Sadness Regarding Academia

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English: Old Well at the University of North C...

English: Old Well at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have been out of town in Tennessee, my home state, and am back in North Carolina–only to discover that my library books checked out from UNC Libraries could not be renewed because of fines. I drove to Chapel Hill, paid the fines, returned some books, and renewed and checked out more. As I walked the sparsely populated summer school campus, I felt a twinge of sadness at the current state of the academy. Academia is my job and my vocation. I enjoy working in an academic setting, teaching, reading, writing, wandering through libraries, walking around lovely campuses. At its best, the academy teaches the great traditions of Western Civilization as well as introducing students to other civilizations after they better understand out own. Great philosophy, literature, and art are introduced to students. They can also learn science, mathematics, and various technical skills. Ideally, a college or university campus should be a Mecca of learning, free-spirited discussion, and developing the wisdom to use learned knowledge in a prudent way.

Ideals are never actuality, especially in a fallen world. I remember the summer after my senior year in high school, naively thinking that college would be an intellectual community with students like those who used to appear on the GE College Bowl. Alas, that was not the case for the most part. There were serious students, but most were wanting a degree and that was it. They were not interested in learning about the high points of civilized life. It is no surprise to me, looking back to those days in the early 1980s, that the children of those students now have similar attitudes–or worse. Yet there are students who, in spite of themselves, learn something, and that is a joy to any teacher.

The saddest aspect of the current academy is its radicalization by left wing, Neo-Marxist ideas. Along with such comes speech codes, an anti-Christian bias, and a refusal to entertain alternative points of view.. What used to be a venue for knowledge has become, in most places, a soapbox for left wing propaganda. The days when the Agrarians could survive in the academy are long gone. Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom would probably pass muster–perhaps even Allen Tate. I doubt that Andrew Lytle or Donald Davidson would be hired. I do not think any of them would be hired today at Vanderbilt University where they once wielded such influence. I could name other academic conservatives from the past who would have difficulty in today’s academy, but that would be superfluous–and it is a pathetic fact that such would be superfluous. For once I would like to see a college or university that believes in teaching the classic works of Western Civilization. St. Thomas Aquinas College in California does, but it is by far a rare exception to the rule.

I hope in the future that there will be good alternatives to the academy–private tutorials in Greek and/or Latin classics or in great works in philosophy, for example. That is most likely a pipe dream. I hope that one day academics wake up that their current course often does more harm that good, creating clones instead of wise thinkers.

Students Cheating and American Subjectivism

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Ethics class

Ethics class (Photo credit: aditza121)

Students cheating in school is not a new thing, but it has become an epidemic in recent years. The Internet has made cheating easier, with thousands of term papers students buy and pass off as their own work. Cell phones are now used by students to get answers from their classmates or to look them up on a website. What is most surprising is how many students see no moral problem with cheating. Sometimes irate parents will visit a high school principle or college dean and complain that their child did not cheat, even when the evidence is overwhelmingly against the student. Is it any surprise that there are so many scandals in business and in government? Children are emulating the values of their parents, who reflect the terrible trend in American culture to want something for nothing.

The rampant relativism to which students are exposed on television, by celebrities, by the media, in the K-12 school system, and in colleges and universities makes it easy for students to become subjectivists on ethics. “Whatever floats your boat” or “Whatever I think is right is right for me and whatever you think is right for you” becomes the mantra of many students today. The most dogmatic relativists are as closed-minded as any religious fundamentalist. The fact that they become angry and try to cut a professor off when he argues against subjectivism reveals that they only want their views to be heard. Apparently the position held by the professor and by other students that everyone, including the professor, has the right to speak his mind has not sunk into these students.

I am at a loss to determine how to get beyond the impasse of relativistic propaganda in society. When the United States accepted a traditional Judeo-Christian ethic, as it did from the Second Great Awakening in the late eighteenth century through around 1963, one could argue from a common morality held by the vast majority of Americans. With the decline of Christianity and the proliferation of different religions and cultures, one could try to find common values between them–and between deeply devout people of all major religions much commonality in moral beliefs is present. Radical secularism, agnosticism, and atheism can try to develop a non-relativistic deontological or utilitarian system, but other secularists who desire to do what they want without restraint could say, “Okay, there’s a common morality needed for the good of society, but I don’t care about the good of society. There’s no God to stop me from being a self-centered ass. So that’s what I’ll be.” Without transcendent meaning, how strong is the force of the “ought” in ethics (I am borrowing this point from George Mavrodes). Students may intellectually believe in some kind of deity, but the secular relativism they have been taught from kindergarten onward has already sunk into their psyche. This fact, along with the inherent immaturity and selfishness of youth, make for a combination that will inevitably result in rampant cheating. I have had students of all grades brag to me about how they successfully cheated in school. It is a matter of pride to them. It is a matter of shame to American society that its cultural rot since 1964 has destroyed any notion of transcendent meaning (beyond trying to find it through pleasure), has promoted self-centeredness, has promoted “success” by any means necessary, and has lied to people by telling them they should be proud of their accomplishments even if they did not earn them. With churches catering to the relativist, postmodern young person without trying to correct their relativism, all that results is high recidivism and young people who leave church with the same twisted values they previously had accepted. Without a large-scale religious revival, which I do not see coming in the United States, growing irreligiosity will cause societal destruction in the U.S.–Europe had enough residual tradition to withstand falling into chaos when Europeans gave up on Christianity, but how long will that last? I expect more cheating in the future by students. Some will get caught, most will not care unless they are caught (and even then for selfish reasons), and the shred of integrity left in the American educational system will be threatened.

