Hanging with the Snarks: An Academic Memoir

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There seemed to be little interest among audience members [at a scholarly meeting] in whether the ideas I had presented were true, only whether their application would bring about results they liked.

I used to have a running argument with a colleague, a great scholar now gathered to his fathers, during late afternoon seminars catered by the good folks at Jack Daniels. The argument was as to the cause of the shallowness, fakery, pusilanimity, and lack of vocation of the professoriate that we saw around us every day. I argued that it was a failure of intelligence, he that it was a defect of character. We were both right, though he more so than I.

It is a common misconception that college professors are particularly intelligent. Since the great proliferation of doctorates beginning in the 1960s, this is no longer true, if it ever was. Professors for the most part are just people who have stayed in school a long time. In IQ they average out below physicians and entrepreneurs and about match the lower third of lawyers, clergymen, accountants, and Congressmen. Many of the stupid statements that we hear every day from professors are committed by people with little intelligence or learning who are simply working with what they know—current intellectual fashion. It is not a testimonial to serious intelligence when people believe, as they do, that those who disagree with them do so only because they are not as smart as them.

Forty years ago, when I took my first post, I naively looked forward to vigorous conversation and debate with my colleagues. I am still waiting. But I soon learned to appreciate the expression “stuffed shirts.” Among these supposedly learned people, irony is completely lost and even everyday humour fails to ignite any spark whatsoever. A faculty meeting can resemble a congress of Lewis Carroll’s snarks, who are identified by “their slowness in taking a jest./ Should you happen to venture on one,/ It will sigh like a thing that is deeply distressed:/ And it always looks grave at a pun.” Some snarks “have feathers, and bite” and some “have whiskers, and scratch.”

Today’s professors are too often people to whom their dubious status as intellectually superior to the common herd is far more important than their supposed function. They never debate. Ideas contrary to the fashion are merely to be met with an air of disdain or condescension appropriate to superior intellects confronted with ignorance. After all, they read the New York Times and listen to NPR. C.S. Lewis called them “men without chests.” The enormities come so fast and often that we have grown used to them—ridiculous oracular statements from people with such arrogant cluelessness that they presume to dismiss the great cultural and historical figures of the past as so much rubbish.

Traditionally, many American professors came from affluent families who decided that this particular son did not have what it takes for the professions or business and so directed him to a modest but secure white-collar position. But those old professors at least knew well what they knew, laboured sincerely to communicate it to the rising generations, and had a real commitment to their community. The proliferation of doctorates and professorial jobs in the 1960s filled college faculties with people who in earlier generations would have been resentful retail clerks—whose only qualification for higher learning is conformity to the behaviour of their masters. (I partly exempt the growing numbers of women in the profession from my complaint. They average out, as far as my observation goes, smarter, tougher, and more professional than the 60s men.)

I generalise recklessly. There are noble exceptions. It may be that the situation is not as bad in the hard sciences, although from my limited observation I think it is. The sciences in higher education have other problems. In the last commencement I attended, my university awarded about thirty doctorates in the sciences, all but one to Asians.

The worst thing that ever happened to American higher education was the infusion of federal money after “Sputnik.” The money was supposed to improve things. It vastly expanded the numbers of the college population without improving the quality whatsoever. Both students and professors now know less than they used to. Even worse, the floating cash attracted plausible opportunists, a class that has now almost entirely taken over university administration. In my long and chequered academic career I dealt with a dozen or more presidents, vice-presidents, associate vice presidents, deans, etc. With only one exception they were, male and female alike, duplicitous con artists, and the males, besides, were weasely cowards. None had any accomplishments as scholars or teachers. None had any concept of culture or any philosophy of education except whatever could be covered by the latest trendy theory. None had any institutional loyalty—administration was either a hiding place or a transit depot. It is like making the hospital PR man Chief of Surgery. These people control the pay and perks of genuine scholars. This bad character is mostly true of department chairmen, also, though there is an occasional honourable person found among them through a sense of service.

How else can you describe people except as con artists who routinely without blushing speak as though equality in eduction and excellence in education are the same thing? Administrators and their flunkies have proliferated and are a major cause of escalating costs—along with new “programs” and “institutes,” almost invariably boondoggles, though usually with benevolent sounding titles. It is these “programs” and institutes more than regular academic departments that are the driving force behind the Politically Correct intolerance that is now almost pervasive on campuses.

The federal touch—which is really the touch of Boston, New York, Detroit, and San Francisco— poisons everything it comes near. We now have a vastly overblown higher education establishment that serves no purpose except the profit of those who get a cut. Thousands too many doctorates and hundreds of thousands of students who are wasting their time and money.

