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The Beast in the Blackboard Jungle By: Baruch Levin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, February 22, 2006


[Editor's Note: Baruch Levin is the pseudonym of an academic with twenty-one years of experience teaching humanities and law at major universities on the east and west coasts.  The following is based on the author’s experience in such departments, and makes no representations about hiring practice outside them].

Securing college students competent instruction means securing them competent faculty. Faculty hiring practice regularly undermines this goal, resulting in appointment of dramatically unskilled candidates in lieu of accomplished scholars. Colleges zealously guard this fact from scrutiny by concealing rejected applications from review to prevent their comparison with appointed candidates. Lifting secrecy cloaking the hiring process would instantly clarify factors that determine who is currently allowed to teach college students. It would, further, document how skill and scholarly accomplishment are regularly sacrificed in favor of other goals. This transparency is vital to safeguarding the public’s right to competent instruction. It can be achieved through Freedom of Information Act requests from public institutions, and, in the long run, by making government funding to institutions of higher education contingent on it.

 

I. The Problem

 

On Christmas Day of 2005, the nation’s colleges and universities received a huge lump of coal in their stockings. On that date, The Washington Post reported the results of a National Center for Education Statistics study, which showed that a mere 31% of the nation’s college graduates possesses literacy skills sufficient to perform such basic tasks as reading prescription labels, computing costs per ounce of food items, and comparing viewpoints in two newspaper editorials.[1] Education experts declared these results inexplicable, including the commissioner for education statistics, who hypothesized that “a different kind of literacy” born of computer use and television viewing had replaced traditional understanding of the term.[2]  The academic community is flummoxed as to why students whom it has certified as educated overwhelmingly lack literacy skills once common at the grade school and high school levels. No mystery, however, veils the causes, consequences, or remedies of this stunning national failure.

 

As shocking as is the fact that only 31% of college graduates understand written language enough to identify proper medication dosages, that is only part of the scandal here. The true scandal lies in how avoidable such destruction was and in how efficiently it can be repaired, positing the will to do so. One aspect of any cure entails close scrutiny of professional qualifications of faculty entrusted with instruction, including teaching skill and scholarly accomplishment.[3]  It is irrational to expect that students can learn essential intellectual skills from instructors who lack them, yet this is common classroom reality. In fact, the general deterioration of faculty literacy skills cannot be overstated. The above-mentioned study equally showed that only 41% of graduate students (i.e., the nation’s future professors) can read and understand information in short texts.[4]  This 41% figure is down a full 10% since 1992 alone (Id.). This majority illiterate graduate student population soon makes its way into the professoriate, thus limiting its classroom charges to increasingly lowered performance standards.

 

Reasonable expectation dictates that the 41% of the graduate student population that demonstrates proficient literacy skills would constitute the population from which colleges draw their faculties. Reasonable expectation, however, is regularly disappointed. Readers with children enrolled in college should not hesitate to review course materials and written feedback by their children’s instructors. Such review will regularly find work riddled with errors of language, fact, and logic.  This need not be the case, however, and must not be the case: One need not have a child enrolled in college to appreciate the danger of the nation’s literate population’s dwindling to the status of small minority.

 

This dramatic downward spiraling of literacy skills is inversely mirrored by an equally dramatic upward spiraling of tuition costs: Even fourth-tier, open admissions institutions now routinely charge over $20,000 per year in tuition and fees alone. The hue and cry is thus permanently on as students clamor for government relief from the increasingly staggering financial burden imposed by college education. Indeed, students have unwittingly aided colleges to reap unprecedented profits from their negligence at taxpayer expense: As students successfully wring ever more tuition support from the government, colleges promptly raise tuition in corresponding fashion, confident of their ability to recover all increases from politicians keen to please desperate constituents.

 

The result: An undergraduate education now regularly costs more than $80,000, yet only 31% of recipients can understand newspapers written at the sixth-grade level.

 

This is manifestly unacceptable, and victimizes not only students left illiterate and in debt for decades, but all taxpayers forced to fund colleges that fail to furnish adequate instruction. Failure to counter damage done by colleges’ refusing their professional duties rises to the level of stark ethical breach: Students are in no position to contest inadequate instruction, leaving the responsibility of oversight to those better able to evaluate performance and demand accountability.

