falwell launched as Liberty’s president, the university spent more than $2 million to build a tunnel that links the campus to another shopping plaza near campus. Falwell is a part owner of that shopping plaza.

Read the entire piece here.

Gettysburg College sends students home due to COVID-19 outbreak

Here is the Gettysburg Times:

Many Gettysburg College students will be heading home soon, according to a letter President Bob Iuliano sent the college community on Friday.

First-year students and “a cohort of other students” will be allowed to remain on campus, Iuliano wrote.

The college identified 31 new coronavirus cases this week, Iuliano wrote, bringing the total of positive tests over the past eight days to 64.

Read the rest here.

A conservative Lutheran college in Wisconsin withdraws a speaking invitation to Mike Pence

Wisconsin Lutheran

Mike Pence was scheduled to deliver the commencement address at Wisconsin Lutheran College, a theologically conservative school affiliated with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. The school withdrew the invitation to speak at the August 29th event after “careful consideration of the escalating events in Kenosha.”

Here is a taste of Devi Shastri’s and Bill Glauber’s piece at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Pence’s appearance had already caused some controversy.

When the college announced it last week, it said the selection was not an endorsement of a political party and “cannot” be viewed as a political event.

“We believe it is possible within our context to leave partisan politics at the door and to celebrate America, our freedoms, Christian servant leadership and our graduates’ immense accomplishments,” the statement said.

But more than 100 students and alumni signed a letter calling the invitation “blatantly inappropriate.” 

“The mere invitation of a Vice President of an incredibly divisive and controversial ticket to speak in a swing state months before an election is ignorant and deceptive,” the letter said. “Speaking to young adults months before an election is a political move and not one that WLC can decide is apolitical.”

Read the rest here.

Penn goes online

Penn 2

Here is the Daily Pennsylvanian:

Following a spike in COVID-19 cases across the United States, Penn is no longer inviting students back to campus for the fall semester and is encouraging all students not to return to Philadelphia.

Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Wendell Pritchett sent an email to the Penn community on Tuesday announcing that the University will scratch its plans to conduct a hybrid fall semester that guaranteed on-campus housing for first years, sophomores, and transfer students in the College House system. Penn will not raise tuition by 3.9% for the fall semester as planned by the University Board of Trustees on Feb. 27.

The vast majority of undergraduate fall classes will be held online with very few in-person offerings such as clinical experiences in The School of Nursing. Graduate schools are continuing to evaluate their own fall operations.

“The sheer number of students who by Pennsylvania public health recommendation would now upon arrival—or based upon testing or high-risk exposure—need to go into a two-week quarantine is untenable,” Gutmann wrote. “At the same time, supply chain issues have more severely limited the availability and the turn-around time of COVID testing than medical experts foresaw. Since we last communicated we learned that our planned pre-testing regimen would not be possible.”

Read the rest here.

A Princeton classics professor will not be investigated for his dissent

36167-nassau_hall_princeton

A classics professor at Princeton University got into some trouble when he “declared independence” from a petition championed by hundreds of his colleagues.

Here is a taste of Joshua Katz‘s piece at The Wall Street Journal:

Now is the time to debate with renewed vigor existential questions of what counts as justice and how to fashion an equitable society. But the stifling of dissent is impeding the search for answers and driving people who disagree still further apart. Because students like to push boundaries and professors like to argue, colleges and universities are a crucible.

Take the university where I teach, Princeton. The campus—or at least the online campus, in the age of the coronavirus—has been in uproar since early July over a letter of demands to the administration signed by hundreds of my faculty colleagues, and especially over my response to that letter. I was immediately denounced on social media and condemned publicly by my department and the university president. At the same time, the university spokesman announced ominously that the administration would be “looking into the matter further.” On July 14, the Journal’s editorial board commented: “Princeton is demonstrating how a lack of leadership enables the cancel culture.”

It is therefore gratifying to report that Princeton’s leadership has done the right thing. I learned recently that I am not under investigation. The story of how I survived cancellation should be of interest to others, since I have no doubt that many more people, from once-obscure professors to public figures, will be vilified and in some cases materially punished for thought crimes.

In my response to the open letter, I agreed with some of my colleagues’ demands but objected to others, including some that are illegal (giving financial rewards specifically to faculty based on race) or, in my view, immoral (creating a new faculty committee to investigate research for traces of racism and discipline those responsible).

