[Paleopsych] Spiked: Norman Levitt: Academic strife: the American University in the slough of despond

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Wed Oct 19 01:50:10 UTC 2005

Norman Levitt: Academic strife: the American University in the slough of 

    Academic strife: the American University in the slough of despond
    By preaching the virtues of 'cultural competence', the academy betrays
    its lack of confidence.

    by Norman Levitt

First, the summary from the "Magazine and Journal Reader" feature of the daily 
bulletin from the Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.10.18

    A glance at the current issue of spiked: The problems of cultural

    The hot new term in higher education is "cultural competence," says
    Norman Levitt, a mathematics professor at Rutgers University at New
    Brunswick. But, he warns, the phrase is little more than a euphemism
    that cloaks "problematical and even disturbing policy initiatives in
    linguistic vestments."

    "Cultural competence" means an individual can work across cultural
    lines, can value and adapt to diversity, and can demonstrate such
    abilities in leadership and policy-making roles. However, when you
    shed the happy talk, Mr. Levitt says, "cultural competence" means
    "deference, even servility, toward the norms and values espoused by
    fervent multiculturalists." It also does not allow people to raise
    ideas that might make certain groups uncomfortable: Suggesting that
    affirmative action is unfair, for instance, would be a culturally
    incompetent offense, he says.

    The practice of cultural competence also further fragments professors
    and university administrators, he writes. When administrators at the
    University of Oregon proposed cultural-competency standards in May,
    professors balked at terms that would have, among other things, made
    hirings, promotions, and salaries dependent upon an evaluation of
    cultural competence.

    "The message to faculty was this: You're going to adopt our
    sociopolitical point of view (or pretend to) or pay the price," writes
    Mr. Levitt.

    The Oregon example, he says, illustrates the staying power of the
    left-wing ethos of political correctness. Such PC-sponsored
    initiatives as cultural competence, he says, work only to make their
    sponsors unpopular, while "doing virtually nothing concrete to
    ameliorate the painful real-world situations that provoke these
    projects in the first place."

    "There is good reason to remain aware of the dangers of cultural
    chauvinism," writes Mr. Levitt, "but the point is to cleanse our
    standards of judgment of narrow and local prejudices, not to abandon
    the very notion of standards of judgment."

    The article, "Academic Strife: The American University in the Slough
    of Despond," is available at

                                                        --Jason M. Breslow

    Background articles from The Chronicle:
      * [55]U. of Oregon Backs Off Plan Linking Tenure and 'Cultural
        Competency' After Faculty Members Balk (5/27/2005)
      * [56]Verbatim: an interview with Mr. Levitt (12/17/1999)
      * [57]2 Scholars Examine the 'Bizarre War' Against Science They Say
        Is Being Waged by the Academic Left (4/27/1994)

      * [58]Why Science and Scientists Are Under Fire (9/29/1995)
      * [59]The Perils of Democratizing Science (10/5/1994)


   54. http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/0000000CADAC.htm
   55. http://chronicle.com/daily/2005/05/2005052702n.htm
   56. http://chronicle.com/weekly/v46/i17/17a02601.htm

E-mail me if you have problems getting the referenced articles.


