Required Reading: Louis Menand and the Left-Leaning Ivory Tower

Louis Menand,  The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the
American University.
  New York:  W.W. Norton, 2010.

Fundamentalists have long argued that America’s colleges and universities had been captured by a sinister left wing.  Now they have some evidence to back up their complaints.

Most often, those accusations branded mainstream American univeristies as hopelessly lost to pernicious non-fundamentalist ideas.  For example, Texas fundamentalist minister J. Frank Norris insisted in 1921 that the problem with America all started when some influential young Americans studied “in Chicago University where they got the forty-second echo of some beer-guzzling German Professor of Rationalism.”

This hostility among fundamentalists toward the professoriate was noted by one cartoonist in the Wall Street Journal around the time of the Scopes Trial in 1925.  In this cartoon, hillbilly fundamentalists sic their legislative dogs on a hapless professor.

In the run-up to that Scopes Trial, the greatest fundamentalist scientist of the 1920s, George McCready Price, informed William Jennings Bryan confidentially that evolutionists had fallen prey to a debilitating group-think.  Because they only listened to one another, Price insisted, such evolutionists had become “out of date,–behind the times,–and don’t know it.”

This outright hostility toward the academic classes continued throughout the twentieth century.  For instance, one pamphlet from the American Legion in 1930 warned that too many college professors saw their jobs as indoctrinating each new generation of young, impressionable minds.  In this author’s opinion, college professors did not try to authentically educate their students, but only saw their jobs as a chance to make new “teachers of communism and atheism out of them.”

In the early 1960s, conservative California State Superintendent of Education Max Rafferty found the main culprit of America’s decline in the progressive, leftist orthodoxy promulgated in America’s institutions of higher education.  Rafferty insisted that colleges had created a new landscape of “temples . . . great universities which marble the land.”  These temples no longer pursued true intellectual endeavor, Rafferty claimed, but only passed along a deadened orthodoxy, “turning out swarms of neophytes each year to preach the gospel of Group Adaptation.  Their secret crypts and inner sanctums are the graduate schools.”

More recently, fundamentalist blockbuster author Tim LaHaye agreed.  In the twenty-first century, LaHaye believed, university faculties had placed themselves hopelessly in thrall to the false idols of the cultural Left.  After his huge publishing success with the Left Behind series, LaHaye set out to create a new biblical hero.  In Babylon Rising (2003), LaHaye described the adventures of biblical archeologist Michael Murphy.  In Murphy, LaHaye hoped to create a “true hero for our times,” one who united unwavering biblical faith with scholarly acumen and a dose of two-fisted machismo.  In one telling scene, Murphy is confronted by his smarmy secular dean.  This little episode tells us a lot about continuing fundamentalist attitudes toward the professoriate.

“Hold it, Murphy!”

A bony hand grabbed Murphy by his backpack as he left the hall. “Dean Fallworth.  What a fine example you set for the students by monitoring my lecture.”

“Can it, Professor Murphy.”  Fallworth was as tall as Murphy but cursed with a library-stack pallor that would make some mummies look healthy by comparison.  “You call that a lecture?  I call it a disgrace.  Why, the only thing separating you from a Sunday tent preacher is the fact that you didn’t pass the plate for a collection.”
“I will gratefully accept any donation you wish to make, Dean.  Did you need a syllabus, by the way?”

“No, Mr. Murphy, I have everything I need to get the university board to begin accreditation hearings for this evangelical clambake you’re calling a class.”

“Temper,” Murphy mumbled to himself.  “Dean, if you feel my work is unprofessional in any way, then please help me to improve my teaching skills, but if you want to bash Christians, I don’t have to stand here for that.”

“Do you know what they’re already calling this silly circus around the campus?  Bible for Bubbleheads, Jesus for Jocks, and the Gut from Galilee.”

Murphy couldn’t help but laugh.  “I like that last one.  I’m intending this to be a quite intellectually stimulating course, Dean, but I confess I did not post an I.Q. requirement for taking it.  The knowledge will be there, I promise you, but I will likely fall short of your apparent requirement that the only acceptable instructional method is to bore your students to an early ossuary.”

