Love Letters from Unexpected Quarters

There aren’t a lot of heroes in Julie Schumacher’s new novel. SAGLRROILYBYGTH will be able to imagine my surprise when I discovered Schumacher’s surprising exception. It wasn’t really the main character, a crusty and cynical novelist and chair of the English Department. It wasn’t even the out-of-touch Shakespeare scholar who insisted on keeping the liberal arts in a liberal arts college. No, the only character that came out as truly sympathetic didn’t come out of the world of elite higher ed but rather from the closed-off world of evangelical home schooling. And it leads us to a bigger question: Do the conservative skeptics have more allies in mainstream higher-ed than they realize?

shakespeare requirement

We’re (almost) all adrift…

I don’t want to give away too much of Schumacher’s plot, so I’ll tell my own story instead. When I first took my current job, a friend in the English Department of the high school at which I worked gave me a copy of Richard Russo’s Straight Man.

“Read it,” my friend said. “You’ll need it.”

Straight Man was my introduction to the field of higher-ed satire. In the novel, a bumbling hero fights to keep college less insane. As the imagined traditions of liberal-arts education crumple in the face of careerism, credentialism, and ruthless bottom lines, Russo’s straight man can only offer ridiculousness in protest.

More recently, one of my current colleagues recommended Schumacher’s fantastic higher-ed satire, Dear Committee Members. Schumacher offered a witheringly on-point send-up of today’s higher-ed scene, with embittered English professor Jay Fitger revealing through a series of recommendation letters his dwindling influence at Payne University. Hilarious and bitterly accurate.

So it was with a lot of eagerness that I finally got my hands on The Shakespeare Requirement. In this novel, Jay Fitger is back, and Payne University is still wallowing in the unenviable position of a small liberal-arts college. In a nutshell, the plot revolves around an attempt to bring the school—and its wacky English Department—into the contemporary world of mainstream higher education.

External funding rules the campus, and notions such as knowledge for knowledge’s sake are out the window. Under pressure, the English Department eliminates its requirement of a Shakespeare class for all English majors. Antics ensue.

All told, I’m pretty disappointed by the novel. It does not capture the wit and weariness that made Dear Committee Members so good. But it does include a curious celebration. Few of the characters or types come off well in the novel. Students are lazy and selfish. Professors are either grasping or clueless. The administration is, at best, pathetic.

Given the bleak landscape, I was surprised to find Schumacher’s ray of hope. One character shines. Angela Vackrey is a freshman, from a family that didn’t want her to come to Payne. She had been homeschooled in a rigorously conservative evangelical household. Angela wanted to find out more about the world than

The pile of paperbound workbooks (Broad Horizon: A Christian’s Historical Perspective) next to the chicken-and-egg-shaped salt and pepper shakers on the maple table where she had completed her schoolwork at home.

Angela is not at all typical of Payne students. For one thing, Schumacher tells us, she still dresses as if she were at church:

Unlike most of the young women in the room, who dressed as if stopping by class on their way to a nightclub, she wore a homely denim skirt and white buttoned blouse.

Also unlike most Payne students, Angela takes her school work seriously. As Professor Fitger discovered, Angela’s writing

Evinced a startling ability to think clearly, express original ideas, and write.

At Payne University, in any case, such abilities make Angela stand out. Her modesty, temperance, and hard work are a stark and startling contrast to the rest of the student body, and even to the debauched faculty.

Indeed, if this novel were to some from some of the usual conservative suspects—higher-ed critics such as Rod Dreher or Peter Wood—it wouldn’t be very interesting at all. But as far as I can tell, Professor Schumacher is no conservative. The yearnings of her characters are not for a purer, Christian society. Rather, Jay Fitger is utterly adrift, and at times, sympathetically so.

In the end, The Shakespeare Requirement is, like Professor Fitger, rudderless. Yet even from that position of cynical drift, Schumacher seems to yearn for a better world, one that can only be maintained by fundamentalist strictures that no one can abide.