    A new buzzword has entered the lexicon of academic fashion in the USA,
    threatening to drown poor professors like me in yet another wave of
    coy euphemism. The term is 'cultural competence'.
    Like its predecessors 'affirmative action,' 'diversity,' and
    'multiculturalism', it attempts to cloak problematical and even
    disturbing policy initiatives in linguistic vestments that suggest
    that no right-minded person could possibly demur. A 'culturally
    competent' academic, one might naively surmise, would be one who has
    absorbed and is able to propound some of the deep values - ethical,
    aesthetic or epistemological - that embody the stellar achievements of
    Western culture, one who could explain, for instance, why Dante or
    Kant or Ingres is present, at least subtly, in the assumptions under
    which we all live. Or something like that.
    This, alas, would be a comical error. 'Cultural competence' is, in
    essence, a bureaucratic weapon. 'Cultural competence', or rather, your
    presumed lack thereof, is what you will be clobbered with if you are
    imprudent enough to challenge or merely to have qualms about
    'affirmative action', 'diversity' and 'multiculturalism', as those
    principles are now espoused by their most fervent academic advocates.
    Cultural competence, like the UK's proposed new identity card, is
    something a professor is supposed to keep handy at all times, and to
    display with a straight face whenever confronted with a socially or
    ethnically charged situation, in order to dispel any suspicion of
    racism, sexism or Eurocentrism that might arise in the minds of the
    professionally suspicious.
    What is 'cultural competence'?
    The term has been around for a couple of years, drastically mutating
    as it puts down deeper roots. Originally, it was fairly innocuous. It
    was largely restricted to the healthcare professions, and referred to
    the ability to function effectively with members of ethnic minorities
    and immigrant groups by dint of insights into the local community's
    idiosyncratic prejudices, fears and assumptions, insofar as these
    differed from the norms of middle-class white society. It seems
    obvious that such knowledge could be helpful to a doctor, nurse or
    social worker hoping to convince patients or clients from these groups
    to keep medical appointments, complete a course of antibiotics or have
    their children vaccinated. Though cultural competence, in this sense,
    presumes a degree of open-mindedness and empathy, it seems only
    vaguely political, at most.
    Now, however, cast loose from its original moorings, the phrase has
    become emphatically political. I offer the reader, with some
    trepidation, the formal definition as jargonistically set out by some
    purported educators:
    Cultural competence requires that individuals and organisations:
    a) Have a defined set of values and principles, demonstrated
    behaviours, attitudes, policies and structures that enable them to
    work effectively in a cross-cultural manner;
    b) Demonstrate the capacity to 1) value diversity, 2) engage in
    self-reflection, 3) manage the dynamics of difference, 4) acquire and
    institutionalise cultural knowledge, and 5) adapt to the diversity and
    the cultural contexts of the communities they serve;
    c) Incorporate and advocate the above in all aspects of leadership,
    policymaking, administration, practice and service delivery while
    systematically involving staff, students, families, key stakeholders
    and communities.
    If we divest this of its thick integument of happy talk and explore
    the details, we find that in practice it means deference, even
    servility, toward the norms and values espoused by fervent
    multiculturalists, along with tame assent to whatever measures they
    propose to achieve their aims. Attempts to explicate the idea
    occasionally slip into language that reveals the underlying political
    [C]ultural competence entails actively challenging the status quo and
    advocating for equity and social justice.
    In the context of higher education, cultural competence necessitates
    abject refusal to articulate or defend ideas that might make certain
    protected groups uncomfortable. Professors can only be deemed
    'culturally competent' if they openly profess the approved corpus of
    received values.
    Here is an illustrative if fragmentary list of transgressions that
    would likely strip an academic of any chance of being designated
    culturally competent:
    · Suggesting that affirmative action might conflict with other
    standards of justice and equity, or that opponents of affirmative
    action are not ipso facto Klansmen waiting for their white sheets to
    come back from the laundry;
    · Taking issue with the claim that Malcolm X was a paragon of
    humanitarianism and political genius;
    · Disputing the wisdom of feminist theory as regards the social
    constructedness of gender;
    · Asserting that the early demographic history of the Americas is more
    accurately revealed by scientific anthropology than by the Native
    American folklore and myth celebrated by tribal militants;
    · Expressing doubts that 'queer theory' should be made the epicenter
    of literary studies.
