Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

“Jeffersonian in Spirit”


The New York Times Magazine ran an interesting article this weekend covering a heated architectural controversy at my alma mater, the University of Virginia. In the planning for a major expansion project at the university, two warring factions have emerged. On one side are those who want to undertake the new project in accordance with the original neoclassical design that Thomas Jefferson employed in the university’s construction. (If you haven’t seen UVA’s Lawn firsthand, you can get a sense of it from a few random photographs here, here, and—decorated for Christmas—here).


On the other side of the controversy are those who want to move away from Jefferson’s neoclassicism in favor of a more modernist approach. The push for this side has been led by the university’s esteemed architecture-school faculty:


“Thomas Jefferson was constantly inventing new building technologies,” Karen Van Lengen, dean of the university’s School of Architecture, [said] recently. . . . “As materials change, you can create things that you couldn’t create before — Jefferson would’ve understood that.”


She goes on to make the case for modernism, repeatedly playing on this note that Jefferson himself was an innovator who would have wanted his university’s physical structures to stay on the cutting edge. The article suggests that, while being different in appearance, the modernists’ buildings would be “more authentically Jeffersonian in spirit.”


The issue for me—and, I suspect, for most other alumni—is one of simple aesthetics. It doesn’t matter if some architecture professors think that their new, sharp, sleek modernist designs will harmonize with the Jeffersonian spirit of change and experimentation. That may well be, but what really matters is the way the place looks—the sense of beauty and awe that the physical structure evokes in the mind of the typical observer. The best way to serve that purpose, it seems obvious, is to stick with the neoclassical style—for the sake of unity, continuity, symmetry, and compatibility.


The architecture professors have cited various instances of what they consider to be admirable, innovative, non-neoclassical structures that have been erected at UVA in the later part of the last century. What’s striking about these buildings is that they are, by most normal accounts, quite hideous—ugly, boxy, hulking reminders of fleeting design trends that, despite never having much currency outside of the architectural elite, nevertheless managed to mar the landscape that the rest of us have to inhabit. Most notable in this respect is UVA’s architecture-school building itself, whose sole virtue may be that it is an irrefutable, brick-and-mortar argument for the necessity of high explosives.


A friend and fellow alumnus recently pointed out the tragic peculiarity at work in the case of the architecture faculty: Like all professors, they operate in an insular environment whose norms and ideals are quite different from the rest of society. The unfortunate distinction is that, whereas the batty scribblings of the super-deconstructionistic-racial-gender theorist of the week can always be safely locked away in some library basement vault, the twisted images that spring from the wayward minds of the architecture professoriate cannot so readily be hidden.


Some of these wayward minds contend that any present-day efforts by UVA to imitate Jefferson’s red-brick-and-white-column neoclassicism can only result in “mediocre buildings decked out in pseudo-Jeffersonian cladding”—“the form without the soul,” as one says. But Jefferson himself imitated and adapted the Classical architectural style of the ancient Greeks and Romans. He proved that, through brilliant design and careful execution, it is indeed possible to embrace an artistic heritage, without being slavishly devoted to it.

Medill on Right Track


I thank Guy for highlighting this journalism school’s relatively strong record of grounding students in substantial studies. Comprehensive reporting on the requirements of J-schools would shed light on which schools are upholding similar standards and perhaps spur reform in knowledge-averse programs.


In Defense of J-school


As a student who is currently enrolled in Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, I feel compelled to respond to Candace’s latest post.

I have thus far earned 32 college credits over my undergraduate career. Among those credits, 26 have come from non-journalism courses. Furthermore, I have never taken more than one journalism-related class during any given academic term. This healthy dose of non-”knowledge-averse” courses (to use her term) is likely a product of Medill’s strict academic standards. These guidelines require J-school students to study a broad range of subjects within Northwestern’s history, literature, math, science, economics, political science, art/art history, and philosophy departments. In order to graduate, at least 30 of our 45 required credits must come from non-journalism classes.

