Academic Freedom

Back in the day when I was teaching at the collegiate level we worried about academic freedom. In those days, it amounted to insisting that administrators allow faculty of differing opinions and philosophical convictions to speak their minds without recrimination. It also insisted on equal pay for equal work. It degenerated into unionization which, while it did raise salaries and save the careers of a number of faculty members, it also set a tone that I always felt was inimical to the ideals of collegiality that ought to be found on college campuses. But then I have been spitting into the wind so long my saliva is about used up.

Of late, however, the university faculties themselves are interfering with academic freedom. Increasingly, they are refusing to allow speakers to speak on campuses across the country, “controversial” figures like George W. Bush, Madeleine Albright, George Will, Paul Ryan, Condoleezza Rice, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Bear in mind that the universities that denied these people a voice on their campuses, because of student and faculty protests, are so-called “prestige” academies — places like Brandeis University, Stanford University, Boston College, Rutgers University, University of Minnesota, Yale University, and others of equal standing.

Students, often led by militant faculty with hidden agendas, are becoming increasingly strident in their opposition to ideas they regard as a threat to what they regard as social justice. In a word, they have their minds made up and cannot allow alien information to intrude on their convictions and deeply held beliefs. Increasing numbers of universities, in a word, are becoming closed systems that refuse to allow outside information to penetrate if it is determined by the vocal element on campus that those ideas are somehow harmful. There are exceptions, but they are increasingly rare.

Coupled with this intolerance in places that ought to be open to all ideas no matter how radical or outrageous, is the growing ignorance of the students and a great  number of the faculty. A recent study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni determined that:

• Nearly 10% of recent college graduates think Judge Judy is a member of the Supreme Court.

• Less than 20% of those college graduates know the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation.

• More than a quarter of the college graduates did not know that Franklin D. Roosevelt was president during World War II.

• One-third did not know Franklin D. Roosevelt was the president who spearheaded the New Deal.

And so it goes. To augment their ignorance, many of those students, while enrolled, were involved in a variety of campus protests, including a group from Brown University that complained of the emotional stress and poor grades that followed from the months they spent protesting! They blamed the university for insisting that they complete coursework and demanded “incompletes” on their course work.

On many campuses protest seems to have become an end in itself as self-indulgent students increasingly complain about their course requirements and about the poor grades they receive as a result of their unwillingness to complete those requirements. And in many cases, intimidated or sympathetic faculty take the side of the students rather than take the lead in showing them the way out of their ignorance by opening them up to new intellectual horizons. For many who teach, followers are what it’s all about — especially those who give them praise in on-line evaluations that often determine how full or empty their classroom might be. The pressure to be popular, to give students a “break,” is immense and helps us to understand grade inflation. Pressure was immense when I taught and it has only increased as students’ sense of entitlement has grown by leaps and bounds in our permissive society.

In the end, the trend toward closing doors (and minds) to new ideas, coupled with the increasing tendency to ask little of spoiled students who complain when asked to do what they really would rather not do, will reduce our academies of higher learning to country clubs and mental health clinics where students can feel safe and protected from the realities of the world “out there.” In a word, universities are rapidly becoming more concerned about the “well-being” of the students than about their intellectual growth. This does not absolve members of college faculties of their responsibility to prepare their students for the real world; it merely recounts what seems to be a growing trend in academia.

 

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The Capitalist Myth

As the wealthy accrue more and more power, the middle class disappears, and the number of poor and homeless increases there are those that still cling to the myth that we live in a capitalistic economy that rewards those with grit and determination. The poor are poor because they lack gumption: they are so by virtue of their unwillingness to work hard and achieve the success that is there for anyone who truly wants it. This is the old “Horatio Alger” fiction that went out with gas lights. But it lingers in the minds of the very wealthy who like to think they live in a free-enterprise system that has made it possible for them to have earned their wealth and position by virtue of their own intelligence, determination and will-power. Some have, of course, but a great many have simply been downright lucky.

In any event, the fiction that we live in an economy that can be described as “free-enterprise capitalism” is just that, a myth. Joseph Schumpeter wrote about it in the 1940s and he pointed out that even back then capitalism in this country was being slowly displaced by socialism (gasp!!). And that was at a time when the middle class had political clout and was a significant part of our economy and there was real competition among a wide variety of businesses.  Schumpeter put this notion forward in his remarkable book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy where he also pointed out that today’s politician is a professional whose only qualification for public office  (and only genuine concern) is that he is able to get himself (or herself) elected. Schumpeter also has a number of wonderfully pithy comments about classical political philosophy and the notions of the Common Good and the General Will — the latter of which he insists should more accurately be called the “manufactured will,” constructed by the media in general and advertising in particular. He has a rather low opinion of ordinary citizens and the effort they put into political involvement.

“The ordinary citizen musing over national affairs. . . is a member of an unworkable committee, the committee of the whole nation, [on which] he expends less disciplined effort on mastering a political problem than he expends on a game of bridge. . . .Thus the typical citizen drops to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his own real interest. He becomes a primitive again. His thinking becomes associative and affective.”

But I digress. To support Schumpeter’s claim about the demise of capitalism, consider that capitalism had devolved to the point that private property — which John Locke and Adam Smith regarded as the cornerstone of capitalism — has disappeared. The banks now own our homes and we lease our cars; we buy things on credit and owe thousands of dollars to merchants as we continue to “buy” things we may never actually pay for and certainly cannot be said to own in any meaningful sense of that term. Consider also that the concept of “family,” another cornerstone of capitalist societies, has become radically altered as many couples do not get married or raise children and many who do get married end in divorce; in general the family has evaporated as the need for children disappeared with the agrarian society of years past which gradually morphed into a commodified culture in which both parents went to work and sent what children they had off to day care. Before farms became highly mechanized farmers needed a large number of children, accountants do not.  As Schumpeter says, many couples now apply a rationalized “utilitarian calculus” to the question of raising children and decide “Why should we stunt our ambitions and impoverish our lives in order to be insulted and looked down upon in our old age?” Indeed. But bear in mind that both family and private property helped to define capitalism during the Victorian era when capitalism reached its apogee — and came under withering criticism by thinkers as diverse as Charles Dickens and Karl Marx.

Further, open competition among businesses has become a thing of the past as well. It was safely laid to rest by F.D.R. in the 1930s, especially in his “New Deal” which included such acts as the National Industrial Recovery Act designed to end “cutthroat competition” within major industries. In any event, meaningful competition in business is a bit of a joke any more as the corporations have taken over and are busily running small businesses out the economic back door — an estimated 200,000 small businesses went under during the recent recession. With the collusion of obliging legislators, the corporations can withstand years of weak economic times; small businesses cannot. And on the agrarian front the private farms are being taken over by the corporations as well. It is calculated that more than 90% of the corn now produced in this country is produced on corporate farms. One might even argue that the corporations are writing the epitaph of the democratic process as well as the economic one as they continue to buy politicians and commandeer the political process.

In any event, it is time to admit that free-enterprise capitalism, if not Democracy, is a thing of the past. If we can agree that Socialism is an economic system in which the government owns the means of production, as Marx defined it, and we can agree that the corporations now own our government, we can perhaps conclude that our economic system is socialistic, in a peculiar sense of that term. And to coin an ugly term to describe our ugly political system, we have devolved from a Democratic Republic to become a corporatocracy. The notion that we are no longer a democracy may be debatable; the claim that free-enterprise capitalism is a fiction is not.