Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Could Virtual Reality Disrupt Higher Ed?


A college student drops out, develops a new technology or way of doing things, and then earns billions of dollars as a result. In the post-Mark Zuckerberg era, I rarely click on such stories. They seem to be so common that they’re now old hat. 

I did click on Brendan Iribe’s story, though. The University of Maryland drop-out’s fascination with virtual reality (VR) led him to create the company Oculus VR, which was purchased by Facebook earlier this year for roughly $2 billion.

In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Iribe explains why he thinks the latest developments in the VR world could be a big part of higher education’s “next step.” But while he’s confident that VR is finally poised, after decades of experimentation and rough starts, to become a practical and useful technology, he’s not willing to say that it will disrupt higher education anytime soon, nor does he believe that it should.

He recently donated $35 million to his former university for the construction of a new computer science building. He says that there are “a lot of great reasons for universities,” such as helping innovators collaborate and develop ideas, and allowing college-aged students to grow personally. “This is the way things work today, so you don’t go out and disrupt and change the whole university system overnight. Even if it’s an online system, these things take time,” he says. 

Nevertheless, Iribe says that, eventually, “we can have relationships and communication that are just as good as the real classroom” and that VR is going to be “one of the most transformative platforms for education of all time.” 

Pinker Gets It Right on Standardized Testing


If you haven’t been following the discussion about William Deresiewicz’s missive against the Ivy League, then you may have missed Steven Pinker’s response in the New Republic. Despite having harsh words for Deresiewicz, Pinker recognizes that something is amiss at America’s elite colleges and universities. Schools like Harvard do not, Pinker argues, admit students primarily on the basis of academic merit. Instead, they have fallen prey to the temptation of “holistic” admissions.

Rather than attempt a summary, I recommend you read the article in full. But it’s important to draw attention to a key point Pinker makes in his recommendations for retooling college admissions: standardized tests are a reliable, objective measure of academic aptitude.

Pinker points out that the standard canards about such exams—they aren’t really predictive of anything; they favor the wealthy who can afford test prep courses—have been “empirically refuted.” ACTA points to much of this evidence supporting the predictive validity of tests like the SAT in our trustee guide on the topic, and we have noted it frequently in our critiques of schools that have gone test-optional or test-blind.

As Pinker writes, “Regardless of the role that you think aptitude testing should play in the admissions process, any discussion of meritocracy that pretends that aptitude does not exist or cannot be measured is not playing with a full deck.” This is something colleges and universities ought to consider before they decide to hop on the test-optional bandwagon.  


The “E for Effort” Grading Policy


The University of North Carolina apparently ignored a troubling incident in the background of its recently chosen chancellor at Elizabeth City State University (ECSU), Stacey Franklin Jones. ECSU is a small, historically black constituent university of the UNC system.

Jay Schalin has criticized the selection on a SeeThruEdu post. Dr. Jones was a dean at Benedict College, a private school in South Carolina, when the college president implemented a policy called “SEE,” or “Success Equals Effort.” In 2002, the president ordained that in the freshman year, 60 percent of  a student’s grade in each class would be based on “effort”—attending class, turning in homework, taking part in labs, etc. The rest would be based on actual learning. In the sophomore year, the percentages would change. (The current policy is 60/40, but when the AAUP criticized the policy in 2005, it said that the sophomore-year division was 50/50.)

Dr. Jones defended the policy in a local newspaper, in a rather brusque column chastising those who disagreed. And she fired two professors in her school who refused to adopt the policy. One of them said he tried it for a semester but when he had to give a C to a student who failed all the exams he stopped implementing it.

Those concerned with academic quality are undoubtedly appalled at the “E for Effort” grading policy. On the other hand, you have to wonder how bad the situation must have been if the solution was to reward mere attendance and completion of homework so heavily. I can imagine that such a policy might improve the atmosphere of a school that was behaviorally out of control. I don’t think there have been any reports about its effectiveness, however. (And how would one measure the effectiveness? Higher graduation rates would be suspect).