    Likewise, to maintain that hiring, retention and promotion within the
    university should focus on the traditional academic virtues of the
    scholar, rather than assigning enormous importance to the candidate's
    race, ethnicity, sex or sexuality, would banish one permanently from
    the culturally competent elect. To deny that feminist theorists should
    call all the shots on matters having to do with sexual harassment
    would be an act of self-immolation.
    The University of Oregon: a cautionary tale
    Where has this orthodoxy come from? The State of Oregon on the West
    Coast seems to have been the seedbed of the cultural competence
    movement in American education (1). Why this should be so is not at
    all clear. Oregon is scenically glorious and politically moderate, and
    its colleges and universities have not notably suffered from racial or
    ethnic tensions. Nonetheless, it was at the state's flagship
    university, the University of Oregon, that advocates of cultural
    competence recently grew so rash as to provoke an enormous uproar that
    will doubtless make the term into a new red flag in the Culture Wars
    and set off endless rounds of vituperation.
    The trigger was the emergence of a concrete proposal to implement
    cultural competence standards on campus. This long, turgid document
    called for more of the things you would expect such a declaration to
    call for more of - 'diversity' admissions, multicultural courses,
    programmes to enhance cross-cultural sensitivity, and, of course, an
    assortment of administrators and committees to effectuate all this
    righteousness. But this much was predictable boiler-plate; the real
    fireworks showed up in the section mandating development of cultural
    competence among the faculty.
    Here the authors, obviously feeling their oats, launched a serious
    power play. They prescribed a draconian regime of attitude adjustment
    aimed at professors and instructors. They proposed that all faculty be
    required to 'participate in ongoing cultural competence professional
    development' under their tutelage. But this was just the beginning.
    The drafters further called for academic departments, across the
    board, to reconstruct their hiring policies so as to make affirmative
    action the central factor in generating job offers. They insisted that
    every course in the school be scrutinised for its consistency with
    multicultural doctrine. Above all, in hiring, promotion and
    determination of salary, they called for a formal evaluation of the
    candidate's cultural competence!
    Stripping it down to its essence, the message to faculty was this:
    you're going to adopt our sociopolitical point of view (or pretend to)
    or pay the price; so far as hiring and retention is concerned, your
    professional standards shall be modified or overruled to insure the
    predominance of people of whom we approve because of their race, sex,
    sexuality or doctrinal purity; if you give us any trouble, lacking
    tenure you'll be out on your ear, and even with tenure you'll be out a
    lot of money.
    The faculty, not being particularly obtuse, certainly got the message
    - and promptly began to raise considerable hell. The upshot was that
    the higher-ups in the university administration, who had been primed
    to endorse the report, did a prompt volte-face and downgraded it to a
    preliminary draft slated to be drastically amended before
    implementation. Its principal author, like some misbegotten
    super-hero, slunk off to a new job far away.
    The ultimate fate of these proposals thus seems pretty clear. The
    bureaucracy will masticate them over and over in an interminable cycle
    of revisions and re-revisions. In the end, a diluted and attenuated
    version will finally emerge. It will render some lip-service to
    cultural competence in the abstract and grant some funds to its
    proponents. But it will leave the faculty to continue largely
    unmolested in its well-worn paths.
    On this somewhat hopeful note, this particular Political Correctness
    horror story now ends, for the time being. But why is it especially
    salient, given the long line of PC horror stories of which it
    constitutes just one more episode? Perhaps it isn't all that
    consequential; yet it is instructive for a number of reasons.
    Faction fighting
    My tale demonstrates the staying power of the ethos of (left-wing)
    Political Correctness (or whatever you choose to call it) in the face
    of many years of scorn and ridicule. It shows how little its
    proponents have adjusted to discouraging realities, most notably the
    fact that the chief effect of PC-sponsored initiatives has been to
    make the sponsors unpopular while doing virtually nothing concrete to
    ameliorate the painful real-world situations that provoke these
    projects in the first place.
    Most folks on a typical US campus think of PC as tiresome and even
    silly, and regard its advocates as self-righteous and censorious to
    the point of nastiness. The chief beneficiaries of PC antics, indeed,
    are the right-wing talk show hosts, bloggers and columnists who
    gleefully decry them at every opportunity.
    Even more, the story tends to underline the fragmentation of
