The John Harvard statue in Harvard University in Cambridge, MA. (Photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire)

It’s not rocket science

It all goes wrong when arts departments start imitating research universities

This article is part of a Universities in Crisis feature from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

How did colleges and universities in the United States and elsewhere in the English-speaking world become seminaries of centre-Left and radical Left ideology?

That most elite campuses foster political and intellectual monocultures is not open to dispute. In a 2023 poll by the Harvard Crimson, 45.3 per cent of Harvard faculty identify themselves as “liberal” and 31.8 per cent as “very liberal”, a combined total of 77.1 per cent. Twenty per cent considered themselves “moderate” with only 2.5 per cent “conservative” and 0.4 per cent “very conservative”.

The good news is that political diversity at Harvard has thus increased since 2022, when only 1 per cent of the faculty were “conservative” and none at all were “very conservative”. Not coincidentally, in 2023 Harvard came last in the free speech rankings compiled by the nonpartisan watchdog, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

In the United States, the professoriate is not only politically but literally inbred. In 2022, tenure-track faculty members were 25 per cent more likely than the general population to have a parent with a PhD. Then there are the “legacies”. Around 30 per cent of Harvard students have parents or other relatives who are alumni.

How were elite universities in the US and elsewhere captured by a nepotistic, intermarrying caste of liberal and left-wing academics? I submit that Germany is to blame. Not modern Germany, but the Anglophone world’s understanding, or misunderstanding, of the German university system a century ago.

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In the nineteenth-century United States, private and public colleges followed the British example of providing a common educational background for the sons, and later the daughters, of the social elite. They combined a liberal arts curriculum including mathematics, geography, history, rhetoric, and other subjects with Greek and Latin.

The emphasis of undergraduate education, like professional education in theology, law, and medicine, was mastery of a traditional subject matter passed down from generation to generation — thus the master’s degree. Many American colleges including Harvard had begun as colonial seminaries and well into the nineteenth century the university president was often a minister. The purpose was to produce religious and patriotic leaders of society who were generally-educated and articulate.

To criticise an ideology is to demonstrate inadvertently that you suffer from bias

All of this was seen as hopelessly backward by many American and British academics who studied in German universities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although his writings were not then well-known, Alexander Humboldt and the example of German universities (including the one that Humboldt helped to found, the University of Berlin) inspired the foundation of new American universities such as Johns Hopkins and the remodelling of older ones such as Harvard and Yale.

The imported Germanic ideal was the research university. Instead of focusing on the transmission of canonical bodies of cultural and professional knowledge, the new emphasis was on scientific discovery and technological innovation. Because discovery requires critical inquiry, the Humboldtian university was characterised by Lernfreiheit (freedom to learn) and Lehrfreiheit (freedom to teach). Liberated from political or ecclesiastical oversight, academics would be free to engage in bold and innovative scholarship, with teaching de-emphasised.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Unfortunately, a century later we can see that the attempt to graft the German research university onto the Anglo-American college has gone disastrously wrong.

In the areas of science and technology, the research university has been an outstanding success. In the twentieth century, American research universities like MIT and Stanford were instrumental in developing computer technology, with funding from the federal government and major corporations. Recently, a team of mostly-Harvard researchers funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced a potentially revolutionary breakthrough in the technology of quantum computing.

Unfortunately, in research universities the hard sciences set the standards which other departments are expected to meet. For example, a recent study criticised the “productivity” of American faculty members, drawing on data from the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University, the two major public research universities that have released the necessary data. The report concludes: “At UT Austin, there are 1,748 faculty members who consume 54 per cent of instructional costs but teach only 27 per cent of the student hours and generate no external funding.”

Many have postponed marriage and home ownership for a chance at winning the lottery of tenure

Having taught at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as Harvard and Johns Hopkins, I can attest that there are many underworked professors. But the report complains that “top scholars who bring in almost all of the research see large amounts of their grants siphoned off to pay for their less productive colleagues”. In the neo-Germanic research university, a “top scholar” is one who wins research grants from the federal government or corporations. This definition is questionable even in science and engineering departments, and it is absurd when applied to the divinity school or the school of law.

Another import from nineteenth-century Germany is the PhD. Making the doctorate necessary for tenure in universities has been a disaster for both teaching and scholarship. It has frozen out a great many people who might be dynamic teachers but possess only master’s degrees and have neither the interest nor ability to be creative scholars. And it has created a bottomless landfill of unread academic articles and books created solely to obtain tenure or promotions.

While a master’s degree in the US can be completed in one to three years, in 2020 the median time to earn a doctorate ranged from 6.3 years in physical and earth sciences and 6.8 years in engineering to 9.6 years in humanities and 12 years in education. Getting a dissertation approved, revised, and completed can take three years or longer. The process of obtaining a PhD can be prolonged if the doctoral student lacks adequate financial aid and must work part-time or full-time.

In addition to the cost in time, there is a cost in money, at least in the US where universities are allowed to charge exorbitant tuitions. In 2021, the average student loan debt for academics with PhDs was $159,625. It is no surprise that around half of all PhD students in America drop out after completing their coursework but without completing their dissertation.

Those who run the gauntlet successfully are usually in their thirties. The average age of PhD completion is 31.5 years, but the process takes less time in physical sciences and earth sciences (29.6 years of age) than in humanities and arts (34.2) and education (38.5). Many have postponed marriage and home ownership until they are nearly middle-aged, for a chance at winning the lottery of tenure at a respectable college or university. The lottery winners come from a few prestigious schools. Eighty per cent of faculty members in the US with PhDs got their doctorates at only 20 per cent of universities.

