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This Isn’t the Way to Set the Leaning Tower Straight

In 2009, after writing for decades about the animus toward elementary and secondary school curricula rich in culturally necessary—meaning, largely Western—content, E.D. Hirsch published a book called The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools. There the Core Knowledge founder, while lamenting its powerful turn against content, lionized public schooling, the very system that almost completely rejected his views.

Establishment education was dominated by a “thoughtworld,” Hirsch had previously written, an impenetrable barrier of group-think that treated content knowledge as oppressive. Not surprisingly, Hirsch had seen significantly more success in getting his Core Knowledge curricula into largely autonomous private and charter schools than into traditional publics. His 2009 book nonetheless defended the system that had rejected his ideas, and he eventually supported the federally coerced Common Core, a nearly content-free set of curriculum standards that paid only lip service to the importance of content. He seemed unable to avoid supporting government control of education, no matter how minuscule his influence over it versus that of his adversaries.

Wrong Solution

The same problem lies at the heart of Warren Treadgold’s The University We Need: Reforming American Higher Education. Treadgold bemoans the state of academia today, with its hostility to rigorous scholarship, especially of the dead-white-male variety, in favor of identity-driven, truth-denying postmodernism. Yet the antidote he calls for involves an unprecedented centralization of higher education, especially to assert influence over whom colleges employ. His thinking, like Hirsch’s, defies logic. It may also be with Treadgold, as it is with Hirsch, that he believes the fundamental structure of higher education is good and should be preserved.

The book, importantly, isn’t primarily about government policy but about problems in the scholarly work of American universities. It doesn’t cover in depth issues like high tuition prices or student debt loads, but rather what professors are teaching, how well they are teaching it, and the quality of their research.

These are not unplumbed depths—see William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1951), or the daily work of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute—but they are probably of especially powerful interest to a conservative academic who studied medieval history and literature and is an expert on Byzantium. Treadgold also has experience at a broad swath of institutions, including undergraduate and doctoral days at Harvard; teaching at elite research universities such as UCLA and Stanford; toiling at public and private institutions of lesser renown, such as Florida International and his current Saint Louis University; working at Michigan’s Hillsdale College, (a conservative bastion about which he does not have especially flattering things to say); and doing research fellow stints at two German universities. If anyone should know most of the rooms in the Ivory Tower, it’s Treadgold.

He observes that colleges and universities, with vanishingly few exceptions, are awash in a sort of rigor-free postmodernism and generic “leftism,” and subject to whatever is “the latest intellectual fad”:

Instead of facts, postmodernists spoke of “narratives” and “discourse,” which were imposed by means of power, whether just or unjust. Oppressors tried to impose their own unjust narratives and discourse to serve their own evil interests, but the oppressed and their defenders could combat it with their own narratives and discourse, which since they were just could not be refuted by appeals to logical arguments or facts. In theory postmodernism could be applied to almost any topic, from climate change to ancient Greece, as long as someone could identify the classes of oppressors and oppressed and could either make analogies with present oppression or trace present injustices to past injustices.

The author is far from alone in lamenting liberal dominance of the professoriate. But it is difficult to get a concrete read here on how repressive the resulting atmosphere actually is on most campuses. Sure, there are troubling examples of repression, but how many incidents do we know about because they are actually outliers—ordinary occurrences aren’t typically newsworthy—and media outlets like Fox News shine glaring spotlights on them, possibly giving an exaggerated sense of how bad things are? The author does not cite surveys or other broad gauges of student or faculty views, largely just repeating that colleges are tough places for conservatives, or just the intellectually serious of any political stripe.

Where Treadgold especially evokes thoughts of Hirsch is in his main proposals to set the leaning tower straight: new federal intervention, in the form of a National Dissertation Review Board and a National Academic Honesty Board. The honesty board is slightly less concerning: It would “judge claims of plagiarism or fraud in dissertations and academic publications.” But the dissertation board would do no less than put the feds in charge of grading all American doctoral dissertations. Every college participating in federal student aid programs—essentially every doctorate-granting institution—would have to “submit to the Dissertation Review Board in electronic form every dissertation accepted for a doctorate.” This would, according to Treadgold, ameliorate “the problems of an unbalanced academic job market, chaotic academic hiring, and inferior teaching and research.” 

There are hints in here of a command economy for academics—though Treadgold does not specify concrete ramifications for the dissertation grades. His idea relies on shaming, by seeing to it that published evaluations could be used to judge schools, programs, and graduates. Establish such a board, though, and it would probably only be a matter of time before some “get tough” politician sought to attach punishments to low grades. 