Students used to be grateful to get into college. Now they have multiple choices and the schools compete for them—with the inducements of grade inflation and a sybaritic lifestyle. Importing foreign students is a big industry—not because they are seeking a quality education but because administrators are hauling in bodies anywhere they can get them. Don’t even get me started on sports (athletes now each have their own graduate student flunky to run academic interference) or the organised crime enterprise known as “textbooks.”

Russell Kirk, of course, described the debacle of higher education and its causes clearly a half century ago. The trendy critics of recent times—Bloom, Horowitz, D’Souza—lay the blame on leftist ideology. As usual, they don’t know what they are talking about. Leftist ideology is the symptom, not the cause. These phony “conservative” critics are merely Trotskyites who are shouting that the sky is falling because coloured Maoists have cut into their control of academic patronage. Multiculturalism and deconstruction could not possibly have seized control of a professoriate in which integrity and real learning were the norm. No genuine scholar ever discarded traditional wisdom for a truculent and destructive fantasy. If you could see a “search committee” at work, you would understand my point. Such committees for filling faculty positions have an unerring ability to smell out and settle on mediocrity. No obvious losers, who might cause trouble, and no obvious winners who might set an uncomfortable pace—safe mediocrity is the choice every time. (The same process works in admitting graduate students.)

To a considerable extent, of course, the colleges merely reflect the political, ideological, and moral defects of the larger American society. Although, as a non-academic friend reminds me, that is where the snowball is rolling over the fastest.

The politicians, businessmen, and wealthy alumni who serve as trustees are captives, like most Americans, of educationalist flimflam and are reluctant to cause any trouble in a post that they often regard as a vanity trip. Generally they have no more concept of real education than the administrators. It is particularly bad in Southern universities. The controlling powers are perhaps not quite as advanced into the depths of political and moral decadence as in the rest of the country. But they are deathly afraid of being thought backward and provincial by those beyond the line who they like to think of as their social equals. The worst example is the University of Texas which has expended immense riches without achieving any civilisational contribution whatsoever. And Mr. Jefferson’s University of Virginia, designed to train republican statesmen, now largely a resort for rich outsiders.

My university doubled its faculty in 1966 and again in 1971. Had there been any vision at the top beyond creating an imitation, second-string Ohio State, a scholarly and cultural miracle would have been possible. South Carolina had a modest but genuine and unique culture and tradition as a base. But the great resources were spent on hiring professors who were alike but not quite as good as the general run of academics elsewhere. I know of a department of forty members in which there are two native Carolinians and six Southerners all told, white and black. It is no accident that five of the six are the greatest producers and claimants of distinction in the department. Any mediocre outsider can be appointed at a Southern school, but a Southerner has no hope unless he is very, very good. Europeans usually find it is child’s play to impress the mediocre American professors. The immigrant scholars are generally cynical opportunists, but they come from cultures that are still literate and, unlike the Americans, have survived a sharp competition for a limited number of places.

We have such phenomena as departments where the native office staff have more intelligence, integrity, and “class” than the professors they must work for. And cases of professors resident for thirty years who have never had a real conversation with a native and who flee North at every academic break. Real scene: two professors, one a product of European fascist education and the other a homosexual from the Midwest, clucking together over the supposed stupidity of the people of South Carolina—those who employ them and whose children they are charged with teaching. Their version of “being your own man.” What are we to think of a Southern college literature department, that, except for Faulkner, who can’t be ignored, knows and teaches nothing of Southern literature, the marvel of the world? In my early education at the University of North Carolina, I felt the remnants of a real tradition of a state institution’s mission of service to the people of the state. That is gone forever, everywhere.

My institution had a president for thirteen years who had left Illinois just ahead of the sheriff, and whose legal and moral transgressions would take a book to describe and eventually landed him in the federal pen. He maintained power by throwing business to politically connected law firms and flattering influential people with opportunities to hobnob with second-string celebrities—like Madame Sadat and Robby Benson. His downfall only came when an out-of-state newspaper dug up incriminating documents from a landfill. So burdened with naivete and inferiority complex are Southern trustees that several of his proteges went on to become presidents of other institutions. Meanwhile, a female athletic coach, also imported, was exposed (by a national magazine) as a lesbian predator. (At the same time, our police chief, also an import from Illinois, was earning his place in the slammer. Meanwhile the press was enjoying a field day exposing the corrupt Southern religion of Jim and Tammi Bakker. Jim was from Michigan, Tammi from Minnesota, and few of their “parishioners” were Southern natives.)

