Navigate to News section

Time for the Academy To Put Its Pencils Down

Don’t dismiss the petulant students at Yale and elsewhere —they’re here to tell us what we should’ve known a long time ago: American academia is beyond salvation

Liel Leibovitz
November 18, 2015
Photo: Chris Melamed
Yale students at the March of Resilience, November 9Photo: Chris Melamed
Photo: Chris Melamed
Yale students at the March of Resilience, November 9Photo: Chris Melamed

I think about my last day in academia the way some people think about crazy ex-girlfriends, in a state of mild arousal that soon matures into grateful relief. I was standing before 30 or so of my colleagues in an airless room, lit by the ghostly glow of an overhead projector, making the case for my professional survival. Walking in, I was optimistic: During my three years in the department, I have pursued a practically minded agenda focused on teaching students how to code, and I spent most of my presentation pointing to the metrics and the media clips on the whiteboard behind me as hard evidence of my accomplishments. Then the lights came on, and the questions began.

Among the thinkers I taught in class were Plato and Descartes and Heidegger, but no women or people of color; did I not think such exclusion was not only hurtful but evidence of an inherent bias? And those internships I helped my students secure with leading tech companies, were they not a capitulation to the capitalist agenda, a shamefully uncritical act of pandering to power and money? Why so much Javascript and HTML and not a trace of talk about queer perspectives or disability studies?

As they spoke, I felt myself overcome by a strange, peaceful sensation, the same feeling you get about 10 minutes into a particularly good meditation session, when your mind, no longer burdened by the niggling preoccupations of the here and now, begins to transcend. Watching my colleagues in this unfettered state of consciousness, I realized that they were about as committed to a robust exchange of ideas as North Korean secret policemen; like the spooks of Pyongyang, these aging professors were dedicated solely to protecting their own Hermit Kingdom from outsiders and preserving their rigid and uninterrupted way of life. I treated myself to an extra martini at lunch that day, knowing that I was on my way out of academia, and now truly free to begin seriously engaging in a life of the mind.

I thought of that eventful morning this weekend as I watched the video of the shenanigans unfurling at Yale. The gaggle of grown-up toddlers demanding to be babied by their professors aren’t some weird anomaly on an otherwise well-functioning Ivy League campus dedicated to the open-minded pursuit of knowledge; they’re the inevitable product of an intellectually and morally sclerotic system. We should welcome them, as they are here to remind us that the stories we’ve been telling ourselves for the past four decades—about our system of higher education, about our culture and the banners that it flies, about our civil society and its priorities—are, for the most part, false.

Bound together, these stories go something like this: American higher education, having sprung into life with a handful of small abbeys like Harvard or Yale that catered to the sons of the notable and privileged, soon began slouching toward equality, abandoning Greek and Latin for more modern, useful fare and admitting and instructing the sons—and, eventually, the daughters—of the middle classes. With the GI Bill, and the Higher Education Act of 1965, additional hundreds of thousands of Americans were ushered into lecture halls and classrooms at low or no cost and encouraged to bask in the light of knowledge and wisdom. Higher education, we believed, was itself a virtue that would bring about social equality. It was such a lovely story that few, if any, bothered asking any questions.

And yet, even as we were not wrestling with our convictions, they were, behind our backs, wrestling with us. As WWII drew to an end, less than 5 percent of Americans held bachelor’s degrees; in 2012, the number reached 30 percent, a historical high. The new throngs occupying the universities needed massive infrastructures to support them, which meant that a whole new class of people had to be trained and hired to teach. These men and women, tempted by modest salaries and a tenure system that promised unprecedented job security, soon erected empires that, like all large bureaucratic structures, were dedicated first and foremost to the self-preservation of the bureaucrats.

Nearly every organic development in American academia since the 1950s was designed to serve this dreary principle: Academic journals were set up to ensure that the anointed speak only to the anointed. Tenure committees sprang up to hire more like-minded folks—and squelch dissenters. Real diversity—not of the color of one’s skin but of the content of one’s character—was snuffed out, in the name of other kinds of diversity, which had no necessary connection to what went on in classrooms. The result was an agenda of anxiety that traced the fault lines of identity in everyone and found discontent everywhere.

