Trustees | Freedom of Expression

Academic Group Meets in Mount Vernon to Contemplate Remaking the Modern University

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  October 8, 2007 by John Gravois

To get a sense of what the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has in mind when it talks about reforming higher education, you could start with the venue of its latest meeting. Last Friday, the academic watchdog group convened its annual discussion on academic issues at the former home of George Washington, the Mount Vernon estate.

That morning, as two attendees at the conference chatted agreeably about the intellectual bankruptcy of ethnic and gender studies, a ponytailed busboy in white stockings, knee breeches, a peasant blouse, and a cotton vest was replenishing the coffee tureens and trays of Danishes. (A wrinkle in his colonial costume: black sneakers.)

And later, when a speaker reported that 51 percent of college seniors had identified Thomas Jefferson as a framer of the Constitution in a recent study, one woman in the audience actually gasped in horror. “It’s appropriate, I think, that we are here,” said Stephen H. Balch, the president of the National Association of Scholars, speaking from a podium flanked by busts of the revolutionary general. “What we’re trying to do is not only re-found the modern university,” he said, “but in re-founding it, to return it.”

Mr. Balch and the other speakers at the meeting were not, in fact, suggesting returning the university to the days of muskets, tricornered hats, and cows grazing on the quad. While they are certainly intent on refocusing the curriculum on American civics and the Western canon, they seemed to have a more recent era in mind when they talked about “return”–a time before political correctness, postmodernism, and the war in Vietnam, when, purportedly, Americanness was nothing to be shy about. Or, as one speaker put it, the 50s.

Opponents of ACTA, as the council is known, would no doubt point out that was also a time when student and faculty populations were far smaller, whiter, wealthier, and more predominantly male.

But the range of opinions at the ACTA meeting about what has gone wrong with academe might surprise some in the professoriate who think of the group as nothing more than a conservative battering ram. As the day wore on, other speakers lamented the same structural changes in the university that figure heavily in some faculty groups’ narratives of academic decline: the trend toward hyperspecialization in research, the lack of incentives for undergraduate teaching, the perceived rise of cynicism and careerism on campus.

Members of groups like the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers often worry about the same trends. But between them and ACTA, there are still many more electric fences than there is common ground.

Bad Faith or Bad Incentives?

To be sure, outright hostility to academe was warmly received at the gathering.

Michael Barone, a conservative author and commentator, called the modern university “hollowed out and rotten;” “one of the most intellectually dishonest institutions in society;” and a haven for “pseudoscholarship and intellectual shoddiness.”

“When I read the babblings of someone like Ward Churchill,” he said, “I realize that many of these people are actually very stupid.” The audience of about 70 murmured its approval.

Mr. Balch suggested that the professoriate is on a political mission at odds with traditional American values. “Higher education has taken upon itself an new set of purposes,” he said, “to remake the United States of America.”

Assessment and accountability was another big theme at the meeting–one that usually involved painting academe as a student who refuses to show his work. Arthur J. Rothkopf, a member of the secretary of education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education and a former president of Lafayette College, called undergraduate education “a true black box” and said academe was “circling the wagons.”

“When it comes to the curriculum, the message is: That’s off limits,” he said. “I think that’s a situation that needs changing.”

Not all presentations were flatly antagonistic.

Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, gave the audience a somewhat more humane take on the social conditions of academic life that, in his view, produce intellectual conformity. “You are constantly being judged by a small group of people,” he said. “I frankly have never seen so many people so frightened by the looks of their colleagues.”

Much of what Mr. Bauerlein said had little to do with politics or ideology. He said professors had too few incentives to focus on undergraduate teaching. Cultivating engaged, critical citizens is simply too far down the university’s list of priorities, he said.

In fact, Mr. Bauerlein might not have been out of place addressing professors who belong to the American Federation of Teachers when he lamented that “the public purpose of the schools is deteriorating” and that the fruits of modern education are “cynicism and careerism.”

Kevin Carey, a research and policy manager at the nonprofit organization Education Sector, told the audience he thought that the problems with undergraduate teaching are phrased too often in ideological terms–as complaints about postmodernism and political correctness. “I see the problem more in structural terms,” he said. Mr. Carey was the only presenter to profess a “center-left” political orientation. The audience seemed thoughtful about his points.

Nonetheless, distrust of the professoriate pretty clearly ruled the day at the round table. (And in turn, distrust of the alumni- and trustee-organizing group is widespread among outfits like the American Association of University Professors, which views ACTA’s efforts to influence higher education as so many Trojan horses.)

During one question-and-answer session at the roundtable, a member of the audience stood up and called for something beyond reform of higher education. He recommended a virtual secession from the academic establishmenta declaration of independence from the old brick-and-mortar regime.

“Why not think about the university online?” he said, “Open up the accrediting system.”

With the busts of George Washington, revolutionary hero, looking over them, the audience members applauded and said, “Hear, hear!”


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