Why Criticizing Liberalism Triggers White Educated Men
I have a confession: I really enjoy upsetting folks with degrees in disciplines like philosophy, humanities, classics or their social science derivatives.
I’ve worked with many of them for years, published with them, studied their works. And the beauty of having no more academic allegiance, no affiliation with the dead world of tenured white male professors and their followers, is that I can happily tear apart the lies they feed to generation after generation of university students without consequences.
Something too few college students in America truly understand is how the expensive education they are sold is constructed by people with a deep personal stake in what educated really means.
If you’ve been to a four year university, you’ve encountered something usually called General Education requirements or something like that. When planning out a course of study, all students are required to take certain core classes.
And what those classes are and how many students are required to take is the focus of intense politics, because the general education curriculum is what most departments rely on to fund themselves.
Students are never given an honest look at what managing a university is really all about, so let me break it down in brief.
To provide services to students, a university needs money. Some can come from government funds, the rest students or their patrons pay.
It costs money to pay for a professor, teaching assistants, a classroom, technology, and materials. It also costs money to administer any educational activity because there have to be people who do nothing but get students to enroll, handle payments, and actually maintain everything instructors need to do their jobs.
The nuts and bolts of higher education have less to do with the brilliance of the professors as much as the needs of the students and the basic material requirements of reality. And like any other human organization, who does what and how much they get paid is a matter of intense conflict, like it or not.
Most universities therefore tie funding to enrollment — fill a classroom, get more money to support the students. Departments that are more successful in attracting students receive more money — it has to be this way.
This means that at every university departments are pitted against each other because there are only so many students with so many credit hours. This makes what classes students are required to take a topic of vital importance to every department.
A note on what I mean by departments is useful here. Because the sum total of human knowledge is vast and individual brains limited in how much they can retain, it has got to be divvied up and structured in some way. Long ago certain nascent sciences like medicine and law diverged out of necessity —and this process can carry on into infinity because a dirty little secret about knowledge is that there is no official, one-size-fits-all way to split it up.
The many departments and academic disciplines that exist today, from Psychology to Physics to Pedagogy, all have fundamentally arbitrary boundaries created through a a process of negotiation between scholars. Different disciplines embrace their own unique basic assumptions, worldview, and methods. New ones are born all the time, usually some heretics splitting off from an established one to start their own tradition.
Which departments are successful and thrive?
One would hope the ones that can offer the best and most useful science — but humans being who we are, social factors always come into play.
Yet in truth, the disciplines that thrive are those that generate something of value to someone. And in the context of the modern university, that depends entirely on attracting students by any means necessary.
Many long-established disciplines and departments — philosophy, history, and literature most notably — rely on the general education curriculum to survive. If given a choice, too few students choose to study these — and while that may be tragic, the hard truth is they face their own constraints and resource limits and have to optimize their education to avoid spending all their life mired in student loan debt.
The dirty secret of too many academic disciplines is that they still exist solely because of a little something called tenure.
People who have tenure almost universally insist it is necessary to protect academic freedom. But the lived truth of tenure is that is creates within every university an atmosphere of hierarchy and privilege sustained by pulling in students by any means necessary.
Most universities accord departments substantial input when the time comes to revise general education requirements. And so naturally every department tries to get as many of its courses in as it can.
If the university decides more critical thinking training should be required of students, the Philosophy, History, Writing, and Sociology departments will be front and center arguing how their courses incorporate that need. If state government decides a course on western civilization needs to be taught to all students, Political Science and Geography will get in the game.
Examine almost any major United States university’s general education requirements and you’ll see two years filled with a grab bag of courses that taken together are considered an education sufficient to — once major requirements are complete — warrant granting a degree. Most will be designed for first-year students, so barely more informative or useful than a high school level course.
The irony is precious few will actually be taught by tenured faculty. No, in the modern university, teaching most non-majors is left up to instructors and graduate students who are paid half as much as faculty and have virtually no job security. Tenured faculty at public universities do typically have to engage in some undergraduate teaching, but most get to focus on major students and graduate students.
This is perhaps why most introductory general education courses are swiftly becoming automated, industry giants like Pearson maintaining representatives full-time on campus to encourage instructors to adopt their e-learning materials. Which, as critical thinking can’t usually be effectively evaluated by online multiple choice exams, wind up being about memorizing domain knowledge.
