Public criticism of higher education continues to gather momentum; the primary issues are cost, quality and political bias. The objective evidence regarding high and rising cost is compelling and the body of evidence suggesting a secular decline in quality is also growing.
The political bias issue is more controversial, although it is nonetheless important. Bias is an existential threat to higher education’s central mission (scholarship and instruction). If society cannot trust the academy to produce nonpartisan scholarship and instruction, why should it support higher education? Financial support is always dependent on the public's perception with respect to our value added. There is no escaping that rude fact. In an era of compromised economic prospects and rising global competition, these are not issues that can be ignored without consequence.
In our contacts with students, we learn to read their responses to questions about performance; you either learn this or you will be manipulated by students. When I ask students about their performance, there are some responses that always make me suspicious; an aggressively defensive or indignant response, for example, suggests the student is in denial or is hiding something. If the student admits deficiencies, recognizes an absence of effort or a problem comprehending, this is a good indicator of sincerity. If the student follows through with remedial action, the results generally improve.
Is the academy’s collective response to questions about cost, quality, and bias constructive? Do we appear willing to objectively consider the issues and to reform where necessary?
Based on our actual record, one could reasonably conclude that the academy is not “cursed with self-awareness.” We are uncomfortable with introspection and actively discourage inconvenient questions. When teaching loads or class sizes are discussed, faculty members studiously avoid the cost question, preferring to focus on how reduced loads and smaller classes will improve quality. No attempt is made to balance the very real higher costs with the intangible improvements in quality. Worse still, we make no effort to study the outcome after teaching loads or class sizes are reduced; did we really improve quality? It is hard to escape the conclusion that we really do not want to know the answer to that question.
There is cause for hope, however; some insiders are asking the right questions. Unfortunately, these brave souls are at risk of being shouted down by those who believe all the issues are either bogus or a political agenda. For example, a prominent University of Virginia social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, is asking very important questions about his discipline. He documents the absence of conservatives in his profession and explores what that absence means for the quality of research and the professions’ credibility with the general public, where conservatives out number liberals two to one. In the end, he calls for a “post-partisan social psychology” and affirmative action for conservatives in social psychology.
By making this stand, Haidt is taking a professional risk for the sake of improving both research and teaching. Since he is a committed liberal and is going outside his own comfort zone to take on this politically incorrect topic, he is to be respected.
According to Haidt, the damage done to the social psychology profession is through the creation of a “tribal moral community” that leads its members to be “blind to any ideas or findings that threaten our sacred values.” He also notes that tribal moral communities create inhospitable environments for those who do not share the tribe’s sacred values. It is worth pausing for a moment to consider how at odds that is with the values expressed by scholars and diversity advocates alike. It also explains why campus diversity programs rarely concern themselves with intellectual diversity; the people who control those programs are committed members of the tribal moral community who believe alternative intellectual perspectives have little diversity value.
In order to illustrate why tribal moral communities obstruct research, Haidt revisits the firing of Larry Summers as Harvard’s president. During an academic conference on the chronic problem of female underrepresentation among math and science faculty at the elite research universities, Larry Summers suggested the disparity might be explained by the greater variance in male IQ scores than in female IQ scores. Summers’ point is that the higher variance means there are more men in the upper tail of the distribution than there are women (it also means there are more men in the lower tail of the distribution). Despite the fact that this hypothesis needs to be tested, the event launched the movement that led to his firing. Haidt says social psychologists should be most “outraged by the outrage” over Summers’ comment and very supportive of testing the hypothesis.
Haidt’s work has significant implications for academic culture and is a defining moment for all of higher education. It comes from a scholar in the right discipline to explore the inherent conflict between tribal moral communities and higher education’s mission: scholarship, and teaching. Tribal moral communities obstruct research and they easily turn education into indoctrination. Furthermore, they explain why higher education stubbornly refuses to reform.
