Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Morally Perplexed Academy

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Morally Perplexed Academy

Article excerpt

A Survey of Recent Articles

For all its wealth and prosperity, the American university seems a bit troubled these days, not at all sure just what its true purpose is. "What's the University for?" ask the editors of the Hedgehog Review" (Fall 2000), in an issue devoted to that subject. "We continue to invoke the old, inspiring ideas concerning the purposes of higher education...but against the realities of the 21st century they have lost much of their ring," the editors say.

The "culture wars" over the state of academe have been raging for years now, of course. While resistance to the conservative critique of "political correctness" seems to remain strong, some professors now question the typical liberal response--that, in effect, all is well in academe. If the once-cherished aims of liberal education--to produce enlightened individuals and good citizens--are now looked upon with skepticism, they ask, then what, if anything, is to replace them? There is worry, too, say the Hedgehog Review editors, that "the growing necessity of higher education for socioeconomic success" may be leading the university astray, prompting it to treat students as "consumers," offering them "information and entertainment," not "education or wisdom."

The conservative critics of the university pledge allegiance to the older ideals of liberal education. In their view, vigorously expressed in Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals (1990), Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education (1991), and other well-known books, the university is suffering from a malady derived from the noxious New Left radicalism of the 1960s. Instead of disinterested research and the traditional liberal arts education, the academy, they charge, too often now provides slanted scholarship and ideological indoctrination.

"Conservative charges of anti-intellectualism have some merit," concedes Jackson Lears, a historian at Rutgers University. Lazy professors with "some predictable thesis" now trick it out in "conceptual verbiage, the meat-grinder approach to theory," invoking talismanic names such as Gramsci, Foucault, and Lacan. Meanwhile, academics of "vaguely postmodern leftist sentiment" celebrate "corporate-sponsored entertainment," dismissing as "elitist" any intellectual or aesthetic judgment against it. That dismissal, says Lears, "is precisely the opposite of what liberal education is all about."

But Lears defends "the postmodern challenge to positivist orthodoxy and the enactment of multiculturalism." Both, he avers, "are rooted" in the liberal arts tradition. "Multiculturalism at its best," for instance, "is about expanding the kinds of evidence we typically look at in the classroom.... Who could object to that?"

As he sees it, both sides in the culture wars have ignored "the chief threat to intellectual freedom in the academy," which comes from the university's own administrators. "The main menace," Lears says, "is market-driven managerial influence." The increasing use of part-time and temporary faculty is symptomatic. In "a cultural climate that encourages professors to think like entrepreneurs," the historian writes, universities must "refuse to tailor their research agendas to the needs of industry, and reassert the core value of the liberal arts tradition: the pursuit of truth for its own sake."

The more typical liberal response to the conservative critique has been simply dismissive -- and toothless, says Russell Jacoby, a leftist critic and author of The Last Intellectuals (1987). "In the liberal view, education has proceeded swimmingly; it has become more diverse, multicultural, and exciting, which only crabby conservatives fail to fathom. …

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