February 28, 2006

Tuesday's Exercise in Pointing and Laughing

No matter what you think of him as an intellectual, you can always trust David Horowitz to bring out the academic wankery.

Here we have a Horowitz rebuttal to a review written by Inside Higher Ed's Scott McLemee. Now, if you've ever read anything by McLemee, you'd know he tends to go for the snark, which is fine as far as it goes, I guess, but that's neither here nor there.

Hilarity ensues in the comments following Horowitz' rebuttal, complete with the academic equivalent of "Shut up!" "No, you shut up!" "You're a poopy-head!" "No, you are!" And at least one weird-ass comment about black helicopters, but I didn't bother to try and decipher that one.

It would be amusing, if it weren't for the fact that these folks are completely missing the point, which, as one commenter remarked, isn't about Horowitz at all. It's about the changing public perception of the university, and what may happen as a result.

Tuition costs keep rising at a higher rate than salaries. We've got kids coming out of school with more debt load than I have with a mortgage and a family. It seems pretty natural for folks to start questioning the value of college education, and to start paying attention to what, exactly, these tenured "untouchables" are doing in their classrooms.

Academics should be worried, and not about David Horowitz, because it seems to me that--fair or not--we're heading toward a place where "learning for its own sake," no longer justifies the expense, and the consequences will be dire indeed--and not just for the academics.

Posted by Big Arm Woman at February 28, 2006 10:35 AM

And hence C-I-N-D-Y's complaint.

Posted by: Laura at February 28, 2006 01:47 PM

Yeah. Sigh.

Posted by: BAW at February 28, 2006 01:53 PM

I don't think that learning for learning's sake is in any danger. It will just be that, like wanting to know what's going on in the world and Old Media, people will gradually cease to presume that a University is a cost effective provider. I doubt it will be a dire situation for anyone except academics. You could get a new job, but what skills will those professors have that anyone with a clue would pay for?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at February 28, 2006 05:12 PM

Seems to me that many people who snark at the academy (BAW, is "snark" useable as a verb?) are stuck in thinking that college is solely for vocational training.

BTW, if you want to see Horowitz taken apart by someone far smarter than he or all his ancestors combined, go to Michael Berube's website. It's lovely.

Posted by: Michael at February 28, 2006 08:11 PM

Michael -

My mentor in grad school had the most elegant reasoning for students who did the whole "What's the point of this" at her when they were required to take humes courses instead of just the engineering stuff:

She said something like, "You can go to any community college or vocational school to be trained for a job. You chose to come to a university, which means that on some level you value the life of the mind. And that means you're bright enough to understand that what I'm teaching you matters."

The thing that worries me is that in the real world there is a price limit on the value of the life of the mind, and it seems to me we're approaching it. And juvenile behavior, intellectual onanism and a general inability to see that there may be a grain of truth in all the complaining on the part of those allegedly "defending" the academy is really. not. helping.

Oh, and "snark," much like the vaunted f-word, has the happy quality of being serviceable as any part of speech you want it to be, with the possible exception of a preposition or conjunction.

Posted by: Husband of BAW at February 28, 2006 09:30 PM

(The cat is snark the table. I have to brush my teeth snark go to bed. Yeah, you're right.)

Throughout human history up to and including today, cultivating the life of the mind is a luxury reserved for people who are independently wealthy, have someone to support them, have enough mental capacity to have that life of the mind and also do something practical that they can get paid for, or be in a field where they get paid for that life of the mind. Most people can't count on options 1,2, or 4, so 3 is about it.

Posted by: Laura at February 28, 2006 10:31 PM

I'm just glad there are still generic state U's around that require nothing more than your tuition checks clearing. That way idiots like me can still put a degree of some sort on the resume when they clearly couldn't really earn one.

Posted by: marc at February 28, 2006 10:48 PM

As an engineer, and speaking of snark: "You can go to any community college or vocational school to be trained for a job."

She is completely and utterly ignorant about what it takes to become an engineer and what engineers do as, apparently, are you. For example, first she should learn the difference between an electrician (community college/vocational school) and an electrical engineer (baccalaureate and, these days, beyond).

The engineers' "life of the mind" produces a tangible expression in the objects that are all around you. So why do you feel the need to devalue their efforts? You fear what you do not understand. To better understand, maybe you should both take a few engineering classes (if you could pass them - snark, snark). You would learn how to create that which did not before exist - all out of your mind's life. All the engineers with whom I went to school did just fine in their humanities classes, even though they did not enjoy all of them, but I saw not a single philosophy major (like C-I-N-D-Y) in any of my freshman math classes. Apparently their minds' life did not extend to anything as abstract as differential calculus.

And your mentor's "elegant reasoning" is simply circular logic. Let's see her justify herself from first principles. "What I do has value because...(fill in the blank)." It can be easily done but I'm not going to do it for you.

When I used to go to the local Phi Beta Kappa meetings (yes I am a member), I used to enjoy the look of shock and horror when I announced my occupation as "engineering professor at NCSU". Throughout the rest of the meeting I kept catching people sneaking glances at me thinking they would find an oily rag hanging out of my back pocket. Karma was satisfied when upon leaving one meeting I had to give an English major a jump start because her battery was dead and she had no idea how to do so.