These demands deserve attention, not least because I believe that my colleagues are, for the most part, sensible people who are striving to make the world a better place. Unfortunately, heat over my use of the phrase “terrorist organization” to describe a defunct student group called the Black Justice League—whose members targeted and smeared fellow undergraduates for disagreeing with them—has triumphed over light: Neither my colleagues’ substantive demands nor my objections have received the attention they deserve.

The president of Princeton, Christopher Eisgruber, told a student newspaper that I had violated my obligation to exercise free speech “responsibly,” stating that he “personally and strongly” objected to my “false description” of the defunct student group. Four colleagues in my department, none of whom have been in touch with me directly, used the Princeton Classics website to denounce my language as “abhorrent” and made the astonishing claim that I had placed “Black colleagues, students, and alums at serious risk.” Some students and alumni went after me as well. And that’s to say nothing of the general vitriol online.

Read the rest here.

The president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities on the “ethics of reopening”

College classroom 3

Reverend Dennis Holtschneider, CM, is president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Over at Inside Higher Ed he offers 13 things to think about as colleges and universities reopen in a few weeks:

  1. “Everyone holds ethical responsibility for others in a pandemic”
  2. “Members of a college or university community are responsible for their own health”
  3. “Pre-eminent is not the same as overriding”
  4. “Which ethic serves the moment?”
  5. “At what point are colleges and universities “irresponsible?”
  6. “Ethical responsibility is situational and local”
  7. “How much cleaning is enough cleaning to be ethically in the clear?”
  8. “In a pandemic, shared governance is not suddenly ceded to the senior administration:
  9. “Boards of Trustees and senior leadership must, of necessity, take financial effects and organizational sustainability into account in the decisions they are making.”
  10. “Who decides, once institutions reopen, the point at which they should close again”
  11. “In a pandemic, some courtesies become ethical requirements”
  12. “In college athletics, consent requires freedom”
  13. “What is the responsibility to the town?”

See how Holtschneider unpacks these points here.

Dickinson College will go completely online this Fall

Dickinson_College_600x400-600x400

This post is most relevant for the central Pennsylvania area where I live.

Here is a taste of Julia Agos’s piece at WITF:

(Carlisle) – Dickinson College plans to move to remote instruction for the fall semester.

College President Margee Ensign says the main factor in the decision to suspend in-person classes was primarily aimed at protecting the health and safety of staff and students.

She said the college in Carlisle is concerned about the recent rise in cases, mandatory quarantine for out-of-state students, and social distancing in residential halls.

Ensign said she is disappointed to have to make this decision.

“This is not the semester for which any of us had planned. It is a scenario unlike anything we have experienced, driven by a virus about which much remains unknown,” Ensign said.

Last month, Dickinson announced their intention to resume on campus instruction. But as the pandemic evolved around the commonwealth – the administration determined the best route moving forward would be to continue remote learning.

Other schools, like Penn State, plan to use a hybrid model with a mix of in person classes and remote learning. While Gettysburg College and Franklin & Marshall plan to resume in person instruction but will not have students return to campus after traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday.

A small number of students will be permitted on-campus residence. Such exceptions include international students who need to return to campus and students without secure housing, food, or internet service.

The college is freezing tuition for the 2020-2021 academic year and will waive its student activities fee, to alleviate the financial burden felt by families, according to a press release.

Read the entire piece here.

Messiah University is taking an approach similar to Gettysburg College and Franklin & Marshall College.

Is the American mind closing?

College-classroom

James Ceaser, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, makes some important points about intellectual inquiry in this piece at The National Review. 

