Friday, November 22, 2002 :::
IN MY PREVIOUS POST I should have mentioned that money not only tempts top academics to leave Oxbridge or other leading British universities for better pay in America, but also for better pay in the business world.
IF ONLY the Oxbridge tutorial system were as successful as suggested by today's post blown in from the Windy City. But the dirty secret of the "strained and underfunded" ancient universities is that it has been a long time since top scholars did the bulk of tutorial teaching. One reason is the expansion of the student population. There simply aren't enough great minds to go around, especially in the humanities. But the other reasons are directly related to the funding argument I made below. Without the cash to hire enough tutors to maintain the famous 1/1 or 2/1 ratio of instructors to students, first of all, many of the poorer Oxbridge colleges have slipped into a small seminar model, with four or five students per class. That's still fewer than in the U.S., although it makes a sham of traditional tutorial teaching. But second, and more importantly, the fact that the tutors are nominally Ph.D's is misleading. One of the most appealing benefits wealthy American universities offer British academics is a reduced teaching load. Indeed, it bears at least as much responsibility for the brain drain than do higher salaries. The effect is a shortage of senior professors, which has forced the colleges to shift the bulk of the work onto recent graduates of British D.Phil programs, which are much less rigorous than their American counterparts. I'm not so sure that small groups of undergraduates necessarily receive better teaching from inexperienced tutors than they do from the combination of lecture courses from tenure-track professors and graduate-led discussion sections available at American universities. Third, it is very difficult for universities to flourish as institutions in absence of the sciences. I would be perfectly happy to join a humanist exodus to liberal arts colleges, where real study might occur. But such colleges can only attract fringe groups of students, most of whom have no special academic interests and are attracted to schools that offer a wide variety of courses and programs. A humanistically oriented Oxbridge would be a wonderful niche institution. Yet competing with Harvard, which is what one suspects Blair has in mind, means supporting serious scientific research. And as has become abundantly clear, that's too expensive for the public sector to support. So is money the only thing that matters? No. But it certainly does help. It wil be interesting to see how this fight shapes up -- will there once again be gold-painted men dancing naked past the spires of All Souls?
BROADLY RIGHT, I say to our friend in Cambridge in response to his statements on higher education (post below). Nevertheless, I have to add two sobering thoughts of my own. First, education and money are two very different things. The money becomes really important when we talk about research - and particularly when we talk about scientific research. The quality and output gap between Oxbridge and the American top universities is much narrower when it comes to work in the humanities and social sciences than it is in the fields of the natural sciences. Since not everybody who teaches in Britain wants to teach in the US, the higher academic salaries in the US are not enough to draw all talent out of Britain. Indeed, I suspect that many academics who leave for the US are more likely to do so because their research is better funded there than because such a move improves their salary. Furthermore, if we draw a comparison between the teaching at Oxbridge and at the major American universities, it seems that Oxbridge's tutorial system, strained and underfunded as it is, still contrasts favorably to undergrad teaching by graduate students at major American universities. Arguably that difference disappears when we compare Oxbridge with leading liberal arts colleges in the US (which unlike most US research universities do have PhDs teaching) - but surely these colleges are not at all as rich as the major US research universities that our friend in Cambridge refers to. Second, our friend argues that Clare Short seems to fail to understand that the (undergrad) students at top US institutions have mostly middle class backgrounds and that they lack the resources to privately fund a college education at a top university. Although this is true, and although our friend is right to point out that rich American universities offer scholarships to the financially needy, it is also true that the vast majority of their undergrads went to good high schools. These high schools are expensive, exclusive, or both. In other words, Clare Short has a point in saying that American top universities are classy (no more, by the way, than Oxbridge, where rich undergrads equally dominate the quads because pop and mom sent them to an expensive and/or exclusive school). The ubiquity of financial aid at top US universities is therefore less interesting as an indicator of meritocracy than the fact that the aid is mostly received by students from relatively wealthy upper middle class families - families that are wealthy or privileged enough to send their children to schools that are able to propel their pupils to the top institutions of higher education. Does this mean that we should feel bad about American higher education? No. Nor does it mean that we should follow Clare Short's slash and burn socialism - the type of thinking that has impoverished the world for almost two hundred years by preferring equal poverty to unequal flourishing. It does mean, however, that we should feel bad about secondary education in the US and the UK alike, where state-funded and state-run schools have failed those who lack parents with the money and the spirit to get them a place at a private or independent school. If you are interested in promoting meritocracy, high school vouchers and full privatization of the secundary school system are the best ways forward.
