book reviews

Books on American Universities

A few months ago, I began to explore the idea of moving to academia. I wrote a research grant (called an R01), got it funded, and started sending copies of my CV to universities. It seemed like a great place to work: you work in a leafy, park-like environment, share your knowledge and ideas, and you get to do interesting work, like curing diseases and stuff.

Of course, I'd heard the rumors about intellectual integrity and intellectual freedom being in decline. These rumors started decades ago with the publication of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind.

I'd always thought they were exaggerated, or maybe even conservative disinformation. Maybe, I thought, they only applied to the humanities, and STEM departments were immune. So I ordered a copy of every book I could find about what's going on in our colleges.

A few of them, such as E. O. Wilson's Letters To a Young Scientist (see here for a brief description), in which the world-renowned biologist talks about the joys of teaching, were unconvincing: they're clearly describing a world that might have existed fifty years ago, but no longer does. For the most part, I'm discovering that many of the rumors match my observations. It's making me question the wisdom of my original decision.

Two of the books reviewed here are from the political left, and two are from the right.

book review Score+5

The University We Need: Reforming American Higher Education
Warren Treadgold
Encounter Books, 2018, 184 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

In this book, Warren Treadgold, a professor of Byzantine history, says that P.C. and postmodernism threaten the intellectual integrity of our universities. He says that students now go to college not to learn, but to socialize. Vengeful administrat­ors lie and sabotage careers. Professors grind out papers full of postmodern garbage, and cower in their offices, guarding their thoughts and speech, terrified that a casual remark will bring the the P.C. police down on them, just as happened to Tim Hunt and so many others.

Treadgold says that, contrary to what's written in the obituaries, postmodernism is alive and well in the humanities, and it's spreading to the sciences. Today po-mo means post-Marxism and PC. It exists not because of any intellectual value, says Treadgold, but because of the appeal that conformity of thought has to third-rate minds:

Postmodernism is almost impossible to combat on its own terms, because rejecting the possibility of objective truth allows postmodernists to ignore even the most rigorous arguments and conclusive evidence. . . . Leftist mediocrity naturally has a strong appeal for mediocre leftist professors.

He says that the current system is unsustainable, bizarre, and dysfunctional. Half the teaching is now done by underpaid adjuncts. Graduate schools grind out three times as many new doctorates as positions available. Advertisements for faculty positions attract hundreds of applicants. Search committees narrow them down by selecting only females, minorities, or candidates with fashionable approaches, preferably incompetent ones who won't make them look bad.

If what he says is true, universities are becoming theocracies, where independent thinking is prohibited. Outside the universities, calling someone a college professor has become something of an insult. Everywhere there are calls to tear down the diseased remains, abolish tenure, burn the universities to the ground, and start over.

Treadgold says that abolishing tenure would only eliminate the few talented free-thinking professors who remain, and empower the administrators even further. He recommends federal legislation to create a National Dissertation Review Board and a National Academic Honesty Board comprising retired faculty members. This, he says, would free students to write excellent and original dissertations on less fashionable topics, improve hiring, and reduce the number of adjuncts. In effect, a sunshine law for Ph.D. dissertations.

Another solution, he says, is a law to cap administrative costs as a condition for maintaining non-profit status.

He admits that these proposals might be bitterly opposed by both faculty members and bureaucrats. Conservatives would see it as the creation of yet another government bureaucracy, while doing little to combat political bias. So Treadgold also has another solution: maybe some of these wealthy conservatives could start a university of their own instead of donating to existing ones. If their ideas really are better, they will grind their competitors into the dirt and force them to change their tune.

I like this idea. He doesn't exactly put it this way, but in effect an Alt-U would be saying: We've upped our standards. Now up yours.

oct 04, 2018; revised oct 06, 2018

book review Score+5

The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture
Heather Mac Donald
St Martin's Press, 2018, 278 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

In the past year, universities have started adding something called a “diversity statement” that all applicants for faculty positions in the sciences have to write. These are short essays of 1000 words or so in which you “demonstrate your commitment to diversity and inclusion,” and they're fiendishly hard to write convincingly.