I found this section useful:

Begin with higher education, the institution traditionally charged with presenting much of our youth with different perspectives and with asking them to explore alternative points of view. University mottoes often boast of just this kind of commitment, be it Lux et Veritas (“Light and Truth,” Yale), Emet (“Truth, Even unto Its Innermost Parts,” Brandeis), or Scientia et Virtus(“Knowledge and Virtue,” Middlebury College). Many universities and colleges have become renowned for suppressing such inquiry, reversing course on plans to award honorary degrees, as Brandeis did to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or allowing their students to prevent, through disruption, an invited speaker from giving his talk, as with Charles Murray at Middlebury. Such actions are taken today in compliance with decisions of university presidents or in acquiescence to student-activist demands. The institutions now insist on their new unlimited right to indoctrinate, not their old obligation to present uncomfortable ideas. The greater problem in universities is not, however, in the limits they place or allow on outside visitors, which can prove embarrassing for the media coverage they attract. The deeper challenge is found in the day-in, day-out operation of the institution itself, where the left-leaning positions of the faculty and administration are pervasive. Higher education has become a monoculture, serving as a plantation for progressive and leftist ideas. Conservative perspectives are rarely heard. Just a decade ago, when the imbalance of viewpoints was becoming more obvious, lip service was paid to making an effort to bring to campus a greater diversity of opinions. This concern has now gone by the wayside. The term “diversity” itself now carries a completely different meaning, no longer referring to different ways of thinking but to the gender orientations and ethnic and racial characteristics of the faculty. Applicants for many faculty positions are today required to present diversity statements, testifying to their views on this subject, as a condition for employment, while existing faculty in many institutions are asked to offer a report on their equity activities. 

Read the entire piece here.

I find myself in general agreement with this part of Caesar’s piece. I actually wrote something similar here. (If you want to see proof of what I am talking about, read the comments).

I have always enjoyed working at a Christian institution because of the academic freedom I enjoy. Do Christian colleges and universities limit academic freedom? Of course they do. I have to affirm the Apostles Creed to teach at Messiah University. But for those who teach from the perspective of faith, a Christian college can be an incredibly liberating place.

But when I read pieces like Caesar’s, I wonder where conservatives draw the line in their arguments for open inquiry and academic freedom. This is an honest question. I understand that there are different views on abortion and sexual ethics. Some faculty are Republicans or, dare I say, Trump supporters. I would argue, as I did in the Aeon piece above, that there should be plenty of room for diversity on these things. I wish there was more intellectual pluralism in universities. (I also wish there was more intellectual pluralism, within the Christian tradition of course, at Christian colleges and universities. But that is another matter for another post).

But what about a scholar who denies the existence of the Holocaust? Should a white supremacist be allowed to teach on a university campus? Someone who thinks COVID-19 is not real? What about a professor who denies systemic racism? How about a climate change denier or someone who teaches a Trumpian view of American history or thinks the earth is 3000-years-old or believes the past is best explained in a history course by invoking divine providence? Certainly free inquiry can’t be completely free, can it?

Since I do not teach at a secular university, I have not spent a lot of time thinking about how to draw such boundaries. Most of my battles on this front take place from within the Christian tradition. But whenever I hear conservatives complaining about a lack of free inquiry, I seldom hear anyone offering positive visions for what they want the university to look like or how to navigate some of the questions I raised above. If there are examples of this, and I have a hunch that there are and I am just not familiar with them, I would like to learn more.

By the way, the National Review is running what looks like an interesting series on American identity, but I can’t read it or engage it because of the paywall. Authors include David French, Joseph Epstein, Allen Guelzo, and Yuval Levin.

What is Going on at Missouri Western State University?

Missour Western

More sad news.  Here is Inside Higher Ed:

Of all the faculty cuts made during COVID-19 pandemic so far, those at Missouri Western State University may be the deepest. The institution is laying off 31 nontenured instructors, including some on the tenure track, at the end of this year. Twenty remaining professors will receive terminal, one-year contracts, meaning that about one-quarter of the full-time faculty will be gone by 2021. Others will take early retirement. Dozens of majors, minors and concentrations are being cut, too, including English, history, philosophy, political science, economics, sociology, Spanish, French and the arts.

Read the rest here.

According to this document, the university is adding programs in Performing Arts, Recreation and Sport Management, Law, Earth Science, and Esports Management.

Why American Universities are Failing

HU-Campus

Political scientist David Schultz of Hamline University offers a scathing critique of the American university in his recent piece at CounterPunch. This hits close to home.

A taste:

American universities are failing. They are private or public schools. They could be religiously-affiliated or not. They could be in the east, west, north, or south of the United States.  They traditionally emphasized liberal arts. They are facing an enrollment and budget crunch for several years, seeing that the declining number of eighteen-year-olds in the coming years poses an existential threat. It has a modest endowment. It is not an elite school. It is a school like the one that many professors teach at.  It was failing before Covid-19. It may not be around in five years. With COVID-19, it may be around even less than that.

