The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses / What's College for? the Struggle to Define American Higher Education / the Pleasures of Academe: A Celebration and Defense of Higher Education

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The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses

Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate. New York: Free Press, 1998, 414 pp., $27.50

What's College For? The Struggle to Define American Higher Education

Zachary Karabell. New York: Basic Books, 1998, 288 pp., $24.00

The Pleasures of Academe: A Celebration and Defense of Higher Education

James Axtell. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1998, 292 pp., $35.00

THERE WAS A TIME WHEN THOSE who held a mirror to academic life were largely novelists. There are dozens of favorites, among them Mary McCarthy chronicling how the Cold War convulsed college life, Vladimir Nabokov and Alison Lurie showing us how madness lies close to the surface on the seemingly most idyllic of campuses, Bernard Malamud reminding us how unacademic academic life can be, and Saul Bellow parsing the academic mind. It is less important that what each says is funny than that it is fairly accurate.

More recently, most of those eager to lay bare the underside of contemporary colleges or universities stick to nonfiction, or so they believe. Almost all see higher education near the brink of collapse. The issues are apparently too grave to make light of. Although the efforts are frequently grim and deadening, unbalanced, and largely off the mark, the books keep coming.

In The Shadow University, historian Alan Kors and attorney Harvey Silverglate waste no time sounding the alarm. In the first paragraph of their acknowledgments, they call our attention to the "betrayal of liberty on American campuses," "several scandals," "the victims of unbearable oppression and intrusions," "unjust tormentors," and "unfairness and [again] oppression."

Kors and Silverglate's prose, in their introduction and in the following fifteen chapters, is no less sweeping, soaring, or overwrought. Before they begin, they express gratitude for the love, patience, wisdom, understanding, and encouragement of their wives: "Indeed, their Herculean labors on behalf of this project were, again and again, our salvation. We wrote this book, in some significant measure, for the children we and our wives love more than life.... May they continue to struggle for the liberty that is their human birthright." With this affected style, they presumably hope to evoke the spirit of warriors engaged in a fateful and authentic struggle over our fundamental freedoms, but their impassioned cant is more reminiscent of a millenarian doomsayer.

Kors and Silverglate conjugate their dismal theme in all moods, tenses, and inflections:

In a nation whose future depends upon an education in freedom, colleges and universities are teaching the values of censorship, selfcensorship, and selfrighteous abuse of power. Our institutions of higher education greet freshmen not as individuals on the threshold of adulthood, but as embodiments of group identity, largely defined in terms of blood and history, who are to be infantilized at every turn. In a nation whose soul depends upon the values of individual rights and responsibilities, and upon equal justice under law, our students are being educated in socalled group rights and responsibilities, and in double standards to redress partisan definitions of historical wrongs. Universities have become the enemy of a free society, and it is time for the citizens of that society to recognize this scandal of enormous proportions and to hold these institutions to account.

Such claims that political correctness is a smokescreen seem very odd to those-students, faculty, and other close observers-who dissent from prevailing campus orthodoxies, and who experience the unremitting reality of speech codes (or, more precisely, of the "verbal behavior" provisions of "harassment" policies), of ideological litmus tests, and of sensitivity or diversity "training" that undertakes the involuntary thought reform of free, young minds. …