    university culture in a much wider context. Why, one might ask, are
    university administrators, largely bureaucrats rather than ideologues,
    still willing to accommodate PC enthusiasts? Perhaps because to be an
    American university administrator these days entails being all things
    to all men, women and transgendered persons, the servant of all
    masters (yet master of them all). Each constituency exacts its own
    tribute, and the shrewd administrator is one who knows how to render
    it up without sparking the ire of another faction whose view of the
    world might be markedly different. A list of these groups, at least
    roughly representative of the implicit infrastructure of most American
    universities, might be helpful here, if we allow for the fact that
    boundaries are sometimes blurry.
    First of all, there is Profland, the traditional faculty, oriented,
    presumably, to serious scholarship and its code of values. But
    Profland lacks real cohesion. Its postmodern wing, for instance,
    usually doubles as a faction of the PC Mafia. This is even more true
    of the Myrmidons of the Downtrodden, who staff the various 'oppression
    studies' programmes - Women's Studies, Black Studies, Latino Studies,
    Queer Studies, Native American Studies, and so forth. Collectively,
    they are the consiglieri of the PC Mafia.
    The most self-satisfied subtribe, on the other hand, is They Who Could
    Make a MUCH Better Living in the Real World and Often Do - that is to
    say, the faculty of the Law School, the Medical School and the
    Business School. They are in Profland but not of it; unlike professors
    of English or archaeology, they have enough worldly clout that they
    needn't seek solace by anointing themselves intellectual holy men.
    At the other end of the self-esteem spectrum, we find the SubAcademic
    Wannabes who teach in not-quite-intellectually-respectable programmes:
    Education, Social Work, Journalism, and so forth. They seem to be part
    of Profland, but are haunted by the knowledge that in that enchanted
    realm, they will always be placed below the salt, mere squires rather
    than cavaliers. The Entrepreneurs should be singled out as well,
    scientists and engineers whose research is directly translatable into
    technology, patents and royalties accruing (if they're shrewd) to
    themselves as well as to the university.
    Beyond Profland, the Undergraduate Eloi predominate, drenching the
    campus in booze, sex, downloaded music cuts and annoying ring-tones.
    They are only distant cousins of the less-numerous Grad Student
    Helotry, essentially passive and resigned creatures who can
    occasionally be rousted from their library carrels long enough to make
    a bit of a fuss - but not for long. The latter, however, are not so
    forlorn as the Academic Gypsies who constitute the provisional or
    part-time instructional staff. These grossly underpaid wretches are
    doomed to aspire to Profland without much chance of ever getting
    Most anomalous and therefore most surprising to those not long
    immersed in American tribal culture is the Jockocracy, a faction of
    immense power at most public and many private universities despite
    being utterly alien to education, scholarship or learning in any form.
    This consists of the administrators and chief functionaries of the
    athletic programme, most notably the coaches heading the school's
    football and basketball teams. Such programmes are run for the
    economic benefit of these worthies while also enriching media outlets,
    purveyors of jock-related trinkets, and manufacturers of athletic
    shoes. Their viability depends, ultimately, on the eagerness of young
    athletes, typically profoundly deficient in academic skills, to be
    ruthlessly exploited while largely surrendering their personal
    autonomy. The underlying looniness of the situation is epitomised by
    the fact, no doubt mind-boggling to most non-Americans, that at a
    university with a 'big-time' team, the football coach will earn eight
    or nine times as much as the most distinguished professor. Athletics
    is the most hypocritical, corrupt, cynical, vicious and depraved
    aspect of university culture and, therefore, it is the one aspect of
    university culture unreservedly approved of by politicians,
    businessmen and the general public.
    Public universities must take special notice of the Pols, the state
    governors and legislators, along with the appointees thereof, who
    ultimately run the place, de juro. These touchy people require
    periodic jollying-up and, on dire occasions, fervent propitiation. The
    amorphous mass of Alums can also be a powerful, if unseen, force,
    though it's not easy to give a categorical description of what will
    antagonise or please them. Pols and Alums are the clans most likely to
    sympathise with a relatively new formation, the Dark Side, political
    and religious conservatives who have been organising recently to
    demand greater representation in Profland, a club that has welcomed
    very few of their protégés heretofore.
    Dark Siders are characterised not only by their expressed loathing for
    the PC Mafia, but for their cynical habit of counting as PC anyone to
    the left of Rush Limbaugh. Oddly enough, however, they align with the