There was a time when students came up to college fresh and unsophisticated from the boondocks. But they had a telluric connection with Western civilisation. They knew the King James Bible, something of the history of their family in the great events of this continent, and natural “country” music before it was commodified. They were capable of an identification with and sometimes even a passion for the great works of our past. Some time in the late 1990s I began to notice widespread, if not universal, absence of this ability to enter into Western civilisation.

All the old favourites of the American history lecture room—George Washington accepting the command of the Continental army while refusing pay; pioneers selecting the site for their home and fields; flatboats piled with cotton making their way down the canal that the students saw every day. For most these no longer struck any spark of recognition or identification or interest whatsoever. History was another universe which they had neither the imaginative ability nor the desire to enter. Even when confronted with real material—reading the Declaration of Independence, for instance— they tended to repeat the rote PC answers that they had learned were expected rather than to interact with what was before them. Many, however, while students, lived better than working class families. Let’s say nothing about the pervasive corruption of morals, which Tom Wolfe has described well in I Am Charlotte Simmons. Mammas, don’t let your girls grow up to be college students.

By the time I retired, freshman/sophomore students in the American history survey could not do one-third of the work that had routinely been assigned in the early 1970s, and even that much they considered as oppression. And many thought that studying meant memorising the answers to the test, to be given to them in advance. (The answers, not the questions.) There are exceptions, of course, and the mass of young people can hardly be blamed. They are victims. They have already endured a lifetime of trivial American mass media and twelve years of Deweyite education designed to expunge everything of cultural value from their consciousness. Why be interested in reading when your previous experience consists of non-books about Martin Luther King, global warming, and the wholesomeness of sodomy? MTV, which, after all, is bright colored and ever-moving, is much more attention getting, and the soaps have something remotely resembling real stories and people. While the decline was going on, the administrators were bragging to the public that they were constantly raising standards. The simple fact is that vast numbers of young Americans live in a post-literate culture.

One key to the decline is “course revision.” Again and again, I have seen solid, successful, traditionally required courses trashed and replaced by trivial or tendentious ones. This is always done in the name of “providing the students with what they need in these changed times.” But somehow, students are never, never asked for input into what they find really useful. It is useless to oppose this, because if blocked one year it will be back the next as a project of those who have no scholarship or devoted teaching to fill their time. It is all a matter of faculty hobbyhorses and the newest fashions. It is heart-breaking to see very able graduate students refused admission, crushed, or made devious by 60s tenured radicals who are much less able and dedicated than the students. Rather than future masters of the discipline to be nurtured, the graduate students become merely instruments of the professors’ egos. And we have a proliferation of historical dissertations like “The Oppression of Chinese-American Laundry Workers in Cleveland, 1893-1911,” and “Changing Consumer Preferences in Los Angeles Shopping Malls, 1945-1960.”

But if the colleges are designed to create new generations of Liberals then they are now largely failing at that. There are the usual leftists among the student body, but they are generally Red Diaper babies or limousine liberals before they get to college. Most students are either apathetic and deracinated or have imbibed the idiot Bushite/Limbaugh nationalism of their parents, the only alternative they have ever been shown to discredited liberalism. The more intelligent see through the shallowness and intolerance of the faculty and give back the answers they know are required, realising that they do not match reality, that their “education” is an annoying required obstacle that is to be got through as painlessly as possible.

Perhaps the most evil thing about the state of American education is its demoralisation and alienation of the talented minority in a society desperate for quality leadership.This is literally societal suicide.

I have already admitted generalising recklessly in this lamentation of a memoir. This is a big country, and it is possible that there are conditions and trends going on in other places that contradict what I have experienced. Even in poisoned institutions there are professors who are kindly, fair-minded, and with a real commitment to their scholarly disciplines. But a number of our greatest artists, Randall Jarrell, George Garrett, Tom Wolfe, have perceived and portrayed the sad quotidian reality of the professoriate in our time in ways much more truthful than official blather. The fact remains that American higher education, starting at the top, is a rampaging cancer on the body politic, made ever more virulent by the immense resources it consumes.

What the great expansion of “higher education” in the last half century has mainly achieved is the empowerment of a host of conceited, pushy pseudo-intellectuals—alas, an all too common American type. American public discourse can achieve no common sense about any vital matter—war, health care, the environment, race relations. This is largely because of the distortive input of special interests, but also because of the noisy interference of a host of people with that little learning that is a dangerous thing. Some perceptive historian of future days may well decide that the once free America perished of a surfeit of false and shallow learning.

SOURCE: From Chronicles; A Magazine of American Culture, September, 2010.

About Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of www.shotwellpublishing.com, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books. More from Clyde Wilson

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