Myths of the Ivory Tower

Editor’s note: This article sparked a response by Western Carolina University English professor Brian Railsback, entitled “The Myths of an Ivory Tower Watcher.” Jay Schalin got in the final word with his rebuttal, “Back to the Dark Ages.”

For the past eleven years, I have been involved in higher education, one way or another. And for the last three years, since I started working at the Pope Center, I’ve been a paid observer of academia.

In that time, one thing has become increasingly apparent to me—academics think differently (for the most part). They tend to live in a theoretical universe, while the rest of America deals with real things with real consequences. If the carpenter doesn’t nail the boards down, the roof flies off. If the financial planner doesn’t invest Farmer Brown’s life insurance payout wisely when he passes on, Widow Brown loses the farm.

But if a history professor’s theory about the Panic of 1893 is all wet, or if a psychology professor’s theory about the difference between cat lovers and dog lovers doesn’t pass the smell test, then…nothing. Nobody suffers, and nobody loses his or her job. So it’s no surprise that the thinking in such an atmosphere occasionally spins off its axis. As a higher education critic, I am assaulted daily by the academy’s extremes—from the silly to the sublime. A lot of times, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. And in that spirit, I offer a list—a little bit lighthearted, but deadly serious—of ten of the biggest misconceptions held by academics that might not make it outside of the Ivory Tower.

1. There is no liberal bias in academia.

Lilliputians don’t consider themselves short. Brobdingnagians don’t see themselves as particularly large. And academics don’t seem themselves as left-leaning. Of course, why would any ordinary hard-core liberal consider himself as such when surrounded by so many people further to the left than he is? Surveys of voter registrations consistently show that college faculty members tend to register as Democrats between 70 to 90 percent of the time. Even that extreme imbalance doesn’t tell the real story. Republicans tend to be clustered in a few disciplines such as business or engineering, and entire humanities departments at major universities register Democratic. And at many schools, there are more committed communists than conservatives.

Of course, then there’s this guy. He admits that there is a prevailing bias in academia, but that’s only because liberals are so much smarter than everybody else.

2. Everybody should go to college.

Academics give lots of reasons for this. The biggest reason, which they don’t like to state publicly, is that it promotes employment for academics. But, despite claims to the contrary, college is not for everybody. Continued schooling can be a waste of time for people who don’t have the inclination to actually study. Graduation rates are only 53 percent, and many students leave with no degree and lots of debt. Many graduates wind up working in fields in which a college degree is unnecessary. And even if everyone were to get a doctorate, the employment picture after graduation would hardly change one bit—society would still need roughly the same mix of waitresses, convenience store clerks, doctors, truck drivers, elementary school teachers, and so on.

3. Academia is more noble than the business community.

This is because academics don’t sully themselves with motives of profit and greed, but instead think lofty thoughts and pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and for the betterment of humanity.

That’s the perspective some academics have of themselves. The overall picture tells a different story. The business world produces all of the basic goods and services we need to live. By creating surpluses of wealth through private enterprise, a modern society can educate its young for many years, instead of making them gather edibles from they moment they can walk. This bounty raises humanity above the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short “ lives of our distant and not-so-distant ancestors.

Much of the work in the private sector is tedious, stressful, requires long hours, or is physically punishing—many workers literally sacrifice their health to earn their keep and to provide for their families.

Academic jobs, on the other hand, permit faculty to pursue their own interests, do not wear the body down over the years, and are not particularly stressful (and offer large amounts of vacation time). Tenured professors make very good livings and have ample opportunities to earn extra money through research and consulting. And there is probably much more mental effort exerted on grant proposals, department appointments, and meeting tenure requirements than on lofty ideas.

4. Diversity makes everything better.

This is why universities try to make sure students hear all sides of an argument so that they can conceive intelligent, well-informed opinions…

Okay, that’s ridiculous. In fact, one of the first things I learned in reporting on universities is that academia has little use for a diversity of ideas. The diversity that really matters to the academic establishment is based on characteristics of identity—race, ethnicity, and gender. It is an idea that has become so pervasive that considerations about quality often are pushed to the side. In fact, just the opposite might be true—when every policy, endeavor or experience must be measured by demographic bean-counters rather than focusing on the best practices or performances, this obsession with diversity detracts rather than enhances.

5. All faculty research is necessary and/or important.

Choose the best answer: Sam is an English professor who teaches Shakespeare. What is the most productive way for him to spend his time?

