Friday, January 14, 2005

Comment on Left2Right, 1/14/2005

Pat Robertson’s criticism of the universities is familiar; in my opinion, it has three bases.

1) The change in emphasis from learning particular bodies of knowledge to learning habits of thought. For example, most universities still do teach courses in writing; however, a much smaller proportion of college students today can write consistently formal English and get complicated grammatical structures correct than was the case 50 years ago. Similarly, a smaller proportion can list the Presidents in order, describe the main Greek philosophers and the differences among them, or summarize the main plots and characters from Shakespeare’s plays. Many traditionalists argue that the primary focus of education should be learning existing bodies of knowledge.
2) To the extent that the university is based on some body of knowledge, that body of knowledge has changed in ways that conservatives dislike, particularly within the humanities. There is much greater emphasis on race, class and gender in readings of history, philosophy, and literature; correspondingly, there is much less emphasis on Western Civilization as uniquely good. There is more emphasis on respect for different ways of thinking about morals; correspondingly, less effort is devoted to learning traditional systems of moral thought thoroughly. For me (one of the UnReconstructed), there seems to be a pervasive effort to eliminate positive portrayals of the South and the Confederacy.
3) Certain professors (whom it is to be hoped are atypical) have definitely brought politics into the classroom in inappropriate ways. Most of the horror stories center around one of two things; designing classes that presuppose particular political views and effectively exclude those who don’t share them (for example, by requiring activism on behalf of particular causes as part of the course work), or requiring agreement with the professor, in politically loaded ways, to get good grades.

These problems are not new. Changes in the body of knowledge have been happening since there were universities; the change to include philosophy in the theological curriculum was controversial in its time, as was the inclusion of modern languages in the curriculum.

Secondly, these problems seem to most frequently occur in lower-tier state schools. That’s the thing to realize about Liberty and Regent; they aren’t competing with Harvard, or even with U. Va. They are primarily competing with the second-tier state schools.

Thirdly, diversity both within and among institutions is a good thing. The attempts of some to fight the accreditation of explicitly Christian schools because they are Christian and conservative have definitely made the academy look bad. And the sense that most conservatives have of being unwelcome in the Academy at every stage (which has been endlessly discussed elsewhere) has also angered conservatives and made real diversity of opinion less common in the universities than would be desirable.


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