When I was a graduate student at a public university in Oregon, having come from the University of California system as an undergrad (first UC San Diego, then UC Berkeley, because I felt like transferring midway through), I was astonished by the amount of rote memorization first year students had to do.
In Geography courses at Oregon State students senior faculty members would ask undergrads to fill out country maps and test them on whether they could remember where the Altai Mountains are. At UCSD and Cal my intro Political Science and History courses involved detailed analysis of core documents and ideas that rebuild the world after the Second World War.
And this is not because they are more “elite” than OSU students, “higher quality” or any of the nonsense faculty a lower-ranking institutions say about students to justify why they have trouble teaching them. Science is science, knowledge is knowledge, and there is no real difference between Harvard or Chemeketa Community College.
The difference lies solely in how the faculty see themselves and their students depending on where they landed in the great shell game of professional academia. Where prestige matters far more than actual skill at science or clarity of comprehension of one’s area of study.
To become a tenured professor, you usually have to hold a Ph.D. To get one of those in the United States, you have to get five people who already have one to say you deserve one too. The details vary from institution to institution, but the essence remains: you accept the canon of your sect, and you are ordained a member of a special club.
People being people, and the professor class no less subject to ego than anyone else, those who can lay claim to elite status. The schools they went to or teach at become esteemed. Their names become shorthand for prestige, and those associated with them benefit, gaining a special kind of privilege. Faculty of color are rarely given the opportunity to get into this position.
Which creates a kind of psychosis, leading to faculty working at less prestigious places treating their students as if they are the reason it isn’t Harvard and the faculty lauded as experts in their fields. They give their students worksheets, saving the real education for upperclassmen (even the language shows how broken the system is!) who are willing to dedicate two years largely focused on discussing things the tenured faculty themselves read in graduate school.
Tenured faculty insist tenure is the only thing that protects their academic freedom — the ability to do objective science without pressure from outside interests. Sadly, this is simultaneously a lie, mis-characterization of science, and a deflection from their incredible position of privilege and power within the university system.
The truth is that tenure is part of a grand bargain enacted long ago within universities that sustains something deeply exploitative, even predatory.
Liberalism as a worldview depends on education to be sustained the same way it’s parent, Christianity, needs the faithful to congregate in church under the guidance of a preacher. Almost any professor of the faith will openly admit that all the benefits of Liberalism are only possible if everyone accepts its rules.
The trouble is those rules are riddled with bigotry and entrenched privilege evidenced by the fact the majority of tenured faculty are white men who grew up in suburbs. There are few mechanisms to ensure that bigots, liars, and abusers don’t use their social connections to evade justice.
There are also few jobs a person can get where, provided you do what is expected of you by your superiors for long enough, you get a lifetime guarantee of employment. Academic freedom can be invoked to defend whatever you choose to do with that guarantee.
Few professors or scientists are actually bad people or do bad science, but all who work at universities are embedded in a perverse system of exploitation, a unique variety of rentier economy insulated from accountability yet fundamental to modern life.
To get a good job, you generally have to earn a degree. This means four years at an institution where the courses you take are a function of decades of constant infighting over what boils down to each department’s revenue stream. Not only are faculty tenured but they usually have a union too — most instructors don’t and graduate student unions are about as effective as student government so whenever there is a revenue issue the faculty fight to avoid suffering the pain.
Whenever you read one of those high-minded articles about the value of a liberal education or the importance of the humanities or decrying the loss of funding for the arts and literature, what you are actually seeing is an ancient form of propaganda. Because these departments and their affiliated disciplines remain rather traditionalist in their concerns and teaching methods, students prefer other courses.
They need readers and writers to identify with their fears of extinction, and because many readers and writers took and actually liked traditional courses or at least think they did as part of their mis-memory of how much they enjoyed college classes, there is outcry whenever anyone questions if students really need to read Plato or Shakespeare to be considered educated.
But when you get right down to it, what is an education anyway?
If it is a narrow, bounded thing, then why does every university require different courses? Why is there not a standard course for every topic?
For that matter, why are students expected to go to a university classroom to earn a degree at all? If knowledge is a canon to be learned, why not offer a simple test-out option for self-taught types?
Because, of course, the university is as much about money as the importance of learning. Like Liberalism, of which capitalism is simply a truncated form, the entire paradigm is part of a process as old as the Roman conquest of Britain: erase any alternatives to the status quo (why else are Latin phrases still used, you think?) which places certain people and groups above all others.