Certainly, treating the freshman year differently is not unprecedented. Fifty years ago at Wellesley, freshman grades were not included when student’s GPA was calculated upon graduation. (Otherwise, I would never have become a Wellesley College Scholar, and even then it was close.)

There are other implications from the selection of a chancellor who championed this policy, but I’ll leave them to others. This one is worthy of attention all by itself.

A Slow but Steady Road to Speech Suppression


The Steven Salaita affair has raised interesting questions about contract, freedom of expression, academic freedom (not the same, of course), and the role of trustees.

And something else: the federal Department of Education can decide whether speech is against the law or not.

I learned this from the Chronicle of Higher Education. In his latest report on the dispute over whether the University of Illinois was right to rescind Salaita’s job offer, Peter Schmidt writes:

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has yet to issue clear guidance on when criticism of Israel amounts to anti-Semitism that violates federal antidiscrimination laws.

So the Department of Education is curbing speech now? Schmidt links to an article that he wrote in 2010 about the Department of Education’s consideration of what constitutes anti-Semitism and whether anti-Semitism is discrimination under the law. Schmidt wrote then:

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 authorizes the Education Department to deny federal funds to educational institutions found to discriminate based on race, color, or national origin.

In 1964, did Congress intend spoken words to mean discrimination on a level to deny federal funds? I doubt it, but apparently the federal government sees it that way today. The threat to curb speech came in a 2010 “Dear Colleague” letter about bullying.

And, by the way, since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not mention religion, the Department of Education apparently has to split hairs when it comes to anti-Semitism. To quality (that is, to qualify for losing federal funds) the discrimination must be based on the “actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic identity as Jews (rather than on the students’ religious practices).”

So that gets us back to whether anti-Israeli speech can be deemed anti-Semitic speech–and that gets back to whether opinionated speech is against the law and why the Department of Education is the one who decides.

Thin Skin Threatens Free Speech


UC-Berkeley chancellor Nicholas Dirks recently attracted criticism after he sent students and faculty an e-mail attempting to honor the 50th anniversary of the university’s Free Speech Movement. Critics contend that his message, titled “Civility and Free Speech,” brimmed with equivocation and political correctness and amounted to a lukewarm defense of free speech. Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that Dirks’s e-mail is “another example of the ambivalence and even outright hostility toward free expression found too often on today’s campuses.” 

George Leef, in a recent See Thru Edu piece, argues that one of the most worrisome aspects of such ambivalence is that it fosters intellectual bigotry on the part of campus communities. “Whether or not Chancellor Dirks intends to, he is encouraging thin-skinned students who are intolerant of ideas that conflict with theirs to complain when others say things they find ‘hurtful’ - such as that ‘affirmative action’ is a bad policy,” he writes. 

Leef is on point. His words call to mind the “disinvitation season” that occurred earlier this year, when several universities disinvited commencement speakers whose previous words or deeds offended one powerful campus constituency or another. That students and faculty members with delicate sensibilities should be shielded from ideas or people challenging their worldview is a dangerous and disturbing notion and one that’s gaining wider and wider acceptance. 


What John Oliver Forgot to Tell You about Student Debt


I’m not sure how many Phi Beta Cons readers are regular viewers of John Oliver’s new late-night show, Last Week Tonight. But even if you aren’t, his recent bit about student loans is worth a watch:

Most of Oliver’s viewers are likely living the nightmare that is the student debt crisis, and in between riffs about Lyndon Johnson’s potty-mouth, Oliver made some salient points. But there are a few important things he forgot to mention:

1. Government loans drive up the cost of college. Oliver began his monologue with a short history of how federal student loan programs got started (that’s how LBJ’s uncouth speech came up), but he never mentioned former education secretary Bill Bennett’s famous hypothesis: “Increases in financial aid … have enabled colleges and universities blithely to raise their tuitions, confident that federal loan subsidies would help cushion the increase.” Given the solid evidence we’ve now accumulated showing that Bennett was right, explaining student debt without explaining one of its root causes is like explaining lung cancer without mentioning the risks of smoking.