Posted by: Locomotive Breath at March 1, 2006 09:39 AM

it does worry me - as an academic. And I hate to see those people being juvenile; it hurts the reputation of people who take their teaching responsibilities seriously.

I don't know what the future of "the academy" is. I teach at a small state college, and although I'm personally well-paid, there are all kinds of funding cuts going on (the library seems to bear the brunt of it). And there's a lot of complaints about tuition and especially fees from the students.

I don't know. I just hope it doesn't come down to me sitting on a highway ramp someday, holding up a sign, saying "will teach you to do a t-test for food."* Or I suppose I could work for the Nature Conservancy for $300 a month and all the nutria I can catch...

(*although, honestly, I'd almost rather do that than be a wage-slave for a place like University of Phoenix. One of my colleagues has a brother who has done courses for them and the amount of time he's supposed to be on-call is UNBELIEVABLE - like 14 hours a day, six to seven days a week. Or so my colleague says).

I don't know what the answer is but the academic babies aren't helping the argument.

Posted by: ricki at March 1, 2006 10:02 AM

Yo, L.B. -

First off, I was the commenter there, not Hublet (forgot to change the attribution on the home pc).

Second, I don't feel it's necessary to defend the idea that folks attend universities for more than just their major with a defense from first freaking principles. Why yes, I did take science and math courses in undergrad--they were required--and I did well.

Perhaps the larger point my professor was trying to make--that a university exists to produce a well-rounded person, not just a poet or an engineer or a vocationally trained plumber--was unclear.

I neither fear nor loathe engineering, but I do have a healthy skepticism of people with superiority complexes.

Posted by: BAW at March 1, 2006 11:01 AM

And at least one weird-ass comment about black helicopters, but I didn't bother to try and decipher that one.

Allow me!

The market rules! If Horowitz were really right, kids wouldn't go to college anymore, and colleges would have to clean up their acts, or close. Since that's not happening, Horowitz is full of Sham-ola.

Not only that, but "Control Boy, Version H" wants to "eviscerate the weeds", leaving only a manicured golf course behind. Golf courses are fascist, as we all know, my young friend.

Dumb bunnies! Country Cousins! When the Lights are Out, the Food Stops Arriving! Devil bunnies! I snort the nose, Lucifer! Banana! Banana!

I hope that's clearer now.

Posted by: Angie Schultz at March 1, 2006 04:03 PM

If golf courses are fascist, does that mean that Scottish people are fascists, since they invented the game?

So the real problem with universities is plaid?

Damn. I was blind, but now I see. Thanks, Angie!

Posted by: BAW at March 1, 2006 04:08 PM

I was blind...

Those plaids can be kind of loud sometimes.

Posted by: Angie Schultz at March 1, 2006 05:59 PM

I don't think the main event at most universities these days is *either* cultivating "the life of the mind" or seriously attempting to impart job-related skills. It's something much less honest than either: the mass-production of certifications, which increasingly are valued not for guarantee of knowledge acquired...rather, they are valued for the circular reason that they are valued--much like stock certificates in a useless but trendy company.

Posted by: David Foster at March 1, 2006 07:07 PM

Locomotive Breath,

As one who has an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and a graduate degree in musicology (both from UC/Berkeley), I think I have standing to comment here.

Nope, I didn't see any philosophy majors in my freshman math class either, possibly because it was honors linear algebra. But there were any number of math and science and engineering students in the University Symphony, and some of them (like me) subsequently deserted their degree fields for music. I knew an electrical engineering student who worked at Bell Labs in NJ only so that he'd be close enough to the Manhattan School of Music to get to weekly lessons; a biochem student who quit just short of a degree and is now playing in a chamber orchestra in Lisbon; another MechE graduate who is one of the Bay Area's better-known cellists.

I'm with BAW: A university education is supposed to make you understand, so far as possible, all human achievement. That's why the "distribution requirements."

I think the distribution requirements in most universities are pretty feeble, frankly, and if someone were to appoint me God (or at least provost) I'd want more math. But if what you want is only technical training in engineering, there's obviously room for technical schools that provide only that. If you go to a university, OTOH, it's only reasonable for the institution to make you complete a sort of general-education curriculum before it grants you a degree.

Posted by: Michelle Dulak Thomson at March 2, 2006 02:54 PM

Superiority complex?

Like telling a student that if you're having to question the value of what I'm teaching because it's not self evident, then you probably shouldn't be here and should go off to technical school and get an engineering degree instead of a real education?

That kind of superiority complex? That’s exactly the kind evasive put down that will cause an engineer to conclude that s/he should "pay no attention to the wo/man behind the curtain".

The valuable student is the one who questions that which is taught including its utility. There are any number of arguments that can be made in favor of the humanities that don't depend on running down other areas of inquiry. I know engineers who are musicians and artists and on and on. In my leisure time I’m as likely to pick up a history book as I am a technical manual.

