Academic Claptrap and its Consequences
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  • Eric from Texas

    Hear, hear! Liberal Arts can enrich and educate, if done well

    I was fortunate enough to have such a graduate education. I have a Ph.D. in Economics from a Big Ten school, circa mid-80s. My doctoral dissertation was in Financial History that was based on the work done by Charles Kindleberger on stock market bubbles. I was very fortunate that I had a terrific dissertation advisor who also ran a top-notch seminar in Economic History. At the seminar, I had a chance to hear presentations from some of the great minds in the Economic History profession from that era – Doug North, Deidre McCloskey, Joel Mokyr, Julian Simon, Charles Calomiris, Barry Eichengreen, among others. Open debate was strongly encouraged, and the graduate students were forced to think on their feet in presenting their own work at the seminar.

    What the program did is what WRM has been preaching in his columns – give a solid grounding in history with a strong view on how institutions evolve in response to social and technological change. The program I attended strongly encouraged econometric analysis, always being tempered by historical reality.

    I have used those building blocks from graudate school repeatedly in my career in government and the private sector, and have found they have given me a leg up on seeing changes in the industry in which I work (electricity markets).

    It really is sad that so much as academe today is the hostage of left-wing group think.

  • Some Sock Puppet

    This has been a problem for at least a decade. I chose to participate in a women and cultural studies course with my (now) wife at a very blue state school. I thought it could be interesting. (Please save your jeers 🙂 ) And why take only courses that pander to your side?

    It ended up with the two white males in class questioning everything, declaring that the course material was utter excrement and absurd, and my being kicked out of class after a particularly heated discussion about the behavior of one of the minority students stalking me online and out of class around campus to harrangue me about my alleged evils.

    My wife, being of Jewish decent also spoke up about the ridiculous greivances presented and bandied about as gospel. She mentioned the holocaust and her utter amazement that something that had hapened only 50 odd years past was ignored for something that occured 200 years ago, and has had far more progress made against it ever occuring again. She further claimed that if anyone had a more relevant claim, it was her. Which won her no friends. I mentioned the Irish famine, the Scottish repression, and stated that at one point or another every single group on the face of this planet has been oppressed by another, but the beauty of America was that we look to the future and that old world nonsense could stay in the old world.

    The instructor took all this personally and had me removed from class and I went from a 3.8 to a 1.7 GPA in that class. I was told I had to attend anger management classes. (For raising my voice as the stalking harpy screeched at me.)

    I was so thuroughly disgusted and ashamed. Not of my supposed history, (Being 24 at the time, I had done little to anyone) but of the tripe masquerading as teaching, and the amount of money being spent on it.

    College in it’s current form is a massive scam.

    We’re seeing the fruit of this particular tree all around us in the state of government, the lack of direction, and ambivalent equivocating of our representatives, etc.

    The republic is doomed if we don’t have a massive course correction and soon.

  • surfed

    African-Americans are the concience of our country.

  • Will

    There’s an awful lot of academic hackwork–and not just in the humanities–but is all research hackwork? And how much teaching is the same? Shifting a focus from research to teaching doesn’t seem likely to solve the underlying problem. Non-selective colleges are packed with students going through the motions. The would be much better served by vocational training or apprenticeship programs that degrees in fields that aren’t really academic to start. If the wider culture dismisses humanities fields as silly and irrelvant–anything besides STEM is fluff–and schools don’t teach effective reading comprehension and written communication, let alone spark an interest in learning, what can be expected students going through the motions.

    I agree entirely on the problem of group think and mediocrity, but outsiders judging programs on a completely irrelevent set of criteria only makes the situation worse. George Babbitry isn’t much better than the antics of tenured radicals or the theory/culture wars of the 1990s.

  • vanderleun

    “It will do no good for the professoriate to get all huffy and denounce the skeptics as barbarians, bigots and know-nothings. Insulting your patrons is no way to get them to cover your costs.”