The well-established tribal moral communities on campus create very high costs, both in the literal and figurative sense. We spend insufficient time and effort asking difficult questions about cost, quality and bias. When these questions are raised, some people become very angry and indignant, even enraged that a member of the campus community could suggest there might be a problem. Anger and indignation are aggressive defenses; they suggest the angry person cannot support his or her position with evidence or carefully reasoned argument; it is an unambiguous red flag. Anger, indignation and character attacks are used to enforce adherence to “sacred values” and for that reason they have no place in a community of scholars.
We are very gifted in the art of analyzing the behavior and motivations of other groups and institutions. Furthermore, we are intensely trained in the tools used to conduct complex inquiry; yet, we rarely bring those tools to bear on our own activities. As a consequence, our costs grow out of control, quality declines, and we become progressively more defensive. These are not behavioral modes with survival value in a technocratic society.
An important part of the academy’s “sacred value” set is the conviction that academy members are not subject to the same failings that plague the rest of humanity. It is a belief in “academic exceptionalism,” if you will. Members of the academy who served elsewhere in society, such as the military, government, and/or corporations, know this is simply not true; people are basically the same wherever they serve. The academic exceptionalism assumption leads to insufficient protection against the pursuit of self-interest, which causes the pervasive principal/agent problem.
The principal/agent problem always means that costs are higher than necessary. It also means some people do not carry their share of the load. Ironically, the worst example of economic exploitation in our capitalist economy occurs in higher education (a decidedly non-capitalist institution), where adjunct faculty members are employed at will, carry a disproportionate teaching load, are paid very little, and have few benefits; they are truly the modern “reserve army of the underemployed.” This is why “accountability” is a legitimate public concern.
Someone totally unfamiliar with our academic culture would assume that a “community of scholars” pays close attention to the quality of its intellectual climate. They would be surprised to learn that that subject is taboo. Try raising this issue on your campus. Make a careful intellectual argument for a post-partisan university. Explain how an ideology free zone is most conducive to controlling bias in research and teaching, or how it teaches true critical thinking skills, rather than the sophomoric notion that “critical thinking” means saying harsh things about other people’s character and motivation.
Fearless and totally honest introspection leads to self-improvement and, after all, self-improvement is why we committed ourselves to a lifetime of study. Imagine what kind of working environment you would find in a post-partisan university.
Robert Martin is emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College and author of The College Cost Disease: Higher Cost and Lower Quality (Edward Elgar, Ltd, 2011).
The assault on higher education in Texas has been painful in recent months. Mysterious organizations with deep pockets have been pushing "breakthrough solutions" with little sense of the realities of higher education. Why do these people want to mess with Texas’s best universities? What kind of political game are they playing?
I look at my colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin and see hard-working, student-centered, idealistic people who are contributing to the quality of life in Texas. No different than faculty at Texas A&M or other state universities, we are proud of what we do.
Yet we’re under fire, forced to justify our existence to a grim assortment of the dim, the lost, and the self-interested. Yes, we realize that the attack is coming from a toxic blend of ignorance and ideology. It's often coming from narrow-minded people who don't know the difference between a teaching assistant and an assistant professor, who don't understand how research and teaching are interdependent, and who cynically want to make room for their own for-profit colleges and online schemes. To many of our critics, an education is a fungible asset that boils down to dollars and cents and nothing else.
It’s an absurd position -- but that doesn't mean we're immune to their criticism. The sad truth is that it's undermining our morale as well as the public perception of what we do. Let me give some examples of the claims that have been made about institutions like UT, each one tearing down our mission and our morale with falsehoods and distortions.
Not invested in our students? Apparently, the attack dogs have never spent much time with faculty members. If they did, they would see a high level of student interaction among tenured, tenure-track, and adjunct faculty alike. They claim our commitment to students is measured only by hours in formal class time. While our detractors imagine us frittering our days away with tea and crumpets, they fail to appreciate how our lives are freighted with hundreds of hours of invisible labor each semester: the long hours on scholarship committees; the late night e-mails from students needing an immediate response; the endless stacks of papers to grade; the extra meetings with students that spill out of office hours. Day after day, we are doing the little things that allow undergraduates to flourish in the world after UT. Our task is daunting but meaningful: we are teaching young people how to research, analyze, write, present, and innovate in ways that enrich individual lives as well as communities.