What is diversity? Simply put, it's a belief that the racial and sexual makeup of every occupation must be equal to that in the general population. So 50% of all mathematicians, for example, must be women, and standards must be lowered if necessary to produce equality of outcome.

The Diversity Delusion is not 100% new stuff, but it also isn't your typical political book rehashing stuff that everybody already knows. Mac Donald does original in-depth investigation, and she's one of the few who understands that the ideology of what she calls “diversicrats” is based on denial of biological differences among humans:

Feminists cannot acknowledge the divide between men and women when it comes to sex and sensibility. Doing so would violate . . . the blank slate doctrine . . . that differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed. Ignoring biology, feminists recast difficult sexual interactions in terms of power and politics. [p.157]

Feminists' tic of blaming males for every female behavior that contradicts their ideal of gender equality undercuts that very claim of equality. [p.158]

She mentions how, when some survey shows that 20% of college females are getting sexually assaulted, there is no rush for the exits as would happen if anybody actually believed it. For some odd reason, the numbers keep getting inflated: last year one college in my area reported that 50% of female students were assaulted and 25–30% were raped; even the school newspaper was all ‘yeah, whatever.’ The idea that we live in a “rape culture,” Mac Donald implies, is preposterous.

She also mentions the racism-detector test called the Implicit Association Test or IAT, whose proponents claim demonstrates something called unconscious racial bias. The science and the statistics behind this test have been thoroughly debunked, but many people, including some conservatives, still believe it.

Mac Donald says that American universities are the least racist, least sexist, and among the safest places on the planet. The school bureaucrats she called refused to provide any evidence that anyone had ever been discriminated against, as she undoubtedly knew they would. But it makes her point: she says that in the absence of proof that discrimination actually exists on campus, diversity departments serve no purpose and should be axed.

Will increased diversity wreck our economy or drive us closer to socialism? It depends how it's accom­plished. If it means lowering standards, we could get worse lawyers, fewer cured diseases, shakier bridges, and more resentment instead of less. If that's what people want, at least they should be honest about it. Lowering standards affects everyone.

Diversity is really a question of values: do we want to maximize academic excellence, or do we want to make everything more egalitarian? It's up to the diversicrats to show you can do both.

sep 29, 2018

book review Score+5

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation For Failure
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
Penguin Press, 2018, 337 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

These two guys are geniuses at being tactful. They bend over backwards to illustrate the virtue of assuming that one's opponent's argument is well-intentioned. This is called the ‘Principle of Charity’ and Lukianoff and Haidt are its masters.

This book is written for college students, using simple, plain language, with a short review after each chapter, but thankfully no quiz. The authors' thesis is that, just as lack of exposure to peanuts in early life increases the risk of peanut allergies, the new culture of ‘safetyism’ and the lack of exposure to challenging ideas increase the risk of depression and stress. This is endemic among the iGen, the ones born in 1995 or later and started entering college in 2013, and it's making it much harder for them to become functioning adults.

The authors propose three Great Untruths that this generation, which followed the Millennials, have been taught:

  1. What doesn't kill you makes you weaker: Letting kids run free puts them in danger. Not so, say the authors; people are “antifragile.”
  2. Emotional reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
  3. Dichotomous thinking: Life is a battle between good people and evil people. The authors explain how social media, political polarization, and concepts like ‘intersec­tionality’ can induce dichotomizing, or us-vs-them thinking.

Research shows that the anonymity of social media can explain much of the hate and the death threats students encounter; I get these very infrequently on this website, probably because I don't allow anonymous comments. (Sometimes I feel left out.) The authors say that substituting human interaction with screen time explains the doubling of suicide rates in girls, who care more about social exclusion than boys.

