Wednesday, May 28, 2003

It's not working, and won't 

Signs of the Times: The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article by Stanley Fish, one of the most significant contemporary figures in literature, who is frequently irritating but always necessary to listen to carefully. Fish says that all the efforts in education to not only teach but to turn students into people with social attitudes we approve of are doomed, and they should be. In pointing out the fundamental flaw of the new Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching statement on Preparing America's Undergraduates for Lives of Moral and Civil Responsibility, Fish says this:

"You can reasonably set out to put your students in possession of a set of materials and equip them with a set of skills (interpretive, computations, laboratory, archival), and even perhaps (although this one is iffy) instill in them the same love of the subject that inspires your pedagogical efforts.....[But] you have no chance at all (short of a discipleship that is itself suspect and dangerous) of determining what their behavior and values will be in those aspects of their lives that are not, in the strict sense of the word, academic....You can't make them into good people, and you shouldn't try." He adds that outside of genuine academic concerns, what we give students is "a mish mash of self-help platitudes, vulgar multiculturalism (is there any other kind?) and a soft-core version of 60s radicalism complete with the injunction (although not the song) to "love one another right now."

From a different direction, one small sign of how badly this mish mash we force on students has failed comes in a Fortune article by Jeff Birnbaum on this morning's CNN homepage He writes on the problems Senator Lieberman faces in getting the Democratic nomination, one of which is that anti-Semitism is actually rising, not falling. A study from the Anti-Defamation League showed that roughly 12% of the population was found to be anti-Semitic in 1998, and that number has risen to 17% now. Worse, the number is 35% among African Americans. After all the multi-culturalism and sensitivity training and the rest, things are significantly worse than they were only four to five years ago.

In the normal world, if you give someone medicine and they get worse, you change the medicine. But political correctness is far from normal. It is a kind of secular religion that works to feed the egos of those who force it on the rest of us. And I'm betting that over the short run the effects of seeing what a failure it is will only force these folks to double their efforts: "The medicine is failing, so use more, much more." And many of the politically-correct have to do this. Their egos and careers are dependant on "finding and eliminating" the evils they aim at. If my university gave up all its social-transformational attempts and just went back to teaching students the content and skills Fish mentions, there are probably 30-50 people on campus who would have to go somewhere else and get an honest job, and at least that many more who would have to rethink their virtue.
Fish ends his article like this: "...while academics are always happy to be warned against the incursions of capitalism, they are unlikely either to welcome or heed a warning against the incursions of virtue." He's right. And the medicine will get worse, until the bulk of the sensible faculty who have been depressingly silent, and in their fears have abdicated their responsibility to actually educate their students, start to see the sense of things as Stanley Fish has, get back up on their back feet, and become professionals again.