    PC Mafia on some crucial matters. There are certain texts they are
    obligated to deplore - JS Mill's On Liberty and The Origin of Species,
    for instance - that rank high on the PC shitlist as well. Though they
    are frantic to abjure the term, Dark Siders also strongly favour
    affirmative action for certain under-represented minorities - in this
    instance, free marketers, born-again Christians, Intelligent Design
    theorists and Bushmen in general.
    The last and, in some sense, most significant faction is the
    Ringmasters - that is to say, the administrators who try to keep the
    whole circus going. The most notable thing about this clan is that, in
    recent years, its traditional roots in Profland have withered. These
    functionaries - in American parlance usually called Presidents,
    Provosts and Deans, in descending order of majesty - have become a
    tribe unto themselves. Fewer and fewer, at least at the highest level,
    are primus inter pares professors raised to the seat of power from
    within the faculty (a practice much more common years ago). More and
    more of them are drawn from a distinct professional mandarinate,
    people who cut their ties to teaching and research fairly early in the
    game (if, indeed, they ever spent time in Profland), and who readily
    move from one institution to another as they climb the career ladder.
    Over the past decade or so, the tone of academic administration has
    changed considerably. It has become 'managerial' rather than strictly
    academic. Budgetary and financial matters predominate at the highest
    administrative level. Perhaps this has always been so, but today's
    preoccupation with money seems single-minded and intense to an
    unprecedented degree.
    This attitude is reflected in policy towards faculty and curriculum.
    Narrow or esoteric disciplines that draw few paying students are
    luxury items that have disappeared from many campuses. Increasingly,
    especially in technical areas, a professor is judged by his ability to
    support his own financial weight through research grants or even by
    fecundity in coming up with marketable inventions. The typical
    university now relies to an unprecedented extent on Academic Gypsies,
    along with Grad Student Helots, to handle teaching responsibilities.
    Regular faculty with tenure or serious prospects thereof form an
    ever-shrinking proportion of the teaching staff, simply because they
    cost so much in terms of pay and benefits. For fear of losing paying
    customers, schools cater more and more to the shallow tastes of the
    Undergraduate Eloi, providing courses that are long on entertainment
    value and generous in their grading standards.
    At most schools, the president is above all the fundraiser-in-chief,
    and endures or is cast aside depending on whether the revenue stream
    he generates is munificent or meager. Most schools now have elaborate
    fundraising machinery staffed by specialists in this field.
    Inevitably, institutional plans and ambitions are increasingly shaped
    by the enthusiasms of large donors. Additionally, at publicly
    supported institutions, presidents must continually dance attendance
    on Pols and the politically well-connected to ensure that
    appropriations are not choked off.
    Management through diversity
    In consequence of all this, universities must increasingly play to
    public opinion. The prominence of athletic programmes is one result.
    Another is the emphasis on 'diversity', though this policy has
    repeatedly turned into a public relations minefield. Most faculty and
    student supporters of diversity - in blunter terms, preferences
    accorded to certain racial and ethnic minorities - see their position
    as arising from the quest for social justice. Most administrators,
    however, see it as a way of buying social peace or at least deflecting
    nasty social conflict from the university's doorstep.
    Diversity policies play, obviously, to the liberal sentiments of most
    of the faculty, and to those of many students as well. But, under
    ideal circumstances, they play to a certain strain of conservative
    opinion, too. Despite the reputation of conservative activists and
    intellectuals as adamant opponents of affirmative action, racial
    preferences, quotas and the like, much of the business community,
    conservative or Republican in its general outlook, views affirmative
    action programmes and diversity goals as a way of mollifying the black
    and Latino populations. They help to ease the tension of day-to-day
    life in communities where different ethnicities continually interact.
    This is why anti-affirmative action politics has received only
    lukewarm support even in conservative states and cities. For pragmatic
    conservatives, social placidity is more important than ideological
    So it is no surprise that even somewhat conservative university
    administrators will advocate and defend their school's affirmative
    action programmes. Affirmative action is, from one point of view, a
    way of co-opting the brightest and most ambitious minority youth,
    bringing them to identify, in the long run, with conventional
    bourgeois values rather than oppositional doctrines. Conservatives are
