Totems and taboos in academia

After reading Heather Mac Donald’s spooky “Harvard Diversity Grovel” in City Journal, I’m beginning to wonder about the future of the American university.  Note:  the word “university” denotes a comprehensive yet shared approach to learning and the development of mental faculties.  It has been overthrown in the humanities by the totemic word “diversity,” which implies, when it doesn’t explicitly state, that different genders and races and groups live in different universes, moral and experiential, and that justice in such a condition means the Balkanization of education, with blacks protected from “white” literature, say, and women from “male” science.

Diversity is a potent spirit, whose wishes are interpreted and enforced by witch doctors in administration.  To offend against it is taboo.  As is well known, Larry Summers, a brilliant economist, former Treasury Secretary, and current president of Harvard, violated this taboo by suggesting that women might be less numerous in the science faculties because men possess more of the requisite skills.  His atonement (“penance” is Mac Donald’s word for it) will not be cheap:  an offer of 50 million of Harvard’s dollars to the totem Diversity.

Mac Donald also looks deep into the oracular exhalations of Harvard’s “Report of the Task Force on Women Faculty” just released on the heels of Summers’ ghastly mistake.  I won’t dwell on it – Mac Donald, as always, is witty, but the subject is a depressing one.

Still, a couple of observations are in order.  One, the science faculties are in danger of succumbing to the same primitive totem-worship that has decimated the humanities.  If Harvard does what the report recommends, the most prestigious university in the country will be sacrificing its standards for critical thinking on the altar of Diversity.  The harm this can bring to the practice of American science is incalculable.

Two, Larry Summers, for whom I have felt some sympathy, is a moral coward.  Rather than face his critics, and engage, as a university president must, in a combat of ideas, he has cravenly begged to be forgiven, and is now pulling down the edifice over which he presides, to preserve for himself the mere title of president.  Here’s Mac Donald on Summers:

In one of his many groveling apologies for the “wounds” he had inflicted on delicate faculty sensibilities, he parrots the most left-wing, radical tenet of feminist constructivist ideology: that traditional standards of merit are merely white male ploys to silence female and minority “voices.”  The “underlying . . . fact” of universities, he told the faculty at a February 15 meeting, is that they were “originally designed by men and for men.”  In Summers’s view, the male origin of universities undermines any claim they might make to using objective tests of merit. “That reality [of a male founding],” he said, “shapes everything from . . . assumptions about effectiveness in teaching and mentoring, to concepts of excellence.”  In other words, there is a male “concept of excellence” in genome research, say, that may not be the same as a female or black “concept of excellence” in genome research.

The deconstruction of objective standards into race and gender politics is common throughout the humanities.  If Summers acts on his embrace of deconstructive relativism – he called on February 15 for “rethinking our assumptions in [such] areas [as ‘excellence’]” – standards in science will be the next to go.  Any department that claims that it cannot find qualified candidates to meet the Senior VP for D’s “metrics” could face the charge that it is using white male “concepts of excellence.”  Thank you very much, but I think I’ll stick with those “concepts” in the interest of ensuring that my medicine works and the airplane I’m using stays in the air.

Summers should probably go, but I’m certain that whoever succeeds him will be worse.

The worship of diversity, and its twin deity, multiculturalism, demands obedience rather than debate.  That is usually the posture of the spirit world.  But a bizarre element of diversity, as David Berkowitz notes in this review, is its indifference to other cultures.

for all their earnest words about the beauty and necessity of multicultural education, university administrators and faculty preside over a curriculum that routinely permits students to graduate without acquiring reading, writing, and speaking fluency in any foreign language, let alone competence in Chinese, the language of the most populous country in the world; Hindi, the most widely spoken language in the world’s largest democracy; or Arabic, the language of Islam, a religion that commands an estimated 1.4 billion adherents worldwide.

Berkowitz’s review focuses on the disease for which the Larry Summers grovel is a symptom:  a complete lack of political diversity in academia.  The result is the penalization of speech:  rage against taboo-breaking, such as Summers encountered and before which he now shudders so abjectly.  One more example should suffice to make clear what Berkowitz means:

The most notorious incident involved the publication in February 2001 by the student newspaper, the Daily Californian, of a paid advertisement by David Horowitz entitled “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks – and Racist Too.” Although the ad was meant to be polemical and did spark outrage on campus, it in no way suggested that blacks were deserving of anything less than freedom and equality under law. The Berkeley chapter of bamn (“By Any Means Necessary,” which comes from the title of a book by Malcolm X) immediately denounced the Daily Cal as “racist.”  Students in the hundreds gathered in front of the newspaper to demand an apology, and the editorial board swiftly caved, publishing the next day an unsigned apology in which the editors “confessed that the paper had allowed itself ‘to become an inadvertent vehicle for bigotry.’”

Appeasement, however, only inflamed the problem. The Daily Cal found itself not only under continuing criticism on campus for racism and insensitivity, but also under enormous criticism from the national media for abandonment of the principle of a free press and cowardly capitulation to the forces of political correctness. “During this episode,” Downs ruefully reports, “no faculty members or administrators spoke up in support of the First Amendment or free speech, either in the press or in public.” At the same time, he quotes a student editor on his real teachers in the crisis: “‘Had we not had that national media backlash, I don’t know that any of us would have thought twice about it being wrong to apologize.  I know that I started to self educate myself on the First Amendment afterwards’.”

The best one can hope for is that this sort of moral disorder is a generational malady, and will disappear when all of us baby boomers go the way of all flesh.

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