Google and our elite universities appear to inhabit the same ideological bubble and intone the same diversity mantras. And that is not surprising, because almost everyone at Google is a product of the modern university and those at its HR department the likely product of its more PC inflected half—the humanities or soft social sciences. And Google must live within the world of mainstream media and government regulation, and these two sectors are also dominated by elite university graduates of the last quarter century.
But nevertheless the institutions and their employees operate under different constraints. Google is the elite university without tenure and the elite university is Google without market discipline. You might think that tenure is the more important obstacle to enforcing an orthodoxy like modern diversity policy. After all, a professor at an elite university would not be fired for making the largely accurate factual claims about the average differences in temperament between women and men that the Googler did in the memo that got him sacked.
I am more sympathetic than Peter Lawler to the movement for reforming higher education, even though I share his delight in Greek and the philosophy of the ancients. I majored in classics, and spent part of my graduate studies at Oxford on the Patristics. I even still occasionally blog about Homer! But I believe that American higher education needs generally to become more variegated to take account of the varied endowments and needs of students. And higher education funded by the state should be a public good providing benefits to society as well as to its students.
I do not doubt that learning Greek and ancient philosophy is a valuable experience for most of the students who undertake it. I am doubtful, however, that a great many others would benefit from this challenge, because of the substantial opportunity cost in learning a difficult language like Greek: passing up other bodies of knowledge that have more direct payoffs in more vocations and provide better tools for understanding many aspects of the modern world. To be sure, some future writers or thinkers may gain. Others who are quick studies can choose many vocations and methods of modern analysis without any particular preparation beyond their genius. But that does not describe most students, even those that would substantially benefit from a college education. I myself occasionally rue my single-minded pursuit of the typical nineteenth century education at the expense of courses with the economics and statistics needed to evaluate complex tradeoffs in public policy.
Similarly, many students will benefit from an old fashioned structure of education, even the kind of tutorial system that I enjoyed at Oxford. But the more labor intensive is education, the more expensive it is.
Aristotle, unfortunately, won’t be on the ballot.
Marco Rubio’s form of dissing liberal education is probably more ridiculous than the more insistent and policy-driven efforts of Scott Walker, although Rubio, just as obviously, is much smarter than Walker. It’s reasonable to believe that Rubio and his supporters can be educated concerning how his ill-considered rhetoric aids and abets the more deeply misguided attack on liberal education.
Last week, in what promises to be the start of a protracted and important judicial battle, a judge in California struck down five statutes in the state’s Education Code on the grounds that they prevented children attending public schools from receiving an education that is commensurate with their state constitutional right to equal protection under the law. The statutes judged unlawful were those preventing Californian district school boards from withholding tenure from incompetent teachers or firing them once they had gained it, plus another obliging them to give priority to their more long-serving, but less effective, teaching staff over more recent, but more effective, teaching appointments when, for economic reasons, lay-offs had to be made.
“Mike” (the name he has on his website) Bloomberg’s commencement speech at Harvard is quite a work of art. It criticizes liberal dogmatism on elite campuses and conservative dogmatism in our legislatures. In both dogmatic cases, the cause is fearful intolerance of diversity. In both cases, the cause is a lack of confidence in the truth of one’s own opinion. Bloomberg reminded the audience of what John Stuart Mill wrote on On Liberty, of “the clearer perception and livelier perception of truth” that’s “produced by its collision with error.”
In a recent piece for the Pope Center, I suggest that the real value of tenure is financial: tenure’s not about academic freedom; it’s about financial security. Both at the Pope Center and at the Phi Beta Cons blog at National Review, anonymous conservative academics have said that, au contraire, tenure is the only bulwark between conservative academics and a complete takeover of the university system by the left. We can put it another way (and still maintain the language of warfare): tenure protects the few conservative academics who stealthily outmaneuver their colleagues in the ideological turf wars on college campuses, and abolishing tenure will remove the last scrap of body armor they have left. If tenure goes, then out go the conservatives.