I am not arguing that Medill is perfect–it most certainly is not (during the CBS Memogate kerfuffle, one of my professors informed the class that although Dan Rather’s reporting was “sloppy,” he still believed the “core assertions” of the CBS report). However, with that said, Medill’s attempt to enforce a “knowledge-rich” approach is significantly more comprehensive than the standards imposed by, for example, NU’s theater or engineering programs.

ACTA on Track


ACTA’s report, “How Many Ward Churchills,” got some nice (and not-so-nice) notice last week, but we should hope that the direction laid out by the document receives further attention. It’s the best approach to the ideological and other biases haunting higher education. While documenting specific episodes of misconduct (because of their value in attracting attention to the problem), we should also focus on the substance of the curriculum. As Anne puts it in her introduction, “the solution is not to fire professors who express extreme views, but to expose them, to compel them to defend their positions, invite them to debate ideas, and, above all, to insist that they do their job of teaching students well and empowering them to make up their own minds.” 

Hence the decision to fill the document with course descriptions. They are tendentious, clichéd, and argumentative. The solemnities about social justice, the catchphrases on “constructed identities,” the blanket indictments (example: “We also explore and discuss, both from a historical and present day perspective, ways in which our culture covertly and overtly condones the abuse of women by their intimate partners”)—they numb the intellect. But they are also far too respectable in the scholarly world, and the labor of exploding their doctrinaire aura will be a slow and deliberate one. The university needs to undergo a massive change in principle, especially the principle that distinguishes education from activism, political analysis from political indoctrination, but the change will only come incrementally. 

Each senior professor today is the outcome of a twenty-year process beginning with the freshman year and ending with tenure, and they have an intense and enduring acculturation steering their thoughts and actions. Few of them will change. But the curriculum they manage and the courses they offer are subject to scrutiny, and if students graduate with a half- or quarter-knowledge of history, civics, arts and culture, science, and math—notwithstanding all the high-sounding talk about critique, society, America, etc. in the course descriptions—we may call for an accountability. It may take the form, say, of a low-stakes exit exam for graduating seniors to measure core knowledge in the basic subjects, but somehow we need systemic evidence matching curricula with outcomes. It may feel like shifting a plodding ocean liner off-course one small degree at a time, but it’s progress.

Slow-Going for Journalism Schools Reform


George and John have drawn attention to Jonathan Last’s critique of the process/theory/craft orientation of today’s schools of journalism–as opposed to a knowledge-rich approach.


But don’t overlook the entrenchment of these pedagogies in our 450 or so journalism and mass-communication programs which, like their teacher education counterparts, have taken on a life of their own because they provide jobs for process-minded academics and others (such as textbook publishers). 


Those who teach “Women in the Media” and “The Deadline in Depth” will, in their own self-interest, fiercely resist the mainstreaming of journalist students into philosophy and economics departments or even a shift toward substance within journalism departments. 

Governing boards should be conducting a quality/cost-benefit evaluation of such programs, but few have the nerve to stand up to wrathful interest groups. Before the J- and other knowledge-averse schools are closed down or reformed, the current financial crisis in higher education will probably have to worsen, triggering the elimination of redundant, frivolous, or faulty programs (like journalism). But then, maybe the forces that put process above knowledge will carry the day, and economics and philosophy will be deemed expendable.


Dental Dean Reads Riot Act


To get their diploma at a New Jersey dental school, students cheated by submitting paperwork for procedures they didn’t actually perform, and they told the New York Post that almost all the students in their class were involved. Widespread cheating? Old news.


The students also say their professors knew about this extensive cheating. Lax academic oversight? Also old news.


What’s novel about this latest cheating scandal is the reaction of the university’s dean, Cecile Feldman. Lo and behold she intends to hold all guilty parties to account, even if the entire class of 2006 is stopped from graduating. And she means to investigate if previous graduates were similarly engaged in cheating.