They discuss other harmful concepts, called cognitive distortions, that are derived from Aaron Beck's cognitive behavior theory, or CBT. These are:

  1. Concept creep: ‘trauma’ now means anything uncomfortable, and unwelcome words are equated with ‘violence’. (In my opinion, this one is sometimes a deliberate tactic by activists to justify using violence.) ‘White supremacist’ and ‘fascist’ are two more examples.
  2. Catastrophizing: claiming that someone's ideas will “deny” people from certain identity groups “the right to exist.”
  3. Over-generalizing, aka over-reacting to provocations
  4. Mind-reading, aka fortune-telling: pretending to know what one's political enemies will do next.
  5. Labeling: Calling one's opponent nasty names (homophobe, racist, moron, etc.)
  6. Negative filtering Looking only at the many things that can harm you or your children.
  7. Discounting positives: common in depression
  8. Blaming

These cognitive distortions, say Lukianoff and Haidt, happen on both sides, but recently they've increased on the left. They aren't just fallacies; they undermine your mental health. The authors say that when people feel weak and threatened, they turn to the collective for support. The lack of viewpoint diversity threatens to cause a ‘phase change’ which will undermine academic integrity, as happened at Evergreen State College, where school adminis­trators failed to support their own faculty members who were under attack.

The authors also give lots of positive examples from literature and from political figures that students admire, to help students avoid falling into the trap of ‘snowflakery,’ as others call it, and become stronger, more resilient, and more mature adults.

I don't like the title of this book. I worry that the word ‘coddling’ will put off some students. It shouldn't. This is a skillfully done, intelligent, and much-needed appeal for calm, reason, and common sense on campus.

sep 30, 2018

book review Score+4

Who Killed Shakespeare?: What's Happened to English since the Radical Sixties
Patrick Brantlinger
Routledge, 2001, 238 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

This book, based on articles written between 1998 and 2000, is old enough to be a college student itself. Brantlinger, an English literature professor at Indiana University, admits that things are bad, but he says it's not caused by politics, but by changes in how universities do business.

Brantlinger takes issue with the “apocalyptic” vision that has gained ascendancy, siding with those who claim that the university's cultural basis has been eroded by transnational capitalism and the decline of the nation-state. He writes:

The tendency of all the academic disciplines to convert discoveries and new knowledges into traditions and orthodoxies means that part of their function has always been the production and reification of intellectual ruins—that is, of orthodoxies waiting to be deconstructed and cleared away by new heterodoxies such as cultural studies.

Call me a poststructuralist, but I rather like this approach of mixing metaphors such as ‘ruins being deconstructed’ and opaque abstractions such as ‘reification of orthodoxies.’ He says the meaning of literature is always changing, and it is a healthy sign of border disputes among the boundaries of knowledge.

This might be true, but strikes me as missing the point. Brantlinger wrote before it became clear that universities, at least on the humanities side of campus, were becoming the ‘reification’ of an orthodoxy that is increasingly conformist and repressive.

He says that “logocentrism, racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and imperialism” are modes of late capitalism by which the empowered class dominates others. By Chapter Two, Brantlinger has virtually stopped talking about literature, and by the last chapter, a harsh criticism of Fukuyama's The End of History, Brantlinger sounds more like Howard Zinn than an English professor. The author's later works, such as Barbed Wire: Capitalism and the Enclosure of the Commons, are openly Marxist, showing us how deeply politicization has entrenched itself even in previously value-neutral departments like English lit.

No doubt one of his students, ruffling back and forth in the textbook, trying to find where the Bard ever talked about “the social construction of value hierarchies,” must have raised his hand, saying “Professor, I'm confused . . . are we still doing . . . Shakespeare?”

Oh wait, that was me.

One star off for all the neocon-bashing and getting way, way off-topic, but otherwise an articulate and reasonably accessible explication of the prevailing ideology in academia.

As for the question about who killed Shakespeare, this book is about as close to a confession as we're likely to get.

oct 06, 2018; edited oct 07, 2018