Years ago, I argued that higher education had a failed business plan, one that planted the seeds of its own destruction. It was a plan following the failures of K-12.  Now the reality of the failed business plan is imminent .

The reasons for failing are many.

For years it relied on the same demographic of white students to recruit, except that demographic is disappearing.

For years it raised tuition at percentages that far outstripped the cost of living and increases in median household incomes, and now many students cannot afford to go to college.

For years it raised tuition to convince people that the more expensive it was the better a school it was.  Except the school did not invest the money in academic programs.

For years it played the U.S. News & World Reportcollege rankings game.  Except all the other schools played too and all it accomplished was elegant dorms and rising tuition.

For years it spent increasing amounts of money on lavish meals and events to recruit students.  Except all the other schools did the same.

For years it encouraged students to borrow, except now with student loan debt at nearly $2 trillion they are tapped out.

For years  it chased adult Baby Boomer learners who wanted additional credentials or thought they had a novel in them.  But this demographic is gone.

For years  it jumped on the bandwagon to create pricey graduate programs such as MBAs to subsidize the liberal arts school.  Except this balloon busted.

Read the rest here.

Don’t Vilify Educated People

Have you seen memes like this?:

Meme Philosophy job

Jonathan Couser, a history professor at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, New Hampshire, has some good thoughts about this meme.  Here is what he recently wrote on his Facebook page (used with permission):

Bash the meme time, children. This was recently shared by a friend who, appropriately, took it down. But it’s the kind of thing that circulates a lot so I’m going to share it myself – with some analysis.

At first glance, the meme appears to be pointing out the value of trade jobs, which provide solid employment with little or no college debt. That’s true enough, and valid. These careers are good options that young people should consider.

But that’s not all it’s doing.

It’s misleading on a number of points. While “Adam’s” $100K in college debt is not unheard of, it’s nowhere near typical. Actual average college debt is around $30K. Meanwhile, “Chris'” income figure is inflated – it’s possible to make $80K a year as an electrician, but the average figure is around half that, maybe three-quarters, depending on where you live.

The meme says that “Adam” can’t find “a philosophy job,” which is no-brainer because, outside of academia, where you’d need a PhD rather than a BA, there’s no such thing as “a philosophy job.” That makes a cheap shot easy for the meme-creator, but disingenuously hides the realities.

Philosophy majors (and majors in other supposedly “worthless” degrees like History or English) actually do very well on the job market. The major is not designed as job training. Instead, they go into all kinds of careers where skills in writing, communicating, or analytical thinking are beneficial. They are also much better prepared than most to go on to graduate programs like an MBA or JD and become lawyers or business executives.

In fact, according to Five-Thirty-Eight in 2015, the average income of a philosophy major was – guess what? – $80K – the amount that was the inflated claim for “Chris'” income.

After being dishonest, the meme gets ugly.

Supposedly, “Adam” thinks that “Chris” is stupid. Meanwhile, “Chris” gleefully disconnects “Adam’s” electricity.

This is the rhetoric of grievance. It vilifies the educated people of the world, the philosophers, as a bunch of snobs who carry an unjustified contempt for working people. And it relishes the sense of vengeance, of getting even, that “we” (since we’re clearly supposed to be cheering for “Chris” by the time we read this far down the meme) are going to stick it to “them.” There’s no sense of empathy for “Adam” losing his electricity or blame that “Chris” does this to him. We’re supposed to think it’s just deserts.

To be sure, there are some educated snobs in the world. But I spend my life in academia, and I can honestly say that I can’t think of any of my colleagues, nor students, ever expressing contempt for working people. It’s a myth.

What’s really going on here is not a positive promotion of the value of a good trade career. What’s really going on is a toxic attack on higher education. The meme is designed to promote a sense of grievance, of resentment, and of contempt for education and the educated. By encouraging the “Chris'” of the world to despise the foolish “Adams”, the meme tells people they don’t need to listen to reasoning, they don’t need to respect expertise, and thus makes them pliable to misinformation, fake news and propaganda.

I agree with every word of Couser’s analysis.