Accreditation and the Tyranny of the Social Sciences

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Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...

College and university accreditation and re-accreditation has become a nightmare. Accreditation agencies demand “continuous quality improvement” to be documented by quantifiable data. Following a model that has wreaked havoc with teachers in the public school system, specific departments at a university and the university as a whole must not only form a mission statement, but formulate a series of goals and objectives to meet those goals. The objectives must be measurable in a quantitative way. Some departments require not only a list of goals and objectives for the course, but also for each week of the course. Standardized group final exams are becoming more common in certain fields, such as the physical and social sciences. The comprehensive portion of the final exam may have some of the same questions year to year so that a department can track “improvement” in students’ ability to answer certain questions covering key goals of the course.

Such a social science oriented quantitative approach to education works neither in the physical sciences nor in the humanities, and I doubt it works in some social sciences either. Science involves critical thinking, something that is more than a quantifiable measure and often involves “abduction,” an inference to the best explanation that is as much an art as it is a science. The “social science approach,” a fortiori, does not work in the humanities. Students must do some memorization of facts in the humanities as in any other field,  and they can be “objectively” tested over such facts. The humanities, however, are about critical thinking, forming a world view, interacting with the great events and texts of history, reading Plato, Aristotle, and other great philosophers who sought wisdom. Wisdom uses knowledge, but refers to the practical wisdom (prudence, or what Aristotle called phronesis) to make the best decision about how to live the good life in a specific situation. A conception of the good life implies a world view, a vision of how all things fit together into a whole. World views are by nature qualitative, not quantitative. They demand weighing different and sometimes contradictory perspectives. That is why it is important in philosophy to allow faculty to use the textbooks and the approach they choose, rather than having a “cloned” approach to teaching a course. The trend toward conformity in academia has been accelerated by pressure from aggressive accrediting agencies.

There is a line of thought in the social sciences, which is also present among some scientists who work in the natural science, that nothing is real unless it is quantifiable, including knowledge (I doubt that this line of thought has room for “wisdom”). Many psychologists, especially, take a totally quantitative approach to what they are studying. As the most conservative of sciences, psychology tends to fit better into nineteenth century though rather than into twentieth and twenty-first century thought. The situation seems like the revenge of Jeremy Bentham‘s often criticized “hedonic calculus” that tried to quantify an exact measure of pleasures and pains. The basic idea of quantifying everything has been broadened to the idea that one can operationally define any learning task and test to determine whether students have actually learned. Can Plato’s view of the Forms be operationally defined? What about the significance of World War I in the development of interwar continental philosophy? Can wisdom be operationally defined? What about truth, beauty, and goodness? The accrediting agencies are attempting to destroy what is most valuable about education–becoming wiser, with a better ability to think critically and to make judgments, exposure to different world views, the privilege of discussing differing positions with a professor. To say that qualitative measures are allowed is disingenuous since even those “must be measurable”–how? There must be a quantitative rating scale. Hopefully college and university faculty will encourage accreditation agencies to re-examine this current trend toward a bad social science model of evaluating educational quality.

Political Correctness and the Stifling of Debate over World Views

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No political correctness

One of the negative results of the tenured leftist radicals’ influence in academia has been political correctness–the aggressive advocacy of leftist ideology and the personal demeaning of those who disagree. Sometimes faculty members and students find that being demeaned by leftist professors and administrators is the least of their problem. I personally know two professors who were fired for attacking politically correct ideology. Both found other positions, one won a lawsuit against the school that fired him, but both are more hesitant to speak up against leftist positions, which is precisely what the radicals in academia want. At Vanderbilt University, Christian student groups are banned that do not allow those who disagree with the theological and moral teachings of traditional Christianity. This communicates the idea that traditional Christian views are not welcome in the public square of academia. When traditionalists are attacked, no rational arguments are given; rather, there are a plethora of personal attacks on those who oppose the leftist agenda, often vicious and using foul language. Such attacks are intentional and are an attempt to intimidate.