2. Schools don’t need more government money. Oliver goes on to explain that rising tuition is a consequence of states that have “slashed funding for higher education.” It was unfortunate to watch Oliver repeat one of the classic canards put forth by colleges and universities that refuse to take responsibility for soaring tuition. Their argument would be more believable if schools faced tough economic times with a bit more frugality. But when leading public universities pay their presidents exorbitant salaries, increase administrative bloat, and leave classrooms unused, it’s much harder to take this line of reasoning seriously. Consider the size of some public university endowments on top of that (one percent of the University of Washington’s endowment could have paid its 2012-13 tuition for nearly 13,000 students), and you’ll realize that more taxpayer money isn’t what higher ed needs. When an alcoholic blows his paycheck on liquor, he isn’t hungry because no one gave him enough food—he has a bigger problem.

If schools need guidance about how to cut back in tough times without sacrificing academic quality, they need look no further than Florida and Maryland, where successful board initiatives led to increased efficiencies that held tuition down. 

3. Nonprofit colleges engage in the same kinds of mischief as for-profits. The bulk of Oliver’s monologue is devoted to tearing apart for-profit universities as drivers of student debt. Many of his criticisms are well-taken, and some of the stories he tells are so absurd you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. But for-profits don’t deserve all the blame. The unscrupulous practices Oliver skewers often characterize nonprofit schools as well. For-profit schools spend large sums of money on marketing? So did the not-for-profit University of New Hampshire, which spent $65,000 redesigning its logo! And UNH isn’t an outlier, but part of a broader trend. Nonprofit schools also mislead students and lobby like hell to protect their interests. For-profits may make an easy target, but there’s plenty of blame to go around.

4. Every one of the derelict schools he mentions is fully accredited. All right, Oliver gets a pass for not bringing this up. The man has a late-night show and the words “accreditation reform” would probably put half his audience to sleep. But it’s important to mention nonetheless. The for-profit schools Oliver blasts for their shoddy educational quality and low graduation rates are all accredited by federally-approved accrediting agencies. And there are plenty of nonprofits with dismal graduation rates and poor educational quality that also receive and maintain accreditation with little trouble. The federal government’s quality control system for higher education is hopelessly broken, and accreditation reform needs to feature prominently in any discussion of how to solve the student debt crisis.

Okay. You’ve got the whole story about student debt now. Feel free to sit back, relax, and enjoy your late-night television.

A Porn Star Talks about Free Markets


Libertarian ideas are spreading on campus. And one of their ambassadors is Belle Knox, a 19-year-old Duke student who works in the X-rated film industry. Earlier this week she spoke at UNC-Chapel Hill about libertarianism, feminism, and the high cost of college.

Known at Duke as Miriam Weeks, Knox claims that she became a pornographic actress because of the high cost of tuition at Duke. With her new job, she’s able to cover her expenses (even though she lost a partial scholarship). Harry Painter writes about the Knox’s talk on the Pope Center site, noting,

It was refreshing to see someone at the left-liberal Chapel Hill talk about an unusual topic—free markets—to more than 100 people, many of whom had undoubtedly been drawn there because of her notoriety as an X-rated film actress.

And she seems to be a rather charming young woman.


Peter Wood Takes on Bill Bennett over Common Core


Recently, former education secretary Bill Bennett penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he argued that conservatives should support Common Core. Although Bennett has gotten some things right, most notably the malign effect that government financial aid for college has on the cost of going to college, I have never regarded him as a reliable voice of reason on an array of issues. His WSJ piece was, I thought, pretty shallow, falling for cliches about it rather than carefully analyzing it.