Colleges Call for Cop Killings

Do radical professors encourage violence? That’s the question some conservative commentators are asking in the wake of the vicious assassinations of two New York City police officers. As I argue in my upcoming book about educational conservatism, this sort of conservative worry has a long history. It goes much farther back than the campus radicalism of the 1960s.

Available soon: the more things change...

Available soon: the more things change…

At National Review Online, for instance, Katherine Timpf shares a story from Brandeis University. At that prestigious school just outside of Boston, student Daniel Mael has published violent tweets from fellow student Khadijah Lynch.

Mael blasted Lynch for advocating violence against the government, and Brandeis for supporting her. According to Mael, Lynch had tweeted that she had “no sympathy for the nypd officers who were murdered today.” Earlier, according to Mael, Lynch had written, “I am in riot mode. F*** this f****** country.”

Instead of being punished for such incendiary language, Mael noted, Brandeis had made Lynch an official campus student officer, responsible for advising younger students. She had been a featured speaker at university events and, according to Mael, remained an undergraduate student representative of her academic department.

Is the university to blame for encouraging racial violence?

Timpf is not the only conservative pundit to ask the question. At Minding the Campus, Peter Wood blasts college culture for nurturing violent extremism. Today’s leftist-riddled faculties and administrations, Wood charges, encourage and condone wild-eyed radicalism among students.

Students and faculty, Wood writes, have been implicated in recent anti-police violence in New York City. But that’s not all. On the bitterly divided campus of the University of Virginia, the administration has turned a blind eye to student violence against innocent fraternity members.

Wood gives several examples of graduate students and faculty who have encouraged racial violence. Does this implicate universities? As he concluded,

the links don’t have to be guessed at. They are there to be seen.  Some of the connections are in the form of forceful declarations. . . . Some of the connections are in the form of heedless enthusiasm from individuals who have no sense of where this goes.

Wood’s indictment goes beyond the murders of New York policemen. At the University of Virginia, Wood writes, violence against innocent fraternity members has been winked at by the administration.

After the debacle of the Rolling Stone article falsely accusing fraternity members of a horrific sexual assault, a group of UVA students attacked the fraternity house. They were not punished, even though their identities were well known, according to Wood. Wood writes,

faced with the real crime of serious vandalism against a fraternity that had been falsely accused, and having the opportunity at hand to charge the culprits, President Sullivan [of UVA] decided to take no action.

Virginia is not alone, Wood argues. At other schools, a certain sort of student violence is condoned or even encouraged by faculty and administration who sympathize with student attitudes. The radical likes of Ward Churchill and Bill Ayers, Wood implies, are only the most famous cases of red professors guiding student malfeasance.

Wood argues that this campus radicalism has been a problem “Since the 1960s.” But in reality both campus radicalism and conservative denunciations have a much longer history. In some cases, conservative denunciations can seem eerily eternal.

For example, Wood calls out a doctoral student by name at Teachers College Columbia. Aaron Samuel Breslow, Wood writes, has been an active supporter of violent resistance. In 1938, it was Teachers College doctoral student William Gellerman who attracted conservative ire. Back then, Gellerman published a denunciation of American Legion activism. The Legion, Gellerman accused, represented nothing more than

an expression of entrenched business and military interests which attempt to hide their true purposes under democratic guise.

Legion leader Daniel Doherty accused Teachers College of coddling this sort of inflammatory leftist claptrap. Doherty asked an audience at Columbia University,

Why not rid this institution of such baleful influences? The name of Columbia is besmirched from time to time when preachments containing un-American doctrines emanate from those who identify themselves with this institution. . . . Do you like having it called ‘the big red university?’

As I argue in my upcoming book, this sort of anti-higher-ed accusation was a standard part of conservative activism long before the 1960s. Indeed, its roots can be clearly seen in the 1920s.

In the 1930s, the question was clear: Should universities purge their leftist faculty? The same question echoes throughout conservative punditry today, with an inflammatory twist:

Are universities morally culpable in the assassination of police officers?

