The Death of Academic Rigor

The notion of academic rigor has fallen on evil times.  In a typical instance of continuing epistemic degradation, Donna Riley, of Purdue University's School of Engineering Education, insists that rigor must be eliminated since rigor is a "dirty deed" fraught with "exclusionary implications for marginalized groups and marginalized ways of knowing."  It matters little, apparently, if our bridges collapse so long as "men of color and women, students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, first-generation and low-income students" are welcomed into the new holistic community defined by "other ways of knowing" – whatever these may be.  Similarly, Rochelle Gutierrez, of the University of Illinois, fears that algebra, geometry, and math perpetuate white male privilege and discriminate against minorities.  Indeed, minority under-performance is often disguised as a form of "mismatching" – that is, the fault lies with the institution for being beyond the student's intellectual means.  Clearly, the dire situation we are in can only deteriorate as the concept of excellence bites the dust and students are deliberately coaxed into pre-planned intellectual darkness.

The precipitous decline in educational quality in North American schools, colleges, and universities has been amply documented in a plethora of articles and books over the last 20 or so years, including my own efforts in such volumes as Education Lost, Lying about the Wolf, and The Turtle Hypodermic of Sickenpods.  One of the places where we can find real "climate change" is the educational establishment, from kindergarten to graduate school, a mind-sphere where heated rhetoric and frozen accomplishment go hand in hand.  The pedagogical and scholarly climate has become almost unlivable.  Like far too many teachers, I have witnessed the debacle from the trenches – as a supply teacher in the high schools, an ESL instructor, a college professor, a visiting lecturer, a guest professor on the international circuit, and a university writer-in-residence.  The scenario never changed.

Here I am especially concerned with university education.  Wherever we may decide to lay the blame for the disaster of abysmal academic achievement – helicopter parents, substandard public school teachers, the self-esteem movement, a culture of entitlement – the dilemma is compounded by the drumming indoctrination of the political left upon the untutored minds of an increasingly lost generation.  As Jack Kerwick correctly states, "[most of] today's academics, far from being deep, curious thinkers, are in reality joint-members of a thought-collective."

The current syllabus in the arts, humanities, and social sciences is dedicated not to a consideration of the Western library, traditional subjects, and "the best that has been thought and said," to quote Matthew Arnold from Culture and Anarchy, but to the grand social struggles that claim the allegiance of radical ideologues who have come to dominate the classroom.  Rigor, of course, is anathema to them.  Their mandate is not to "educate" in the traditional sense of the term, but to conscript and train an army of immature grievance-mongers (snowflakes), shock troops (Antifa), and future leaders of the social Comintern.  They resemble the "reformers" whom the great Greek poet Constantine Cavafy depicts in a wry little poem, "In a Famous Greek Colony, 200 B.C." (translation mine, some lines conflated):

Whatever the hindrance and the difficulty
these Reformers immediately suggest radical reforms,
demanding that they be implemented without delay.
And when, finally, they finish their work
it will be a miracle if anything survives at all.

As Janice Fiamengo of the University of Ottawa explains in an article for PJ Media, traditional course content is often replaced by non-academic material dealing with race, class, and gender, "specifically a devotion to 'social justice' that masquerades as critical analysis[.] ... Many professors devote themselves less to teaching their particular disciplines than to decrying the presumed crimes of the United States, sympathizing with Islamic terrorists and other violent dissidents, calling for the overthrow of the capitalist world order, and condoning plans for the destruction of Israel."  They teach students to sympathize with the "victims" of the day in the noble cause of social equity and to feel "appropriately empowered in grievance or guilty by association."  And, of course, to conform to their instructor's causes, prejudices, and partisanship.

Students have also been afflicted with the sanctimonious foolishness of presentism, in which current social and cultural fads, beliefs, and ideologies are superimposed upon the past.  The actions of our predecessors are judged in the light of our own dogmatic assumptions, as if these were perennial – the end point of history – and not merely transitory.  Thus, Shakespeare is regarded as a straight white male patriarch asserting his cultural authority, to be replaced in portrait and curriculum by black radical lesbian Audre Lorde, by any criterion surely one of the worst poets ever to put pen to paper.

To take an example closer to my home, a student-writer denounces Susanna Moodie's 1852 Roughing It in the Bush for the crime of "othering" – that is, for having "unduly corrupted reader's [sic] perceptions" of Ontario's indigenous tribes in the 1830s as "other" rather than equal or superior, as unlettered hunters and gatherers rather than victims of hegemonic white settler oppression.  In the same way, Confederation poet Duncan Campbell Scott, who worked in the federal Department of Indian Affairs and lobbied for the assimilation of the native populations into the social mainstream in order to improve their social and economic prospects, is bitterly condemned as a white supremacist, a racist and an enemy of "social justice."

To believe that cultures without writing or the wheel or antibiotics or technology or science are equal or superior to a culture that gave us the Magna Carta; developed cures for smallpox and polio; discovered electricity; put a man on the moon; invented the computer; and produced a Homer, Dante, Dostoevsky, Bach, Michelangelo, Newton, and Einstein is, not to put too fine a point on it, the very depths of fatuous imbecility.  But this is the agenda of the academic left: to create a dumbed down, alliterate and illiterate, and politically indoctrinated generation, which had already arrived at the ivory gates incapacitated for disciplined study, intellectual rigor, and scholarly accomplishment.

I suspect that the decline wrought by a deficient home life, substandard public school teachers, and the lamentable denizens of the university thought-collective – expressions of a rapidly plummeting culture – has gone too far to be reversed and must be allowed to complete its journey into rubble and scree.  Only then may some degree of restitution and rebuilding become possible and the concept of academic rigor return to its rightful place in the cognitive milieu.

If you experience technical problems, please write to