“Mark my words, Murphy.  Your hopes of this course surviving and your hopes of tenure at this university are as dead as whatever was in that bone box of yours.”

“Ossuary, Dean.  Ossuary.  We’re at a university, let’s try to use multisyllabic words.  If it doesn’t turn out to be legitimate, maybe I can get it for you cheap and you can keep your buttons in it.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a new artifact to begin work on.”

In this vision of the world of higher education, only fundamentalists have remained true to the original mission.  Fundamentalist intellectuals, this line of reasoning goes, have retained their sense of inquiry and intellectual honesty.  They have not been seduced by the showy appeals of false science, such as evolution.  They have not been lulled by a peaceful-sounding pluralism that in practice degrades human dignity.  And they have not been willing to accept the hidebound leftist, secularist, evolutionist orthodoxy required of the mainstream academic.

This trope has remained so ubiquitous among fundamentalist activists that is tempting to dismiss it as sour grapes.  In this sour-grapes line of thinking, fundamentalists attack the intellectual pretensions of college professors since those professors show universal disdain for the Biblical belief of fundamentalists.  Fundamentalist attacks, this argument goes, actually prove the intelligence and perspicacity of college professors.

Louis Menand’s new book suggests otherwise.  Menand, best known for his Pulitzer-Prize-winning Metaphysical Club, now takes aim at the sclerotic intellectual culture of American higher education.  Menand is no fundamentalist.  Nor does he have an axe to grind against the left-leaning cultural politics of today’s universities.  However, he does agree with fundamentalist critics that the professoriate encourages group thinking and intellectual conformity rather than innovative ideas and iconoclasm.

Unlike fundamentalist critics of higher education, Menand does not blame evolution, socialism, or secularism for this state of affairs.  Rather, Menand’s critique is more prosaic.  In order to become a tenure-track professor in the humanities, Menand points out, aspiring professors must endure years, even decades, of powerless apprenticeship.  Those who survive this ordeal do so not by bucking the intellectual party line but rather by honing their ability to locate and placate the institutionally powerful.

In Menand’s view, this leads to a dangerous state of affairs in which “The academic profession is not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself” (153).  Until and unless research universities find a new way to train the next generations of faculty, Menand frets, the trend toward intellectual conformity will accelerate.  [UPDATE: For a full review of Menand’s book, be sure to check out the H-Education list review commissioned by Jon Anuik:  https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=33892 Thanks, Jon, for this notice.  –Editor]

Fundamentalists won’t be surprised.  For generations they have dismissed the protestations of the kept intellectuals at America’s universities.  Menand’s book should serve to give them support from outside their own ranks for their deeply held distrust of pointy-headed professors.

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5 Comments

    • David,
      Thanks for the reference. I’ll certainly check out the book. I spent a lot of time with Norris writing my first book. He is a fascinating character in his own right, and his career tells us a lot about the evolution of evangelicalism. If only in his Texas to Detroit movement, Norris’ career is a great way to understand big changes in twentieth century America.
      Plus, Norris can always be counted on to give a colorful quotation!

      Reply
  1. Hi, everyone: The book has been reviewed for H-Net’s H-Education discussion list and H-Net Reviews. The review may be read at: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=33892

    This post by you is the best one yet, Adam!! Cheers!! Jon

    Reply
  2. Hi again: I have to ask, though, do fundamentalists engage in the same practice of “group thinking and feeling,” as Menand suggests that academics in publicly funded universities do?

    Reply
    • @ Jon,
      Thanks for the comments. And thanks for the review reference.
      Also, I’ll be curious to hear what others think about your question. For me, as a non-fundamentalist observer, I find plenty of “group thinking and feeling” mandated among fundamentalist intellectuals and academics. One difference, though, is that fundamentalists foreground their intellectual presuppositions more boldly than non-fundamentalist academics. So, for example, among the faculty at Bob Jones University, you know in advance that the intellectual work will go on within the context of a Biblical, traditionalist worldview. Menand’s critique, as I read it, is more that non-fundamentalist universities pack their orthodoxy within a dense and destructive gauze of “open-mindedness.” I agree with Menand that the real danger of this approach is that it muddles the issue so thoroughly.

      Reply

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