Your high-minded professors who championed Liberalism and call it the found of democracy and markets and freedom needed you to believe that so that they can keep drawing a salary. Deep down, they know their privilege is under threat.
Because what is an education?
Legions of professors shudder at the term, but the truth is that all education is simply skills training.
Critical thinking is a cognitive skill. Mathematical reasoning is too, requiring a student to learn its particular language and rules. Engineering is an application of critical thinking in the real world.
No one department or discipline has a lock on any core skill — they are nothing more than content domains. Each and all its associated workshops and think tanks and textbook categories are just framing devices that help non-specialists understand one part of the much larger puzzle of life.
Classrooms and professors are increasingly obsolete — most of the training they produce is of little value to anyone but academic specialists, while most of the learning students do is done in groups or independently separately from any lecture. An irony of the pandemic and the sudden shift to online learning has been that all of a sudden millions of students and their families got to see just how thin so much of what we call education really is.
And what valuable direct teaching and tutoring is done these days — particularly the truly innovative and impactful stuff — is handled by instructors and graduate students. The former, the most downtrodden and abused people in the whole university machine, do worthy work.
The latter… let’s just say your mileage vary. Where I went to grad school precisely zero training in teaching was required of graduate students. Most work very hard, but recitation and discussion sections are mostly a waste of time for the majority of students because grad students rarely have any long-term stake in the material or student outcomes or knowledge of teaching practices.
Nobody much cares because the purpose of the giant courses taught by instructors and grad students is simply to bring in revenue. It costs maybe $10,000 in salary and benefits for an instructor and three grad students over 3–4 months to cover a 300 student 4-credit course that costs students at least $500 per credit hour.
That comes to $600,000 in gross tuition revenues against maybe $20,000 in direct expenses. Not bad, huh?
Obviously a big chunk of that has to flow back to the university to cover the space, maintenance, administration, and the staff and benefits of employees on that side. But let me tell you — if there were only instructors, teaching assistants, and university administration in the equation, costs would be much, much lower to students.
So what are students really paying for?
Some of it goes to sports teams and administrators with ridiculous titles, sure. There’s a little waste everywhere? But is this the source of the financial squeeze hitting smaller universities right now?
Nope. The main costs are salary and benefits for tenured faculty who are almost impossible to fire and can generally work into their twilight years if they choose. Mostly, people the students only see if they take other courses from the department — the big gen-ed intro courses serve as feeders for all the others.
Many departments — usually the Humanities — will only have a few dozen students in the major yet employ three or four tenured faculty who don’t teach the bulk of the courses that bring in revenue. Some obtain research grants, but rarely are those enough to pay their salary every year.
Tenured faculty love to complain about the wasteful practices of many university administrations, but the single biggest expense at a university is tenured faculty salary and benefits. When a university has to lay off people, faculty are the very last to go — it’s administrative staff, usually at the lower income scale, who get chopped first.
Which is incredibly hypocritical, given that many of these champions of greater equality are happy to turn their back on anyone of a lesser category within the Ivory Tower. And should serve as an indictment of academia as it presently operates.
Millions of Americans are on the hook for hundreds of billions of dollars in student loans that mostly went to pay for tenured faculty who spend a huge amount of their time building their personal brands. Many will abandon the courses they do teach (my assigned adviser was one) to graduate students who are instructed to show videos to the undergrads, making them fill out worksheets to show they were in class.
The Ivory Tower is a pyramid scheme, plain and simple, sustained by taxpayers and students who are bamboozled into a predatory system by scions of Liberalism who fight to make us all believe their self-serving product is the only kind of education that matters. The worst offenders? Humanities, social sciences — any place where the quality of the research output is difficult to verify or replicate.
These also happen to be the areas where most of the output is written argument, so faculty create large volumes of complaint material whenever they feel threatened. Yet only rarely are they this agitated when instructors ask for better pay or a little more job security — while supportive in public, in private, where most things of importance happen in universities, they rarely push the administration too hard for concessions or bring instructors into the faculty union.
This is for two reasons: one, the simple crude monetary concerns that underpin the degree-granting process in the United States; two, faculty know their positions would be threatened if instructors were equals.
That’s a big part of why most are discouraged from doing research or submitting grant proposals. Modern academia functions as a cartel — most of the people who award grants are academics who themselves submit proposals on a regular basis.
