Top positive review
130 people found this helpful
Lively and Interesting, But Far too Brief
on July 29, 2012
This is an interesting book that is easily praised and easily damned. It is not served well by the flammable title, subtitle and jacket design, which make the book appear to be a screed by a conservative journalist or pundit. There are also issues concerning what I would call `nonfiction genre'. The book sketches a historical argument but ends with a peroration that is a call to arms. The author is very serious about both, but the two jostle here. We need the historical argument; we also need a call to arms, but we don't usually expect both between the covers of the same book.
The argument goes something like this: American society in general and America's universities in particular were led before the war by WASPs. Their orientation was more social than intellectual. They celebrated patriotism and duty. Their training grounds--the universities--prepared people for leadership that included, e.g., significant participation in the OSS and, later, the CIA. Ivy league men were routinely members of the officer class in the military, fighting side by side with blue-collar enlisted men. One way of thinking of this (not the author's words) is that the nation was more English, with firmer class lines, a greater sense of noblesse oblige, a higher regard for tradition and a culture that, to put it plainly, was far less crude than today's. That does not mean that it was perfect. Far from it, but it enjoyed certain advantages that are now largely lost.
Then, a change occurred and the change was in the colleges and universities. They became more intellectual and less social. They became more left-leaning than right-leaning. They spawned a society of post-religious, global intellectuals, one driven by left/liberal ideology. Interestingly, the author argues that this was not the `60's' phenomenon that it is often seen to be. The changes came earlier, just after the war, and were then given further impetus and energy by the civil rights movement, the anti-war protests of the Vietnam era and the women's movement. He notes that the university vanguard was often Jewish (so was the anti-war movement, as Todd Gitlin and Diane Ravitch, e.g., have reminded us).
The underlying ideology of the PORGIs, as he terms them, has led to the depreciation of literary, religious and especially historical study in today's universities. In turn, that has led to the creation of several generations of ephebes who are, essentially, airheads, parroting the theories of those who have indoctrinated them. The `theory' element is crucial; he argues that the humanists and social scientists who now dominate the universities are largely theoretical in their thinking. If inconvenient facts get in the way, they are simply dismissed. The theory is everything, whether true or not, whether successful or not when put into practice. Hence, the imperial academics pay no attention to their failures (in education theory, e.g. or in social engineering) and simply proceed as if nothing happened.
The antidote to all of this is the use of the internet, where the playing field is level and where the older, more traditionally-educated might strike an alliance with the young, who are chronically anti-authoritarian. In some ways this reprises the argument that cable news and the blogosphere have freed us from the ideological shackles of the mainstream media; we might be able to achieve such a success again, with education at all levels. (It is interesting that he includes K-12 as well.) It is also interesting that he believes that this battle is actually winnable. We've done this sort of thing before, he says (at the battle of Midway, against terrible odds, e.g.).
The book will be both refreshing to some and infuriating to others because the author pulls no punches. Believing that most of his points are commonsensical he simply tells it as he sees it, without delicacy or circumlocution. One of his key examples of airheadedness, e.g., is our current president. The tone of the book is relatively unique for a Yale professor. It is written without any academic superego. It is like (to give a mundane example) listening to Howard Stern; you can't wait to hear what he'll say next (or as a Yale professor might say, what shibboleth he will assail next).
The overarching problem--given the stakes and the complexity of the subject--is that we need another 200 pages of text, argument and examples. That, however, would radically restrict his audience and reduce the book's urgency. One simple question that might be asked, e.g.: how is it that the education revolution which was, in some ways, rigorously meritocratic (bringing the Jews into the academic mainstream and leadership when they had been systematically discriminated against in the past) could participate in such corporatist activities as encouraging student evaluation of instruction and such `democratic' but anti-meritocratic activities, as grade inflation, the reduction of requirements, the recentering of the SAT's and the dismantling of core curricula? Another question: what role did the theories of the French Nietzcheans play in this process and is their current eclipse a hopeful sign? And another: how could putative globalists (and Europeanists) throw out foreign language requirements?
Bottom line: a very lively read which needed to be longer. Those in agreement with its central argument would relish the additional material and those in disagreement would have more substantial ideas with which to engage.