    Actually it has worked and worked very, very well for decades now. It will not stop working anytime soon. It is tried and true and it will be responsible for keeping this scam going long after funding for things such as Dr. Mead’s position have been defunded.

    The reason is not the weakness of this entire endeavor, but the fear that the hack scholars of this endeavor have learned to instill. The firing here is just the latest reminder.

    You think not? Try getting some of the worst and most offensive hacks booted at Bard.

    Go ahead. We’ll wait here for you.

  • vanderleun

    “African-Americans are the concience of our country.”

    Really? I always thought that was left up to Jiminy Cricket. If so it is easy to see why we have a crisis of conscience around here. Best to hand it back to the Cricket.

  • Anthony

    WRM, at bottom you make an economic argument – costs, budgets, sustainable departments, etc. Yet, your reference to all forms of intellectual work being not only well done but also meeting high and rigorous standards as it encompasses ranging perspectives is essential to constraining academic claptrap – perhaps with the unintended consequence of improving institutional economics.

    Here’s to the joy of learning and the enlightenment of humanity; may we all bask in its beneficence.

  • @ “As a concept, Via Meadia likes Black Studies and considers it a perfectly valid element of a liberal education . . .”

    The subject is valid but why couldn’t it, and shouldn’t it, be rolled into the general history curriculum? The same goes for gender studies and every other kind of ethnic studies. History is the great undiscovered country in our university curriculae.

    P.S. The real scandal in the Riley episode was shutting her down with charges of racism. To call someone a racist unjustifiably is one of the worst sins there is. To tolerate this kind of slander in the Chronicle of Higher Education is unpardonable. (Here’s a picture of Riley’s husband btw.)If free enquiry can’t be allowed on a blog called Brainstorm — well, that’s just absurd. Somebody needs to be fired.

  • Seriously, the best argument for ending black studies is the reaction to Ms. Riley’s post. The story of African Americans is an integral part of the story of America as a whole and should be integrated into the general narrative of American history. End curricular segregation now! It is demeaning. (Same goes for women’s studies.)

  • MikeL

    Via Meadia and Luke Lea (and most of the other responders) have hit the nail squarely upon the head.

    My own Ph.D. dissertation was nothing to rave about, but, compared to much of what I’ve seen (yes, the social sciences is worse than STEM) it was respectable. Since then, I’ve taught at colleges and have had 3rd (4th?) tier institutions tell me with a straight face that they expect all faculty to be doing original and published research. Really? (that last word is dripping with disbelief).

    Our colleges and universities have become jobs programs for the employees (both faculty and staff) and con games played cruelly upon young people who are woefully naive about the con being perpetrated upon them.

  • Jim.

    @Luke Lea-

    Hear, hear! Separate but “equal” is inherently unequal, one way or another.

  • Corlyss

    “The threat Black Studies faces today is the same that many disciplines in the humanities face. The combination of mediocrity and group think on the inside of the profession combined with an age of tight budgets will force all the humanities and social sciences to defend their programs and their subsidies before a skeptical public.”

    I’m not so sanguine about such an outcome. The drek has a way of hanging on because eliminating would offend a powerful interest group that has more clout with foundations and government grantors than the Western Canon does. If anything goes, it will be whatever vestage of non-minority history is left in the “higher ed” cesspools. After all, the people who are supposed to demand some standards are the very people who have paved the way for the claptrap, the same people WRM has been writing about as being the most disadvantaged by the collapse of the blue model: minorities, especially blacks, and women.

  • Kris

    “Insulting your patrons is no way to get them to cover your costs.”

    But surely the force of our righteous indignation will manage to drill into their primitive minds an understanding of their inherent racism, whereupon they will understand that they need to repent by opening their wallets.

  • Kris

    [email protected]: I’ve read more than my fair share of dissertations. I found even those in STEM from elite institutions to be too often disappointing, considering that dissertations are generally required to be “substantial contribution of new knowledge to the field of study”. But at least they were intellectually rigorous. When it comes to Social Science dissertations, especially in less elite universities, … Well, there most definitely is some worthy work in that haystack.

