Unintended Consequences or Deliberate Bias?

The two keynote speakers at the 2007 Pope Center Conference agreed that U.S. higher education seems lost and adrift when it comes to the crucial task of transmitting cultural knowledge and morality. But they offered very different explanations for this confusion and different approaches to restore the missing sense of purpose.

One of the speakers, a consummate Ivy League insider, believes that the problems are mainly the result of “unintended consequences” and that the academy can redeem itself. The other, who left his tenured faculty position to concentrate on working for the reform of academia, believes the problems are ideological in nature, and the initial drive for reform must come from outside the educational establishment.

The insider is Harry Lewis, the former dean of Harvard College, a Harvard computer science professor, and author of Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Information. He is troubled by the relativism that pervades the academy and its failure to establish educational priorities for students. “[W]e offer little guidance or structure to suggest what is important, little suggestion that anything is more important than anything else,” he told the audience at the Hilton RDU Airport at Research Triangle Park on October 27.

He feels that passing on an understanding of freedom is one of academia’s essential roles. “A liberal education teaches students what freedom itself is,” he asserted, “and is not – that freedom is not license, and that individual freedom is only possible within a social structure on which a community or nation has agreed.”

Lewis also contended that “American democracy, and the other products of the Western Enlightenment, can’t be taken for granted. They will be preserved only if we transmit them.”

The other speaker, Stephen H. Balch, is the president of the National Association of Scholars (NAS) and a former political science professor at the City University of New York. He was also insistent that our culture’s intellectual foundations are poorly transferred from professors to students. “Graduates should come away with an understanding of the importance of freedom and reason,” he said. “I’m not sure they come away with that. Instead, they come away with a hodge-podge of ideas, and tend to look down upon tradition.”

For Balch, the reason academia can’t perform many of its basic functions is because it has adopted a left-wing ideology that is at odds with our traditions. The university system, with its population of impressionable young people, is naturally attractive to people with “an inclination toward visionary and utopian thinking,” and these utopians feel that the purpose of education is to “move people toward their visions.”

He suggested that because this liberal bias is so pervasive, true reform must come from outside the ivory tower. “We should not leave education solely to educators,” Balch warned.

Harry Lewis said the academy’s problems have less political roots. “The aimlessness problems are not the result of evil faculty or evil presidents, or even left wing conspiracies,” he said, but stem from the emphasis on research at leading universities – “an unintended consequence of our greatest successes.” Specifically, “the root cause is the nature of the faculty who have been appointed in deference to research extremism.”

Lewis said that Harvard’s founders advised the faculty to “advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity.” But today the emphasis is heavily on advancement, and the lessons of the past are given short shrift. Because research has proven so valuable to society, professors are judged on their production of research, not their ability to perpetuate freedom’s philosophical basis. “The incentive and reward structure favors…egoism over altruism,” Lewis said. “It favors the new over the old. The wisdom of the past is easily discarded if the payoff is bigger for ideas that have little virtue except novelty….”

The liberal bias on college campuses, he said, reflects a “systematic selection bias in all research universities of those who most challenge existing principles…Conservatives lose out in the battle for survival because they tend to be knowledge conservators in an environment that favors change.”

Lewis even asserted that, if anything, current academic hiring practices suffer from too much objectivity: “Our pursuit of another social good, nondiscrimination in its various forms, has also contributed to the imbalance.” Because of past discrimination against minorities and women, colleges tend to rate applicants only according to measurable qualities. As a result, universities “tend to hire the smartest, not the wisest.”

Lewis still believes that academia is capable of self-reform, that the problems are mainly “curricular” and can be corrected with policy changes. “Somehow we have to re-introduce, at the level of our trustees and presidents, the notion that faculty are responsible for the human development of human beings and the preservation of civilization as a whole,” he added.

Balch, however, is far more pessimistic about the desire of the academy to change. He contends that if the effects of this bias are to be undone, it will require “greater interaction between the university and laity.”

One promising development Balch mentioned is the proliferation of campus programs and centers that are specifically chartered for “the study of free institutions” and to “capture the traditions of the past.” He mentioned that over 30 such centers have been founded in recent years. They have been initiated and funded by “lay” outsiders such as alumni, private foundations, and even corporations, groups that do not have strong ties to the university’s administration.

Compared to the resources controlled by academia’s establishment, these centers can seem a mere pebble aside a mountain of entrenched interests. If basic changes in the university’s approach to perpetuating the culture ever come to pass, it will take time, persistence, and a growing awareness of the current neglect.

There was an entire panel at the conference devoted to such centers. One participant, Russell K. Nieli, a lecturer at Princeton, said that the political environment on his campus has become less hostile to traditional ideas in recent years because of the presence of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. Change “just takes a few people with convictions,” Nielli concluded.

The pressure to reform from outside the university system has already begun. However, the interests entrenched inside the ivory tower, the faculties, administrators, and government education officials, seem less likely to embrace change. Even Lewis acknowledged in his talk, “[T]he liberal population, having now taken control of the academic ecosystem, has become self-sustaining.” Yet there is always hope that market forces and popular demand will impose on the academic establishment a renewed calling to promote the perpetuation of our highest ideals.

For a video clip of Harry Lewis, click here.

For a video clip of Stephen H. Balch, click here.

Editor’s Note: Jay Schalin is a writer/researcher for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.