by Victor Davis Hanson
Since we seem now to be ruled during this administration by former professors, here is a rant about what I have learned of the university.
Looking Back at Forty Years…
I have some experience in academia: I spent 3 years at UC Santa Cruz, graduating in classics, two more, graduate and undergraduate, in formal study in Athens, at the College Year in Athens and the American School of Classical Studies, four at Stanford University for a Ph.D. in classics, and then a 21-year stint as a professor at California State University Fresno.
I farmed before, during, and after the university tenures. I can’t count my current life at the Hoover Institution or my month of teaching each year at Hillsdale College as quite the same experience. Both, after all, are aberrant academic institutions — in the sense that the faculties and mission of these institutions resemble pretty much those of America off campus. (I have never met more sane people than at both places.)
The farm and the life with it were great gifts from my ancestors. Almost every weekend as an undergraduate and graduate student, and then nightly as a classics professor, I returned to the farm. People in the environs there were not hostile to learning; they just assumed that being a professor or writer was, and should be, not any different from welding or tractor driving.
Living in rural Selma was a sort of vaccination against the academic virus of self-importance and collective timidity. One must be somewhat self-reliant when bare vines somehow in ten months must pay for diapers and formula, when so much — weather, pests, markets, neighbors, intruders — conspire to prevent that. Fairly or not, I always admired a guy who could feed his family from 60 acres of tree-fruit (I could not) — and especially a lot more than I did an English professor, at least the sort I met over the last forty years.
So what did I learn in the university? I’ll try to be a bit less specific than I was in Who Killed Homer? written over a decade ago.
Lies, Lies, and More Lies
First was the false knowledge — odd for an institution devoted to free inquiry. The university runs like a 13th-century church in which the heliocentric maverick is a mortal sinner. So too on campus the Rosenbergs never spied. Alger Hiss was a martyr. Mao killed only a few who needed killing (see Anita Dunn on that one).
Che was not a murderous thug, but a hair-in-the-wind carefree motorcyclist. Minorities supposedly died proportionally higher in Vietnam — as they supposedly do now in Iraq and Afghanistan. Women are underrepresented as both undergraduates and as humanities graduate students. Anyone with an accented name obviously had picked grapes or was denied voting rights. Adlai Stevenson was an American Saint, even more so than George McGovern. Only the unhinged even discussed doubts about global warming.
Don’t question any of the above; it was all gospel — as we see now in DC, from Keynes to Gorism to Cordoba as the beacon of Islamic tolerance during the Inquisition. (Doubt any of that, and that laid-back elbow-patched joking professor who told the class “Call me Bill,” in a flash, Gollum like, turned into a snarling jackal, screaming “I am Doctor Jones, with important publications on climate change and a doctorate from Berkeley! How dare you question me!”).
Wounded Fawns All
Next, were the mock heroics. The philosophy professor who mastered his weed-eater wanted us to think he had just stormed Iwo Jima. The gadfly who in the Academic Senate pushed through a resolution on a 170-2 approval vote demanding state sanction of gay marriage thought he was Mandela fighting back the forces of Neanderthal apartheid. My colleague the French professor believed that she belonged to the United Mine Workers when she trudged off to teach an 8 a.m. early-bird class. We heard for two years the Homeric battle of how the sociology professor, Odysseus-like (or perhaps more in the Achilles strain), once somehow jump-started his car in the parking lot. We heard a lot that everyone was “tired” and “exhausted,” as if we had been painting all day or digging trenches for an irrigation company.
The World of Arugula
So there was the cluelessness about the material world, and both a repulsion and fascination for it. I farmed “raisin plants.” And why didn’t I let one or two owls do my pest management on 100 acres rather than use the poison that was born at Auschwitz? Machines always had to work — or else. When it hit 110 and the air conditioning went out in our building, professors sighed and damned “them” who couldn’t even keep us cool. (None had been on a roof at 120 or wondered how a compressor ran at all — or how a guy could spend four hours up there in Sahara like conditions with all sorts of sockets and wrenches before his skull melted. [Note well, the campus machines worked far better than did the idea of graduating literate BAs]. In the world of the professor, offshore drilling rigs can be started and stopped, come and go, sort of like an evening seminar. No wonder, Professor Chu announced that California agriculture would dry up and blow away (and given the present policies, he may be right).
Looking back at it all, envy seemed the university lifeblood. Most other professionals, you see, were, in comparison to us, overpaid — especially those whom we had the misfortune of sometimes coming in contact with, or, worse, even socializing among. Go to campus, and the present demonization of Vegas, Wall Street, surgeons, and insurers makes perfect sense.
Money both repelled and yet attracted academics, those strange summer moths that hated the cash bulb and yet could not resist its radiance. MDs, MBAs, JDs — all these folks had studied far less than we had! And yet, most unfairly, they now made far more money! We, of course, to paraphrase Barack Obama, out of altruism had passed on all those easy avenues of getting rich (identifying a Latin gerundive or an underappreciated nineteenth suffragette being far more difficult than cracking open someone’s brain, or building a shopping center.) (By the way, did you ever really believe Barack or Michelle that they could have waltzed over to Wall Street and struck it rich? — as if such merchandising and monetizing were no more demanding than community organizing? To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: “I’ve known Wall Street hustlers, and you’re no Wall Street hustler, Barack”.)
Our nobility and intelligence, cheek-by-jowl, explained our genteel poverty. Crassness and a sort of sneaky cleverness — as well as greed — accounted for the rich others who had used their education not to impart knowledge, but to manipulate it. (And they did not even know how to spend all that money: we went to Marbella; they bought idiotic things like guns, snow mobiles and video games.)
