Postmodern Conservative

Scott Walker, Mad Men, and Higher Education

So my reservations about Scott Walker as presidential candidate have to do with my reservations about his diagnosis concerning why higher education isn’t efficient and effective. The disease: Faculty don’t teach and otherwise work hard enough, combined with the residual “shared governance” (between faculty and administration) that inhibits administrative innovation and makes proper accountability impossible. The cure: Cut budgets, make faculty teach more, and increase administrative control. All that supposes that the main cause of the cost bubble (analogous to the recent [and future?] housing bubble) in higher education is instructional cost. But it’s not. It’s more rapid administrative bloat, irrelevant amenities and projects, and often pointless compliance with increasingly intrusive regulations flowing from the government and accrediting agencies (which are basically agents of administrators). The number of so-called lazy tenured and tenure-track radicals is on the decline, the number of credit hours generated by temporary faculty and adjuncts (both of which are readily controlled by administrators) soars. I’ll say more about this later.

For now, I thought I’d comply with a few requests and give you a taste of what I said at Carleton about “Privileges, Responsibilities, and Higher Education.”

Because we live in a very untraditional time, we can’t help, as Mark Henrie explains, but experience nostalgia for this or that more traditional or less displaced point in the past. Higher education should discipline our nostalgia by informing it or making it intelligently selective.

When we long for the classical polis or the medieval village or the heroic liberalism of our Founders or a secure place on Wendell Berry’s farm or to be Southern ladies and gentlemen irascible enough to be easily provoked to secede or for the time without entitlements that produce degrading dependency of the 1890s or the time of strong family values of the 1950s, we don’t long for everything about this or that way of life that, we imagine with some evidence, existed at a particular point in history.

We don’t to want to go back to Athenian or Southern slavery or to the unrelenting drudgery that was much of the subsistence farming of the past or to the degrading civil theology and lack of privacy of the polis or the disfranchisement of women or the cruel marginalization of gays or the pain without gain of ancient and medieval dentistry. 

For a conservative, actually for anyone who lives in our times, it’s impossible not to have longings based on the experience of being deprived, just as it’s equally impossible not to acknowledge that these aren’t exactly the worst of times in every respect. We don’t even really live after virtue. We see virtue all around us if we just look, and in some ways virtue is more needed than ever. People are still privileged, and they’re still often admirably responsible.

Nobody really believes that these are simply either the best or the worst of times. When we watch the fascinating but condescending show Mad Men, we have to admit that privileged people not so long go irresponsibly smoked liked chimneys and drank multiple martinis at lunch and never exercised and generally were crazily indifferent to their health and safety. The ways they treated women and blacks and gays were often cruelly unjust. 

Thank God or History we’re not like them!

But then we also notice they were pretty classy, not as fearfully risk-adverse as we are, knew how to dress, were educated enough about language and culture to be surprisingly creative,  and could loosen enough to have unprotected sex and so a decent number of children. We really should be more like them.

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...


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