 

The problem as things stand is intractable because the most basic workings of human nature underpin it. The gulf separating public and faculty understandings of the current state of the nation’s colleges results from the public’s inexperience with academic psychologies, and with how readily they distort basic givens of teaching into an unshakable vision of intellectual superiority. In any teaching appointment, people who lack certain knowledge and skills seek to acquire them, and therefore engage an instructor. This in no way establishes that instructor’s intellectual superiority over anyone outside the group seeking instruction. People, however, who spend their entire working existence in the highly artificial environment of the classroom easily mistake limited expertise vis-à-vis students for proof of cognitive superiority over non-students as well. Exacerbating this distorted self-image is the fact that classroom teachers are not subject to normal checks on intellectual performance, as are professionals such as physicians and attorneys: Students are in no position to seriously contest faculty in class, which leads weaker intellects entrusted with teaching to believe that their thinking is incontestable.

 

This error promptly infects the faculty hiring process, which becomes a question of mirroring the distorted self-vision of the majority voting bloc. Once hiring faculty are ensconced in impenetrable conviction of superior intellectual status, deviation from the education, skill level, and scholarly accomplishment of those faculty directly threatens professional survival. Hence the remarkable uniformity of research interests pursued by appointed candidates. In literature departments, for example, failing to incorporate postcolonial, feminist, or queer theory into one’s work means sudden professional death: Failure to embrace prevailing academic orthodoxies is taken as proof of intellectual incompetence. If voting faculty have never published, candidates who have can count on rejection, even before the screening interview stage: Uncomfortable realizations about lack of scholarly accomplishment are thus obviated. Similarly, if candidates’ education and teaching skills eclipse those of hiring faculty, those candidates can spare themselves the trouble of applying: Junior faculty with stronger credentials than senior faculty violate recognized academic order.

 

This dynamic is commonly justified as a matter of proper “fit.” Along with “disposition” and “collegiality” assessments, rejecting the strongest candidates in any search on grounds that they will not “fit in” with the department is primary logic rationalizing the self-replicating nature of academic hiring. It also explains the more or less absolute political conformity of college faculty: In a search just now ended, candidates with multiple doctorates, multiple books, collections of teaching prizes, and substantive administrative experience were rejected within days in favor of a candidate who completed graduate school and really, really, really hates George W. Bush.

 

Make no mistake about it: There is nothing isolated about this practice, even in top Ivy League schools.

 

Hence the spiraling destruction caused by current faculty hiring practice: As each generation of faculty replaces itself with mirror images who are slightly less intellectually qualified to teach than those who hired them, both faculty and students entrusted to them for instruction suffer increasing damage done by systematically lowered performance standards. Add tenure to this mix and the problem, over the decades, has assumed irreversible aspect.

 

This, however, is mere façade, one that is easily cast down if the public wills to do so.

 

II. Breaking the Mirror

 

Disinterested external scrutiny of the faculty hiring process is clearly necessary to understand why college graduates are now so overwhelmingly illiterate, and to assure that scarce tax revenues are properly used to hire the best available faculty to remedy damage done. Transparency immediately clarifies the devastating effects of current hiring practice: Comparative review of candidates appointed and rejected instantly reveals that the most skilled and accomplished candidates are regularly sacrificed in favor of the comfortably unskilled. Further, this practice is actively misrepresented to the public. Colleges routinely represent that they hire only the finest and most accomplished faculty available, and students pay staggering tuition based on those representations. Such contentions are thus properly scrutinized as a matter of ethics and law. 

 

This is easily done through external review of faculty appointments by disinterested evaluators, and through publication of the results of that review. Such data would constitute valuable information for students deciding where to enroll. Normal market mechanisms can then check excesses during the faculty hiring process:  Prospective students would have fair notice of what they will receive for their tuition, enabling them to make informed decisions about essential education. Taxpayers would equally have notice of what their labors forcibly fund, including decades-long abuses that have produced overwhelmingly illiterate college graduates. The problem lies not in what to do, but in how to do it: Colleges will fight such disclosure with unprecedented ferocity because it starkly reveals the inverted relation between skyrocketing tuition rates and the plunging value of what that tuition purchases. More importantly, it also starkly reveals the true intellectual value of the nation’s professoriate.

 

Three primary mechanisms may be used to secure these essential data. First, colleges may be asked to voluntarily disclose rejected applications for comparative review. For the 99.9% of colleges that refuse voluntary disclosure, two further disclosure mechanisms remain. In the case of state schools, securing such data by means of state Freedom of Information Act requests is one possible strategy. It is, however, notoriously time-consuming and costly, thus leaving the problem to fester for years before compliance is forced at monumental expense. That leaves the most effective means of assuring transparency so vital to safeguarding public rights to competent instruction: Make government funding of any institution of higher education contingent on it. This remedy leaves colleges free to hire whomever they please, and it equally safeguards the public’s right to know how those colleges use government funding. The market and voting public will take matters from there, and colleges will reform accordingly.