Wal-Mart greeters were better treated than part-time faculty, who made a fourth the going rate without many benefits. I remember being chewed out as a part-timer for daring to use the department Xerox machine — this from a “progressive” who was always bleating about the corporate destruction of the wild. Tuition always went up faster than inflation. There were centers for this and projects for that everywhere, mostly aimed at combating illiteracy and getting 50-something profs release time. When I joined CSU, the remediation rate was about 35%, when I left, 21 years later, over 50% of the incoming freshmen needed remedial math and English. I can only remember two tenured professors who were fired, one a child molester who was “retired”, and the other a decapitator who was imprisoned (see below). I remember in a tenure appeal, the aggrieved professor of theater arts wrote a furious (and successful) letter to our committee that began, “Witch charges about me…” Academia is the strangest mix of a Soviet nomenklatura for the tenured, and Eastern European socialism for the part-time — sort of like we see now in Washington (we are the part-timers, the new credentialed technocracy, the tenured).
To be blunt, there are an inordinate number of cowards in academia. Why did so many vote “present” at meetings, run out of personnel hearings to leak what you said to someone, boast about their heroics to captive student audiences in class, and in general walk about in abject terror of being thought illiberal? Were not they tenured with lifetime jobs, automatic pay-raises, 20 weeks off a year? So why the cowardice?
My father, I remember, was a bad/good judgment sort of guy (and was often proven right), “Look, the SOB is no damn good” or “You wait, you’ll see that he is nothing but a coward”; in academia on tenure boards I heard far too often instead, “On the one hand, her career trajectory so far is problematic, and I worry at times about her ambivalence toward scholarship; but on the other, one must not overreact to her seeming difficulty making deadlines.” In extremis, there were lots of passive/aggressive beer summits after meetings to soothe ruffled feathers, lots of “outreach”.
We were tasteful. We walked on oak, others on shag carpet. The good neighborhoods did not have sidewalks, “their” tract houses did. Books lined our walls; plastic spears and shields were hung as faux-heraldry in the entryways of hoi polloi. We supported the UN, they NASCAR.
Here I confess that I got a pass, since once in a while an academic would drive down to Selma and praise my then ramshackle 120 year-old farmhouse (at the time, I secretly yearned for a Clovis McMansion in which things probably worked without Saturdays under the house with a jack or up in the attic with pliers and duct tape or down in the collapsed cesspool in the yard).
We wore elbow patches, “they” leisure suits. Most of professors’ clothes—huge treaded hiking boots, sub-arctic parkas, multi-pocketed Safari dungarees — were designed for the earth’s uninhabitable regions. You see, it was the idea of struggle (cf. Michelle’s garden) that mattered — the philosophy professor at any minute forced to wade across the Amazon on his way to the lounge — sort of like the huge Land Rovers in the faculty lot that could in theory go anywhere, and in fact went nowhere but 2 miles home. (Gas-guzzling Yukons were bad; gas-guzzling Land Cruiser weirdly okay.)
Be careful about eating or having coffee with academics. Most stiffed you for the bill, or, better yet, stiffed the coffee shop by getting free refills for you. If you had a broken fingernail or a blister, it was proof to colleagues that you were “blue collar.” And that meant that naturally you could come over on Saturday to (a) prune an academic’s peach tree, (b) show him how to unclog his drain by doing it yourself, (c) lend him your pickup (warning: do not lend anything at anytime to an academic), or (d) flip a circuit breaker. Division of $50 in travel money at department meetings was like throwing an old stinking bone in an arena of pit bulls. The less the value, the more the gnashing.
The following is a true example of academic parsimony. A colleague of ours proved to be a gruesome murderer — tried, convicted, imprisoned (he died in prison). He took his sabbaticals and summers down in West Hollywood where he picked up young boys, and on at least one occasion decapitated a poor fellow, then disposed of the body in Silence of the Lambs fashion (the head and torso were found 200 miles apart as I recall). How did we learn of that, or, rather, how was he caught?
He naturally turned in the bloodied rental chainsaw — hair, gristle, sinews and all stuck in the chain. The rental store owner was told that our professor (of criminology, no less) had “cut apart a dog” that he hit with his car — and so in disbelief turned him in. Beheading someone is one thing; but, my god, getting charged for an overdue chain saw or losing your deposit is quite another.
(Wait reader: you ask, well, smarty-pants Mr. Hanson, how exactly did a supposedly inept professor learn how to chainsaw someone’s head off? I confess, I wonder about that still.)
I could go on, but you get the picture about the strange habits that arise when you ensure someone lifelong employment, institutionalize unaccountability and groupspeak, and create artificial hierarchies of respect that are not necessarily earned by either teaching excellence, scholarship or value to the community. After the pension meltdown, a great reckoning is coming to academia and it won’t be pretty.
The truth is that I loved teaching, and still do. And when I was penniless, the university gave me a job that I loved and did not consider work at all. Indeed, I felt ashamed that I was overpaid. I started at $22,000 full-time lecturer in 1985, and could not believe I got such generous compensation, whether or not it rained, hailed, or the market collapsed. I called my delighted and relieved parents that very day (being a parent to a Ph.D. who was broke and fixing sulfur machines must have been somewhat odd), “Hey, mom, they’re going to pay me thousands of dollars for teaching Greek and Latin.” And they did.
So why again the above rant about academics?
We are presently governed by academics. In an era in which university people proliferate in this administration and seem to make things far worse for the rest of us, we need to be reminded why we should not look to the university for answers. What I hear coming out of Washington reminds me a lot of what I once heard coming out of the philosophy or English department. And that is a scary thing indeed.
You see, that tribe is more likely to embody the illness rather than the cure, and this time 300 million are paying the price.
©2010 Victor Davis Hanson