Another Canary In Another Educational Coal Mine?

The crest of Duke University, one of the more prestigious universities in the United States, says, “eruditio et religio” (learning and piety). The crest signifies the school’s roots in the early and mid-19th century first as a joint Quaker/Methodist project and later as a Methodist Episcopal school. It began as a sort of teacher’s college and then became what we today would call a Methodist seminary. It became Duke University when endowed with considerable amounts of Methodist and tobacco money. Today, it has a reputation for being a serious university with strong athletic programs.

Like most major universities it faces the pressure of political correctness and the challenge of negotiating the educational process in a time of internet-fueled, hyper-democratic, hyper-sensitivity. Over the last 30 or 40 years Americans have been convinced that a college education is the only path to success for their children. That conviction, which is dubious, changed the educational marketplace artificially. enrollment increased just as the baby-boom was declining. Abortion on demand became a demographic fact of life in 1973 and since that time Americans have aborted more than 50 million potential college students. By rights, in an era when we are missing millions of people, when boomers, then Xers, and now millennials delayed having children or did not have them at all, the last three decades should have been an era of contraction. It was not. Easy, federally-subsidized loans combined with fear of missing out (FOMO) drove young people into college and colleges responded with a building boom.

My own alma mater is a case in point. When I was at the University of Nebraska, accommodations, classrooms, and much of Love Library was, shall we say, Spartan. The Student Union was dingy and threadbare. The food service was mediocre. Today, the Union sparkles and offers an array of attractive options. The old dorms are being replaced with swanky new living accommodations. The University has swallowed land to the north of the main campus for a “Tech Campus,” and to the East so that its holdings seem to be considerably more than when I graduated in 1984. Again, all this happened during what should have been an unlikely period for such growth. The baby boom ended in 1964. The last boomers entered university in 1982 but the great expansion happened after that. That is the definition of a bubble.

One of the biggest changes in the educational landscape has been the corresponding growth in the administration. Take a look and I think that one will find that the space occupied by administrators on campus is rather more today than it was in 1984. The accreditation regime has grown. The involvement of the federal government has increased. The new educational order, however, depends upon happy clients (students). The turn from a traditional educational model to a service agency-client model has occurred at the same time as these other shifts. Colleges need students today like never before.

As these shifts have occurred there has been another great democratizing move in American culture post-1968. The Boomers took over the institutions and brought with them their anti-authority bias. The people whose careers in the classroom and in the administration are now coming to an end are they who were marching in the streets demanding an end the Vietnam War, burning bras, and advocating “free love.” Boomer and Xer parents have given us a generation of students who students who assume that the schools exist to facilitate their happiness, who assume that they are the programmers of their education. College students have grown up with the internet, where what they see and hear is completely under their control. The 200 cable channels of the Boomers and Xers has given way to the boundless number of options provided by the internet and social media. That experience has shaped their perception of education. If one does not like a Twitter feed, block it. Poof. It is gone.

It is a short journey, then, to blocking professors and that is what seems to have happened recently at Duke. Peter Berkowitz has a story this week in Politico about Duke’s decision not to renew the contract of a professor in their Sanford School of Public Policy. It is a personnel matter so the University is not saying much but Berkowitz, a former student and colleague of this professor, pieces together a narrative. He surmises that the professor, Evan Charney, is the victim of “faculty and administration acquiescence to the swelling forces of campus intolerance and anti-intellectualism.” Why? 101 of his former students published a letter in which they praised Charney’s teaching style as “wonderfully thought-provoking and challenging.” The students say in Charney’s classes, “ideas are vetted and sharpened through rigorous debate and discussion on issues ranging from physician assisted suicide to the legalization of sex work.” In his courses, “No thought goes unexamined; no assertion goes unchecked.”

Berkowitz concludes that Charney was the victim of the new educational status quo. When students are tuition-paying clients, for whom schools must increasingly compete, even a small number of dissatisfied students have disproportionate influence. Behind the scenes too is pressure from the Department of Education to quantify educational “outcomes” so that administrators can evaluate them. Student evaluations are quantifiable. When emoting substitutes for thinking, when being made to think critically is offensive, one’s student evaluations are going to suffer. For students accustomed to being able to “block” anything input they dislike, being made to think through different points of view, being made to form rational arguments grounded in thoughtful research, can be almost overwhelming. We all remember (or should remember) the remarkable sight of privileged Yale undergrads railing at Nicholas Christakis. It was hardly the stuff of Oxford Union debates. It was mass hysteria. The students clicked the mouse but they were not able to change “reality” instantly and they became enraged. How dare someone challenge them? They felt and their feelings are ultimate.

The Yale mob was one canary and this may be another. Religio died in the universities long ago. Erudition, however, held on. When assumptions, logic, and conclusions may not be challenged, however, erudition is in grave jeopardy and logic is in trouble. In 1996 I taught a course in theological anthropology (the doctrine of humanity) for an elite Christian college. The students were taking their professional doctorate in psychology (PsyD). During one question and answer session one of the students complained that I was trapped by “Western linear logic.” The assumption behind the objection is that there are multiple competitors to “Western linear logic” and that I was a neo-colonialist for seeking to impose such logic on them. What I had done was to state a major premise, a minor premise, and draw and conclusion. I learned that process from Aristotle. Instead of debating the premises or the conclusion the student tried to sweep away the entire process via social justice. I did not say anything just then. The next class period, however, I offered an inadequate defense: The Popeye Defense. “I am what I am” I pleaded.

I was wrong. That was a small, canary moment too. The student was talking nonsense and I let her get by with it. I should have given a more substantive response. I suspect that I was not alone. The student’s complaint was a canary moment and I missed it. Something was bubbling up and it was not taken seriously and now look where we are: students screaming at Christakis in 2015 and Duke is uncomfortable with Evan Charney in 2018. The incentive structure for college professors is clear. Keep the clients happy. Tell them what they want to hear, that they are the best and brightest and that they are getting the best education ever. Just do not rock the boat or you too may end up like Charney.