In Defense of Knowledge

knowledgeHere is the American Association of University Professors:

“Knowledge,” as Francis Bacon observed in 1597 at the dawn of the modern era, “is power.” Without knowledge no nation can govern its economy, manage its environment, sustain its public health, produce goods or services, understand its own history, or enable its citizens to understand the circumstances in which they live.

Knowledge is produced by the hard work of disciplined, well-trained investigators. Industry and government must hire doctors, chemists, lawyers, architects, teachers, journalists, economists, and engineers. Colleges and universities are the only institutions qualified to provide this expert training. It is therefore most unfortunate that at this moment of intense global instability, there is an ongoing movement to attack the disciplines and institutions that produce and transmit the knowledge that sustains American democracy.

This is not the first time that the very idea of expert knowledge has been under assault. Indeed, US secretary of education Betsy DeVos unironically recycles Pink Floyd—who in the 1970s sang, “We don’t need no education . . . teachers leave those kids alone”—when she warns college students that “the fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think.” When college students are encouraged to confuse education with, as one student recently put it, being “intimidated by the academic elite in the classroom,” we have a crisis.

 Is it intimidation to teach eighteen-year-olds to solve differential equations? Is it intimidation to teach them the principles of quantum mechanics? Is it intimidation to teach them the somatic effects of nicotine? Is it intimidation to teach them about the history of slavery and Jim Crow, or the history of the Holocaust? Is it intimidation to teach them how to read closely the texts of Toni Morrison or Gabriel García-Márquez? Is it elitism to predict the path of a hurricane? Is it elitism to track the epidemic of opioid addiction? Or to study the impact of tariffs on the economy?

We do not think so. This is research and education, not intimidation or elitism. Coiled beneath the comments of Secretary DeVos lies the assumption that all knowledge is just opinion and that each person has an equal right to her own opinion. Stephen Colbert put it nicely, referring to what he called “truthiness”: “It used to be everyone was entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all.” Now some would urge us to inhabit a universe of “alternative facts.”

But, as John Adams long ago observed, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” If we ignore facts, we will forever be running aground on their unseen shoals. It is especially worrisome, then, to witness what has become an organized attack on knowledge.

Read the entire piece here.

What Kind of Technology Do Undergraduates Want?

c78b4-messiahcollegeboyerhallcopy_2

Messiah College participated in this survey

According to the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research, undergraduates:

  • want mostly face-to-face learning environments.
  • want lectures, student presentations, question and answer sessions, and class discussions to take place in a face-to-face learning environment , as opposed to homework, exams, and quizzes.
  • really like degree audits and degree planning tools.
  • want Wi-Fi in the library and classrooms.
  • think that their professors do a good job in using technology to enhance their learning.
  • who have disabilities are not happy with, or upset with, their access to technology on campus.

Dig deeper here.

Episode 54: Why College?

PodcastIncreasingly, college campuses have transformed from places of rigorous scholarly pursuits into glorified centers for job training. But is this what college is really for? Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling sit down and discuss the need for aspirational hope in an increasingly pessimistic world. They are joined by Dr. Johann Neem (@JohannNeem), author of the recent book, What’s the Point of College?

Neem: We Cannot “Think Critically” Without Knowledge

think-622689_960_720

Johann Neem is on fire.  Earlier today we linked to his Chronicle of Higher Education piece calling for the elimination of the business major.  Now we link to his Hedgehog Review piece on “critical thinking.” I have ordered his book What’s the Point of College?: Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform.

Neem argues that critical thinking cannot take place without knowledge–the kind of knowledge one learns in a particular discipline.  Or, as he puts it, colleges and universities should understand skill development “in relation to the goods of liberal education.”

Here is a taste:

Advocates of critical thinking contrast thinking critically with learning knowledge. College professors, they proclaim, teach a bunch of stuff (facts, dates, formulae) that students don’t need and won’t use. Instead, students need to have intellectual and cognitive skills. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has proclaimed, “the world doesn’t care anymore what you know” but “what you can do.”

There are two problems with this perspective. First, it is fundamentally anti-intellectual. It presumes that the material colleges teach—the arts and sciences—does not matter, when, in fact, this is the very reason colleges exist. Second, these claims are wrong. Cognitive science demonstrates that if we want critical thinkers, we need to ensure that they have knowledge. Thinking cannot be separated from knowledge. Instead, critical thinking is learning to use our knowledge. The most effective critical thinkers, then, are those who learn history or physics. The stuff we learn about matters.