  1. Closely rereading the major plays of Shakespeare and their most important critiques, reading about Elizabethan history, preparing for lectures, and correcting written grammar when grading papers.
  2. Writing the one-millionth academic article on Shakespeare, with an emphasis on cross-dressing, food, or some other obscure topic.

Let’s face it, if you had an infinite number of monkeys typing randomly, many of them would eventually come up with peer-reviewed academic research papers—and it often appears that they have. Can you guess which of the two following titles of a so-called scholarly article was produced by a random generator intended to mock academia, and which one is an actual “work in progress” by a UNC-Chapel Hill English professor:

a.   “Disciplining Transspecies Intimacy: Cow Blowing, the Zenana, and the Policing of Animal Cruelty in Late-Colonial Bengal.”


b.  “The Economy of Narrative: Libertarianism, Structuralist Theory and Baudrillardist Simulacra”

Hint for the real article: Moo!

6.  Academic freedom means anything goes.

Professors say the darndest things. Whether it is Holocaust denial, describing financial professionals who lost their lives in the 9-11 World Trade Center terrorist attack as “little Eichmans,” or calling for “a million Mogadishus” (where 19 U.S. serviceman lost their lives), if an idea is hateful, perverse, or irrational, some professor somewhere has probably spouted it. And in many cases, such professors are indeed protected by the academy’s self-enforced guidelines.  

However, it is possible to go too far. When a student signs up for a class in physics, he or she has ever reason to expect that the course will be about…attacking the capitalist “system?” One Canadian physics professor openly declared that it was more important to teach about the evils of capitalism than the scientific material that the class was supposed to be about, so he did. He even had a term for his behavior: “squatting.”

Fortunately, officials at the University of Ottawa had a term for their response: dismissal. And nowadays, conservative activists and free speech advocates are quick to react when professors cross the line and use their classrooms to indoctrinate or downgrade students for holding contrary beliefs to their own.

7. Higher Education drives the economy.

Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm once said “our higher education system is the jet fuel that propels our economy.”  Of course, if that’s the case, perhaps we should lay off the accelerator, put on the brakes, and focus on the driver instead of the fuel, because Michigan’s economy has been going in the wrong direction during her term in office—fast. The state’s unemployment rate has been hovering around 15 percent lately, and would be much higher if residents seeking work weren’t putting the pedal to the metal to flee for saner, more prosperous pastures.

Still, citing higher education as the driving force for economic development has become a mantra for college administrators and researchers seeking more funding from state and federal governments. And in a way they’re right—higher education drives their own personal economies. The more money that goes to higher education, the more they make.  But the U.S. economy is much more complex than they suggest. It is driven not by any single factor but by the interplay among innovation, natural resources, government policies, growing economies of scale, human capital, and mankind’s innate and incessant desire for more of everything.

8.  Natural aptitude doesn’t matter.

If only we were all rocket scientists (figuratively, not literally). But we all know that’s not the case. And when some student bites off more than he can digest,  nobody wants to be the bad guy and say, “sorry kid, you just ain’t got it.” But a lot of times, the kid just ain’t got it. Some kids are going to be below average, Lake Wobegon notwithstanding. Albert Einstein wasn’t just some average Joe who studied real hard and got lucky—he was born with some extra gears between the ears. On the other hand, the only Theory of Relativity Forrest Gump is ever going to discover will deal with family reunions—no matter how many classes Forrest takes or how much tutoring he gets.

One recent trend that illustrates the dismissal of natural aptitude is the fact that a number of schools are dropping or de-emphasizing standardized testing for admission. This eliminates the best single measure of aptitude currently in use for admissions, and also prevents any sensible comparison of grades from different high schools. Which intentionally tends to make college admissions more arbitrary and less objective.

9. Morality is relative.

Life is a gas if you don’t hold to objective standards of truth and morality. That way you can find justification for anything you want to do, even if it makes other people just a bit squeamish. And your side can always be right, and the other side can always be wrong. Moral relativity is also the first cousin to situational ethics—a real handy set of beliefs should you have a tough time with temptation.

But there a few problems with relativity. It lends itself equally well to tyranny and anarchy, conditions most of us would rather avoid.

Not to mention that the finest minds (and perhaps the purest souls) have generally found ways to define morality based on solid unchanging foundations (Natural Law, for instance). And that moral systems worldwide are surprisingly and consistently universal (Golden Rule, anyone?)

10. All cultures are equally good.

Forgive me for being a buzzkill here, but perhaps cultures that promote liberty, enable near-universal prosperity, and voluntarily devote enormous sums of money to charity at home and abroad are just a wee bit better than cultures that seem to concentrate mainly on cutting off each others’ heads (and the heads of infidels).