Academia is ruthlessly competitive — which is of course why all the talk of academic freedom is trite nonsense covering for the brutal truth: that academics are in a market, and in it they function as rank and ruthless capitalists.
So they seek out undergrads to fill seats in courses to secure revenues — and crop of potential trainees. Upper division courses are losing propositions revenue-wise for the university but give faculty a vital pipeline of recruits to graduate school and at the more elite schools future upper-tier members of government. Which is why instructors, who are usually the better teachers, are rarely allowed to teach these courses or advise graduate students.
Graduate students are cultivated primarily from the upper division undergrads who embrace the material — this is why letters of reference are the most vital part of any application. From the most loyal of these are promoted the future tenure-track professors, though fewer than half will reach that goal, requiring up to seven years of perpetual work for someone more senior.
The ones good at teaching are usually pushed onto the instructor track or go to community colleges — sometimes, if they’re lucky, small four year colleges and universities. Which are now the only places where the price for education is anything like it ought to be.
To top off the madness of the perverse system is the fact that no one who is successful in it has any incentive to tear it down. No one wants to think their college degree is trash or that they were exploited.
Unless, of course, they’re a vengeance-minded anarchist pagan barbarian like myself who can perceive the barriers that simply must be removed to avoid a horrible future. My ancestors saw exploitation as something to be avenged, and I think it is high time someone burned the Ivory Tower to the ground, revealing the pillar of skulls it is founded upon.
I see a college education in vastly different terms than the prophets of Liberalism who taught me their secular faith. Like all education, it is about acquiring and honing skills that enable a person to take the actions they feel appropriate in the world.
That doesn’t always have to be done in a classroom, nor is a degree in and of itself an indication that one possesses any skills — only that they might.
I’d go so far as to consider banning employers from requiring a degree at all, replacing degrees with professional certifications. In most jobs those matter more than what college someone attended.
But really, the better option is the elimination of tenure. That will remove the primary perverse incentive enabling the moral hazard that clogs academia with predatory, abusive personalities who drain badly-needed resources and drive away students yet can’t be gotten rid of.
Academic freedom is not protected by tenure and never was. Tenure simply cartelizes academic freedom, binding knowledge ever tighter to the tenured priestly caste.
Meanwhile market pressures determine what knowledge is valuable, and so a lucky few find themselves enriched when their scholarly theories coincide with the profit interest of a billionaire. Disciplines that do not produce marketable results are reduced to begging for charity in the form of donations and required general education courses.
If you want a better academia, a better university system, tenure has got to go or at the very least be limited by a hard retirement age. That is the only reason the European system still works — your time as a professor is limited, which creates an incentive to continuously work.
It is also indicative of the superiority of the European way that the basic requirement for earning a Ph.D. is by publishing scholarly work. Realizing this was a large part of why I abandoned doctoral studies, aside from witnessing constants acts of bigotry and experiencing retaliation when I spoke out.
American professors don’t actually have to know that much about science at all to earn a doctorate. My own advisor was personally offended by a colleague arguing that all graduate students should be able to do math— something many high school students learn through calculus.
Every discipline has its own particular canon and every department is staffed by professors who emphasize a subset of it. Grad students are required to take graduate seminars that are often little more than book clubs and attend methods classes with undergrads. Convincing four faculty members to serve as your committee, passing a set of exams they write however they like, and defending a doctoral dissertation is the typical path — but there is no standardization.
If you don’t see the implicit moral hazard here, I encourage you to read a little bit about the concept. More or less, the modern academic promotion system creates a natural pathway for corruption, an incitement for patronage — and the close relationships between many graduate students and their advisors is a sign there is something dangerously wrong with the way scientists are trained in America.
Fortunately science is done all around the world and American scholars, while typically lagging Europe and Asia by a decade, are forced to follow some standards — at least in hard sciences. An American-designed vaccine against Covid-19? I’m all in — there are enough international competitors to keep our scientists and companies honest on this one.
Devising a sound economic policy or foreign relations? NOT a job for American scholars. The incestuous nature of the relationships in that wing of academia and the close bond with the American government renders most of their works deeply suspect.
Advocates for Liberalism often insist we defer to scientists — trouble is, not all science is created equal. A truth that, if voiced on many university campuses, will instantly cause a ruckus.
One of the reasons I like to express it so often.
There are some people in this world whose negligence does such harm that their cage ought to be rattled now and again.
In times like these, it should happen more often.
The time has come to burn down the Ivory Tower. The best way to start?