In many ways, the turn to skills is a defensive response. At a time when the humanities, in particular, are under attack, what better way to defend the humanities’ “useless knowledge” than by demonstrating that these are means to a larger end: critical thinking? However, one must acknowledge that these defenses reflect the capitulation of academics to utilitarian and pragmatic pressures. Lacking a convincing argument for the knowledge that anthropologists or historians have to offer, they instead proclaim that history and anthropology will serve employers’ needs better than will other fields. But if that’s the case, why does one really need to know anything about anthropology or history? Why should colleges hire anthropologists or historians instead of professors of critical thinking?

This is not an abstract question. When we turn from higher education to the K–12 system, we see that the focus on skills over knowledge has transformed the curriculum. Increasingly, especially under the Common Core State Standards, students devote their energies to learning skills, but they may not learn as much history or civics or science. Therefore, in contrast to the anti-intellectual rhetoric of many reformers, critical thinking must be defended because it encourages students to gain more insight from the arts and sciences.

Read the entire piece here.

When the Way of Improvement Can’t Lead Home: A Brief Review of Tara Westover’s *Educated*

Educated Tara Westover

Sometimes the way of improvement leads home. It did for Philip Vickers Fithian, the eighteenth-century son of New Jersey farmers who got an education at Princeton and spent the rest of his short life wrestling with what that meant for his relationship with friends and family in his “beloved Cohansey.”  Fithian eventually returned home, but since he died in the American Revolution we will never know how long he would have stayed.

Wendell Berry left home to become a writer.  He eventually returned to Port Royal, Kentucky and never left.  The conservative writer Rod Dreher went back to LouisianaBruce Springsteen came back to New Jersey.

Sometimes the way of improvement does not lead home, but the newly educated traveler finds ways to stay connected and deal with the psychological and emotional challenges that come with displacement.  Richard Rodriguez’s education led him away from home on a variety of levels, but he spent the rest of his career writing about his family and his “hunger for memory.”  Sarah Smolinksy, the fictional character in Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, got educated and left the tyranny of her father’s immigrant Jewish household in New York City.  Yet she figured out a small way to honor her father and sustain a relationship with him, even inviting him to live with her.

But sometimes the way of improvement can’t lead home.  When Frederick Douglass learned how to read he was exposed to a world of abolitionism and anti-slavery that he never knew existed.  Education led to liberation. (This is why we call it “liberal arts education”). There would be no going back to the tyranny of slavery.

We see all three of these models in Educated, Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up among fundamentalist Mormons on a mountain in Idaho.  Westover had no formal schooling, but managed to educate herself well enough to score a 28 on the ACT and win a scholarship to Brigham Young University.

At first, Westover never imagined that her education would take her somewhere beyond the mountain.  She came home every summer and seems to have fully expected a return to her family.  But education changes a person.  Sarah learned that she was becoming something different–something very unlike her physically abusive older brother, her spiritually abusive father (in this sense, her story is most similar to Smolinsky in Bread Givers), and her mother who rejected science and medicine in favor of “essential oils.”

Through the study of psychology Westover learned that her father and brother might be bipolar.  Through her study of history she learned that her father’s conspiracy theories were built on a very shaky historical foundation.  With the help of roommates, boyfriends, and a Mormon bishop in Provo, she learned that doctors and medicine are good things.  With the help of BYU history professor Paul Kerry (a professor who once showed me around Oxford University), she encountered a world of ideas and learning that she never knew existed.  Kerry, with the help of Cambridge historian Jonathan Steinberg, convinced her that she belonged in this world.

Westover not only survived in this world, but she thrived in it.  She won numerous academic awards at BYU, including a Gates Fellowship to Cambridge.  Her way of improvement led her to a visiting fellowship at Harvard and a Ph.D in history from Cambridge.

Yet the longing of home–of family, of place, of roots–continued to pull her back to the mountain. She spent long months during her doctoral program in a state of depression as she came to grips with how education was uprooting her.  When she to tried to bring light to the dark sides of her childhood, address the tyranny, abuse, and superstition that took place everyday on the mountain, and somehow try to bring the fruits of her liberal learning to the place she loved, her family ostracized her.  The way of improvement could not lead home.  There would be no rural Enlightenment.