On Minding the Campus, Peter Wood has written an excellent rejoinder to Bennett’s op-ed. Wood writes, “The Common Core K-12 curriculum isn’t a congregation of gnats, but it is astonishingly experimental. It does not build on ‘essential’ knowledge. Rather, it ventures out on the thin, thin ice of conjectural innovation, as its highly unusual approaches to elementary instruction in math and its novel approach to geometry.” Bennett’s notion that Common Core is a step in the right direction that will raise the level of knowledge and skills for American students takes a mauling.

My own view is that Common Core is a big distraction. It’s a case or rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Public K-12 has deep problems, starting with the weak training that many teachers receive in our schools of education. On top of that, we have the problem of unionization and the rigidity it brings and the prevalent idea that schooling should serve a host of “social” goals. Common Core won’t treat the underlying pathologies. Instead of rearranging the deck chairs, we should encourage people to head for the lifeboats.

Militarized Campus Police


Grenade launchers. Tear gas canisters. Armored trucks. M-16 rifles. 

No longer is such military-grade weaponry limited to your local Army or Marine Corps base. This Chronicle of Higher Education piece indicates that the Department of Defense has sent such “tactical gear” to more than one hundred colleges around the country. As part of the Defense Department’s program, schools only have to pay shipping costs. 

The campus police tend to have the “if it’s available, why not take it” mentality. But some are worried that when the biggest crimes on campus are related to alcohol- and drug-related incidents, this extreme ratcheting up of resources and equipment is unnecessary and could even have a chilling effect on free speech. 

I’m in that latter camp here. As Eastern Kentucky University professor Peter Kraska, an expert on police militarization, said in an interview with the Chronicle, the new program could create a situation in which a small police department can “go rapidly from one of protecting and serving to one of viewing the community as the enemy, and a potential threat.” 

Accreditation Reform Takes Center Stage


ICYMI: The Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke has published an important paper on the Higher Education Act’s (HEA) pending reauthorization this year, with a thorough analysis of the existing law and recommendations for amendment. Since 1965, the HEA has governed almost every aspect of federal higher education policy, including government loan and grant programs. Since students can only use federal money to attend accredited institutions, the HEA also governs the college accreditation system.

In additional to its dubious constitutionality, our current system of college accreditation is terribly outdated and makes it extremely difficult for innovative, cost-cutting alternatives to traditional higher education to get off the ground. As Burke writes:

Currently, accreditation is a de facto federal enterprise, with federally sanctioned regional and national accrediting agencies being the sole purveyors of accreditation. The result has been a system that has created barriers to entry for innovative start-ups by insulating traditional brick-and-mortar schools from market forces that could reduce costs. The existing accreditation regime has also made it difficult for students to customize their higher education experience to fully reach their earnings and career potential.

One issue that ought to be emphasized in future discussion is the degree to which college accreditation not only prevents innovation, but also fails in its basic mission of ensuring that federal dollars only go to schools of solid academic quality. The number of accredited institutions with, for example, dismal graduation rates, is absolutely jaw-dropping.

Ultimately, the paper advocates for “decoupling federal financing from accreditation.” This is certainly a bold and welcome call. Only by returning accrediting agencies to their original role as voluntary peer reviewers can we begin to undo the damage they have done to American higher ed.

Luckily, this discussion will continue later this month at the Heritage Foundation. On September 22, ACTA President Anne Neal will be joined by the Cato Institute’s Neal McCluskey and the head of ACTA’s accreditation reform initiative, former Senator Hank Brown, for a panel discussion on higher education reform and the need to decouple accreditation from federal funding. You can find more details here.

First Brandeis, Now Yale


Last spring, Brandeis University disinvited Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born author of Infidel and advocate of women’s rights in Islamic countries, as commencement speaker. Now that she is scheduled to speak at Yale on September 15, members of 35 student groups have signed a letter written by the Muslim Students Association saying that she should be replaced by someone with “representative scholarly qualifications.” The editors of NRO write about the protests elsewhere on this site, commenting that: 

…in our age of studious political correctness, where the inmates write the asylum’s curriculum, these students are happy to insulate themselves against any opinions from beyond the Old Campus Quad.