Faculty not working hard enough? We cringe when we hear that our productivity should be measured with a simplistic formula, one that would never be applied to lawyers, doctors, or legislators. We listen to claims that we’re neglecting our students because we’re too focused on research --- or, paradoxically, that we’re not doing enough research. Somehow our critics think we’re only working when we’re physically in the classroom, which is akin to saying lawyers only work when they're in the courtroom. All I can say is this: Being a professor is a great but exhausting job in 2011. The combination of student demands, research pressure, and service expectations creates a hectic workday that is never really over, not even late at night or on the weekend. In other words, it’s like most jobs in the frantic post-industrial economy.
Putting research over teaching? Sorry, wrong again. One of the key figures in the attack on UT is oil-executive Jeff Sandefer, who claims that UT hires top researchers without regard for classroom effectiveness. “They’re willing to trade off quite a bit in teaching quality for that research,” he was quoted as saying in The Texas Tribune. “Whether the new people are good or not is beside the point.” The reality is that good teaching is almost never “beside the point,” not even in the “publish or perish” culture of a research university. Professors who are not naturals at the podium are pushed into remediation -- if they do not arrive as strong teachers, they receive assigned mentors, special training, and peer pressure from faculty who expect excellence in research and teaching alike.
The need for greater transparency. If you want to feel naked to the world, try teaching at a public university --- not much is kept under wraps. Your salary, your syllabi, your publications, even whether you are “hot or not” is posted on the Web (the last on sites like RateMyProfessor.com). If you want to feel secure behind a wall of lawyers and feudal privilege, try working at a corporation or perhaps in the governor’s mansion. (Or check out the website of the group behind much of the criticism – the Texas Public Policy Foundation -- and try to figure out who is really funding their campaign against Texas’s universities).
A greater reliance on student evaluations will result in a better education. Unfortunately, turning education into a popularity contest is not the answer. For years universities have expanded their assessment programs to fit a more corporate model. What have we learned from this vision of students as “consumers”? That they don’t like it when historians "talk about lynching." That they favor female professors who "look sexy" in particular outfits. That they don’t like "reading books that are hard." (All actual comments that my peers have received). Of course, student evaluations can sometimes be useful --- but only to a point, one that gets overlooked in the mania for "market based solutions." Sadly, our market-minded critics won’t be satisfied until we put instant polling in the classroom, so we can see what ideas are "selling" without waiting for end-of-semester evaluations. Driven by market imperatives, commercial radio has moved in this direction --- why not let "edu-consumers" shape the curriculum with instant feedback?
Because it doesn’t work. We know that evaluations soar when students are presented with information that confirms what they already know --- just as evaluations go down when students are challenged to confront new ideas. In other words, in a "market driven" classroom, critical thinking and real innovation wouldn’t "sell," while comforting mythologies would be rewarded with high evaluations linked to compensation. Consider Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann's absurd claim that the Founding Fathers eliminated slavery -- many students would be pleased to hear such a comforting vision of our national origins. But wouldn’t you prefer to learn the hard truth? Wouldn’t that result in an informed citizenry able to make wise choices? Academe is one of the few places where we can choose hard knowledge over self-indulgent fantasies without being penalized.
Despite the attacks on our mission, our budgets, and our morale, I still believe that places like UT are extraordinary. In a state that has not always made a strong investment in education, UT has become one of the top public universities in the United States and as well as a powerful cultural resource. Speaking only for myself as a faculty member and an alumnus, I would offer a simple message to the attack dogs: don’t mess with Texas higher education. If you have a useful solution to a real problem, then let’s talk. We are an idealistic bunch eager to find a better way forward. There is always room for improvement. But don’t come at us half-cocked, distorting who we are and what we do. The people of Texas deserve better.
Randolph Lewis is associate professor of American studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
Like everyone in higher education, where the politics are bloodier because the stakes are so much smaller (variously attributed to Woodrow Wilson and Henry Kissinger), I've found myself working in colleges and departments alongside devout obstructionists, academic colleagues deeply resistant to change (any change), who stifle leaders, douse optimism, and undermine progress.
