In the Land of the Blind, a One-Eyed Man Is Considered a Heretic
Sometimes it seems that academia's greatest need is a satirist equal to Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, or Mark Twain. For only somebody possessing such literary greats' immense wit could do justice to the absurd thought processes that pass for wisdom in higher education. It truly is "the best of all possible worlds," stranger than any land Gulliver visited.
Take for example the buzz and ideas bandied about at recent meetings on the University of North Carolina's long-range strategic plan.
UNC is a massive public university system, with 17 campuses and over 220,000 students, and the liberal mindset has long dominated there, as it does elsewhere in academia. The people in the system are revising their blueprint for the future, as they do every five years. Only this time, there is something different: a strong conservative presence on system's governing body, the Board of Governors.
Some segments of the UNC community -- and their allies throughout the state -- are upset about the inclusion of ten business leaders on the 27-member UNC Advisory Committee for Strategic Directions that is overseeing the process.
Especially galling to those opposed to the committee's makeup is the inclusion of two businessmen well-known for their conservative politics: Art Pope and Fred Eshelman. The authors attended three different meetings; two were forums organized on the UNC-Chapel Hill Campus as forums for students, faculty, and staff to comment on the plan, and the other was a meeting of UNC Strategic Directions Working Group, made up of system administrators and university chancellors and chaired by Eshelman.
In all three cases, we witnessed a failure of reason and common sense. At a student-faculty forum organized on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus in response to the strategic plan, Pope, Eshelman, and another unnamed committee member were attacked for "being against higher education."
Such a claim seems awfully difficult to apply to Pope and Eshelman; their combined contributions to North Carolina's public universities over the last decade easily exceed $40 million. Pope's family foundation is the primary donor to the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy -- our organization, which is, in fact devoted to "pursuing excellence in higher education." The two men, particularly Eshelman, devote many hours to serving on UNC committees, despite having large business enterprises to run.
Pope attended the forum, seemingly having been invited to his own hanging. The event organizers did not permit him to rebut the claims against him. After all, he might have introduced some facts into the discussion -- a common fear in academia.
There is a big difference between being against higher education and being against spending taxpayers' money on the sort of foolishness displayed at that meeting. A panel member, a graduate student in literature, made the claim that Western civilization is "just a Eurocentric, heterosexual, white male-centered vision of the world that is outdated." Never mind that Western civilization forms the foundation of the general culture in this country, which itself has incorporated almost all other cultures and ideas. No, this student had more important disciplines to promote, such as Latino studies and gender studies.
Another student speaker -- a "breakout session" group leader -- said, "I don't see why we have to study science and labs and math and all that stuff" when "Women's Studies 101 is not part of the general requirements." She said that women's studies is "transformative," without which "people will hold to the same views that they came [to college] with."
Of course, standing your ground against "transformative" foolishness can be a good thing. The students on the forum panel appear to have gone backwards intellectually -- at least in their ability to reason clearly -- from the time they arrived on campus.
Pope's and Eshelman's supposed assault on higher education was the scheduled topic at another meeting on the Chapel Hill campus. A liberal think-tanker who has long mocked the authors' employer as "The Pope Center to Dismantle Higher Education" gave a talk to UNC-Chapel Hill faculty and staff based on an article he wrote entitled "The Real Threat to UNC."
The think-tanker contended that Pope, Eshelman, and the institutions they fund are "working every day to tear [UNC] down." He cited as an example of our anti-academic views an argument frequently made by the Pope Center -- and just about everybody else in the country who looks at higher education objectively -- that state subsidies to higher education are at times ineffective, with too many unprepared and uninterested students going to college.
It is not an argument we just pull out of thin air because we were born mean-spirited. There are many indications that our reasoning is correct. For instance, the landmark study "Academically Adrift" -- one of the few times anyone published a major study measuring improvements in the critical thinking skills of college students -- produced cringe-worthy results: after two years, nearly half of college students exhibited zero gains.
But rather than acknowledging the Pope Center's sincere and well-conceived goal to help young people and policymakers think wisely about the value of higher education, the think-tanker demonized our efforts and those of Art Pope and Fred Eshelman, claiming that we are "all about keeping people down ... and it's all about increasing the profit for a few folks."
One of the authors of this article -- Cheston -- asked the think-tanker for his views on statistics that suggest that too many students are going to college -- such as the 17 million college graduates working at jobs that don't require a college degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or the recent study that showed that half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed. The think-tanker replied that "[i]t's hard for me to understand a world in which less education is better."
We agree with him; it probably is hard for him to understand concepts that other people grasp quickly, including the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns, which explains why less education can be better than more in some cases. Of course, fundamental principles of human behavior do not seem to be in fashion on campus this fall -- some professors in attendance agreed with this young man's comments.
In fact, Cheston's question provoked one faculty member into launching a five-minute-long rant against him. "The very fact ... [that] you could plausibly sit there and say 'perhaps we shouldn't be sending so many students to higher education' absolutely astounds me," said the professor. He compared Cheston to medieval clergy who prevented their parishioners from learning to read so that the clergy would maintain final say over the meaning of scripture.
Of all the comparisons this professor could have made, that one might have been the most wrong. In September, Cheston took part in a medical mission to Bolivia, on which one of his duties was to pass out Bibles! He plans to attend a Protestant seminary next year to become a minister -- so that he can instruct people in the Bible and encourage them to read it!
We also wonder who is trying to keep whom in the dark: Cheston and Pope, who work to make universities emphasize essential knowledge, such as the grand unfolding of Western civilization and Western thought, or faculty members who oppose their efforts?
Finally, it is not just students, faculty, and think-tankers who demonstrate such alarming illogic -- it exists at academia's highest levels. At a UNC Strategic Directions Working Group, the university system's vice president for academic affairs promoted the concept of "across the curriculum" teaching. "Across the curriculum" methods often depend on science teachers teaching writing and humanities teachers teaching quantitative skills.
She -- the highest academic official in the entire UNC system -- and the university chancellors and faculty at the meeting all adamantly favored the "across the curriculum" approach. But, by definition, the concept violates two of the most basic principles of economics (and of human behavior). First, it is subject to the "Tragedy of the Commons": when many people are responsible for the success or failure of a project, nobody is. It's too easy to point to others and claim that the failure was their fault -- the buck never stops at a single desk.
Another basic principle is specialization. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations was in large part an explanation of how much more efficient human activity is when individuals specialize; they develop expertise in one area better than if they try to learn many tasks, there is the time needed to move from one task to another, and so on.
Teaching across the curriculum is akin to a construction operation that doesn't hire bricklayers, but rather requires that the carpenters, electricians, plumbers, painters, and sheetrockers each spend an hour a day laying bricks. The results will invariably be poorer quality and slower construction, with frequent cost overruns and missed deadlines.
There is no reason to think that it is any different for economists and chemists attempting to teach writing. Yet, in the alternate universe of the Ivory Tower, one cannot rise to the top by raising commonsense objections.
This article cites just a few examples of comments made during a single weeklong period concerning a single initiative for a single state university system. Equally silly ideas are proposed throughout academia every hour and are often accepted without question. Indeed, they are even heralded as great wisdom.
This all may seem sort of funny, but in truth, it is tragic. The prevailing ways of thinking in academia are slowly eroding society's objectivity and ability to reason clearly.
Jay Schalin and Duke Cheston write for the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, North Carolina.