The sponsor of her talk is the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale, which is not likely to rescind its invitation.

The Rubber Stamp


One sign of the low esteem to which trustees’ governance has fallen is the Steven Salaita affair. This summer the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign rescinded an offer to Salaita to join the university’s American Indian Program. The offer still awaited final approval by the board of trustees, but the professor resigned from his job at Virginia Tech, his wife resigned from her job, and the family began packing up to move to Illinois.

As the Chronicle’s of higher education said in its latest article on the subject:  “Typically, those decisions are considered a rubber stamp.”

Going beyond the specifics of whether Salaita had a contract or not (possibly to be decided by a court), there’s a question: Should the board of trustees have the power to approve or deny faculty selection? And if it’s just a rubber stamp—a legal technicality—why even bother?

College Students Declare Bras, Band-Aids ‘White Privilege’


As editor of The College Fix, I read many different college newspapers across the country each day. With that, I have seen a dozen-plus opinion columns addressing the atrocities of “white privilege” since the start of the fall semester a few weeks ago.

Guess what I have not seen? Not ONE op-ed or editorial decrying the Rotherham rapes. Not one.

Meanwhile, here is what passes as a priority for the average college student: The “nude” colors and labels of bras and Band-Aids, recently deemed an example of white privilege and racism by the Oklahoma Daily student newspaper’s editorial board.

In their collective wisdom, they opined in an editorial this week that “bras in slightly different shades of pale peach abound, but there are few to no options for darker-skinned women and they aren’t advertised as nude-colored. … Whenever you’ve had a minor cut or scrape and gone to reach for a Band-Aid, have you every used one that wasn’t made for light-skinned people? We guess probably not because flesh-colored Band-Aids for darker-skinned people don’t seem to exist. …”

“There are subtle instances of racism ingrained into our daily lives; instances so commonplace they often go unnoticed. …We encourage all of our readers to think critically about the small instances of racial bias they encounter each and every day.”

Well, this presents an interesting problem. My husband, who is of Scottish decent, is so white that he borders on translucent, and Band-Aids are actually too dark for him. I have Middle Eastern blood coursing through my veins, and my skin is always darker than the Band-Aids and “nude” bras I own. Point is, there is no one for whom they match perfectly.

And who really cares, anyway?

Bras and Band-Aids come in all shapes, colors and sizes – based on market demands. Capitalism dictates such things, not the whims of campus intellectuals and their minions with too much time on their hands and an ax to grind. But these are the kinds of issues that take priority at college campuses today.

That 1,400 young English girls have been literally “raped by multiculturalism,” as Dennis Prager recently put it? Crickets.

Tags: white privilege , rotherham

A Ranking Worthy of the “Onion”?


The latest U.S. News Best Colleges rankings came out yesterday, but U.S. News rankings, it turns out, are something of a year-round industry. The number of U.S. News lists is vast (starting with “national universities,” “national liberal arts colleges,” going to “regional universities” and “regional colleges,” and including “top public schools,” and “historically black colleges and universities,” etc.) There’s something for everyone. 

I discovered a most unusual U.S. News ranking thanks to an Education Trust tweet. The mission of Education Trust is “closing the achievement gap,” and it singled out the U.S. News headline as worthy of the Onion: Measuring Colleges’ Success Graduating Higher-Income Students.

Indeed, one wonders, what is the point? Why would we want to know if higher-income students graduate at rates different from the average student?

I still haven’t quite figured it out, but the ranking was presented and discussed in Robert Morse’s January 2014 column. (Morse is the U.S. News Best Colleges editor.) Schools are ranked by their graduation rates for higher-income students (defined as students who don’t receive Pell grants or subsidized Stafford loans). If those rates are the same or close to the graduation rates as a whole, then the school gets a high ranking.

I guess the point is that some people want to know what the “real” graduation rate of a school is—that is, without the “taint” of low-income students, who presumably lower the graduation rate. Or maybe they want to find out which schools treat higher-income students better than lower-income ones, as evidenced by graduation success.