Westover’s story is a common one, but rarely do we see the tension between “the way of improvement” and “home” play out in such stark contrasts.

“Don’t find yourself, find your vocation”

Fuller with Towel

History major Jonathan Fuller holding his towel

When Messiah College students cross the platform during their graduation ceremony they receive a small white towel.  The towel symbolizes service.  As Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, so we hope our graduates will think about their lives in terms of service to others.  I thought about this Messiah College tradition when I read Tom Perrin’s excellent New York Times op-ed, “One Way to Make College Meaningful.”  I especially like the subtitle: “Don’t find yourself; find a vocation.”

Here is a taste of his piece:

Why vocation, though, rather than the old model of learning for learning’s sake? Why not, as the religious studies professor Ron Srigley has recently argued, return to the old, “beautiful goal” of the university, “to discover and then to tell the truth,” disentangled from the mercenary arms of the offices of careers and student life? My answer would be that universities have always been hybrid creatures, serving many masters at once: social norms, the market, churches and the exacting standards of disciplinary research, to name four. But the fantasy of the university as a disinterested sphere of pure knowledge is just that. This is not so much to attack the liberal arts as it is to point out that to link them purposefully with life and career goals is not at all to alter the way they have long functioned.

Read the entire piece here.

Will the Liberal Arts Survive?

Stevens Point

Adam Harris, education writer at The Atlantic, tells the story of cuts to liberal arts programs and majors in the University of Wisconsin system.  Here is a taste:

For many years, Wisconsin had one of the finest public-university systems in the country. It was built on an idea: that the university’s influence should not end at the campus’s borders, that professors—and the students they taught—should “search for truth” to help state legislators write laws, aid the community with technical skills, and generally improve the quality of life across the state.

Many people attribute the Wisconsin Idea, as it is known, to Charles Van Hise, the president of the University of Wisconsin from 1903 to 1918. “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every family of the state,” Hise said in an address in 1905. “If our beloved institution reaches this ideal it will be the first perfect state university.” His idea was written into the mission of the state’s university system, and over time that system became a model for what public higher education could be.

But the backbone of the idea almost went away in 2015, when Governor Scott Walker released his administration’s budget proposal, which included a change to the university’s mission. The Wisconsin Idea would be tweaked. The “search for truth” would be cut in favor of a charge to “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

To those outside Wisconsin, the proposed change might have seemed small. After all, what’s so bad about an educational system that propels people into a high-tech economy? But to many Wisconsinites, the change struck at the heart of the state’s identity. They argued that the idea—with its core tenets of truth, public service, and “improving the human condition”—is what makes Wisconsin, Wisconsin.

Walker ultimately scrapped his attempt to alter the Wisconsin Idea, claiming that his administration hadn’t meant to change it, that it was just a “drafting error.” And so the Wisconsin Idea was preserved—at least in an official sense. But though the words survived intact, many Wisconsinites believe that in the years since, the change Walker had proposed has taken place nevertheless. And one of the state’s institutions, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, is the epicenter of that change.

In mid-November, the university announced its plans to stop offering six liberal-arts majors, including geography, geology, French, German, two- and three-dimensional art, and history. The plan stunned observers, many of whom argued that at a time when Nazism is resurgent, society needs for people to know history, even if the economy might not. But the university said it just was not possible: After decades of budget cuts, the most extreme of which came under Walker, Stevens Point no longer had the resources to sustain these six majors.

Read the rest here.  We are educating for our capitalist economy.  But are we educating for a thriving democracy?

Princeton’s Robert George on Intellectual and Ideological Diversity in the Academy

7b24a-princeton

While I was visiting a big state university a couple of weeks ago I had a robust, spirited, and civil conversation with the history faculty about how to teach controversial or morally problematic issues.  Many of the history professors in the room said that they use their classrooms to advocate for certain political causes (all on the left) or see no problem giving their personal opinion about a particular issue or idea that arises from the study of the past.

