Snobs in the Groves of Academe

Naomi Schaefer Riley | Posted on 03/28/10

You don’t know who you are messing with.” According to the Cambridge police report, those are the words Henry Louis Gates uttered when Sgt. James Crowley arrested the Harvard professor for disorderly conduct in July 2009. With this incident, the American public was treated to yet another national conversation about race.

The more interesting conversation, however, was about class. It’s not simply that Gates and his friend Barack Obama (who defended Gates’s behavior in a prime-time news conference) make a lot more money than Crowley, though they do, or that they don’t drink beer regularly or go bowling, though they don’t. It’s that the professor and the president come from the rarified world of academia.

University professors are not among the most humble members of our society. Populist right-wing politicians can hardly find easier punching bags than some of the blowhards on college campuses. But how did we get from Socrates’ famous dictum, “All I know is that I know nothing” to Skip Gates’s “Don’t you know who I am?”

The loss of humility among teachers — and particularly college faculty — is traceable to a number of structural, political, and cultural changes that have occurred both inside the academy and out.

When looking at the academy today, it is instructive to start at the bottom, because the way we treat the people beneath us in rank is inevitably a sign of how we view our own place in the universe. Young graduate students trying to earn PhDs spend six or seven years acting as teaching and research assistants for tenured senior faculty, doing the grunt work of grading papers, meeting with students, and finding citations for their supervisors’ publications. In all likelihood, they get paid less than $20,000 a year for doing it. It is hard not to sympathize with the graduate students who have attempted to form unions in the past decade. Administrators and senior faculty, however, regularly refer to graduate school as an apprenticeship, implying that these conditions are necessary in order to move up the ladder.

Once graduate students achieve their terminal degree (or sometimes before), they begin teaching on an “adjunct” basis — that is, they’re not working toward a more senior or more permanent position. These teachers, sometimes referred to as “contingent labor,” receive barely minimum wage, often have to work at multiple institutions to make ends meet, have no opportunities for research, and are often restricted to one-year contracts. They have little time to spend mentoring students because they are off to their next job right after class.

Still, having a large class of people below you to pick up your slack is not a sufficient reason for the academy’s arrogance. After all, there are even corporate CEOs out there with a sense of humility. Their secretaries may be paid much less, but at least some opportunities for advancement exist.

Senior academics see themselves as a class apart from other professions. Tenure, for instance, offers them job stability found in no other profession save perhaps the clergy. The claim for tenure rests on the notion that professors’ academic freedom must be protected. And academic freedom has become an all-purpose invocation — the ivory tower’s “get out of jail free card” — that professors have used to defend all sorts of silly, if not fraudulent, scholarship and classroom behavior that borders on the outrageous.

The meaning of academic freedom and the purpose of tenure are relatively narrow, unworthy of the kind of arrogant claims made on their behalf. Tenure, as Stanley Fish explains in his book Save the World on Your Own Time, was not meant to protect off-the-cuff political statements outside the classroom, but merely the freedom to teach and conduct research in one’s own discipline without administrative interference. When all is said and done, writes Fish in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “academic freedom is just a fancy name for being allowed to do your job, and it is only because that job has the peculiar feature of not having a pre-stipulated goal that those who do it must be granted a degree of latitude and flexibility not granted to the practitioners of other professions.... That’s why there’s no such thing as ‘corporate-manager freedom’ or ‘shoe-salesman freedom’ or ‘dermatologist freedom.’”

So where did academics get the idea that their profession was more noble than those of corporate managers or shoe salesmen or dermatologists? Probably from the progressive movement of the early twentieth century. Rooted in the notion that humanity can be fundamentally changed, indeed improved, the progressives saw a vital role for universities in this transformation.

The German model of a research university, which came to the American shores in the nineteenth century, had two distinct features. One was that its faculty were tasked with pursuing knowledge free from any “proprietary” strictures. According to this theory, no benefactor of the institution, whether a religious leader or a businessman or a politician, could determine the direction of the faculty’s scholarship. This idea rather upended the traditional structure of institutions — the people paying the piper no longer called the tunes.