    likewise content with speech codes, broad anti-harassment regulations
    and the like, on the theory that these will eliminate or dampen the
    flashpoints that set off militant protests and even violence. In fact,
    when these statutes are applied to some kinds of 'sexual harassment'
    cases - the current definition of sexual harassment is both broad and
    vague - it is hard to tell whether the ideology being served is
    radical feminism or the conservative prudery of traditional religion.
    But above all, administrators are fearful of rekindling the militant
    passions of the 1960s, to which nostalgic faculty are as susceptible
    as ardent young students. Race is the one issue that has the potential
    to set this off. Therefore, it is an issue that impels pragmatic
    rightists to find rationalisations for ignoring their individualistic
    But this is only part of the long, unremitting balancing act that
    university administrations must perform. Like a music-hall juggler
    keeping a dozen plates spinning precariously on as many twirling
    sticks, an American university president, along with his subalterns,
    is continually on the run between one touchy faction and another,
    trying to keep them all functioning without smashing into one
    another's egos. It is not a task that is well suited to anyone
    obsessed with ideological or even intellectual consistency. There are
    too many Meccas to bow to at too many different points of the compass.
    Under the circumstances, it would be absurd to expect the leader of a
    school to personify the sense of scholarly mission and the thirst for
    knowledge that universities are supposed to embody.
    The academic who actually admits to having been inspired or encouraged
    by the eloquence, the philosophy or the deeds of his president must be
    the rarest creature on Earth. A president simply doesn't expect to be
    admired for incarnating the academic ethos. The best he can hope for
    is to be thought well of for his cleverness in bringing in donations
    and his prudence in keeping his nose out of things that don't concern
    him, which covers everything from the drill-sergeant methods of the
    overpaid football coach to the double-talk of the overpaid literary
    Enforced diffidence
    So where, then, do the values of the university repose? Where have
    they taken firm enough root to guide and inspire the thoughts and
    words of faculty and students? Profland, by and large, flatters itself
    that the ancient virtues flourish in its soil, that mercenary or
    hypocritical though the university may be in many respects, its
    professors, at least, incarnate these ideals.
    There may be a little truth to this; professors honestly dedicated to
    advancing knowledge and to nurturing students are really not all that
    rare. The trouble is, however, that Profland isn't really a community
    built on shared values and assumptions. It is, rather, a loose
    assemblage of Anchorites, most of them dedicated in their own way, but
    each functioning in isolation from the others, apart from such
    affinities as might exist among scholars in the same sub-specialty of
    the same discipline.
    If, by some strange chance, a student should honestly inquire what a
    university is really supposed to represent, what its core values are,
    what it offers him by way of a mode of thought and life, what it
    requires of him beyond classroom routine, there is no place for him to
    seek an answer. All he ever gets is an 'orientation' at the beginning
    of freshman year, which tells him where the library is, what the
    penalty for plagiarism is, and why he should be thrilled to be part of
    such a diverse community. There is no authority who can go beyond
    clichés to point to actual practice or to other evidence of a
    genuinely shared ethos.
    The worst of it is that this deficiency is not a matter of
    institutional structure, nor of misplaced priorities, nor of temporary
    inattention. It arises from the hollowing out of Western culture as a
    whole. This a sententious, even grandiose, way of putting it, perhaps,
    but if we avoid thinking about the malaise of our larger society,
    across decades rather than years, I doubt we'll be able to plumb the
    morass into which American higher education - and, probably, the
    community of scholars throughout the world - has fallen.
    We not only lack guidelines and precepts to conduct us through the
    life of the mind, we lack the sense that such principles are even
    possible. The needed vocabulary hasn't vanished from our language, but
    it is sodden with irony, rotten from years of coarse abuse. Consider
    words like 'justice', 'objectivity', 'beauty', 'integrity',
    'nobility', 'progress', 'honour', 'virtue', 'fairness' and
    'righteousness': it's not only the postmodernists among us who
    reflexively snicker at these terms; all of us do so, automatically.
    To be asked to respond to any of them with a straight face as denoting
    an actual realm of human experience is like being touched up for a
    loan. You feel like you've been placed in the awkward position of
    having to play the sucker if you're to comply. The cultural demons
    lodged in all our psyches tell us that these words are the well-worn
