Higher Education: The Impossibility Of Reform

 Peter Brimelow writes: Roger Devlin, whose most recent article for us was a review of Tatu Vanhanen’s book The Limits of Democratization: Climate, Intelligence, and Resource Distribution, delivered this address at the November 4-5 fourth annual meeting of the H.L. Mencken Club.  It doesn’t directly deal with VDARE.com’s central interest, immigration policy, but we’re posting it because it’s a searing account of how the historic American nation has been, in effect, decapitated—its higher education facilities are now entirely in the hands of hostile forces. 

That’s why, for example, when years ago I asked the prominent educator Diane Ravitch whether there was research on immigration`s impact of American school children, she was able to reply unhesitatingly: “Not only is no research being done, but no research is going to be done on that question because nobody wants to know the answer.”   That is to say, the academic-political complex doesn’t want to know the answer.

(Oddly, labor economists are one exception that proves the rule. Their consensus that the post-1965 mass immigration has been of no significant aggregate economic benefit to native-born Americans, which I reported in Alien Nation in 1995 and which the National Research Council confirmed in 1997, is still intact. But it is also still almost totally unknown in public debate, probably not coincidentally.  And it should be noted that the Cuban-born Harvard economist George J. Borjas, responsible more than anyone else for this professional consensus, told me in 2007 that he discouraged his students from specializing in immigration “I don`t think it would do them much good. “)

I addressed the HLM conference on “The William F. Buckley myth”.  Because, unlike Devlin, I am never well-organized enough to write in advance, I spoke extemporaneously and will have to look at the transcript/ video to decide if we should post on VDARE.com; much of my argument can be found here and here.  

But one point I made presaged Devlin’s remark about the “sizeable class of academically trained non-leftists for whom there is essentially no place in the contemporary academy.” I noted the anomaly that Buckley chose to bestow two important pieces of literary patronage that were in his gift—the authorized biographies of Whitaker Chambers and, not yet published, of Buckley himself—to Sam Tanenhaus, [Send him mail] a card-carrying member of the New York liberal literary establishment, now editor of the New York Times Book Review. (Tanenhaus hasn’t yet called me, or—much stranger—John O’Sullivan, fired after nine years as NR editor at least in part because of my immigration writing, alas. But, hey, Tanenhaus is said to be a slow worker.)

I have no doubt that Buckley thought he was earning useful brownie points. But, because of his short-sighted selfishness, some conservative PhD is now pumping gas for a living.

Thank you, Prof. Roth, and thank you to the Club for inviting me to speak this year. I have been asked to speak on the impossibility of reforming higher education. I am myself an academic manqué, a member of what I would imagine must by now be a sizeable class of academically trained non-leftists for whom there is essentially no place in the contemporary academy. Already in graduate school I got a crash course in the problems facing higher education, and I followed the academic reform movement closely for several years thereafter.

The primary institutional expression of this movement was the National Association of Scholars, which appeared on the scene in the late 1980s. At the time, some of us were hoping it would metastasize and sweep everything before it. “Light is the best disinfectant,” went the slogan. All we needed to do was expose the shenanigans going on to sensible trustees and to the donors and parents who are paying for it all. So the outrages were documented and the exposés were published. Everyone laughed at hearing that a paper called “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” had been solemnly presented at a conference of the Modern Language Association.

And then—not much happened. There were some local successes, some damage containment, and that’s about all. This was twenty years ago. Many of those reformers are now retired, including my co-panelists Profs. [Byron]Roth and [Robert]Weissberg. For the most part, they cannot be replaced by younger scholars on their own level. Such scholars are simply not being produced in sufficient numbers, and where they do crop up, today’s academic departments don’t want them.

So I no longer expect much from the reform movement. One of its weaknesses, I think, is that many professors were working from a superficial diagnosis. They talked about “the Sixties” an awful lot. But most of the problems with higher education went back much farther than that.

If we really want to start at the beginning, I suggest we consider the word school. As some of you no doubt are aware, it derives from the Greek word for leisure. We, of course, think of schools as places where work is supposed to go on. Not only are the students supposed to work hard, but the professors are expected to be “productive scholars.” Isn’t that what they get paid for?

Well, in fact, “academic leisure” used to be a rather common phrase. Irving Babbitt used it as the title of a polemical essay more than a hundred years ago, when the factory model of the university was already gaining the upper hand. He was harkening back to a classical ideal. We work in order to be at leisure, as Aristotle said. In other words, work is an activity whose value lies not in itself but in some end external to it. Leisure is intrinsically valuable activity, activity which requires no justification beyond itself. It is not synonymous with mere recreation. Liberal learning, the cultivation of the mind for its own sake, is perhaps the pre-eminent example of a leisurely activity, properly understood.

For this reason, professors never used to be “hired;” they were appointed. They received a salary, of course; but that was less in exchange for their labor than as a means of freeing them from material worries and allowing them to pursue their special calling. This conceptual framework, in which scholarship is understood as a vocation and a professorship as a status rather than a form of paid employment betrays the university’s pre-modern origins. The academy is an essentially medieval institution that accidentally survived almost up to our own time in places.

