“The greatest consolation in life is to say what one thinks”
by Michael Brenner on 10 Jun 2020 15 Comments

A notable feature of public discourse at the present time is the one most rarely remarked upon. I refer to the peripheral role of academe. There were periods when ideas, persons and even institutions in the university world were significant parties in debates about central issues that preoccupied the nation. Think of the 1930s, the 1960-70s, and – to a lesser extent – the early years of the great financial meltdown.


Today, by contrast, members of our political class would be hard-pressed even to name a single educator except for the President of one’s alma mater who annually sends you a letter requesting a donation. Science experts excepted, of course. And, one must admit, understandably so. For the leaders of our great institutions of higher education invariably are persons who have little to offer in the way of wisdom, ethical guidance, perspective or insight into the matters that agitate us.


They (almost) all seem to be cut from the same mold: monochrome administrators obsessed with money raising, risk averse temporizers whose  demeanor is shadowed by the fear that they will be confronted by breaking news about sexual harassment, scandal in the athletic program or some alleged discrimination – or even being exposed as welcoming an infamous human trafficker. Cast historically as the great abbots of learning, nowadays their principal vocation is overseeing plantations where legions of migrant workers/ adjuncts (mainly) tend vast crops of undergrads. The sharp increase in the number of women who have risen to those top positions has changed nothing; their conduct is absolutely indistinguishable from their male counterparts’– Mr. Obama’s homilies notwithstanding.


Their faculties live atomized intellectual existences. Politically, they are inert even on local controversies – unless the latter directly affect their immediate welfare. Yes, there is a flood of mini op-eds, and nearly everyone blogs or tweets. But their saliency for decision-makers is very low (that includes their own university Presidents and Boards of Trustees), and one wonders how many people pay them much attention since potential readers are busy doing their own blogging or tweeting. One often gets the impression that the main purpose is to strike an attitude rather than to accomplish something.


Most disturbing is that this staccato of opinion provides little if any nourishment to a collective dialogue. Declaration displaces exchange. A sign of the times is the New York Review Of Books doing away with a regular Letters section. Indeed, referencing the thoughtful views of others is unusual – if not avoided intentionally. Mavericks are normally the object of reflex disparagement. There is much truth to Voltaire’s assertion that: “Our wretched species is so made that those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road.”


Student newspapers, in most places, are equally disengaged from anything serious. The sole exceptions are the sound and fury of passing storms provoked by such fashionable concerns as bathrooms for so-called transgenders, classroom ‘safe zones’ and how much diversity you can fit into one department or onto one committee. Environmental activism may prove an exception. Or, maybe not. 65% of Harvard undergrads state their intention to pursue careers in finance or consulting.


This is not to say that our universities are occupied by self-indulgent slackers. That is a libel. Nowadays, there is more quality scholarship being produced than ever before. And the vast majority of faculty are diligent teachers. However, what this activity amounts to in terms of the general wellbeing of society, and public affairs in particular, is quite a different matter.


The hallmarks of American academe today are uniformity and timidity. As Michel De Montaigne told us: “Once conform, once do what others do because they do it, and a kind of lethargy steals over all the finer senses of the soul”.


Jesus: “it is not peace that I have come to cast upon the world…. it is dissension that I have come to cast upon the Earth” (Thomas 16)


A personal view: There is too much striving, too much calculating, too much scheming in today’s University for the academy to meet its full obligations to society, to make the valuable contribute of which it potentially is capable. That, though, does not absolve individual scholars from viewing their calling in broad societal terms.


“I talk too much to be able to accomplish anything much, or perhaps I talk so much because I have accomplished so little” - Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime & Punishment


PS: In what respects, to what extent, might this picture change in the post-COVID19 era? A reasonable surmise is that the principal features of American higher education noted above will become even more prominent. The paramount fact of academic life is that universities face another period of austerity – never having recovered from that which followed the great financial crisis.


This is especially so for public institutions, thus widening the gap between them and the wealthy upper stratum of private universities. Budgets across the country already are registering the impact: declining enrollment, student demands for rebates or tuition reductions, declining donations, loss of lucrative football revenue, and above all strapped state governments. The latter are at the bottom of the priority scale when it comes to federal stimulus appropriateness. They have been abandoned by a bipartisanship consensus which, in the case of the Democrats, is yet another betrayal and self-inflicted electoral wound.


Higher education, in turn, is at the bottom of the priority scale for state legislators. Let’s remind ourselves that support for public institutions has nose-dived for 50 years. There is no reason for that trend not to continue. At present, only about 12% of state university budgets, on average, are covered by public money. Soon that figure will drop into the single digits.  Rhetoric declaiming that education is the nation’s salvation, though, will continue unabated.


The consequences are obvious. Pressure to raise tuition, greater need for students either to burden themselves with debt, to take part-time jobs, or to quit.  Larger classes. More adjuncts, more distance learning – which is cheap, rehabilitation of the so-called MOOC (massive open online course) movement despite its dismal record, more emphasis on vocational education, more time and attention placed on fund-raising, further disregard for the Liberal Arts, more “partnerships” with corporations. Overall, more preoccupation with individual survival strategies; less involvement with citizen activism. 

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