    tools of an ancient con-game, that they are names of phantoms, weapons
    that the cynical wield to dominate the gullible. If ever we try to use
    them without a sneer, shame washes over us.
    This kind of resigned cynicism is not just a casual attribute of our
    culture. It is ingrained in the zeitgeist of our wounded and
    distempered civilisation. We have experienced a century marked not
    only by butchery on an inconceivable scale but by the chilling fact
    that a good deal of that butchery emerged from the triumphs of what
    first looked to be forces of redemption. There are words we can't use
    without sneer quotes because their degradation is our way of burying
    the dead hopes they once reflected.
    Therefore, if I tell you that a university is, above all, an
    institution for the preservation and extension of learning and for its
    dissemination to the emerging generation, for the winnowing of truth
    from falsehood and imposture, for the conservation of the highest
    values our civilisation can conceive, for the emulation, insofar as we
    are capable, of the finest and deepest minds our civilisation has
    produced, for the hoarding and protection of what must survive of our
    civilisation even after all the dross has fallen away; if I tell you
    all this without satiric intent, and with the purpose of describing an
    ideal that is at least approximable if not perfectly realisable, then
    I will have committed an enormous gaffe, by the standards that our
    culture inflicts on us all. I will have tried to sell you a bill of
    goods, swamp real-estate, pump-and-dump stock, the Brooklyn Bridge.
    We cannot deal with the concept I have just formulated as if it really
    meant something because the cultural confidence to do so has utterly
    atrophied. We live in an era of enforced diffidence which makes it
    positively painful to assert that there are better ideas and worse,
    better minds and worse, superior and inferior ways of knowing,
    differences between the enduring and the ephemeral, ways of viewing
    the world worth preserving and along with those worth discarding.
    We have been conditioned to believe that to credit such distinctions,
    or at least to claim special value for particular ideas, minds and
    ways of knowing, is hopelessly parochial, culturally arrogant, and
    ultimately oppressive. There is good reason to remain aware of the
    dangers of cultural chauvinism, but the point is to cleanse our
    standards of judgment of narrow and local prejudices, not to abandon
    the very notion of standards of judgment.
    Nobody can sincerely propound a vision of what a university is
    supposed to be, of what actual universities should strive to be,
    because it is so hard to assemble that vision, or even to contemplate
    its components, without blushing at one's lapse into unsophistication.
    Neither pride nor aspiration can really hold a university community
    together because our culture instructs us to reject the kind of
    solidarity that enables collective pride and aspiration. We are
    content to let the university define itself in terms of the
    aggregation of functions the larger community and the economy wish it
    to perform: babysitting our youth in their protracted adolescence,
    staging gladiatorial exhibitions for TV, conducting product research
    for chip makers and drug makers, sending forth a reliable supply of
    doctors and lawyers, trying to ameliorate America's racial mess
    (albeit in a half-assed way), and delving into arcane knowledge here
    and there just in case the stuff is ever really needed.
    The task of forging a definition based on deep respect for verities,
    wisdom and genius (hear how strangely those words ring!), promulgating
    it, assembling a consensus around it, and functioning in accordance
    with its values - that's something for which we utterly lack the
    confidence, the sense of a painful but deservedly abiding past, of an
    uncertain but still hopeful future.
    And so our American institutions of higher learning drift along, fat,
    dumb and happy, or lean, dumb and anxious, according to the size of
    their endowment. 'Total Depravity', as the sociologist Thorstein
    Veblen labeled it a century ago - but he didn't know the half. It is
    foreordained that episodes of extreme silliness shall burst forth
    therein from time to time. The cult of 'cultural competence' is now
    beginning to afflict universities because they lack the immune system
    necessary to suppress such inane crap before it gets a foothold. It is
    distinctly possible that the even more inane crap called Intelligent
    Design theory might also afflict them before too long, especially if
    the power of the PC Mafia starts to slip while that of the Dark Side
    waxes. Recurrent inanity, in one form or another, seems to be the fate
    of universities as now constituted.
    At the risk of sounding nostalgic for what never was, I say that it
    needn't have been thus. But avoiding this abyss would have required
    prescience and courage that is quite rare in individuals, let alone in
    Norman Levitt is Professor of Mathematics at Rutgers University. He is
    the co-author (with PR Gross) of Higher Superstition

More information about the paleopsych mailing list