December 12, 2008

Something Rotten In The Academy

Chris Hedges issues a scathing indictment of intellectual stagnation in America's elite universities. According to Hedges, these institutions are not training the leaders, innovators, and bright minds of the future. Rather, they are training legions of competent middle managers. They do not encourage critical thought, they discourage actual dissemination of ideas through the inculcation of jargon and notions of intellectual elitism, and the result is a dramatically weakened nation because we no longer have our best and brightest at the helms of our governmental, financial, and cultural institutions:

The nation’s elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent and often subversive. They organize learning around minutely specialized disciplines, narrow answers and rigid structures that are designed to produce certain answers. The established corporate hierarchies these institutions service—economic, political and social—come with clear parameters, such as the primacy of an unfettered free market, and with a highly specialized vocabulary. This vocabulary, a sign of the “specialist” and of course the elitist, thwarts universal understanding. It keeps the uninitiated from asking unpleasant questions. It destroys the search for the common good. It dices disciplines, faculty, students and finally experts into tiny, specialized fragments. It allows students and faculty to retreat into these self-imposed fiefdoms and neglect the most pressing moral, political and cultural questions. Those who defy the system—people like Ralph Nader—are branded as irrational and irrelevant. These elite universities have banished self-criticism. They refuse to question a self-justifying system. Organization, technology, self-advancement and information systems are the only things that matter.
I have to think that this portrayal of an ultra-establishmentarian academy is somewhat exaggerated. At the same time, I consider my own education and I realize that a lot of "out-of-the-box" thinking was not really encouraged; only a few of my instructors really seemed to enjoy it when their students debated or fought back on issues. They seemed to expect that we absorb the ideas they professed, and demonstrated that we understood what we had been told. Disagreement was not actively punished, in my experience, but often simply disregarded as evidence that the learning process was not yet complete.

Importantly, Hedges sees the process of intellectual conformity beginning not in the unviersities but in the prep schools that feed teenagers into them:
When my son got his SAT scores back last year, we were surprised to find that his critical reading score was lower than his math score. He dislikes math. He is an avid and perceptive reader. And so we did what many educated, middle-class families do. We hired an expensive tutor from The Princeton Review who taught him the tricks and techniques of taking standardized tests. The tutor told him things like “stop thinking about whether the passage is true. You are wasting test time thinking about the ideas. Just spit back what they tell you.” His reading score went up 130 points. Was he smarter? Was he a better reader? Did he become more intelligent?
Well, of course not, but he had been trained in better test-taking techniques, begging the question of what, exactly, does this test measure? I had the same experience taking the LSAT before law school; I thought that I was an excellent reader and that my ability to assimilate an idea and work with it after reading it was well above average. I was astonished to find my "reading comprehension" score on the LSAT was the lowest of the three indicies of performance. Now, I have to wonder whether that was true -- perhaps what was being measured was something other than what I understood "reading comprehension" to be.

Now, Hedges himself is no stranger to the elite levels of the academy; he is very much a product of the elite. You don't get much more elite in journalistic circles than The New York Times, which is his primary employer, and his educational and academic background is every bit as sterling as the bulk of the incoming Obama Administration officials whom he indicts as "in-the-box" pasty-beige Establishment-liberal thinkers, who produce either "in-the-box" pasty-beige Establishment-liberal graduates, or "in-the-box" pasty-beige Establishment-conservative graduates. Nothing radical, no new ideas, only tiny incremental modifications to tinker with the same overall status quo.

Problematically, Hedges offers no solutions or other ideas that might help remedy the problem he has diagnosed. Perhaps he simply wants the academy to recognize its own ossification in the hopes that it will self-correct. This is a futile hope indeed, if he is correct.

Also problematically, Hedges does not explain why the status quo that he claims the academy supports is so awful. Certainly times are tough now for our country on just about every front you can imagine. But you can't plot a curve from one point. Three years ago, things seemed to be going pretty well on most of the issues that matter -- the economy was booming, the war in Iraq was starting to turn around, America seemed to be regaining some measure of international prestige, and the Green Bay Packers turned in a winning season.

Still, I think he does raise a point that the academy sneers at interdisciplinary studies. Different kinds of academic disciplines can learn a lot from one another, and there isn't enough cross-pollenization of ideas going on for real learning to take place. Some disciplines are bogged down in thick jargon so impenetrable that no one outside of the discipline even knows what these scholars are talking about. (I'm looking at you, Sociology Department.) Scholars in general speak and write in such elevated and rarefied terms that they tend to require translation (read: "dumbing down") so that people without advanced training can extract anything useful from what they do. And disagreement and critical thought are not encouraged nearly as much as they could be.

This, of course, is only a commentary on the elite levels of education. Lower levels struggle with students who lack basic educational skills such as writing and actual reading comprehension. Critical thinking is lacking at that level, too, and there seems to be no real effort to teach it.

If the USA has one thing going for it as a long-term competitive advantage to the rest of the world, it is our higher education system. Our workers are not inherently more productive than anyone else's. Technology is disseminated too far by now for that technological edge to keep us ahead of the game. Our generally-superior infrastructure is being matched by other nations. So if we are going to stay on top of the game globally, we need to be smart. That's why this matters to us as a people.

I don't know that the problem is as severe as he describes, but then again, I've been out of the academy for a long time and maybe in the past fifteen years or so things have actually changed. My friends in the academic profession, however, describe an environment much like the one I experienced as a student. But if Hedges is even a little bit right that there is this sort of intellectual rigidity in the academy, one which is deteriorating our elite into mediocrities, then something should be done about that. Academics should be encouraged to reach out to non-specialists to make their work worthwhile and practical to the world at large. Interdisciplinary studies should not be viewed as a novelty but rather as a pathway to excellence. And most of all, critical thought and logic should be taught and encouraged constantly, both in formal classes and as an integral component of more specialized learning exercises.

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