By the time I entered college in the late 1990s, what passed for excellence, at least in the humanities, was learning to recite the secret language these fearful men and women had invented to keep the outside world at bay. I started Tel Aviv University interested in philosophy, philology, and the classics; a few awkward papers into my first semester, I got the message and began playing the game of Professor Simon Says. Within weeks, I was the department’s darling: An inchoate rant about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lacan’s object petit a earned me an A+ merely for coupling pop culture detritus with obtuse theory, a task so simple it could, given the right stimulants, be completed in an afternoon without taxing the cognitive faculties too much. I followed it up with analyses of movies and shows and songs, always conjuring some fashionably muddle-minded thinker (Derrida! Bhabha! Butler!) and always making sure my analysis ended by ranting against some act of injustice perpetrated by the Man against the Others, be they gay or female or African or the victims of a particularly severe tree-nut allergy. A friend who went through the same system and gleaned the same insights amused both of us by writing a paper stating that Hollywood’s practice of only using living actors to portray murder victims revealed a deep-set bias against real dead people, whose deadness was being culturally appropriated by the living. My friend had meant the paper as a joke; it got him a teaching assistant’s job.

All of which, I suppose, wouldn’t have been too terrible if academia was resigned to pursuing its own murky rituals in a corner somewhere. Had that been the case, students, upon graduation, would merely shake off the residue of their impractical education, storing their college memories—along with recollections of beer pong and frat parties and cold pizza breakfasts—in that part of the brain reserved for useless and slightly mortifying memories of adolescence. Universities would join libraries and public broadcasting in the pantheon of institutions we praise but for which, really, we, societally speaking, have very little use.

But then, big money began to blind university administrations, which, in turn, led to the buying of real estate in bulk and the selling of reputations to nations eager to set up a local version of Yale or the Sorbonne by writing a large check—instead of embracing the values of free speech and open inquiry upon which higher education still claims to be based. At the same moment, the tech industry grew to monstrous proportions, and turned everything into a metric, and convinced too many of the best and the brightest that there was valor in dropping out and exchanging a PhD for an IPO. And then for-profit universities, sensing how demonstrably flimsy the promise of a college degree as a portal to a higher paying job and a better life actually was, started stealing traditional students by offer better services and more modular pay structures.

These changes caught the tenured classes by surprise. They had always peddled two promises along with the inflated price of tuition: One was the ability to find a better job with your diploma than you would have without it, and the other was the privilege of learning deep secrets at the feet of the masters. The first promise was clearly defunct when a reasonably bright kid could pitch some venture capital firm on an idea for an app and leave the room with a check for $10 million. The second, too, was no longer viable: Promoted largely for their ability to impress their narrow circles of peers, most American professors have little ability to speak about meaningful things to any large numbers of people. In fact, they had come to see even teaching students within the university as a liability, something you do little of and only when there’s absolutely no other choice. At my former department, for example, nearly two-thirds of all classes were taught by adjunct professors, itinerant teachers—many of them still in graduate school—who were paid under $500 a month per class, which meant they had to teach many classes just to eat, and which also meant they could hardly afford to spend any time with students who needed their help and guidance. With nothing more to sell, with no way of competing, what would professors do to justify their miserable existence?

The answer was as familiar as it was dispiriting: Go radical. Political correctness, assumed to be as much a relic of the ’90s as Lilith Fair and plaid shirts, was resurrected with a vengeance. Detachment gave way to outrage. Critical was out; combative was in. Students, of course, took notice. Anyone graduating from my former department could’ve easily gone through four years of classwork without knowing that mankind had ever generated other ideas save for the quibblings of the post-modernists, post-colonialists, post-Marxists, and their ilk. Why read any book written by the perceived oppressors? Or, for that matter, why read a book, any book, when books themselves are simply yet another means of oppression?

And when you’re taught to see oppression and injustice everywhere, why wouldn’t you see it first and foremost in the figures of authority closest to you? When you are trained to see everything as an aggression, how would you know to tell the innocuous from the truly menacing? And when you’re praised for pointing out the vicissitudes of victimhood, why not play the victim, and whine endlessly about your pain, instead of doing your homework and going to class?

This is what the indignant Yalies were doing last week, and what their comrades are doing on campuses all over. Theirs is not an ideological response, and certainly not an intellectual one. It’s an emotional outburst that, in its own way, is surprisingly healthy, a correct response to life in an institution that no longer serves any purpose but stirring up feeble feelings of helplessness, resentment, and spite. There’s hardly a point in faulting these kids for trampling on academic freedom or free speech; these were never their values, nor the values of their teachers. By stomping their feet, these useful young idiots are telling their elders something true and valuable: Your time’s up.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.