Sneaky Subversion in Teaching US History

If standards and curricula seem balanced and fair, does that mean that subversives have done a good job of disguising their sneaky ideological poison? That has long been the accusation of conservative intellectuals. Leftist academics, conservatives have charged for decades, make their work seem neutral, while really injecting a biased and enervating leftism.

We see this tradition alive and well in conservatives’ recent attack on the teaching of US History. As I noted in an essay in History News Network, Dinesh D’Souza’s new film warns that leftist teachers have taught America’s kids to hate America.

Other conservative intellectuals take a similarly skeptical view of the new curriculum for Advanced Placement US History. Peter Wood of the conservative National Association of Scholars accused the new APUSH curriculum of insisting on a “worldview that emphasizes America as a place of European conquest, economic exploitation, and the struggle for basic rights against the power of the privileged.” Similarly, conservative activists Jane Robbins and Larry Krieger have warned that the new APUSH curriculum peddles a “consistently negative view of the nation’s past.”

Wood, especially, has offered examples of the sorts of negative attitude he critiques. One of the subtopics for the early period, Wood points out, depicts European settlers as devilish racists:

Reinforced by a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority, the British system enslaved black people in perpetuity, altered African gender and kinship relationships in the colonies, and was one factor that led the British colonists into violent confrontation with native peoples.

But more important than the specific examples of egregious anti-American sentiments, Wood charges, is a more subtle attitude embedded within the curriculum. As he puts it, “Sometimes these concerns break out into overt emphasis but they are present throughout.”

Apparently unconsciously, these conservative critics are echoing a long tradition of conservative educational thinking. As I argue in my upcoming book, throughout the twentieth century conservatives warned that schools were being led in leftist directions, often by this same sort of sneaky subversion. The leftists were so sneaky, conservatives warned, that readers might not even notice their subversion.

In the 1939-1941 conservative campaign against Harold Rugg’s social-studies textbooks, for example, critics warned that unwary readers could be duped into thinking the books were balanced and fair. One coalition of conservative activists called the books’ leftism “extremely clever.” Instead of openly proclaiming their leftist bias, Rugg’s books led children “with gentle language and a pedagogic smile . . . through the successive stages of indoctrination.” These conservatives conceded that many readers might find nothing wrong with Rugg’s books. But that only meant, they warned, that the danger was that much greater.

This sort of obvious-only-to-the-initiated analysis of leftist bias seems a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it presents conservative intellectuals with a difficult task. They must convince readers that even seemingly balanced curricular material is secretly anti-American, secretly leftist. That’s a tall order. But when school subversion is embedded cunningly within seemingly neutral material, conservative intellectuals are able to explain why so many popular textbooks and curricula have prospered in spite of their leftist implications.

Are the new APUSH materials really biased? Try it. Read the new curriculum guide. Does it seem like a biased leftist document to you? Its makers didn’t think so. But does that prove that conservative intellectuals are paranoid? Or does it show, rather, that the educational establishment is so dominated by left-leaning academics that they don’t even notice their own bias?



Illiberal Arts Colleges

What should liberal-arts colleges teach?  The conservative National Association of Scholars warns that elite schools such as Bowdoin have mutated into anti-liberal-arts indoctrination centers.  Instead of guiding students through the rigors of arts and sciences, NAS suggests, schools such as Bowdoin train students only to mouth hackneyed slogans.  Instead of guiding students through the difficult work of mastering an intellectual tradition, Bowdoin sends its professors off to conduct research and releases students to wander in an intellectual meadow.

Bowdoin is not the first college to come under criticism from NAS recently.  The conservative higher-ed association also published a study of the ways American history is taught at the University of Texas—Austin and Texas A & M University.  At those prestigious schools, NAS concluded, an ideologically slanted focus on race, class, and gender had supplanted traditional interest in diplomatic, religious, and political history.

