Monday, April 24, 2006

Scholastic self-respect, grade inflation and tenured True Believers

About this time each year, some members of the chattering classes ask the question, "Why should anybody care about the rankings, published by a second-rank national newsweekly, of the best colleges in the U.S.?"

Until this year, I had no reason to take issue with the implied slight on U.S. News and World Report's "Best Colleges in the U.S." survey. But then I read an opinion piece authored by U.S.N.&W.R. Editor-in-Chief Mortimer B. Zuckerman in the April 10 "America's Best Graduate Schools" issue.

In it, he defines what his publication expects of a great American university, specifically by explaining how he believes one of the greatest is falling down on the job.

The travails of Harvard President Lawrence Summers have been well-publicized. Zuckerman notes the standard reasons given in most accounts of his fall from grace include his management style and some less-than-diplomatic remarks made last year suggesting boys and girls may have different life expectations and are sometimes not equally gifted in all areas of intellectual interest. The PC crowd pounced on those remarks as proof Summers was a clueless sexist.

The resulting hue and cry seems to have been the straw that broke the prexy's back; not long after his unorthodox ideas hit the fan, Summers tendered his resignation. But according to Zuckerman, he was already on the hit list of a cohort of tenured professors enraged by his request that they teach a few undergraduate classes. One professor reportedly responded, "No self-respecting scholar would want to teach such a course."

That statement is so rife with revelations about the mindset of modern upper-income intellectuals it's hard to know where to begin deconstructing it.

Nonetheless, let's start here: My understanding is, most if not all professors began their quest for tenure by teaching 101-level classes. Did their own scholastic self-respect come to them only after they acquired guaranteed lifetime employment and started dragging down six figures? In addition to that extreme weirdness, issues of campus leadership arise when full professors teach only students who have already copped their sheepskins.

Here's a loaded question: Can this generation of great thinkers produce the next generation of great thinkers without mining the mother lode of smart freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors? I'd imagine not.

And since many freshmen choose their university specifically because of the great minds in residence, why not give them a little taste of the good stuff up front? If nothing else, the astute professor might lure a few of the cleverest and most adaptable into a discipline not initially identified as an area of major interest, but one for which they might have unrecognized, even genius-class aptitude.

But Zuckerman writes that at Harvard the tenured profs can't be bothered with teaching bright beginners, in part because they would prefer to teach post-grad classes "that tend to track their own research or even their latest book ... "

The predictable result is the production of all too many college-educated Americans unprepared to think, work or live in the real world. That in turn presents quite a thorny little problem in areas of fundamental scholastic competence. "Summers," writes Zuckerman, "was rightly critical of Harvard's own 'solution.'"

That solution was giving everybody high grades, leading to 91 percent of Harvard grads being awarded honors.

Grade inflation! It isn't just for failing public schools anymore!

So if the top instructors in our best institutions of higher learning aren't teaching fundamentals, what are they teaching? Although Zuckerman doesn't make mention of it, there's a growing body of evidence to suggest that on a lot of campuses, they're busy teaching blinkered allegiance to a belief system based in the notion that class struggle is the primary force driving human history. Inquiry into the premises, historical facts and logic supporting that belief system is not welcome. A number of independent reports indicate PC's Golden Rule, "Question Authority!" seldom applies to academic authorities.

If you are a college student, try this test: The next time one of your professors baldly asserts that, oh, say, "capitalism is inherently evil," ask him/her why the history of the 20th century unambiguously chronicles the bloodstained failure of every alternative economic system.

Then ask why many of Europe's social democracies have more or less permanent 9 percent unemployment rates and ethnic strife to rival that of Mississippi's Freedom Summer.

Then duck and cover.

Word on the street is, you'll be lucky to get off with a heady dose of "sharp sarcasm in the classroom" from a snarling, sneering, thoroughly cheesed-off academic authoritarian. That's the sort of penalty paid these days by students who cast aspersions on the infallibility of dogmatic, highly-paid, tenured True Believers.

1 comment:

Kevin, Oak Park, IL said...

On a personal note, when I was in college, I took a macro economics class. The teacher was not much younger than me (I was 29). He was not interested in much except getting done with each class session and then out, to his other world. The class was challenging and interesting, but when I had problems the teacher was not around. The end-of-semester critique asked what I thought of my teacher's style. My answer was that it was obvious that he had interests other than teaching and that if there was some other place that he would rather be than teaching, I would rather that he be there.

Kevin
Oak Park, IL