But it is hard to see how academic leisure and the original mission of the university could be restored today in the absence of the kind of society which originally gave birth to it and nurtured it. Certainly the academic reformers of the 1990s never set their sights that high.

Before the Second World War, about ten percent of America’s male population received postsecondary schooling. No one needed a degree to do well in life. You went to college to prepare either for a specialized profession such as medicine or engineering, or for a leadership role in society or the world of learning.

This system eventually fell victim to liberal antiexclusionism, that is, the perceived moral necessity of making whatever is understood to be good available to everybody. The general public was “sold” on college by means of the “graduates earn more” argument, a classic post hoc fallacy. College graduates earned more than the population at large because they were brighter and more motivated already when they entered college, not because they had a sheepskin hanging on the wall.

In any case, the postwar academy swelled to gargantuan proportions. I learned a good metaphor for this process from a vintner. There is an optimal amount of rainfall for producing grapes. Where grapevines continue to be watered past that point, they stop producing more grapes. Instead, they put forth an ever more luxurious profusion of leaves, while the total amount of fruit they bear actually declines.

Many other problems are consequent upon size. People complain that curricula have been watered down; but as colleges expand, they have to reach ever farther down the Bell Curve in search of bodies to fill their classrooms. Even the politicization of the university is to a great extent owing to the sheer unfitness of students and professors.

The size issue is very difficult for academics themselves to address. They may have to struggle with unqualified students, but they remain dependent on the system funded by those students’ tuition money. As a result, many of the reformers of fifteen or twenty years ago where left with only racial preferences to fight: a problem that touched their own material interests directly. Some would have been content to declare victory and go home once race-neutral hiring and promotion had been achieved, yet even here they were unable to turn the tide.

So from thinking about strategies for reform, my attention has gradually shifted to anticipating how the final collapse of higher learning is likely to play itself out, and how we might salvage something from the ruins. I think it is going to be like the death of a beached whale, crushed under its own weight without any effort by outside attackers.

It seems clear enough that the postwar system of gargantuan, publicly funded research universities will soon become unsustainable. The subsidies just won’t be there anymore. Americans’ quasi-religious faith in the power of anything labeled “education” is finally beginning to waver, as students realize that college degrees are not worth piling up debt to pay for. Young men are staying away to avoid what their enemies would describe as a “hostile learning environment.”

Eventually, the money coming in won’t be enough to maintain the capital invested in the institutions. I hope to live long enough to see huge state universities reopening as storage facilities.

But we have plenty of work to do while this process unfolds. We have one consolation denied to the left: human nature. However completely our universities betray their mission, the natural curiosity of intelligent young people will always be there for us to build upon. In the years ahead, our principle challenge will be reaching them. Too many of them still have the idea that college is where you go to learn about the world. Even those with healthy instincts usually lack the independence of mind needed to resist bad ideas decked out with all the appearance of authority.

I’ve just been reading a newly-translated story by Solzhenitsyn that speaks to this problem. [VDARE.com Note “Nastenka” in Apricot Jam and Other Stories] It is about a girl with a deep love of Russian literature who follows what seems to be her natural path into the teaching profession. But by the time she gets there, the Revolution has occurred and Pushkin and Tolstoy are out. People who love the classics are reactionaries living in the past, they tell her. So she ends up teaching production novels about cement factories. What makes the story poignant is that this sympathetically-portrayed central character doesn’t have the confidence to trust her own instincts. She thinks her inability to appreciate socialist realism indicates some shortcoming in her, and struggles mightily to get with the program. It isn’t easy to see yourself as the last sane person left in a world gone mad.

How many college students there must be today in that sort of situation! Sheer ignorance of alternatives is perhaps the biggest thing the left has going for it. So to lay the groundwork for future successful political action, we must reach talented students trapped in the system.

The home-schooled are another natural constituency in which I place a lot of hope. One college has already been founded to cater specifically to home-schooled students: I’d like to see a couple dozen, at least, scattered across the country.

I’d like to see scholars following the example of Merlin Miller who walked away from Hollywood and set up an independent film company in the Smokey Mountains. I call it the strategy of secession. It’s what follows naturally upon the failure of reform, and I think it holds far better prospects for success.

When Irish Catholics were denied education, they set up clandestine classrooms known as hedge schools. Sometimes instruction was literally held behind a hedge to escape the notice of the Protestant authorities. Observers noted that the more difficult and risky book learning got, the more the Irish came to value it. By the 1820s, more than seventy percent of students in Ireland were at these illegal hedge schools rather than the perfectly safe state-endowed Protestant schools.

Nothing better could be done for education today than to disassociate it in the public mind from the inherited institutions now controlled by the enemies of our civilization.

F. Roger Devlin [Email him] is a contributing editor for The Occidental Quarterly and the author of Alexandre Kojeve and the Outcome of Modern Thought.