The Texas report naturally generated some opposition.  Diplomatic historian Jeremy Suri, now of UT—Austin but formerly from my alma mater, called the NAS study “misleading, and frankly dumb.”

The kerfuffle at Bowdoin had its roots in an awkward golf game.  Thomas Klingenstein, who calls himself a “conservative” “Wall-Streeter,” described his golf game with Bowdoin President Barry Mills.  Mills had told a Bowdoin audience that they needed to address the problem of liberal bias on Bowdoin’s campus.  Too many of Bowdoin’s graduates, Mills suggested, would otherwise never be able to make sense of this “Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin moment in our history.”  Klingenstein accused Mills of understating the problem of liberal bias at Bowdoin and many other schools.

During the golf game, Mills and Klingenstein disagreed on the scope and nature of the problem.  For instance, according to Klingenstein, Mills believed former Harvard President Larry Summers got what he deserved for suggesting that women might have some sort of innate difficulty with science.  Klingenstein disagreed.  Klingenstein also disagreed with Mills’ definition of the goals of “diversity.”  While “inclusion” was a worthy goal, Klingenstein argued, “diversity” had come to include “too much celebration of racial and ethnic difference (particularly as it applies to blacks), and not enough celebration of our common American identity.”

As a result of this “civil” disagreement on the links, Klingenstein supported the NAS inquiry into Bowdoin’s ideological slant.

As Peter Wood describes in the preface, the NAS Bowdoin study had three aims:

The first is to provide an accurate, vivid, and up-to-date account of what Bowdoin attempts to teach its students.  The second is to analyze whether that teaching has been compromised by contemporary ideology. . . . Our third purpose is to look at elite higher education in America using Bowdoin as a representative example (pg. 14).

In the end, the NAS report concludes, since a 1969 decision to abandon general-education requirements, Bowdoin has decayed into a state of “internal disorder” (pg. 356).  Though the report notes that Bowdoin still offers an excellent array of courses and that a diligent student could still get a thorough education, since 1969 Bowdoin had made the all-too-common problem of making each student

the autonomous authority on the content of his education.  Having turned the student into a consumer with complete freedom of choice, it became insurmountably difficult to declare that the college itself had both the better insight and the authority to require students to meet some substantive general education requirements (pg. 356).

Compounding this problem, research needs of the faculty came to overshadow faculty teaching requirements, the NAS report concludes.

In the end, the study argues, Bowdoin gives “privileged prominence to some political ideologies and squelches opposition to those views” (358).  Instead of true diversity, Bowdoin embraced a deeply flawed interpretation of the laudable intellectual goal of “critical thinking,” according to the NAS study.  All students will be drilled in such shibboleths as “The importance of diversity, respect for ‘difference,’ sustainability, the social construction of gender, the need to obtain ‘consent,’ the common good, world citizenship, and critical thinking” (359).  But such notions, often worthy in themselves, were not part of a process of “open debate.”  Bowdoin students, instead, learn to repeat mantras and “certainties on some of the most contentious issues of our time” (359).  As a result, the NAS study warns, “When critical thinking is most necessary, it is most absent” (359).

The NAS study is titled, “What does Bowdoin teach?”  It concludes with a punchy list of things that Bowdoin does not teach:

Intellectual modesty.  Self-restraint.  Hard work.  Virtue.  Self-criticism.  Moderation.  A broad framework of intellectual history.  Survey courses.  English composition.  A course on Edmund Spenser.  A course primarily on the American Founders.  A course on the American Revolution.  The history of Western civilization from classical times to the present.  A course on the Christian philosophical tradition.  Public speaking.  Tolerance towards dissenting views.  The predicates of critical thinking.  A coherent body of knowledge.  How to distinguish importance from triviality.  Wisdom.  Culture (pg. 360).

Ouch.  Not just Bowdoin, but liberal-arts education as a whole stands accused.  We can be certain that defenders of Bowdoin’s vision of education will soon offer a rejoinder to this conservative broadside.