Please understand that I’m not arguing against distribution requirements. Not at all. The problem is that to produce a graduate worthy of the title of “Engineer” already often takes five years partly due to the lack of math and science preparation of our H.S. graduates (that's a different rant). To produce someone who is essentially an engineering/liberal arts double major would probably take six years.

Furthermore, like it or not, NCSU is funded with tax dollars to produce good little workers and soldiers. Can you say historically mandatory ROTC? How do you think NCSU got its fight song from the U.S. Army? Just like C-I-N-D-Y who went for a philosophy degree in a school full of engineers and ag students, faculty at state schools who want to put on airs should look into positions at private universities. Try your “life of the mind” argument on one of our legislators or taxpayers.
To go on topic, Horowitz is basically right. Any group that is allowed to be self selecting for membership will often become rather uniform. This is fine for private groups like fraternities, country clubs and churches any many other self-selecting organizations of all possible forms. Ever try bring a Big Mac to a PETA meeting? Ever cross yourself in a Baptist Church and then comment that you were expecting wine instead of grape juice? You don’t belong nor should you. I've even seen this happen in academic engineering departments where certain vital disciplines end up excluded from the curriculum because the other disciplines get the upper hand and crowd them out through bias in faculty hiring. The problem is that educational institutions, the public ones at least, have an obligation of balance. This obligation is not being met.

Posted by: Locomotive Breath at March 4, 2006 01:47 PM

Locomotive Breath,

The valuable student is the one who questions that which is taught including its utility. There are any number of arguments that can be made in favor of the humanities that don't depend on running down other areas of inquiry.

Well, of course there are. But if a student is whining "why do we have to learn this?", is it "running down" the student's major to point out that "what you are going to do for a living" isn't the sole purpose of college? I've certainly encountered more humanities students whining about having to take calculus than engineering students whining about having to take history. Both groups are wrong. You paid for a liberal education. If you think that's silly, go study someplace else.

LB, I'm skeptical about the "five years" bit, because I knew a lot of engineering students at Cal who not only got through the curriculum in four years (as I did) but were significantly involved in arts, politics, and other things that consume a lot of time and energy. Of course, Cal's student body isn't exactly typical, but I don't think math and science education in the US is as bad as you suggest. If you have the aptitude for it, you can learn an awful lot of math and science at a public school in an ordinary middle-class community, like the one I grew up in.

Re disciplines being sidelined or phased out, even (even?) in engineering departments, well, of course. The most fun I had studying MechE at Cal was in continuum mechanics, probably because it was so math-heavy. So far as I know, the subject as such hasn't been taught there since the professor I learned it from died, twelve years ago.

Posted by: Michelle Dulak Thomson at March 5, 2006 04:36 PM

David Horowitz will be at Duke at Page Auditorium at 8 p.m. Tuesday. I wish I could go see the fireworks.
I'm sure of two things from my 14 years on the faculty at NC State U:

1) A high fraction of engineering students take five years to get through the curiculum even with the relatively limited distribution requirements. It's a statistical fact that we worried about all the time. Many students arrived without really ever having had access to adequate calculus and physics so they had to back up and take material they should have had in high school. The Gov just last week was bemoaning the fact that NC had produced exactly one H.S. physics teacher last year. Cal is not typical because it skims off the cream of a very large state that, at one time, had a very good educational system and that, in pockets, is still very good. Go to SJSU for a better comparison of students and graduation rates.

2) I ran into senior-year electrical engineering students who had trouble with algebraic manipulation. They were at the bottom of the class but still they should have gotten that in high school. I blame calculators among other things.

Nationwide? YMMV.
A teacher at any level should be ready for the "why do we have to learn this" question. A dismissive "because that's what we do in college and if I have to tell you then you don't deserve to be here" is not an answer. My favorite response is "because if you remain ignorant then people can lie to you and take advantage of you and you won't even know it."

This includes humanities majors who are going to need math to understand when newspapers are playing fast and loose with statistics and engineers who need to learn that technological development depends on corporate and/or governmental politics which was expressed so well in "The Right Stuff" as "no bucks, no Buck Rogers". Then "teach" better come through by not wasting the student's time with some personal agenda which I think is Horowitz's whole point.
By my remarks I mean that active tenured faculty have been forced out because they differed with the rest of the department - yes even tenured faculty can be made to leave - I did. Why didn't Cal rehire the continuum mechanics position when the old guy passed on? Probably because even if the graduates still needed to know it there was no federal funding available for its study and the new hire took place in a more profitable (literally) area.

Posted by: Locomotive Breath at March 6, 2006 09:23 AM

LB -

Please explain where I or my mentor "ran down" engineering in stating that universities exist to do more than vocational training. I am genuinely perplexed by your interpretation.

And Michelle -

It does take, on average, 5 years for an engineering student at State to get the degree. I have several friends with those degrees, and their complaints always ran along the "there are too many courses required for engineering in addition to the other general requirements."

Dunno if this is because they have to spend too much time in remediation, however.

Posted by: BAW at March 6, 2006 04:17 PM