The second feature of the new university was that professors were no longer simply educating students in classical texts with a view to making them good people or good citizens. Rather, faculty at the new research universities were conceived of as experts. They were supposed to add to the general pool of knowledge available to mankind and use that knowledge to improve society.

The research university made some sense for professors studying the hard sciences. The nineteenth century began with the invention of the steam locomotive and the stethoscope and ended with the development of the internal combustion engine and germ theory. Scientific knowledge was becoming more specialized and more difficult for the average person to understand. Under the new university model, only faculty colleagues familiar with a particular discipline could determine the bounds for research.

The implications of the new research university for professors in the social sciences and humanities were harder to comprehend. After all, what did it mean that professors of sociology or history or English were supposed to add to the store of society’s knowledge? Is our twenty-first-century understanding of Shakespeare inherently superior to the seventeenth-century one? Should we count on modern professors of political science to improve American government? Do they understand our politics better than, say, the authors of the Federalist Papers?

The answer of the era’s progressives — echoed by today’s academics — was an unqualified yes. Herbert Croly, for example, wrote of the need in government for a “permanent body of experts in social administration” whose task would be to “promote individual and social welfare.” For our own good, the progressives argued, we needed to protect the rights of these professors to engage in any kind of scholarship that they and their fellow experts deemed necessary.

This kind of chutzpah also drove John Dewey, who founded the American Association of University Professors in 1915. Dewey worried that the old university education was “to a large extent the cultural products of societies that assumed the future would be much like the past.” But, of course, the future — according to the progressives and most educators today — will be different.

And so professors, even in the humanities, now had to show that they too could be breaking new ground. As Patrick Deneen of Georgetown University said in a speech recently, they had to “prove their worth in the eyes of administrators in the broader world. Faculty could demonstrate their progressiveness by showing the backwardness of texts; they could ‘create knowledge’ by demonstrating their own superiority to the authors they studied; they could demonstrate their anti-traditionalism by attacking the very books that were the basis of their discipline.” The lack of humility when it came to the very texts studied was a necessary feature of the new university.

Finally, Deneen explained, “By adopting a jargon only comprehensible to a few ‘experts’ they could emulate the priesthood of scientists — wholly betraying the original mandate of the humanities to guide students through the cultural inheritance and teachings of the classic books.”
Professors today are not “guides” passing on an “inheritance.” They are always and everywhere breaking new ground. According to a recent study by Mark Bauerlein of Emory University, the number of academic publications has increased more than 400 percent in the past half century, from 13,000 to 72,000 per year, while the audience for such works has continued to diminish. Of the business of academic publishing, Bauerlein writes, “This indicates an economy focused not on the commodity or the consumer, but on the producer alone.” The professor is not submitting himself humbly to the needs of students or institutions or even ideas. He is the center of his universe.

Bauerlein notes, “As opposed to physical sciences where advancing discoveries and technologies create new domains of inquiry, the primary materials of language and literature don’t much change. Yes, we have more contemporary authors coming to scholarly attention, plus a few discovered authors and works from the distant past, but their addition doesn’t nearly account for the swelling critical publication.”

Last year, according to the Year’s Work in English Literature, more than one hundred new scholarly books were published on Shakespeare. What were the authors thinking? First, no doubt, of promotion. The entire academy is now structured around this outrageous quantity of publication. Studies show that even small liberal arts colleges place a premium on publication over teaching when deciding to hire. But the other thing these faculty members must have thought is, “I have something new to say about Shakespeare.” That is an incredible claim, requiring an eyebrow-raising level of audacity. A naïve onlooker would have to ask, “Really?”

A final note: there are still a few places in the academy where some humility resides. If you go to one of the so-called “Great Books” schools, Thomas Aquinas College in California or St. John’s in Maryland or New Mexico, you will find professors referring to themselves as “tutors.” The professors do not spend much of their time publishing. Classes are conducted as seminars, in which students are thought to need guidance, but ultimately have as much access to these ancient texts as people with more letters after their names. There is little jargon used in class or in writing because the texts were generally all written before 1900. In fact the very idea of a great books curriculum implies a sort of humility. The texts are great; the professors only aspire to be.  

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