Thursday, November 21, 2002 :::
THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT. One effect of the politician's meddling in British universities is the pressure on tutors to "satisfy their customers", that is, the students. And what do the customers want? Good grades. With promotions, salaries, and other goodies linked to high marks on the "satisfaction survey", dons must cater to the idiocy and immaturity of their students or face severe consequences. You liked grade inflation? You'll love evaluating students by approving or disapproving them in four "Key Skills’: Working With Others, Problem Solving, Numbers and Literacy."
IN AMERICA we say that you get what you pay for. But evidently things work differently in Britain. In a statement against the Blair government's plan to introduce top-up fees -- that's tuition to you -- International Development Secretary Clare Short claimed out that, "The rich would pay extra fees and go to the classy, elitist universities, rather like the US. I don't want Britain to go there, and I'm sure we can find a more intelligent way through." Now, possible rebuttals of this pious argument are too numerous to rehearse here, but let's consider three basic arguments: 1) It is not the case the ability to pay plays a significant role in America university admissions. That's because the "classy, elitist" universities have historically been private, and have accumulated enormous endowments that permit them to subsidize the education of the large majority of students who cannot afford to pay full freight. In America -- as everwhere else -- the top-tier of higher education is peopled mainly by the children of the suburban middle class, not "the rich". 2) The best American universities are not elitist, but elite. That's because they have the resources they need to attract the best scholars and support the most daring research. Oxford and Cambridge, on the other, are shriveled husks of their former selves as a result of some decades on the public dole. If Ms. Short "does not want to go there", she ought at least to be honest about the facts: The British state cannot afford the upkeep of even one university of Ivy-caliber let alone three or four (depending how you count). And if the money is simply not in the public coffers, universities must find it somewhere else or face relegation. 3) There may be a more intelligent policy than asking students actually to pay for the education they receive. But if there is, no country has found it. As we will consistently argue, American higher education is, for all its flaws, the envy of the world. That's largely because it operates beyond political manipulation by government and has rarely been forced to adjust its policies in exchange for a handout. Independent universities are strong universities. And Britain's best would be better off dealing with individual students and their families than do-gooding ministers in Whitehall.
Wednesday, November 20, 2002 :::
SHOCKING IGNORANCE. A National Geographic survey shows that 87% of Americans between 18 and 24 cannot locate Iraq on a blank map. 30% can't find the Pacific and a shocking 11% of those surveyed could not locate the U.S. Says the National Geographic Society president: "This generation is highly skilled at what they want to block out and what they want to know. Unfortunately, the things that they block out seems to include knowledge of the world that we all live in." The United States is donned with the mantle of global pre-eminence. People around the world who love freedom depend on America's leadership. Although its major research universities are the envy of the world, primary and secondary education are simply not as good as they ought to be. To improve national standards should be a national priority -- one, in fact, that ought to be part of a sound national security strategy.
VOLTE FACE. The Harvard English department has re-invited the infamous antisemitic poet Tom Paulin to deliver its annual Morris Gray Lecture. We blogged on this previously. The department pretends it's about "free speech", but one suspects it probably has more to do with placating the professos far-left views. Will President Summers stand up to them, or will Harvard really lend what remains of its prestige to allow Mr Paulin the university's stage? (And yes, I am ashamed Mr Paulin continues to retain his formal connection to Oxford, via his fellowship at Hertford College).
THE NEXT STEP into madness. The University of Hawaii at Hilo has been awarded a $2.5 million grant by the National Science Foundation, which will be used in part to teach "ethnomathematics" (everyone knows 1+1 doesn't equal 2 if you're of Hawaiian-American extraction). UPDATE: The link is now correct, thanks to Brian for pointing this out.
Tuesday, November 19, 2002 :::
CHICAGO PLAYWRIGHT JAMES SHERMAN was able to report the following dialogue from the White House after Hu Jintao was named head of the Communist Party in China. Titled Hu's on first, it sure makes one wonder. Is Sherman a friend of Colin Powell's, or is his dialogue simply as fictional as this 'White House' account?
(Scene: The Oval Office. Enter the National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice.)
George: Condi! Nice to see you. What's happening?
Condi: Sir, I have the report here about the new leader of China.
George: Great. Lay it on me.
Condi: Hu is the new leader of China.
George: That's what I want to know.
Condi: That's what I'm telling you.
George: That's what I'm asking you. Who is the new leader of China?
George: I mean the fellow's name.
George: The guy in China.
George: The new leader of China.
George: The Chinaman!
Condi: Hu is leading China.
George: Now whaddya' asking me for?
Condi: I'm telling you Hu is leading China.
George: Well, I'm asking you. Who is leading China?
Condi: That's the man's name.
George: That's who's name?
George: Will you or will you not tell me the name of the new leader of China?
Condi: Yes, sir.
George: Yassir? Arafat is in China? I thought he was in the Middle East.
Condi: That's correct.
George: Then who is in China?
Condi: Yes, sir.
George: Yassir is in China?
