‘Teachable Moments’

But who will teach the teachers?

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Magazine

It recently came to light that University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill had slandered some of the 9/11 victims as “Little Eichmanns,” who may well have deserved punishment for their participation in what went on “in the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers.”

That led to cursory public examination of earlier, similarly insane tirades, and prompted calls for Churchill’s resignation. The usual fiery counter-support — protests and news conferences — ensued, to the effect that the professor’s right of expression and academic freedom were being imperiled. But like so many academic scandals these days, the original “little Eichmanns” comment — that innocent victims murdered at work by fascistic killers were comparable to a Nazi mastermind of the Holocaust — was just the torn scab revealing a festering sore beneath.

Churchill, it turns out, has no Ph.D., although it is the terminal degree required under normal circumstances at all such major research universities. Few, other than poets, novelists, and artists, are ever hired for tenure-track positions without it. Churchill probably also lied in claiming American Indian ancestry, thereby gaining entrée to favorable hiring and tenure considerations.

The disturbing story went on for days, as accounts of former Weather Underground ties, a past trip to Libya to cultivate dictator Muammar Qaddafi, and several prior arrests surfaced about Churchill. The public further learned that the $114,032-a-year Churchill may have distorted his Vietnam-era military service, and routinely misrepresented scholarly texts to fit his own particular revisionism.

What he was, is, and writes are little more than ostentatious castles of sand. Indeed, to read Churchill’s essay “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens” (e.g., Mohamed Atta & Co. were not terrorists, but “combat teams” avenging America’s killing of “500,000 kids”) is to experience a colloquial, Chomsky-like rant — the fabricated statistics and inflammatory rhetoric made worse because his drivel is actually inside rather than outside his supposed field of ethnic-studies expertise.

In other words, Ward Churchill’s plight gives us a glimpse into the strange world of the contemporary postmodern university of tenured ideologues, where professed identity politics, ethnic or gender chauvinism, and a disbelief in empiricism allow a con man to bully his way to guaranteed lifetime employment, and a handsome salary, and the right to say anything at all, no matter how inflammatory.

Well, almost anything at all — as we have learned in the almost simultaneous case of Harvard president Lawrence Summers, who, in some remarks, entertained the possibility that innate gender differences might in part explain why women are underrepresented in the hard sciences on university faculties. It was the sort of informal speculation that most Americans sometimes engage in and was not limited to genetics; his remarks wandered all over the larger context of socialization, child rearing, habit, custom, and gender discrimination. Qualifiers, backtracking, disclaimers, and cautious admissions characterized his speculations about innate difference.

Summers’s comments before scholars were apparently meant to incite the sort of “conversation” that universities exist for, challenging orthodoxies, shaking up complacent thinking, and, yes, perhaps provoking hurtful emotions that galvanize further debate. In some sense, his was a highbrow version of the common popular inquiry about why white basketball players, for example, are underrepresented in the NBA: Is it that white adolescents don’t grow up with the familiar culture of the court, that they don’t have enough role models in the game, or, terribile dictu, that they simply don’t jump as high or run as fast as African Americans — or all or some or none of the above?

At one time my university’s classics faculty privately used to wonder why most of our best students in Greek and Latin were women, who almost alone went on to doctoral programs in philology. That disproportionate number of women classics majors prompted speculation behind closed doors that perhaps females just grasped languages more easily, or were more mature in their study habits at an early age, or did less partying. We also sometimes worried that working-class males thought that the classics were not muscular enough, or that they felt such a less lucrative career would impair their ability as breadwinners — or about anything other than the need to implement some sort of special program to address this statistical anomaly. After all, Homer wouldn’t care if he were read by a woman or a man, and students seemed to worry not about their instructors’ gender, but only about having exciting and competent professors.

But such unfettered inquiry about gender or racial imbalances is precisely what one doesn’t do publicly on a university campus — unless perhaps one has the multifaceted exemptions of a Ward Churchill. So Summers touched the third rail of contemporary university life, by questioning one of the hallowed tenets of the victimization industry: Deliberate discrimination explains all inequality of result, precluding free discussion of other theories — and thus justifies compensatory collective benefaction.

The penalties of transgression are substantial even for a Harvard president, as we hear from the growing chorus demanding Summers’s resignation. Veterans of the university culture wars all shuddered when a former Treasury secretary, who once adjudicated questions of the world’s financial system affecting billions on the planet, was now reduced to asking forgiveness, not once but thrice, from self-appointed faculty watchdogs of gender. Conservatives were doubly confused by his attempts at reeducation, and didn’t know quite whether to praise the honesty of this former Clintonite that got him into such a mess, or lament his subsequent apologies that may well get him out of it.

A certain Dr. Denice Denton attacked Summers, but also insisted that his peccadillo might be profitably exploited as a “teachable moment.” But it turns out that Denton, the newly appointed chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz, had had her own “teachable moment” — though one that was as quickly forgotten by the media as Summers’s was lasting. Again, in the bizarre world of academia, the chance tearing of a scab reveals quite interesting things underneath. Even before Chancellor Denton arrived at her new $275,000 job, she had negotiated a special university position as well for her girlfriend, Gretchen Kalonji, described as her partner of seven years, for the princely annual sum of $192,000 — a billet that was specially created, unadvertised, and closed to all other job applicants. This novel variant of spousal accommodation was precisely the sort of old-boy networking in public hiring that transparent affirmative-action protocols were supposedly designed to stop. In contemporary university parlance: Was there not a worthy Latina or African-American woman who could have at least been interviewed for the job?

The Denton-Kalonji household will have a combined income of at least $467,000 — plus up to another $50,000 granted to Kalonji for the expenses incurred in her “transition” in moving to the area. This supplement comes on top of a previous $68,750 granted to Chancellor Denton to move to the rent-free, service-provided University President’s House.

Giving a couple already making almost a half-million dollars a year nearly $120,000 to move to California prompted outrage: not from the tenured feminists on the Santa Cruz campus, but from the university’s blue-collar employees, secretaries, and maintenance staff. At a time of record state budget deficits, workers had not received a raise in three years. Meanwhile student fees had recently increased by 10 percent and the Santa Cruz campus had just gone through $14 million in state budget cuts the prior year. Among the elite of the nation’s professoriate, class considerations always bow to gender sensitivity.

What are we to make of all these recent university teachable moments? The usual exegeses suffice: The contemporary campus has devolved into an Orwellian world in which the ends usually justify the means. Diversity really means no diversity of ideas. Unfettered expression is a code word for groupspeak of the Left. Academic freedom and tenure ensure timidity and monotony of thought. The champions of the oppressed and discriminated are, in fact, the affluent and privileged, whose antics are excused only by the irrelevancy of academic culture and properly deplored solely through the accidental discovery of a forgotten rant or taped remark.

Underneath all this is the disturbing fact that progressive campuses are charging their students tuition whose annual increases exceed the rate of inflation, while vocal professors have plenty of idle time on their hands and live lives that most Americans — or their own college staff members — can only dream of.

The verdict is still out on whether the once-outspoken Summers will survive. But the interesting question is not how long he can stay on as president — but precisely how much public remorse, counseling, and scripted apologies are necessary for a former U.S. Treasury secretary to win a reprieve from the upscale tenured oppressed who apparently run Harvard.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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