 Now that’s news.

American Schools as Disneyland


Diane Ravitch writes in a recent article of the truly idiotic results of a 1976 California law that mandates positive portrayals of specified groups in school textbooks. 

Recently, for example, Hindu organizations complained of descriptions of the caste system and the treatment of women in India inthe past. One group wanted the statement that women had “fewer” rights in ancient India changed to “different” rights.
What an irony! America has truly become a Disneyland, a World’s Fair, a theme park in which one can visit prettified exhibits of various cultures. Instead of immigrants coming to America and being grateful to leave behind the backwardness, the stifling customs, the bitter history, the sectarian violence of their homelands, they want to falsify these histories and convey only positive impressions of their backgrounds. So American children learn of all the sins and faults of their own history, while learning sanitized versions of the history of other cultures. Is it any wonder that a few decades of this has produced a generation so steeped in white guilt, as Shelby Steele writes, that it can no longer exercise authority in upholding American ideals? 

A “Risky” Pathology


At a recent meeting of the President’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, commented as follows about allusions made during the commission hearings to “A Nation at Risk,” a report which lambasted the breakdown of American K-12 schools: “[T]he pathology of the public schools in the 1980’s is not comparable to higher education today. Our colleges and universities are successful….”


In fact, since the 1960’s, evidence of pathological trends in higher education–relating to curricula, campus activities, educational outcomes, academic freedom, ethics, and finances–continues to mount. So who’s to say which educational sector is most diseased or abnormally functioning?


Moreover, not only does the pathology in public schools endure, but a convincing case can be made that their “constitutional breakdown”–failure to teach basic skills, disdain for knowledge, divisive multicultural studies, and collapsed discipline–was incubated on our campuses.


The ideas and practices born in the academy are seminal to all other institutions. In particular, the greatest conduits of pathology to our elementary and secondary schools in recent decades have been our degenerate humanities, social-science, and teacher-education programs.


Yes, honorable Commission members, this nation remains at risk, and higher educators deserve much blame for the dangerous pathology afflicting it.

If That’s the “Dominant Theme,” Forget It


Inside Higher Ed reports on the Commission on the Future of Higher
Education’s latest meeting

I quote, “if a dominant theme emerged from the conversation, it was that the
commission needed to champion the idea that a high school education no
longer suffices for any American….”

But that’s utter nonsense. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that most
of the occupational fields with the highest job growth over the next decade
call only for vocational or on-the-job training.  Putting more kids with
weak high school educations through college is a needless waste of time and
money. Someone should quickly send the commissioners a copy of
300 Best
Jobs Without a
College Degree.

Rather than pushing to make college universal, as Clinton advocated in his
1997 State of the Union speech, we ought to try to make certain that when
students graduate from high school, they at least have the cognitive
abilities of smart 6th graders.

Summer Reading


I just finished Ramesh Ponnuru’s excellent book, Party of Death . It should be required reading for all college courses dealing with abortion and other life issues. The book’s arguments were thorough, thoughtful, powerful, and compelling. The research was excellent, and Ponnuru’s argumentation was impeccable. The pro-abortion-rights crowd–or, as the author puts it, the party of death–has got to be hoping that this book doesn’t make a big splash, because its contents are damning for their cause.

Frist and Loose


During his commencement address at the University of Tennessee at Chattagnooga, Sen. Bill Frist quoted Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.” Or, rather, he misquoted her. From the Boston Globe:

Frist had the right wording for Margaret Mead’s most famous ‘’quotation,” but, says Keyes, nobody has ever been able to show, ‘’despite copious research,” that she ever said or wrote it.

An innocent mistake, to be sure. (A more troubling mistake involves the decision to quote Margaret Mead at all, especially for the purposes of reciting a platitude. For a man who apparently aspires for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, couldn’t he have quoted a conservative?) The Globe tracks down a couple of similarly minor commencement-quote mishaps, featuring former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and CBS honco Les Moonves.