Condi: No, sir.
George: Then who is?
Condi: Yes, sir.
Condi: No, sir.
George: Look, Condi. I need to know the name of the new leader of China. Get me the Secretary General of the U.N. on the phone.
George: No, thanks.
Condi: You want Kofi?
Condi: You don't want Kofi.
George: No. But now that you mention it, I could use a glass of milk. And then get me the U.N.
Condi: Yes, sir.
George: Not Yassir! The guy at the U.N.
George: Milk! Will you please make the call?
Condi: And call who?
George: Who is the guy at the U.N?
Condi: Hu is the guy in China.
George: Will you stay out of China?!
Condi: Yes, sir.
George: And stay out of the Middle East! Just get me the guy at the U.N.
George: All right! With cream and two sugars. Now get on the phone.
Condi (On the phone): Rice, here.
George: Rice? Good idea. And a couple of egg rolls, too.
For a review of some of Sherman's other work, click here and here. Please note that neither of the reviewed plays is still in production.
Monday, November 18, 2002 :::
HYPOCHONDRIAC DINOSAURS of the academic left certainly make a lot of noise about threats to their academic freedom. But in Iran, scholars face a vicious religious dictatorship that is really serious about suppressing dissent. In the streets of Tehran yesterday, thousands of students protested the death sentence imposed by a religious court on history lecturer Hashem Aghajari. His crime was apostasy, specifically, criticism of the Prophet Muhammad. The heroic Mr Aghajari has challenged the mullahs to make him a matyr to freedom; "moderate" President Mohammad Khatami is attempting to secure him clemency and a lighter sentence of 74 lashes and nearly a decade in prison. Such is life under the glamorous Islamic radicals of whom Michel Foucault was so enamored a few decades ago. The complaints of a Peter Kirsten (see below) seem a little insigificant in comparison, don't they?
SHOULD ANTI-ZIONIST POET Tom Paulin have been disinvited from a speaking engagement at Harvard? We report, you decide. But pay close attention to the English Department's speedy change of policy. It strains credulity to believe that critics of Mr Paulin brought his views to their attention for the first time, to say nothing of the claim that they were so offended as to withdraw the invitation. The more likely scenario is that they were trying to slip him under the radar of President Summers, whose vigilant opposition to campus anti-semitism has been a credit to him and the university. Bravo for the cancellation of Mr Paulin's appearance under the auspices, and therefore with the tacit approval, of the university. Should any student or other unofficial organization cares to have him, as is their indisputable privilege, I'm sure his agent is waiting for the call.
ON THE OTHER HAND, Peter Kirsten, a professor of history and political science at St. Xavier University, was suspended on Friday by order of the university president. Mr Kirstein -- who considers himself a pacifist -- inflamed patriotic sentiment around the country when he responded with an anti-American tirade to a routine request for assistance with a conference of Air Force cadets. Lest Mr Kirstein be thought persecuted for expressing unpopular political beliefs, it is worth quoting his reply at length (with thanks to OpinionJournal, which brought the issue to our attention): "You are a disgrace to this country and I am furious you would even think I would support you and your aggressive baby killing tactics of collateral damage. Help you recruit. Who, top guns to reign death and destruction upon nonwhite peoples throughout the world? Are you serious sir? Resign your commission and serve your country with honour. No war, no air force cowards who bomb countries with AAA, without possibility of retaliation. You are worse than the snipers. You are imperialists who are turning the whole damn world against us. September 11 can be blamed in part for what you and your cohorts have done to Palestinians, the VC, the Serbs, a retreating army at Basra. You are unworthy of my support." Now, the point here is not the fate of the odious Professor Kirstein. Rather, it is the radical polarization of the American university, further evidence of which is -- as ever -- to be found below. Although it is a fact that academic left began the political arms race, the conservative demimonde has more than its share of intellectual headhunters. Serious scholarship and teaching simply cannot take place on an ideological battleground, which is one of the reasons that virtually no one with a bachelor's degree dated later than 1966 has a decent education. Reluctant as I am to say it, perhaps it's time for a cease-fire in the culture wars. But as everyone learned in International Relations 101, the logic of mutually assured destruction does not permit unilateral disarmament. But come to think of it, the tenured radicals probably didn't take that class either.
A TENURE SCANDAL at SUNY-Brooklyn College well illustrates today's politicized academy. Harvard-educated historian Robert David “KC” Johnson was denied tenure, although he is considered one of the country's best young historians, and is well liked by students. Reason? Because he failed the new criterion of "collegiality", objecting to a one-sided college-sponsored panel following September 11 and suggesting that a search that was predetermined to pick a woman instead be conducted on the merits. For such terrible uncollegial behavior, Mr Johnson was voted down for tenure. (Credit due Prof. Reynolds for the link).