Treadgold is silent on who would appoint the director and 20 full-time senior members of each of his envisioned boards, suggesting only that these bodies “could be attached to the Department of Education or the Library of Congress, or they could simply become independent government agencies.” All of these have consequences too great to be so casually proposed. 

For one thing, like all federal education governance, these would be unconstitutional; the Constitution only gives the feds specific, enumerated powers, and authority over education is not among them. Setting constitutionality aside (as we so often do), if the Education Department were in charge, the make-up of the boards would likely change with the occupant of the White House, whipsawing its evaluations to the left or right as secretaries appointed members who shared their politics. The Library of Congress, moreover, has no experience in conducting—or authority to conduct—evaluations of anything, including dissertations. Finally, if the boards were independent agencies, dominance by the status quo—the leftwing faculty Treadgold so opposes—would almost certainly be solidified, not surmounted. 

What Price for “Enlightened Intervention”?

Treadgold offers little to refute these objections. He introduces his ideas by saying that we need “enlightened intervention” by Washington, but it’s not clear if he means that creating these two  boards would be enlightened, or that the feds would have to continuously infuse enlightenment into the boards. Either one seems a triumph of hope over experience. 

As James Madison so understatedly wrote in Federalist 10, “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm” of government, hence hope for sustained, enlightened action is unrealistic. On a slightly more practical level, Treadgold suggests that the review board and appointed dissertation referees would not know the sex or the race of the writers, hence no automatic diversity preference, and they “should be able to see through a dissertation that merely parroted a fashionable ideology.” But based on Treadgold’s own description of the situation in the academy, many faculty would likely view “fashionable ideology” as essential to worthy scholarship. The main bulwark he offers against this is that referees should be heavily drawn from the ranks of retired professors.

Far better is Treadgold’s proposal to create a top-flight university that would be hospitable to conservative and moderate scholars. The aspiration would be for such an institution to eventually wield a level of influence akin to Harvard or Stanford, and the author has many interesting ideas for the particulars. These include placing the institution near but not in a major city, lest the city overshadow the school; having all single-occupancy dorms, which is conducive to quiet study; and having actual, not campus, police and courts handle any accusations of criminal activity.  

Creating the thing you want makes much more sense than trying to revolutionize a massive system in which those holding your views comprise an anemic minority. But there are still problems with this idea. 

First, it is not entirely clear that starting a school from scratch would be preferable to trying to improve and elevate an already existing institution. While the list of conservative-friendly universities is short, Treadgold discusses one that is already elite and at least relatively open to conservative ideas: the University of Chicago, though being located in Chicago violates the outside-the-major-city rule. Another institution that Treadgold discusses is Baylor University which, though not of the prestige level of the U of C, is a nationally recognized brand and within striking distance of—but not actually in—Dallas/Fort Worth.

More perplexing than the decision to start from scratch is the author’s hope that any conservative-leaning university could achieve a status roughly on par with Harvard or, frankly, any highly ranked university. If academia is dominated by people on the Left, then largely trafficking in leftist ideas will likely be necessary to attain peak prestige. Couple that with liberal dominance of the media, and the odds of a conservative-leaning university’s joining the elites seem remote.  

Why Not Cut to the Chase: Federal Student Aid

What Treadgold does not call for is the one thing that would impose serious discipline on academia: phasing out federal student aid and, hence, requiring institutions to earn the business of people who are paying with their own funds or those they receive voluntarily from others. He does helpfully suggest conditioning federal student loans on a prospective borrower’s demonstrated ability to do college-level work. But higher education has become monstrously bloated in large part due to lots of students buying things—from water parks to hollow classes—using other people’s money. 

Why this omission? Perhaps because, as unhappy as Treadgold is with the state of higher ed, he believes in its potential to enlighten students and society. There is also reason to fear that fields such as Byzantine Studies might disappear should people have to shell out more of their own cash for college, increasing their need to obtain “marketable skills.” Of course, many fields of study without immediate labor-force applications have intrinsic intellectual value, but supporting those endeavors should probably be the role of philanthropists, not taxpayers. 

Worries about academia’s marginalization of solid scholarship and of conservatives are understandable, but centralizing influence over whose ideas are propounded in the universities would be dangerous. Creating a better university makes more sense, but is unlikely to be revolutionary. Realistically, conservatives should accept that the Ivory Tower will be inhospitable for the foreseeable future, and they should focus on good public policy no matter who is in charge. In other words, require higher education to earn its bread.