 

Thoughtful commentary has suggested that internal reform is yet possible if all faculty – not just members of the hiring committee – diligently review all applications prior to the screening interview stage. No such review will change anything. Faculty have all been rigorously screened by the above-described mirroring mechanism at least once, if not two or three times (in the case of senior faculty). They are thus part, parcel, and result of it. The essential problem is that because faculty are never seriously contested in their beliefs, they simply cannot think beyond that mirror enough to break its limited reflection of who counts as a scholar. Any dissent is instantaneously crushed by the majority voting bloc and permanently marked as “uncollegial.”  For untenured faculty, that means no renewal and, possibly, no future work (depending on how matters are represented to schools that consider hiring those discharged faculty). For tenured faculty, dissent may not mean unemployment, but it can still mean much misery: Money, course assignments, service commitments, office facilities, etc., are all readily used as weapons in the event that even a full professor is found to no longer “fit in.”

 

This very logic has been playing out before the public’s eyes for over a year now, and with a vengeance. For the sin of suggesting, as a theoretically conceivable hypothesis, that biological differences separating men and women might possibly play some role in the uneven distribution of men and women in the sciences, the president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, has been globally castigated, compelled to issue dozens of apologies, pushed to devote millions of dollars to advancing female faculty at Harvard, and then subjected to a very public auto da fé at – wait for it – the Loeb Drama Center.[5]  Indeed, faculty were on the point of fainting or vomiting on even hearing Summers’s unorthodox suggestion.[6] A second auto da fé is currently scheduled for February 28, 2006, and Harvard now reports that Summers will resign before that date.[7] If the president of Harvard University cannot survive suggesting, even as a theoretically conceivable hypothesis, anything that remotely might not conform to prevailing academic orthodoxies, what hope of survival does the minority voting bloc on any hiring committee have?

 

Clearly, inside actors cannot meaningfully contest hiring practice that has so manifestly damaged the nation’s colleges.  Until a majority voting bloc in any given department “breaks the mirror,” no minority of concerned faculty can reform anything without risking professional survival. For this reason, only post facto, external review of rejected applications offers any possibility of meaningful reform.

 

III. Reform Wars

 

This remedy has several virtues, but most pointedly this: Despite the pitched reaction that it would instantly unleash from college faculty and administrators, all that is requested here is accurate information about how colleges do business at taxpayer expense. Far from any attack on academic freedom, it simply makes true facts that profoundly affect the nation available for objective review. Given emphatic quality assurances regularly issued by colleges, such disclosure should not be objectionable: Colleges hiring the best faculty available will have their assurances confirmed by disinterested external evaluation. Given the overwhelming illiteracy rate among college graduates, despite emphatic assurances of quality instruction, such evaluation is not only proper, but necessary: Students have the right to receive competent instruction, and colleges have profited handsomely from violating this right. It is therefore unethical and foolish to take on faith faculty assurances that they have students’ best interests at heart.

 

Despite the reasonable nature of proposed reform and logic underpinning it, opening faculty hiring practice to outside scrutiny would inaugurate the academic equivalent of nuclear war. There is no overstating how profoundly the college landscape would change were students and taxpayers to know exactly who is and is not teaching, and why. It is difficult to exaggerate the emotion and litigation that would flow from efforts to implement such a remedy, but one thing is certain. If the nation fails to act to restore intellectual integrity to its colleges, it will one day look back with fond nostalgia at the time when a full 31% of college graduates could read.



[1]   Lois Romano, “Literacy of College Graduates Is on Decline: Survey's Finding of a Drop in Reading Proficiency Is Inexplicable, Experts Say,” The Washington Post, December 25, 2005. See also National Center for Education Statistics, 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, at:  http://nces.ed.gov/NAAL/.

 

[2]    Romano, supra note 2.

 

[3]   This brief proposal does not purport to discuss all means of redressing the devastated literacy rate among college graduates. For example, some solution to the problem of grade inflation must be devised. Mere payment of tuition in exchange for degrees must also stop: No college properly graduates illiterates. In addition, college faculties, which insist on their professional status, must actually be professionalized: (1) Individuals proposing themselves as college faculty must undergo testing of baseline skills by a disinterested evaluator; and (2) there must be some means of licensing competent faculty and of revoking licenses of the incompetent.

 

[4]   Romano, supra note 2.

 

[5]   See Marcella Bombardieri and David Abel, “Summers Gets Vote of No Confidence: Signals He’ll Stay Despite Faculty Call,” The Boston Globe, March 16, 2005.

 

[6]  See Marcella Bombardieri, “Summers’ remarks on women draw fire,” The Boston Globe, January 17, 2005.

 

[7]   The announcement was made only minutes ago on February 21, 2006, on the university’s website. See www.harvard.edu.

 

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