So we have top performers like Stanford and Wellesley, where the graduation rates of the higher-income group are exactly the same as the rates of the school as a whole. (So they are serving lower-income students well? Is that the point?)

Then there are “overperforming schools” such as Wayne State and Hollins, where higher-income students graduate at a rate greater than the overall average. (Does that mean that lower-income students are bringing down the average and thus perhaps being discriminated against?)

And then there are “underperforming” schools, where the higher-income students are not graduating at a rate as high as the average student. (Could those be the party schools?)

If you understand the importance of this listing, please tell me.

The (In)Famous U.S. News Rankings Are Out …


… and there are few surprises. Instead of ranking the nation’s liberal arts colleges on how well they provide the well-rounded education they promise, U.S. News & World Report continues to value reputation, selectivity, and alumni donations over metrics that would tell us whether students are actually getting what they pay for. If you have any doubts about the relative values of status versus actual performance in these rankings, consider that 22.5% of a school’s ranking is tied to its reputation, while just 7.5% is tied to its (6-year!) graduation rate. Or that just one of this year’s top ten national liberal arts colleges requires a course in U.S. history or government.

Perhaps it would be better to stop giving the U.S. News rankings any attention at all. But, alas, news is news.

Just What’s in that “Ivory Tower”?


A documentary about the problems of higher education, “Ivory Tower” has gotten quite a lot of attention. It was screened for the UNC Board of Governors and has gotten plenty of media attention. Is it any good, though? In this week’s Pope Center Clarion Call, Jesse Saffron discusses the movie’s strengths and weaknesses. In his view, the presentation is not really balanced, as critics don’t get much time to really explain the growing disparity between the cost of college and the educational value of attending, while establishment voices have more time to lament that government funding is down and schools are “corporatizing.”

Moreover, director Andrew Rossi wastes time on the tempest in a teapot over tuition charges at Cooper Union. Worse still, he ends his film with a shout-out to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s nutty plan to let those who have college debts refinance them cheaply. That seriously undercuts “Ivory Tower’s” claim to objectivity.

Nevertheless, the film raises many of the issues that need to be discussed and may spark useful debate.

The Crusade against Christian College Students


The California State University system will no longer provide support – financial or otherwise – to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship because it refuses to allow non-Christians to lead its campus groups. That means the 23-campus public university system, which enrolls roughly 450,000 students, has dealt a huge and highly discriminatory blow to its most active student-led Christian campus organization statewide. 

The decision is based on so-called “all-comers” policies, which force officially recognized campus clubs to accept student leaders who do not hold their core beliefs if those campus groups want to receive funding from the student government, discounts on university room rentals, recognition in campus announcements and directories, and similar perks. It’s done in the name of anti-discrimination, with little to no regard for the First Amendment or freedom of association. 

“It is essentially asking InterVarsity chapters to change the core of their identity, and to change the way they operate in order to be an officially recognized student group,” Greg Jao, national field director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, said regarding the Cal State University dictate.

“While we applaud inclusivity, we believe that faith-based communities like ours can only be led by people who clearly affirm historic Christian doctrine,” Jao adds. “The policy exempts sororities and fraternities from gender discrimination; we believe there should be a similar provision for creedal communities.”

Put more bluntly, “how can we effectively teach people?” Ashley Pierce, a Bible study leader in the Chinese Christian Fellowship at California Polytechnic State University, recently said in an interview with The College Fix regarding the edict. “It’s a stupid rule; it has no place in Christian groups.”

Pierce said the policy forces her campus group to accept non-Christians in leadership positions that require faith-based elements such as praying and evangelism.

“Their job is to lead prayers, lead Bible studies, in some cases preaching,” Pierce said. “If you’re an atheist or agnostic, you’re going to have struggles, but you won’t have Christian struggles. You can’t give real-life examples and pour into it as someone living the faith would.”