The most divisive moral issues in American society–the morality of procured abortion, active euthanasia, physician assisted suicide, the ethics of sexuality, including homosexuality, etc., are closely tied to specific world views. For example, the battle over the moral rightness of homosexuality is, to a significant extent, a battle between those who accept the malleability of human nature vs. those who believe in a stable human nature. This is not the only world view issue in this debate, but it is important, and a debate over different views on human nature and world views should be an important part of learning in academia. Instead, a new orthodoxy, more rigid than the most rabid of Christian fundamentalists, has invaded academia with speech codes, attacks on traditional Christians, dismissed students, fired faculty, and a shutting down of freedom of speech and free debate. Academia, the institution that should be at the heart of free debate that is essential for an educated human being, has become the New Inquisition, excommunicating all who disagree with a radical leftist agenda. Some schools have become more open since political correctness was identified, but traditionalists generally have a harder time in academia–that is bearable as long as open discussion of world view issues, including moral issues, is allowed to continue. Smaller schools that have not faced political correctness in the past, perhaps with some faculty and administrators falsely believing that they are being the wave of the future, may push for shutting down world view debates “to be like the bigger schools.” As radical faculty are hired who are loud, pushy, and intimidating, most faculty and administrators will give in to shut them up even if such cowardliness corrupts education. I have known liberal Democratic faculty who strongly oppose political correctness–hopefully the true liberals can join with conservatives in opening the university up to an open, frank discussion of world views. The faculty will learn more–and so will the students.

College to Student: Conform…. Or Else

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This article (http://www.wnd.com/index.php?fa=PAGE.view&pageId=236913) is a sad commentary on American higher education. What happened to Jen Keeton will happen to more students (and faculty) who do not tow the line of “politically correct” moral positions, positions opposed to those held by traditional Christians and Jews. Besides English Departments, the social sciences are cesspools of radicalism in many American universities. Counseling programs, which lack the rigorous scientific protocols of experimental or neuropsychology, often move from one radical idea to another–whatever is trendy at the time. Any view that there is a stable human nature that is violated when people deviate from the sexual norm is held to ridicule at best, to use of force at worst. Thankfully, the National Association of Scholars (of which I am a member) stands up for academic freedom and true openness to different points of view in higher education. While they are often labeled by the radical left as a “far right-wing organization,” the NAS has both conservatives, moderates, and (true) liberals as members. Hopefully with their help, and with the  help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, freedom of thought in academia will win out.

I once had a friend (who passed away, unfortunately, in his early 60s), a liberal democrat, who always told me that many of the so-called liberals in academia were not liberals, but “radicals.” He probably despised the radicals more than he despised the political right–at least the right, for the most part, affirms academic freedom; the 1960s-style academic radicals do not.

Unfortunately, students who want a way out of radical indoctrination and “sensitivity training” do no better in “Christian” schools. It is easy for someone to hide his real views until he gets tenure, and then the administration gives in under the threat of a lawsuit. One person like that does little harm, but when a group of them form a coalition, they are as dangerous to the careers of non-radical faculty or to the education of non-radical students as the KGB was to the lives of people in the Stalinist Soviet Union. The totalitarianism is not even subtle, as anyone who has been through “sensitivity training” realizes. These exercises are attempts to indoctrinate against the “threats” the radicals see in a “racist, sexist, and heterosexist society.” These “New Puritans” mean to excommunicate all who do not follow the unholy trinity of “race, class, and gender.” I suppose I could add “sexual orientation” to that list. No attempt to reason with such radicals will work; they are not interesting in reasoning, but in power. In the past, I had hoped the poison of the 1960s would seep out of academia; now I am pessimistic, and radicals train more radicals. Eventually human nature will win out over attempts to subvert it–and for the traditional Christian, Christ will triumph over all in the Eschaton. Until then, those of us in academia who believe in traditional values and in a traditional higher education without political indoctrination will do our best.

Teaching vs. Research among College and University Professors

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Research. Olin Warner (completed by Herbert Ad...

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This topic may not be as exciting as the topic of full body scanners, but it is a hot topic in academia and among critics of higher education in the U. S. The criticism runs something like this: “College and University professors spend so much time in research that they teach very few classes. In large universities, teaching assistants teach most of the introductory classes. Just because a professor is good at research does not mean he is good at teaching. Higher education should focus more on teaching than research.”