I pushed back. I wondered whether the history classroom was primarily the place where such moral criticism should happen.  Those familiar with my Why Study History?: A Historical Introduction know that I think there is a difference between moral philosophy (ethics) and history.  Though I obviously have my opinions, and many of them are informed by my understanding of the past, I rarely bring those opinions into the classroom.  For example, the only time I talk about Donald Trump in my classroom is when he gets something wrong about history or uses the past irresponsibly to justify this or that policy.   I do the same thing with any public figure who manipulates the past for political gain.

In other words, my blog and other social media feeds are not the best representations of what my classroom looks like.

Robert George of Princeton University is very conservative.  I have seen him defending moral conservatism in public talks, in writing, and on social media.  But if I read his recent interview with Matthew Stein at The College Fix, I don’t think these conservative political and moral convictions dominate his classroom.  George has some very interesting things to say about intellectual and ideological diversity in the classroom. Here is a taste:

The College Fix: In your Open Minds Conference panel, you mentioned that you don’t think professors should “use their classrooms as a soapbox for advocacy,” and that you and professors like Cornel West make your classrooms as intellectually stimulating and valuable as possible by honestly portraying both sides of an argument. This seems to hit on a big issue with the universities today, as many professors of the “progressive orthodoxy” you later mentioned seem to use their positions to influence their students into becoming activists of related social causes. How do you think society can address this issue, particularly given the system of tenure and the sheer magnitude of the problem?

Robert George: Like most of the problems in academia—and society more broadly—today, what is needed above all is courage. We need the courage to speak the truth even when it is uncomfortable, and even when truth-speaking carries risks. Professors who seek to indoctrinate their students are betraying a sacred trust. They are supposed to be educators. If there is an antonym to “educating,” it’s “indoctrinating.” Professors (and other teachers) who engage in indoctrination need to be confronted. Certainly administrators need to do this. Fellow faculty members need to do it. And students themselves need to do it, too.

Is this risky, especially for students? You bet it is. But that’s where the virtue of courage comes in. All of us—including students—need to muster the courage to call out teachers who betray their sacred trust. In addition, professors who understand the importance of truly educating students, and who grasp the fundamental difference between education and indoctrination, need to set an excellent example for their colleagues—especially younger colleagues. Together, we can establish a milieu that powerfully discourages indoctrination.

CF: You also mentioned that you should create an atmosphere of “unsettling” each other in the classroom. Looking at the campus more generally, there are continually accounts of the opposite atmosphere in regards to discussing “unsettling ideas,” whether it be by an outside speaker being shut down or students on campus being afraid to express unpopular viewpoints. How can this negative general atmosphere on campus be improved to encourage students to act out the ideal intellectual atmosphere that you described?

RG: Again, courage is the key. Students must have the courage to express dissent—even if they are alone or in a small minority in the class in holding a particular view. And faculty members need to model courage for their students—and for their colleagues (especially younger colleagues). All of us must overcome the natural fear we feel in oppressive environments of the sort that too often exist today in college, high school, and even middle school classrooms. And when a dissenter does speak up in defiance of a campus dogma, all of us (and not only those who happen to share his or her dissenting opinion) need swiftly to provide that individual with support.

That is how we will establish an environment in which people are free—and feel and know they are free—to speak their minds, thus benefiting the entire community by contributing to robust, civil campus debates.

CF: Identity politics was one issue you touched on in the Q&A, which you said has a negative effect on both college campuses and society at large. Could you speak a little more on how identity politics and student groups organized around group identity has negatively affected the university? Are there any common issues of identity politics amongst the faculty? Has it had any effects on your or other professors’ ability to create the positive intellectual atmosphere you previously mentioned?

RG: Identity politics, and the dogmas of the phenomenon that has come to be known as “intersectionality,” harm learning environments by encouraging groupthink and stigmatizing dissent.

One especially regrettable consequence of the rise of identitarianism is the pressure placed on female and minority students to hold and express opinions that are in line with what women and members of minority groups are “supposed” to think. If you are female, you are “supposed” to hold a certain view on abortion and the status of unborn human life. If you are black, you are “supposed” to express a certain view on the desirability of affirmative action programs of certain sorts. If you are Latino, you are “supposed” to have a certain set of beliefs on immigration policy.

I find this reprehensible. People need to think for themselves. And they need to do that, and need to know that they are entitled to do that, whether they are male or female, black, white, green, blue, or purple.

 

Read the entire interview here.  He also has some interesting things to say about Liberty University.