Once they have acquired life tenure, American PhDs prefer scholarship or sabbaticals to teaching. Instructing students — the mission of the old university, though not the research university — is increasingly viewed as a chore and fobbed off on poorly-paid, non-tenure-track adjunct instructors, who now make up more than 48 per cent of the faculty at American universities.

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For a long time the professional schools — like law schools — resisted the research university ideal that provides the physics department as a model and the PhD as a requirement. Now, however, they are succumbing and endorsing the priority of peer-reviewed (translation: unread) research over teaching, as well as requiring doctorates for law school professors.

Noting that law professors in the past tended to be drawn from applicants who had attended an elite school, had been an officer on the law review, had received high grades, and had clerked for an elite judge, preferably a Supreme Court Justice, Stanford Law declares:

While these accomplishments are still a plus at most schools, the last three have become significantly less important in the top third of the market (the top 100 law schools). In their place, three other accomplishments are increasingly valued. The most important one is having produced some scholarly work. The second is having a PhD or other advanced degree in an allied field of study. Third, many successful job applicants have completed a lab-teaching fellowship or served as a Visiting Assistant Professor at a law school.

Note the mimicry of natural science department jargon — “lab-teaching fellowship”. In fine arts faculties, studios become “labs”. Classroom readings in economics or sociology become “modules”. Each social science or humanities department must have its own “methodology” — by which is meant “method”; the “-ology” is added just to sound scientific.

Consider the “methodology” used to study world politics, a subject that is obviously difficult to quantify or reduce to general “laws” like those of physics or chemistry. In international relations theory, a sub-discipline of political science, many academics have spent decades insisting that world politics should be studied with the aid of rigorous “Lakatosian research programmes” (Imre Lakatos was a Hungarian philosopher of science who taught at the London School of Economics).

The result has been books and peer-reviewed journal articles that the makers of US foreign policy ignore. I asked one prominent American international relations theorist if contemporary American IR theories, including his own, had ever been referred to as a guide to policy during his time in a presidential administration. He replied, “Not once.”

The Lehrfreiheit of professors makes the Lernfreiheit (freedom to learn) of students meaningless, if most or all of the courses offered are on fashionable left-wing topics and taught by conventional liberals and leftists. At Harvard, for example, students are required to complete four General Education courses, one from each of the following categories: Aesthetics & Culture, Ethics & Civics, Histories, Societies, Individuals, and Science & Technology in History.

Unlike genuine scientific theories, ideologies cannot be tested or refuted by evidence

Many of the individual courses are propaganda for left-wing identity politics, such as “Power to the People: Black Power, Radical Feminism, and Gay Liberation” and “LGBT Literature, Politics, and Identity”. Under Ethics & Civics, a student can choose “Borders”: “As a society, we pay particular attention to borders when incidents such as children separated from their asylum-seeking parents or tear gas being used to deter entry throw the legal divide between two nation states into sharp relief.”

When the political skew of courses and faculty is criticised from the outside, tenured campus revolutionaries undergo a remarkable metamorphosis into mild-mannered, technocratic scholars who are shocked, simply shocked, to be accused of partisan bias. Far from indoctrinating students in progressive ideology, they protest, they are merely teaching students to “ask questions” and engage in “interrogation” of authors. Forceful interrogation, to be sure, of the kind that leads Homer to break down and confess that he is a patriarchal militarist and causes Jane Austen to admit her internalised misogyny in the hope that she might receive a sentence other than cancellation.

After the president of the University of California recently encouraged efforts by faculty to develop a “viewpoint-neutral history of the Middle East”, 150 professors signed a letter in protest. “We find your use of the term ‘viewpoint-neutral history’ to be wrong in this context and call upon you to rescind it.” Invoking the ideal of Lehrfreiheit without using the term, the faculty members insisted that they alone, as experts, had the right to determine what was to be taught and how, without needing to answer to the university or the larger community.

What science and engineering faculties and the pseudo-scientific departments of social science and liberal arts and “studies” programs share is a common opposition to tradition. In the case of the sciences and engineering, anti-traditionalism is justified; the latest breakthrough in physics or materials science may render irrelevant what has come before.

But that kind of intellectual progress does not exist in a literature department or a history department. In the arts and humanities, anti-traditional innovation is more like iconoclasm on the part of a new religion, which smashes the idols of the old before erecting new idols and imposing a new orthodoxy of its own.

What passes for scientific discovery in pseudo-scientific ideologies such as Freudianism, Marxism, feminism, and anti-racism is mere “unmasking”. The ideologue unmasks the apparent reality and reveals the hidden truth.

At first glance, this may look like science. After all, doesn’t physics tell us that apparently solid objects are made up of atoms and sub-atomic particles separated by space? But unlike genuine scientific theories, ideologies cannot be tested or refuted by evidence. Indeed, to criticise an ideology is to demonstrate inadvertently that you suffer from false consciousness or unconscious bias — that you yourself need to be unmasked.

Critics of psychoanalysis are neurotic; critics of Marxism are bourgeois; critics of feminism are sexist; and critics of academic anti-racism are racist. However they mimic the rhetoric of science and technology, the progressive ideologies that have infiltrated and captured institutions of higher learning on both sides of the Atlantic are secular religions in disguise.

What should be done to repair higher education on both sides of the Atlantic can be debated. But it is clear that the transplant of nineteenth-century German ideas into the Anglo-American university over the last century has nearly killed the patient. Scientific and engineering research universities and institutions are legitimate. But when secular cults have captured the institutions whose purpose is to socialise the next generation of leaders into a common cultural tradition and to pass on bodies of traditional knowledge and traditional skills, it is necessary to root the cultists out of the institutions or to create new institutions that are fit for purpose.

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