Politics & Policy

Varsity Daze

Ousted from the idyllic groves of academe.

I’m not an academic–though I played one for much of the past eight years. I taught magazine sequences at Indiana University’s school of journalism and, more recently, nonfiction writing at a pair of smaller Pennsylvania liberal-arts colleges. My academic station has ranged from that of lowly adjunct to visiting professor to writer-in-residence. In theory, the latter two titles made me a full-fledged (albeit temporary) member of faculty, entitled to full faculty privileges. In practice, the one privilege those jobs gave me was watching my more highly credentialed peers go through their academic paces while I wondered why I’d been left off the e-mail distribution lists for important meetings.

Actually, I needn’t have wondered all that much. For one thing, I came from a nontraditional background. I lacked the usual alphabet soup of honorifics at the end of my name, having arrived at the academy not after a lifetime of Thoreauvian reflection and perpetual studentism, but fresh from a lengthy career as an honest-to-goodness practitioner. I’d even been paid decent wages for my work, which ran in glossy publications that appeared on predictable schedules, and were read by people other than academics. It followed that my new colleagues–who normally published in journals of somewhat mysterious origin, with names like Tradewinds of the Marxist Metaphysic–viewed me with suspicion. Anyway, in college one encounters an inverted scale of professional prestige, wherein being a doer is adjudged a less weighty accomplishment than merely contemplating doing, or critiquing what the doers do.

But there’s a more trenchant reason why the academy never embraced me to its ivy-covered bosom. During my stint on America’s campuses I developed a reputation as a heretic, a raving right-winger, though outsiders who weren’t well versed in the subtle rhythms and protocols of academia would have had a hard time understanding just how and why this happened, since my crimes were of omission, not commission. Because I never believed in injecting my own political agenda into classroom discussions; because I didn’t litter my office doors with “Anyone But Bush!” posters, or photos that caught the president in some unflattering facial expression; because I failed to attend rallies led by people screaming “regime change begins at home!”, because I was never the one applauding at faculty functions that stressed the need to “bring more minority voices!” like Cornel West or Amiri Baraka (but never Ward Connerly or Thomas Sowell) to campus . . . All of these sins proclaimed my estrangement from my peers, and my unfitness for membership in the Community of Ideas. In short, I was not someone to be trusted, and certainly not someone to be shown any secret handshakes.

Still, I kept my eyes and ears open. And if my experiences of academe were many and varied, it occurs to me now that they can all be boiled down to three, related impressions:

‐Contrary to popular opinion, a surprising degree of free speech flourishes on today’s campuses. Trouble is, it flourishes mostly among faculty, and then only when one is willing to toe the party line, which is drawn somewhere to the left of Che Guevara. Faculty have few qualms about socio-political evangelism–which, put more bluntly, means they’re not sheepish about bullying any skeptical students into submission. I met a number of professors in political science, history, and the so-called “diversity disciplines” who upheld their private beliefs as empirical truths. Therefore, they felt entitled to grade based at least in part on the degree to which a given student accepted their wisdom. (After all, students who oppose affirmative action or U.S. “imperialism” can’t be thinking very clearly, can they?) The spirit of open inquiry that scholars like to tout in their self-congratulatory journals simply did not exist on the campuses where I worked. A student who tilted right, or failed to tilt visibly left, invited academic reprisals.

This climate of enforced homogeneity produces a striking intellectual torpor that’s most unbecoming in a supposed place of higher learning. It also produces grotesque intellectual defects akin to the physical defects one often finds among the chronically inbred. After decades of hearing nothing but their own ideas echoing back at them–of seldom having their logic challenged–many of my tenured colleagues had come to believe some pretty strange things: Suffice it to say that almost everything in American affairs was linked to some conspiracy theory, most of which were linked to the Oval Office (but only during Republican administrations).

‐There’s a certain emperor’s-new-ideology phenomenon in play in academia. The gassy rhetoric serves as a private code between the chosen ones who claim to “get” all that drivel, which presumably is far beyond the ken of the rest of us. In their collective heart of hearts, academics live in terror that some clear-eyed outlander will stumble in and reveal them as philosophically naked, so they go to remarkable lengths to bar the door to people lacking the proper family crest. In making hiring decisions, they’ll insist on Ph.Ds and other “terminal degrees,” justifying those criteria on the basis of state funding mandates (but knowing also that the Ph.D process, like a finishing school for good little academics, indoctrinates candidates in the rules of the faculty lounge). They’ll reserve tenure to those who have “significant track records of publication” in elitist, determinedly non-mainstream publications (like those where members of the tenure committee itself publish). The incestuous cycle goes on and on.

Of course, academia has the power to change all this. Colleges could create tenure-track programs specifically designed to attract talented real-world practitioners. To their credit, a handful of institutions, like the University of Iowa and New York University, already have done so. But the general disinclination to take such steps robs students of the cutting-edge tactical expertise of folks who have battled it out in the trenches, successfully doing things that most college professors can talk about only in the abstract.

This estrangement from the real world explains why, in the end,

‐ Academia, at least in the liberal arts, stands for devolution, not revolution; stasis, not progress. More often than not, educators who describe themselves as “progressives” (one of those code words) are really stuck in New Deal liberalism. They haven’t even made it as far as a Clintonesque co-opting of GOP-inspired social reforms.

To be fair, this sociological stagnation doesn’t always show up in the actual curricula, especially the hard sciences. The intellectual aggressiveness at the nation’s esteemed research universities is beyond question (even if one does wonder why we continue to score less well than we ought to in international tests). But in the humanities–English, the arts as a whole, philosophy, political science, and the rest of the disciplines that emphasize critical thinking about the human condition–academics seem to think society should have stood pat with FDR, or maybe LBJ. When my IU peers taught out of magazines, they tended to work from the New Yorker of the Algonquin period or Beat-era issues of Rolling Stone, not from The New Yorker or the Rolling Stone of today. (Such predilections are worse than just silly, because it’s the student who suffers. Of what use is a curriculum that devotes its energy to preparing people for the magazine world of a half-century ago?) Further, in part because of that nostalgic longing for the days of muckraking, domestic Marxism, and the “awakening American social conscience,” the skew in the politics of chosen class materials is palpable–if not darkly hilarious. Professors make required reading of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village. You will never see professors teaching out of Newt Gingrich. Not unless they’re setting Gingrich up for a fall.

I’ve now left the academy, and I don’t expect to be invited back anytime soon. Still, I’m grateful for the experience. At least now I know the answer to questions like, “What’s the opposite of higher education?”

Steve Salerno’s book, SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, has just been published by Crown.


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