Reader Discussion

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on November 25, 2019 at 07:33:42 am

"What Treadgold does not call for is the one thing that would impose serious discipline on academia: phasing out federal student aid and, hence, requiring institutions to earn the business of people who are paying with their own funds or those they receive voluntarily from others."
Why on earth would you think this would make a political difference? The Ivies would replace the Federal cash with their own - they have plenty. Everywhere else, public and private universities might have to cut prices, but why would they change political practices? What choices would suddenly be available that are not available now? What evidence is there of consumer demand for non-postmodernist education that does not exist now but would if education cost the family pockets more? The most likely change is simply a demand for more directly professional/vocational training.
Treadgold goes off-track in his desire for some kind of Federal Board of Higher Ed, but he is on-track in another way: the only way to change what a market offers is by competition. Creating a secular research university with a strong core curriculum and staffing its humanities and social sciences departments with people hostile to BS in all forms would be a start.

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Alan Kahan
on November 25, 2019 at 08:29:06 am

A national Dissertation Review Board would quickly be captured by post-modernists and used to enforce post-modernist thought.

The effect of Federal funding has been to start and feed an ever-increasing cost spiral as universities build bloated administrative bureaucracies.

Bloated bureaucracies and funds for garbage “disciplines” like gender studies have in turn led the decline into cultural Marxism and post-modernism.

The Federal government’s involvement in higher ed has been destructive. Title IX has been used to undo due process, Dept. of Ed asserts increasing control over accreditation for social engineering purposes, Federal research funding is used to push agendas. Increased Federal control would accelerate the destruction.

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Charles N. Steele
on November 25, 2019 at 08:37:59 am

So you think that cutting Federal subsidies would have no effect. That’s interesting; I’ve always supposed that if we subsidize something, we get more of it.

I’ve also supposed that if buyers pay for something with their own funds, instead of purchases being heavily subsidized, they’ll be more careful about the quality and content.

Since apparently you think otherwise, perhaps you’ll explain.

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Charles N. Steele
on November 25, 2019 at 10:36:53 am

No, they would not. Not, at least, to pay the armies of administrative staff, especially in the D&I department, or the hosts of __________-Studies faculty who don't teach but merely propagandize. Trustees would never spend down their endowments, nor even the income from the principal, on the sort of nonsense prevailing today. Money--more specifically, the lack thereof--is a wonderful astringent.

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QET
on November 25, 2019 at 13:59:45 pm

The Federal subsidies mean people buy more education, or at least pay more for it, then they would otherwise. The content of that education is a separate question. There are no separate subsidies for postmodernism rather than chemistry.

And while that education is heavily subsidized, it is very far from being free, even at present. I don't think parents will suddenly change their mind about _____ studies because they cost 40K/year instead of 30K.

The trustees of Harvard currently spend quite a bit of their income subsidizing postmodernism, and I really don't think the absence of government loan guarantees or Pell grants would change their behaviour one iota. You see, they think those studies are valuable. Not as valuable as the football program is to Stanford, of course, but still valuable. As the Stanford example shows, Trustees are capable of wasting money on all kinds of garbage.

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Alan Kahan
on November 25, 2019 at 18:47:50 pm

Well, in fact there *is* a Federal subsidy to postmodernist studies over, say, chemistry. Federal guaranteed loans aren't priced according to risk or ability to pay. Chemical engineering and gender studies pay the same interest rate. But that's not the main point.

Colleges have become expert at milking the Federal government. They do it by raising costs and tuition, which leads to increases in the loans coming in. And they've done this by greatly expanding administrative positions, which are heavily oriented to promoting diversity, multicuturalism, social justice, and similar nonsense. If one were to work for leaner, lower cost institutions of higher ed, the place to start would be cutting out all such programs and officers. Doing so would also greatly dampen the promotion of postmodernist nonsense. Acceptance of Federal subsidies also requires universities to obey Federal guidelines, which tend to promote leftist positions, and thus are conducive to postmodernism.

Federal subsidies aren't the sole cause of the corruption of universities by cultural Marxism and the like, but by now you likely understand "Why on earth would you think this would make a political difference?"

I'm surprised you argue that prices of higher ed don't affect people's decisions about what to study.

If Federal funding was abolished, Harvard would spend differently than currently it does. It's hard to imagine why one would think otherwise.