But it’s a growing trend on campuses across the nation, including at Vanderbilt University, Tufts University and Bowdoin College, which have approved similar policies.

Tags: All-comers policy , Christian college students , discrimination

The College Degree Is the New High School Degree


A new report from the data analytics firm Burning Glass reveals that, increasingly, employers are viewing a college degree as a screening tool in the hiring process. As a result, professions that didn’t formerly place emphasis on postsecondary education now do. For example, while 20 percent of insurance clerks hold a bachelor’s degree, now 45 percent of insurance clerk job advertisements require one. 

One crucial reason for this shift is that, as the supply of college graduates has ballooned in recent years, employers have found that they can be much pickier during the hiring process, and especially during this rough economic period. 

Catherine Rampell, who analyzes the report in this opinion piece for the Washington Post, writes:

[College] grads are landing in positions that probably don’t use the skills they’ve piled up thousands of dollars in debt to acquire, and many high school grads and college dropouts are being shut out from the first rung of the career ladder altogether. The resulting damage to all these workers’ career trajectories could last for many years to come.

The Burning Glass report is important, but it will probably be ignored by politicians and higher education policymakers. Railing against degree inflation would contradict their claims, repeated ad nauseam, that college is a building block of the 21st century American Dream and something that should be pursued by all high school graduates. And as long as parents and counselors around the country continue to encourage millions of students to attend college without regard to its costs and benefits, we shouldn’t expect degree inflation to go away anytime soon.

Tepid Defense of Free Speech at Berkeley


Exemplifying the tendency among many academics to take a cautious, wishy-washy stance on free speech, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks of UC-Berkeley recently sent a communication to the entire university community entitled “Civility and Free Speech.” He stated that free expression of ideas is a “signature issue” for the school — but then backtracked, writing that everyone must bear in mind that free speech can lead to “division and divisiveness that undermine a community’s foundation.” Oh, oh. His felt need for a happy Kumbaya community clearly trumps his commitment to robust debate.

Greg Lukianoff of FIRE has a sharp WSJ piece about this. He writes, “After decades of campus censorship, students have been taught not to appreciate freedom of speech, but rather to expect freedom from speech.”

The meaning of Dirks’ admonition is that anyone who might dare to criticize leftist shibboleths — for example, arguing that “affirmative action” is a bad policy, or that Obamacare is counterproductive — should keep their ideas to themselves. Saying such things could make some sensitive people feel that they aren’t “safe and respected.”

A Trenchant Criticism of College Faculty


H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) left us with a voluminous oeuvre chock-full of quote-worthy observations that are as irreverent and thought-provoking as they are incisive and sagacious. Here’s an excerpt from his essay “The Golden Age of Pedagogy,” published on June 6, 1927, in the Baltimore Evening Sun:

The stray student of genuine intelligence must find life in the great rolling-mills of learning very unpleasant, and I suppose that he seldom stays until the end of his course. He must see very quickly that the learning on tap in them is mainly formal and bogus – that it consists almost wholly of feeble nonsense out of text-books, put together by men who are unable either to write or to think. And he must discover anon that its embellishment by the faculty is almost as bad – that very few college instructors, as he encounters them in practice, actually know anything worth knowing about the subject they presume to teach. Has the college its stars – great whales of learning, eminent in the land? Well, it is not often that an undergraduate so much as sees those whales, and seldom indeed that he has any communion with them. The teaching is done almost exclusively by understrappers, and the distinguishing marks of those understrappers is that they are primarily pedagogues, not scholars. The fact that one of them teaches English instead of mathematics and another mathematics instead of English is trivial and largely accidental. Of a thousand head of such dull drudges not ten, with their doctors’ dissertations behind them, ever contribute so much as a flyspeck to the sum of human knowledge. 

It’s amazing to think that such a biting and caustic passage was written in 1927, long before the rise of such fields as critical theory, gender studies, women’s studies, social justice, environmental sustainability, etc. What would the “Sage of Baltimore” have to say about today’s academic environment? 


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