Inside The Ivory Tower

Several months ago I noted that the American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb had pointed out in one of her many books that much that happens within the Ivory Tower has an impact on much of what happens  in what people like to refer to as “the real world.” The obvious example is “P.C.” that started within the Tower and has permeated our culture at present, especially the halls of corporate America where lawyers earn big fees making sure no one says anything to anyone the might get someone into trouble — or, more to the point, drag the corporate body into court. One might mention the postmodern attack on truth and factuality which has reared its ugly head outside the Ivory Tower in the form of “Alternative Facts.” In any event, all of us might want to pay attention to what those folks behind those ivy covered walls are up to.

Of greatest concern, in my view, is what is called “Identity Politics.” This movement started in the mid 70s in our academies of higher learning and has mushroomed into a full-out assault on everything once considered sacred, including much of the subject matter that comprises the bulwark of Western Civilization. In any event, the mantra in the Ivory Tower these days is that we must trash the detritus of Western Civilization — all of it bad — and care about, if not care for, the chronically disadvantaged, the marginal folks who have been long ignored in academia, and without. This has resulted in a spate of courses in such things as “women’s studies,” “black studies, “native American studies,” and the like. I have blogged about such courses before, but the main point is that these courses are important in their own way, but they are narrow in scope and have wrongly displaced the core of liberal courses that espouse a broad approach to education and also have the goal of putting young people in possession of their own minds, not the minds of their politically motivated instructors. “Studies” courses tend to be dogmatic and confuse education with indoctrination. The defense, when there is one, is that education has always preached and it is now “our turn.” But this a mistake of the first order. Education is not about preaching at all, regardless of what the message happens to be.

In any event, there are those who say that our institutions of higher education have become nothing less than therapy clinics designed to make sure that all who enter will never suffer the slings and arrows of bigotry or insult. This, too, is not a bad thing  — up to a point. We need to be sensitive to the concerns of those who have been marginalized and who might suffer from disguised attacks on the values they hold most dear in the form of language they find hurtful. But at the same time, higher education is supposed to prepare young people for the world outside the Ivory Towers and pain is part of life, as is racism and bigotry. And all ideas are deserving of consideration regardless of how unpalatable they might be. These young people might be better off in the long run if they confronted their fears and suspicions in a place where such things can be discussed in a rational and coherent manner, rather than pretending life is all skittles and beer and finding out later it is not so.

As far as the influence of identity politics outside the hallowed halls of academe is concerned, it has been said of the liberals who lead the growing numbers of folks within the academy in their collective outrage against all things Western that their influence is bringing about the demise of the Democratic Party. I have seen it argued that it is precisely the concern with marginalized people and the concomitant ignoring of “Mainstream America” that is destroying the Democratic Party. Instead of bringing America together, separateness is the word of the day. The connection here is liberals within the walls and liberal politicians without. And this despite the fact that Hillary Clinton, in the recent election, collected three million more popular votes than did her opponent — what’s-his-name. The logic I must say, leaves me a bit confused, but the point may be worth considering. It seems unwise to ignore the major players in the game of politics, the folks that could win or lose an election.

The Democratic Party has historically drawn its strength from the mass of men and women who have been ignored by the wealthy fat cats who control the strings of political power. The Democratic Party, it has been said, cares about people, the Republican Party  cares only about profits. Simplistic, I would agree. But perhaps not entirely wrong. In any event, it might be wise for the Democratic Party to take a long hard look at the people it seeks to draw into its house. Just pause and consider the loonies the Republicans have recently invited into theirs! Should the Democrats be concerned only about marginalized people and ignore entirely those who sweat and strain to make ends meet in “Mainstream America,” those folks who have traditionally been the backbone of the Democratic Party? It is a question worth pondering.


Women’s Studies

I have a bone to pick with such things as “women’s studies” in our colleges and universities which have become all the rage. My bone-picking will extend to such things as “black studies” and other attempts to narrow down the educational enterprise. But let me begin with a disclaimer.

I have no problem whatever with women. On the contrary, I have always felt much more comfortable in the company of women than I do in the company of men. This probably stems from the fact that my father left my mother, sister, and me when I was two years old and I have never fully trusted men since that time. His leaving was compounded by the fact that my father didn’t support our family after the divorce and left his high-school educated ex-wife with two kids to raise and very little money to do it with. As I said, I have no prejudices against women. Indeed, I suspect there are few men who sympathize more than I with the plight of women in a man’s world. That being said, I am convinced that such things as “women’s studies” programs in our colleges and universities are a terrible mistake, not because they study women, but because specialized studies at the undergraduate level are tangential to the real purpose of the academy.

Such programs confuse the goals of higher education, which are less about what to know, than about how to know. Women’s studies programs, together with other specialized courses of studies, come perilously close to indoctrination, which is the furthest thing from true education. As I am fond of saying, education is about putting young people in possession of their own minds. It’s not about instilling in students shared attitudes with their instructors through biased readings and one-sided lectures. So often one hears about the need for greater “cultural diversity” in these discussions, but we hear very little about intellectual diversity, which is at the heart of education. Indeed, at least one woman in academia spoke out against women’s studies when Daphne Patai of the University of Massachusetts/Amherst noted that they place politics over education, arguing that “the strategies of faculty members in these programs have included policing insensitive language, championing research methods deemed congenial to women (such as qualitative over quantitative methods), and conducting classes as if they were therapy sessions.” This sort of thing is miles away from what education is supposed to be about. To take a young person right out of high school and narrow her focus on books and lectures about the plight of women — which is worthy of study, but something that can be studied by anyone who has learned how to learn — is a mistake of the first order. The same could be said about any narrow course of study.

Generally speaking, young people today come out of high school knowing very little and lacking the basic tools required to take possession of their own minds — such tools as a mastery of language, mathematical reasoning, knowledge of the rudiments of science, and, especially, critical thinking. Such things must, then, be the focus of attention in any undergraduate curriculum. In a word, higher education must be built on a broader base than it is at present. That is what the notion of the liberal arts has always been about, and those arts have been swallowed up in the frantic battle at the “higher” levels over politics and intellectual territory. College professors in my experience know little about the purpose of education; they don’t think about it much because they are convinced that their area of study is the only one that really matters. They know a great deal about their own area of expertise and delight in the thought that the young people coming to them want to know more about what they themselves know. Their advice to their charges most often centers around taking more and more courses in their major field of interest — which is also the professor’s own. The result is the placing of blinders on young people who can’t see very well to begin with.  The student becomes the victim because the student cannot possibly know what he or she is missing.

Thus, programs such as “women’s studies” that have a narrow focus and stress information about a tiny region in the domain of what there is to know about our world fool the young into wrongly thinking they are becoming educated persons. Education is about process, about how to learn, because well-educated people will continue to learn throughout their lives and not just during the four years they spend in college. As things now stand, a few bright ones do slip between the cracks and are inspired by their college courses to want to continue to learn. But any notion that such narrow programs as women’s studies, black studies, the examination in detail of the strange rituals of the Hottentot peoples, or one thousand ways to market spaghetti will turn out well-educated people who can think for themselves is absurd on its face. Those who lead  the young should know enough to realize that their own particular interests are not the most important thing; what is most important is the growth of the young minds that come to them empty and sadly inept.