Old School Rudeness


New School grads booed, heckled, and otherwise brought shame upon themselves during the commencement speech of John McCain yesterday. Oh, and they also served McCain’s political interests–the scene of a bunch of young Manhattan liberals harassing the likely 2008 presidential candidate only increases his stock among conservatives. Here’s a report in the NYT:

The jeers, boos and insults flew, as caustic as any that angry New Yorkers have hurled inside Madison Square Garden. The objects of derision yesterday, however, were not the hapless New York Knicks, but Senator John McCain, the keynote speaker at the New School graduation, and his host, Bob Kerrey, the university president.

Also, on The Corner, Rich Lowry liveblogged the event.

Bring on the Flak


John K. Wilson’s feverish (and feeble) attempt to debunk the American Council of Trustees and Alumni as well as David Horowitz is yet another sign of the success of the intellectual pluralism movement, which is now squarely on the national agenda. The champions of this movement are now too potent to be ignored.

Boycott Update


The movement by British professors to boycott Israeli colleges and scholars has returned with a vengeance.

A Time and Place for Condemnation


Semester after semester, at UC’s Irvine campus, Muslim student groups equate Israel with Nazi Germany and use Holocaust language and imagery to criticize the Jewish state.


Jewish students say they understand that “the university has to protect free speech and can’t stop [these groups’] programs”; however, they also point out “the university has its own free speech” and wants university leaders to speak out against these events. “Silence,” they say, sometimes makes a statement.” Another observer notes: “Jews here have no issue with questioning Israel’s policies. But this is about things that incite hate and that make people feel unsafe.”


Campus administrators and trustees should set an example by engaging in these debates in a civil and principled way. When called for, they should also condemn false and vicious propaganda–and all the more so in the increasingly irrational and precarious Middle East campus wars.

Christina Strikes Again


Title IX, advises Christian Hoff Sommers, should not be wielded as an academic weapon.

U.N. Exposed


Kofi Annan is delivering commencement addresses on campuses while Eric Shawn is not, but the author of the new book U.N. Exposed can offer graduates greater insight into how the United Nations actually works than the secretary-general can.

The Volokh Verdict on Churchill


Eugene Volokh delves into the details regarding Ward Churchill’s false assertions, misrepresentation of sources, and plagiarism–“part of a pattern and consistent research stratagem to cloak extreme, unsupportable, propaganda-like claims of fact that support Professor Churchill’s legal and political claims with the aura of authentic scholarly research by referencing apparently (but not actually) supportive independent third-party sources.”

He concludes that the University of Colorado “need not keep a dishonest scholar on board, even if the complaints about the scholar were motivated partly by the complainers’ hostility to the scholar’s viewpoints.”

Bollinger Does Something Right


We’re so used to bad news from the politically correct Columbia University of Lee Bollinger, super-champion of affirmative action, that it comes as a shock, albeit a pleasant one, to see that Columbia awarded Cuban opposition leader Oswaldo Payá an honorary degree yesterday.  Payá could not be there to accept the degree because he was not allowed to leave Cuba, but Bollinger read his citation in his absence, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

Engineer, journalist, activist, tireless campaigner for human rights and advocate for the people of Cuba, you represent the aspirations of millions around the world yearning for freedom and democracy. Based on the Cuban constitution itself, your Varela Project — a peaceful civic initiative to gather signatures across Cuba for the establishment of a free and democratic citizenry — is a model of civic activism. At great personal sacrifice and despite nearly constant surveillance and harassment, you have remained committed to nonviolent dissidence and political change. . . .
Bollinger might have added what the Cuban dissident wrote in a letter to the Columbia president, that he, Payá,  was there in spirit and so were ”all of my colleagues who are now in prison for defending the rights of Cubans, and all those in Cuba who struggle peacefully for democracy, reconciliation and the guarantee of the rights of all people.”

Just a Footnote?


Isn’t that what Doris Kearns Goodwin said?


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