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Charles N. Steele
on November 26, 2019 at 02:42:54 am

Why do you think Harvard would not choose to continue funding postmodernist studies?
And thinking it is postmodernism rather than chemistry that creates administrative bloat seems to me equally groundless. The cause of administrative bloat, besides a general bureaucratic tendency tht way, lies elsewhere. 40 years ago there were far fewer deans and deanlets of IT, career counseling, student life, psychiatric services, and this accounts for much more of the admin than diversity and social justice. And I have no confidence that the diversity dean would be the first to go in the case of diminished revenues. Your preferences are not those of the decision-makers.
You raise an interesting point as to whether there is an implicit federal subsidy to postmodernism over chemistry because the loans are priced the same regardless of odds of repayment. But back when I was borrowing money from a private source to fund my daughter's college, I was never asked her major or intended major. As long as there is a parental guarantee, as there usually will be, it is the parents' ability to pay which will determine loans, not the student's.
There is a certain tendency among libertarians to see the government as the chief culprit even when it is only a secondary actor. Of course, if the hydra has ony one head, it is easier to cut it off. But in this and many other cases I think the evil is overdetermined, and the government is not the chief source.
So, you ask, what is the chief source of the the postmodern studies boom?, I think it is addressed by neither Treadgold nor yourself. No one is forced to major in postmodernism. People freely choose it - and not just because it is easy. They choose it, I think, because it satisfies the strong need felt by many young people for moral/spiritual satisfaction. The way to get rid of it is by offering a better, more convincing, jargon-free source of such satisfaction. In short, the answer is competition. The competition in this area is not and cannot be offered by a chemistry major, however more lucrative such a major might be. I think students and their parents already know that. They are looking for something else.

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Alan Kahan
on November 26, 2019 at 16:25:08 pm

In around 23-25 I will be teaching Mathematics in secondary education and say Federal Student Aide is critical for my continued education. Yes; I will be teaching in a public school. There should not be a field of study without a practical rational. "Basket weaving", "gender studies", "physical education", "Art History", or football have absolutely no need to still exist at a university. Confining Federal Assistance to science, math, chemistry, electronics, biology, healthcare or engineering would have almost the same effect as cancelling it.

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Curtis J. Neeley Jr.
on November 26, 2019 at 16:57:42 pm

Agreed. As a taxpayer I don't object to financially assisting students on a utilitarian basis; i.e., paying for the production of socially useful workers. Nor do I object if a student desires to pursue post-colonial queer studies, so long as he or she (or his or her parents) pay for it. Unlike commenter Alan Kahan, I believe that parents will not fund such pursuits by their children. It has been my experience that the wokest and most liberal of parents will, when it comes to spending their own money, decide according to a more utilitarian calculus.

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QET
on November 26, 2019 at 17:36:14 pm

You're likely right that limiting Federal assistance to STEM might be as effective in combating postmodernism as abolishing Federal aid altogether. But federal funding is also used as a means of controlling college policies; there's a strong connection between intersectional wokeness in administrative policy and postmodernism & similar cultural Marxism.

And federal funding could even be turned around to fight modernist thought (e.g. Herbert Marcuse "Repressive Tolerance" which seems to be standard policy on many campuses, or Obama's use of Title IX to attack due process of law in campus sexual harassment cases)...cancel all funding to any college promoting these.

I'm skeptical of effectively executing targeted assistance, and hence prefer eliminating it, but your point makes sense.

It's off topic, but art history is a real and legitimate field (or can be); gender studies is not. It's genuinely gibberish with no subject matter. Art history has genuine subject matter, and while I'm not much on it, I understand it has a place in human knowledge.

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Charles N. Steele
on November 26, 2019 at 18:04:59 pm

The thread with Alan Kahan reached a platform-imposed end so I'll respond here. Alan, as I've said, I don't think Federal funding is the sole reason for the expansion of post-modernism. But it is a major reason for the expansion of useless activity by universities; I explained earlier why I think this, and I gather you agree, Alan. My point isn't that post-modernism caused the bloat, but rather that the bloat is conducive to the expansion of post-modernism and such.

I don't agree with your argument that in the absence of federal subsidies, there'd be just as much incentive for consumers (students and parents) to study useless and even destructive subjects, or for colleges to offer them. At least by now you ought not be saying "why on earth would anyone think this?" It's actually a moral hazard problem -- in the presence of subsidies, actors change their behavior, and "free" money reduces the incentive to spend wisely. I can't say anything about your particular experience, but it's hard to imagine loan markets that *aren't* given government backstop not taking into account risk factors. And there's quite a bit of research in economics of education suggesting that economic returns to education *do* influence demand.

Your point that some of the demand for social justice majors is driven by people seeking spiritual/moral satisfaction is interesting and most likely correct. This likely explains much of the rise of the modern left. Hence the point I make about federal funding (well, made by reviewer McCluskey, actually) isn't a sole-cause story. But subsidies reduce the incentive to behave wisely.

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Charles N. Steele

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