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(Rate Your Students)
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except that Maureen Dowd is kind of a wrecking ball of a writer,
and Soltan isn't. For the life of me, I can't figure out her
politics, but she's pretty fabulous, so who gives a damn?"
(Tenured Radical)

Wednesday, May 19, 2004


There's a certain sort of sophisticate who takes an obvious evil - fascism, for instance - and says, hey, calm down, we're all kind of built along those lines, and anyway, what exactly is "fascism"? This is the sort of person who finds phrases like the transvaluation of all values rather too stimulating. Also the famous final speech in Wallace Shawn's play, Aunt Dan and Lemon, during which Lemon says

...there's something inside us that likes to kill. ... it's enjoyable to learn about killing that is done by other people, and it's enjoyable to think about killing, and it's enjoyable to read about killing, and it's even enjoyable actually to kill. ... We have to admit that we don't really care. And I think that that last admission is what really makes people go mad about the Nazis, because in our society we have this kind of cult built up around what people call the feeling of "compassion." I remember my mother screaming all the time, "Compassion! Compassion! You have to have compassion for other people! You have to have compassion for other human beings!" And I must admit, there's something I find refreshing about the Nazis, which is partly why I enjoy reading about them every night, because they sort of had the nerve to say, "Well, what is this compassion? Because I don't know really what it is." And so they must have sort of asked each other, you know, "Well, say, Heinrich, have you ever felt it?" "Well no, Adolf, what about you?" And they all had to admit that they really didn't know what the hell it was. And I find it sort of relaxing to read about those people, because I have to admit that I don't know either.

There's a less flashy version of this attitude in regard to university issues. People will ask -- Why are you getting so excited about diploma mills, faked credentials, corrupt administrators and faculty, grade inflation, boutique universities, plagiarism, the abandonment of a core curriculum? Get a grip. Things were ever thus. Everyone plagiarizes (From the Calgary Herald, May 14, 04: "Alberta's premier calls it much ado about nothing. Ralph Klein says it's no big deal about large portions of his recent university essay being lifted directly from the Internet without proper sourcing."), and everyone fakes credentials (From May 19, 2004: "While Lynn Ianni, resident therapist for Fox's "The Swan," does have a bachelor's degree in psychology from New York State University and a master's degree from Notre Dame, the Ph.D. from California Coast University that allows her to put the title Dr. in front of her name isn't 100 percent kosher. The document sleuths over at have discovered that the California Coast University isn't your standard accredited university. Indeed, it "does not require formal on-campus or classroom attendance," but instead charges a flat fee for whatever degree one seeks. For example, Ianni's Ph.D., obtained in 1998, would have cost her a very reasonable $4,000."). Who cares?

Corollary to this intellectual style is a mockery of the earnest morality of people who still get upset about certain things, who still think that people should try to behave honorably and that institutions should try to have standards. The mockery often plays out in Old/New World terms, as in the Frenchman noting with weary amusement the tendency of Americans to be outraged by things like adultery, corporate malfeasance, and nepotism.

Culturally, the American professoriate is in this regard "French" - it's largely composed of anti-bourgeois secular liberals who pride themselves on their knowing worldly ways and whose sworn enemies are bourgeois religious or self-consciously ethical conservatives. The specific intellectual elements which mingle to elicit professorial mockery of this morally earnest group include cultural relativism, a sense of the complex irresolvable ambiguity of everything, and a general tilt toward being titillated by new and shocking ideas (as in, for instance, foucauldian arguments about sadomasochism). This is the uncritically receptive audience for "scandalous" artistic breakthroughs, the group that lectures distressed rubes on the socially subversive free play of art, etc. etc. Some in this sector are at the moment quietly dismayed by the alacrity with which thousands of gay couples are lining up to get married.

So when, for instance, a report is issued, as a report was issued today, from a serious organization, announcing the virtual destruction in the American university of anything resembling an authentic liberal education, one can be sure that this portion of the professoriate will greet it with disdain and indifference.

Which shouldn't stop the rest of us.

Here's a summary of the report, from the ACTA website:

The Hollow Core: Failure of the General Education Curriculum
A Fifty College Study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni

Despite widespread lip service to the importance of a general education, a new survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni finds that a solid core curriculum in higher education has gone the way of the dodo. At a time when most colleges endorse the importance of a general education—a set of courses required of all students—in fact, colleges have virtually abandoned a solid core curriculum in favor of a loose set of distribution requirements. As a consequence, college students are graduating without the basic knowledge that was once considered the hallmark of a liberal education.