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Book Report: Higher Education?

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Way back in the mists of time, somewhere, my idea for this blog was to write about the things I was reading.  I do a lot of reading, and I don’t have many people to talk to about it around here.  I have been on some Internet discussion forums that were supposed to be about books, but mostly they weren’t.  They tended instead to function as reader recommendation sites, where the only question anybody was really interesting in asking about the books in question was:  did you like it?

I don’t know if it’s something about the blog in particular, or just that I didn’t notice before–but since I’ve started writing this thing, I find myself not being happy with the books I read more and more often.

Part of that is my source of supply.  I don’t pick my own all that often.  One of the nice things about having worked in publishing for so long–and of having gone to the sort of college that produces absolute phalanxes of people who work for publishing companies–is that I have probably a dozen editors at different houses who know what I’m interested in and love to send it to me.

They especially love to send it to me if it’s something they didn’t acquire themselves and they know I’m going to hate.

I can’t say I actually hate  Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids–and What We Can Do About It.

To tell you the truth, there isn’t enough there there to hate.

Okay, I shouldn’t quote Gertrude Stein in this particular instance.  But I have always loved that quote.  And I’ve always thought it said a lot in very few words.

The Hacker and Dreifus book also has very few words, lots of white space and type big enough that I can read it with my distance glasses on.

And it has absolutely nothing to say that you haven’t heard before. 

If you really want a book about the real mission of the university and the place of the liberal arts, the book is Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which is still the best defense of liberal learning in the post-War period.

What this is is a sort of vague meandering nudgy sort of thing that makes a lot of points that have been obvious for years–colleges are too expensive and most of them aren’t worth the five figure price tags; the teaching of undergraduates at research universities is piss poor; the endless emphasis on vocational training undermines what true education might be available (if any); big time college sports are a financial and moral sinkhole. 

There’s absolutely nothing wrong in all that, except that there’s also no point.  You can find much the same kind of thing elsewhere, and usually it doesn’t take up more of your time than it takes to read a brief article.

If the book holds any interest at all, it’s because of its peculiar myopia about issues of political and ideological bias. 

For instance, it makes a lot of vague references to McCarthyism, and then takes off from there to defend Ward Churchill against attempts of the University of Colorado to fire him.

To make this defense, the authors not only cite “McCarthyism,” they cite a couple of other cases that have occurred recently, including the attempts of legislators to get a woman fired because she speculated, in a paper, that it wasn’t entirely possible that we would one day accept pedophilia the way we now accept other sexual orientations we used to abhor.

But the Churchill case is nothing like that.  It’s certainly true that nobody would have checked into his scholarship much if he hadn’t made the comment about “little Eichmanns,” and that the University of Colorado probably wouldn’t have tried to fire him over those research depredations if they didn’t want to fire him first because of his comments.

But Churchill’s research depredations were very real, and not the sort of offhand thing that can be half explained by inattention.  At one point, the man had a book he had written himself published under another name so that he could site it as a source in a book he was writing under his own.  He faked a Native American ancestry he didn’t have in order to get a job under Affirmative Action provisions that he would never have been offered otherwise.  His academic credentials were so weak, he wouldn’t have made it to the interview if he hadn’t claimed to be an American Indian.

I am perfectly willing to believe that the University of Colorado would not have acted on any of these things if the state legislature hadn’t been up in arms over the “little Eichmanns” comment–but the real scandal there is:  why the hell not?

Certainly if you’re going to stand up for higher standards and a return to the Western tradition, you shouldn’t be defending the retention of a man with no scholarship, no ethics, and no real credentials.

In much the same vein, the authors have nothing to say about campus speech codes, biased orientation sessions meant to indoctrinate entering freshmen into fashionable political pieties, or the near obliteration of alternate political and moral views on some college campuses. 

Towards the end of the book, they actually applaud Notre Dame for its courage inviting an Islamic cleric to speak on campus when the Bush administration had tagged him as having ties to terrorism.

But no courage was involved in that instance. Your standard college administration has nothing to fear from the Bush administration, and can actually get quite a lot of mileage out of being targetted by the “fascists.”   Hell, Columbia invited Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

What’s much more telling about the “courage” of Notre Dame’s administration is the way it acquiesces in organized student attempts to shout down speakers whose views really are unpopular in academia–prolife speakers; speakers opposed to gay marriage; speakers opposed to Affirmative Action.

The rest of the book is, mostly, mush–a lot of vague happy talk about stretching minds and engaging intellects. 

It’s the kind of thing that makes no sense to me when I read it, mostly because I don’t think it’s meant to make any sense.  It’s the kind of thing that oozes from every article by every alumnae looking back on her wonderful days on campus, and the kind of thing that makes up most college “mission statements.”

Have I ever said anything about how much I hate mission statements?

Anyway, there’s no point in reading this one.

It goes on the list I call TGIDHTPFI–thank God I didn’t have to pay for it.

Written by janeh

October 26th, 2010 at 4:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Book Report: Higher Education?'

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  1. Hmph. These days I grudge the time such books take up more than the money, though no doubt that will change again.

    Of course it didn’t make sense. That wasn’t the point. The objective was to tell certain people that they’re right all along, and only need to continue doing what they’ve been doing and like to do. There’s good money in that sort of writing, if you’ve got the stomach for it–certainly more than there is in telling people that in order to get what they want, they’re going to have to do things they don’t want to do.

    And there is something worse than a mission statement. There is a “vision.” I tell people, if they want to have a vision, do peyote, and leave me out of it.

    Business schools have a lot to answer for.


    26 Oct 10 at 3:55 pm

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