There is some truth to that criticism. After the influx of federal money into the university system, especially in reaction to the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, science programs emphasized research, and eventually the humanities followed the model of the sciences. There was competition for research grants, and at some research-oriented universities, a tenure-track assistant professor without enough grants will not receive tenure. Besides getting grants, there is an expectation of publication in one’s field, the extent of which varies from university to university. In science, that expectation usually focuses on articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals. In philosophy, my field, articles in peer-reviewed journals are good, but some places require a book (not a textbook, but a scholarly monograph). Some departments only count publications in specific philosophical journals, such as the Journal of Philosophy or The Monist. Other departments are not as picky. At my school, which is considered a teaching school, scholarly work is expected, but it is up to the individual departments to determine the amount of expected work. When I was department chair, I told new faculty that I expected, by the sixth year when application for tenure usually takes place, at least two peer-reviewed articles and a few conference presentations. A monograph, of course, would suffice. That is a very modest publication requirement, but given a 4-4 load with frequent overloads required, it is a fair one.

In my opinion, research is a good thing–and some researchers ought to confine themselves to that aspect of scholarly endeavor. Excellent researchers are sometimes given research positions, which I think is fine. But for most college and university professors in the major schools, it would be good for them to balance teaching and research. Both, I believe, are needed–I have found research to be of great value in my own teaching. Teaching and research should be in a symbiotic relationship, with teaching fueling ideas for research and research contributing to a teacher’s knowledge of his field and to his teaching. I refer to my own research when it is relevant, and if I believe one of my articles is relevant to a class, I will sometimes require students to read it. Professors who do not write in their fields ought to at least read key journals to keep up with what is going on in their fields. When they can, they should apply their research to the content of their teaching. And teaching assistants, while necessary, should not teach all introductory courses; even full professors can learn something by teaching freshman courses. My school does not have TAs, so I teach introductory as well as upper-division courses, and I learn something new from my students almost every day (both positive and negative!). Now my preference is research–I love the process of research and writing–but teaching forces me to deal with real people in the real world with their own struggles and take on the issues of philosophy. That is a good thing–and more professors ought to be learning in a similar way by focusing more on their teaching.

What is an ideal situation? Probably a 3-3 or 3-2 load with funds for research and travel–and a more modest publication requirement than many large universities have. This provides a good balance between teaching and research so that the professor has time for both.

The Consumerist Subversion of Education

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John Henry Newman

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I do not believe that article titles are copyrighted–the title is this post is from an article in the Summer 2005 issue of Academic Questions. Today I heard another speaker claim that college and university students are customers. He used the tired old arguments that they are paying money for a service and are customers for that reason. I believe that such an attitude subverts education and can even be labeled as an unethical position.

Education, like medicine or law, is a “practice” (to use Alasdair MacIntyre’s term). Each of these fields have certain internal goods or goals that can only be gained through the practice. For example, medicine has as its goal the restoration of a sick person to health, and if physical health cannot be restored, the restoration of comfort to the patient. This involves the physician gaining certain virtues, such as skill in medicine, practical wisdom, compassion, and integrity. Yes, a patient pays a bill, and the physician receives the payment–but the patient should not be modeled primarily as a customer. To do so subverts medicine, for the real human being in need, the patient, is reduced to a product of economic concerns. A “medical practitioner” who thinks of his patients primarily as customers is no longer practicing medicine–his attitude toward medicine is intrinsically subversive and unethical.

The same follows for education. Cardinal John Henry Newman, in his book, The Idea of a University” ( http://www.newmanreader.org/works/idea/), states that the fundamental end of higher education is to impart “universal knowledge,” and that external goods such as money or ambition should be subsumed under this end. This does not imply that professors should not get paid, but only that they keep their priorities right.

Newman believes that education not only involves teaching facts, but teaching the student to have good thinking skills as well as moral virtue. Education moderates passion, and a truly educated student will learn to turn knowledge into wisdom. Newman argues against education as having only a utilitarian function, although he believes that the intellectual and moral skills imparted in eduction will practically aid society. In a recent book on education, the great historical theologian Jaroslav Pelikan makes arguments that parallel Newman’s.

Admittedly, a college or university constantly “in the red” will not survive. But  there is a difference between modeling a university as “a business” and saying it is “only a business.” Yes, there is a business aspect to education, as there is to medicine and other practices. Yet in medicine it is wrong to harm a patient in the name of business. In education it is wrong to avoid academic excellence in the name of business. The student-teacher relationship ideally is a mentoring relationship that is unlike the relationship between clerk and customer. Students who hold the latter view are corrupted into thinking that they should get As for paying their tuition. Teachers who focus on “customer satisfaction” are no longer educations, but technicians. They are more like clerks than like professors. Administrations can too easily be led to overlook academic deficiencies as long as tuition money is rolling in. Knowledge, intellectual virtue, honesty, seeking truth no matter where it leads–these essential virtues that should be gained from higher education become slaves to economics. Such subversion is not education and is an unethical path around the essential internal goods of higher education. Any professor who violates the ends of higher education is no longer a professor, but something else entirely.

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