    [ObDisclaimer: This comment obviously should not be interpreted as a judgement on the value of Social Science studies as such.]

  • John Burke

    Leftist claptrap may be common across many disciplines but let’s face it, Mead, Black Studies, Women’s Studies and (soon to be as common) Gay Studies are “disciplines” that exist solely to provide a focal point for particular ideologically driven grievances. In theory, of course, studying the African American experience could be interesting, constructive and free of dominance by politics and ideology. Alas, in practice, it is not.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @John Burke: Actually, I think it is jobs more than ideology.

  • jaed

    Hmmm. I think the key point, without which none of this makes sense, is that Black Studies – as a major – is not a subset of history, and the degree is not an academic degree – rather, it’s a pre-professional degree in political activism. (So are all the “Studies” degrees. Take a look at the web pages of “Studies” departments with well-regarded programs, and look at what they say a graduate of the program knows and can do.)

    There’s nothing wrong with such a degree, any more than with other such degrees such as Divinity, Speech Therapy, or Pre-Med. Such degrees can in principal be rigorous (though usually they’re not). But a pre-professional degree isn’t the same thing as studying an academic discipline. The degree in Black Studies aims at molding the student’s attitudes in certain ways. History is taught, but it’s taught didactically: one is supposed to derive certain lessons and dispositions from it, not examine it with an open mind for the sake of learning. Same with sociology, psychology, and the rest of the coursework one might find in such a degree.

    The problem here really is twofold:

    – The Studies departments are presented to students, the academic community, and the world at large as academic disciplines instead of pre-professional programs. They cannot withstand judgment by this standard, and the public view of what an academic discipline is, is distorted by seeing it through the lens of activism.

    – Because there is crossover in subject matter, the boundary between such departments and academic disciplines such as history is blurred, with history more and more called into service to inculcate attitudes drawn from political activism, with displaying the proper viewpoint being more important than developing knowledge and insight. The end of this trend is corruption of the liberal arts to the point of uselessness.

    And here, more or less, we are.

  • Corlyss

    “Insulting your patrons is no way to get them to cover your costs.

    Wow! Where’s the empirical evidence for THAT conclusion? It’s worked extremely well since the 1960s. Actually, it’s worked extremely well since the limousine liberals of the 1880s thought it cool living on the wild side by bringing their pet anarchists to social events aimed at raising money for the cause.

  • Douglas Levene

    A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I studied East Asian Studies. It was quite rigorous, I thought – students focused either on Japan or China, studied either Japanese or Chinese, and took lots of related history classes, economic history classes, diplomatic history classes, art history classes, literature classes, sociology classes, and so on. At the end of that, students knew quite a bit about Japan or China or both. I guess my point is that interdisciplinary “studies” need not be non-rigorous, pre-professional training in political activism. It’s quite possible to create rigorous, intellectually challenging programs that focus on interdisciplinary areas.

  • Clutch cargo cult

    “…leftie or otherwise..”, are you kidding? If “otherwise” existed that might make this ridiculous situation tenable.

  • “Our colleges and universities have become jobs programs for the employees (both faculty and staff) . . . .”

    That’s it, right there. Just like the K-12 schools.

  • Sam L.

    Dr. (Ph.D) Isaac Azimov wrote an article about 50 years ago titled “The Sound Of Panting”, in which he described the increasing number of published papers that he should read. He said then that if he read them all, he would have no time to work. And/or have a life. He wasn’t complaining about the quality of the work, just that the quantity was prohibitive in itself.

  • jaed

    Area studies majors (like East Asian studies) bear little or no resemblance to the grievance-studies fields. The fact that they both have the word “Studies” in them doesn’t mean much… there isn’t a particular ideological commitment that East Asian studies students are expected to make. (I make a partial exception for Middle Eastern studies, at least in recent years.)

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