Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Academic Reform as Charade

The notion of reform assumes an institution that is worth saving. There is scant evidence that higher education is so, with the exceptions of technology, the sciences, and professions. While there is a long standing human capital argument that would favor higher education, there is no evidence that higher education optimally enhances necessary skills. There are no controlled or comparative studies of say business school graduation versus military service, or community college versus apprenticeship programs, not to mention creative alternatives that have been ignored because of the dominance of higher education systems. It is entirely possible that human capital can be more effectively enhanced through alternative institutions that have not received state support. The fact that universities depend on extraordinary degrees of government largesse and donations suggests that the economic returns due to the human capital that they produce do not justify the universities' extent. If this were not the case, state support and donations would be unnecessary, especially in today's liquid debt markets. Donations can infer not gratitude for economic returns, but the quest for social image and status, hence cannot be assumed to reflect repayment for economic benefits. If universities produced the value that they consume, students and firms would voluntarily pay to cover universities' costs to obtain the valuable knowledge that they produce.

The movement for academic reform takes as a starting point the view that intolerance of traditional approaches to education; the rejection of core curricula; and political correctness are impediments to the proper functioning of universities. Like any reform movement, it argues that improving the institution will be worthwhile because then it will perform more authentically, effectively and efficiently. In pursuing such ends, the reformers become part of the university system.

Phil Orenstein has been working on an article that argues that Nazism was a direct offshoot of the 19th century German university, and that Fichte and other German Idealists were the bedrock foundation on which not only Nazism, but also the modern university rests. In Phil's view, both the holocaust and the modern university are the heirs of the 19th century German university. Phil's idea is seminal because today's universities foster totalitarian ideologies and support intolerant extremism that, though cloaked in left wing garb, is little different from Nazism. Hence, the pattern of political correctness becomes not peripheral, or externally introduced by 1960s radicals, but rather fundamental to the culture and processes of universities themselves. Universities foster totalitarianism, and totalitarianism is inextricably linked to universities, not a peripheral malaise.

Academics who claim that they aim to reform their institutions from within thus have far-fetched, self-contradictory aims. Not only are universities culturally adverse to performing what the public expects (balanced education, for example) but their hiring and assessment policies are impossibly skewed toward favoring faculty who support totalitarian approaches and state-based solutions, and to suppression of any who disagree. The notion of reform in the real-world university context thus is a self-serving charade. Self-serving because the professor/reformer, whose conscience tells him that the institution is fraudulent or politically suppressive, can assauge his conscience while remaining secure in his knowledge that his activities will come to naught.

The spread of universities hearkens a deterioration of American democracy. This occurs in part through decades of advocacy of state-based solutions, Keyensian economics, Marxian sociology and similar university movements that advocate destructive social goals. It also occurs because of values that universities inculcate, such as identity politics, political correctness, uniformity of thinking and conformity to a professor's whims.

Society needs to begin to think of creative alternatives to universities that will sidestep the cracked views of a professoriate whose greatest contributions are left wing totalitarianism and the will to power.

Candace de Russy responds to this essay at:

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