Back to the Dark Ages

Editor’s note: This is the third and final word in a seres of articles that began with the author’s article, Myths of the Ivory Tower.”  English professor Brian Railsback responded with his critique, “The Myths of an Ivory Tower Watcher.”

I find it very difficult to take the professor’s response to my article seriously. His main rhetorical tactic is to claim ignorance of some very weighty issues about higher education that I tried to present in an entertaining format. I can’t really be sure why he chose to do this. Perhaps it is a cynical ploy to dismiss my observations in an off-hand manner, to suggest that I find issues where none exist.

Or is he really unaware of these matters? If so, he is acting the way journalist John Stossel said his liberal media colleagues acted when he explained media bias to them, that “it’s like talking to fish about water,” when the fish have no comprehension of anything beyond the water.

I suspect, that after Railsback’s 33 years in academia, it is the latter, and, I therefore question his decision to “muck it up” with me.

Still, by responding in this fashion, Professor Railsback has offered a very valuable service. For he provides a stark example of the great intellectual and moral gulf that exists between the academy and the American people to which I alluded in my article. And he also demonstrates the shallowness of the liberal mindset that dominates the modern American academy.

He obviously thinks little of my profession. But as a “paid observer of higher education,” I daily read all kinds of materials about the state of higher education. I regularly attend UNC Board of Governors meetings, university trustee meetings, and legislative higher education committee meetings. I pore over statistics on academia and also over the North Carolina state budget where it pertains to higher education. I read lots of syllabi and scholarly articles by professors, and I regularly communicate with a wide range of people involved with higher education, on both sides of the political aisle. I am paid to be aware of the academy’s issues and events. 

Thus, unlike tenured professors, I cannot wall myself off from contact with anybody who is not just another like-minded academic.

While discussing my first myth (“there is no liberal bias”), Professor Railsback suggested that Western Carolina University is “somewhere in between” the conservative and liberal ideologies. Rather than accepting his claim at face value, we at the Pope Center did a little homework. A survey of the voter registration of the members of Western Carolina’s English department’s reveals the following: of the 24 professors (lecturers and grad students not included) registered to vote in Jackson, Buncombe, Macon, and Heywood Counties, 19 are registered as Democrats, five are registered but unaffiliated with any party, and none are Republicans. Although such imbalance is typical of academia, that is not the middle of the American political spectrum—that is out in “left field.”

And if we were to actually examine the published writing of WCU English department members to discover their specific political beliefs, as we have done elsewhere in the UNC system, it is likely that his department could be accurately described as “far-left field.”

The professor’s failure to recognize how far to the left academia has drifted—possibly because he and his associates are so far removed from the majority in this “center-right” nation—could not be a better illustration of my Myth #1.

Professor Railsback claims he never heard of Myth #2, that “Everybody should go to college.” Yet, it seems that in recent years almost every major establishment figure, from Barack Obama to UNC system president Erskine Bowles, has publicly stated that we need to send more people to college—ostensibly because we will need more graduates to compete in the global economy.

In recent months, the counter-argument—that we are already sending way too many people to college—has turned this issue into a white-hot controversy. The alternate view emerged from higher education think tanks, such as the Pope Center, where it has been kept alive for many years, and has burst onto the pages of the biggest establishment publications in the country: Time Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times—even the left-leaning Chronicle of Higher Education. My co-worker George Leef—also a paid observer of higher education—recently participated in a PBS debate on the topic, in which he faced off against such luminaries as former education secretary Margaret Spellings and United Negro College Fund president Michael Lomax.

To his credit, Railsback notices that there are “students who are not ready to go to college or who don’t belong there.” There are campuses in the UNC system where such students are almost a majority. Yet he doesn’t delve into the question of why they are there, other than to offer the cliché “everyone is entitled to a shot at college.” And he therefore misses the extremely important underlying question: Why do they choose to be there when they aren’t ready or don’t belong?

The answer is not all that mysterious. They are there because they were wrongly encouraged to go, despite their lack of academic aptitude and inclination. They are there because government—both state and federal—over-subsidizes higher education to the extreme, even though there are not enough college-level jobs for large numbers of recent graduates. And the political and academic establishments are still pushing for even greater subsidies and higher enrollments, despite the fact that almost half of entering freshmen at four-year schools don’t graduate within six years. Those students “who don’t belong” are on college campuses because our society is pushing far too many people to go to college!

Professor Railsback relies on the personal level for much of his argument. He dismissed my article as “superficial,” while he, on the other hand, likes to “think.” One of the things that he said made him think was “an art student erect[ing] a giant penis on campus.” I would not waste two nanoseconds of mental effort on this, having realized long ago that such vacuous “shock value” displays usually indicate a lack of talent or a lack of any cogent idea to express. (Or perhaps personal problems.) And they coarsen and lessen our culture. The student is not creating “art,” but is instead making a statement—a very stale, shallow statement. Yet Professor Railsback sees this juvenile exhibition as something to deeply contemplate. This inability of our so-called intellectual elite to filter out such inanities from more meaningful works is indeed a travesty—one with harmful implications for our society.

He also makes wild—and incorrect—claims, such as “articles like Mr. Schalin’s threaten the entire concept” of academic freedom. What I actually suggested is that professors, just like the entire rest of the world, should be bound to the stated purpose of their jobs, rather than taking advantage of captive audiences dependent on their teacher’s good graces to proselytize and impose radical beliefs. I furthermore suggested that some disturbed people—Ward Churchill, a plagiarist who lies about his ancestry and spews irrational hatred for his own nation, for one—are protected under academia’s aegis.

Perhaps more frightening than the occasional Churchill making headlines is the way the cloistered walls of the Ivory Tower increasingly contain people who intentionally ignore important problems or dismiss them with contempt—problems that many ordinary, intelligent people recognize. It is as if we have returned to medieval times when academics pondered contentedly how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and continued to use the unwieldy Roman numerals for computations, while ordinary people conducting lowly marketplace transactions popularized the more efficient Arabic numerals. Professor Railsback’s response to my article is a fine demonstration of this academic mind-set.