Generally, they're senior colleagues who have either chosen to resist or learned not to trust new colleagues who enter the scene with ambitions for change. To begin with, their obstructionism is almost always more effective than their ambitious colleagues' proaction because they are better organized: we don’t need to study community organizing to know that it's easier to organize against something than it is to organize for something!
Their tactics include:
"it can't be done": stopping meetings with arcane rules they can't produce, that predate the memories of everyone present, and that no one dares challenge for fear of looking uninformed;
the loud and persistent "no": scaring untenured faculty by the adamance of their negativity and challenging the confidence of their chronological peers to take them on once they've staked out their positions;
and storytelling aimed at portraying the advocates for change as turncoats who don't respect the good work of the faculty.
Fundamentally, their strategy is to churn up a climate of disaffection and anxiety aimed at establishing themselves as the sympathetic figures protecting faculty and the status quo.
And I'm a perpetrator because -- like so many of us who gather to chat at the coffee shop, the bar or the grocery store -- I churn the climate with delicious my-god-did-you-hear-abouts in which I recount the bad behaviors, give incidents of obstruction more and longer life, encourage colleagues who didn't know (and who, therefore, didn't feel bad) to now know and feel bad about what was said or done, and hope-upon-hope that I can invoke a bit of sympathy to make me feel a bit better about the blow I suffered in my support for good change and stronger as I gird for the next blow. I'm a perpetrator because, when I do this, I spread the odious climate of the resisters and become an unwitting accomplice of their bullying style.
Stay with me as I change the metaphor to one that every classroom teacher will recognize. Every one of us who has taught has walked into a new classroom, looked out over the sea of new students, found most looking eager and ready to learn, anxious to connect; and found one, two or three students propped in the corners or in the very back row, jeering, sleeping, distracted or even obnoxiously taunting us and their peers to stop doing what we're doing and pay attention to them.
Inexperienced teachers will become consumed by the distracters and all but ignore the large plurality of eager students (perhaps trying to prove to themselves that they can conquer the confrontational challenge). The price of this inexperience is the loss of precious instructional opportunities with the 29, 28 or 27 students who are eager to move to the next level ... and, if protracted, the loss of those learners in that class.
(This metaphor brings to light an added complexity: arguably, these distracters deserve our sympathy and attention as well. A complexity of conditions may bring them to these behaviors. But, while we may not like the behaviors -- we may not even like the people -- they are students [or colleagues] whose positions demand that we find the time and seek the skills to understand and help engage them with their peers.)
How do we stop being unwitting accomplices of obstructive behavior? There are at least four things that concerned colleagues and change agent leaders can consider and do to overcome the obstructive behavior and, perhaps, reduce its effects:
1. Personalities play a big role in the politics of higher education, of course. But let’s never confuse idiosyncratic personalities with obstructionism: gruff pessimism (for example) is not the same as obstructionism. In fact, the informed input of a gruff pessimist may add important contrarian value to the conversation or final decision.
2. We're ethically obliged to authentically try to understand the logic and motives of colleagues who resist before we label them obstructionists. In the same way that sunlight is the best disinfectant, openly and inclusively examining controversial issues and decisions is an opportunity -- and a litmus test -- for airing objective and fact-based differences. If it doesn't -- or won't -- come out in open and inclusive conversations, then it probably isn't objective or fact-based.
3. The logic and economics of both learning and change compel us, first, to invest in securing and optimizing those who come predisposed to participate in it; supporting, encouraging, incentivizing and rewarding those who come ready to explore and to invest energies in learning and change. Progress happens when we move forward; that’s what deserves our attention, more so than simply removing (or complaining about) hurdles. By focusing on those colleagues who are predisposed to moving forward we either ignore and plow past whatever hurdles exist, or build allies whose investment in -- and mounting commitment to -- progress engages them in either marginalizing or removing obstructions.
4. Neither teaching and learning nor change are events; they're processes. Protracted, challenging and expensive processes. When someone chooses to become an obstructionist, usually it's a long-term commitment (perhaps lasting up to and beyond retirement). Concerned colleagues and change agents need to adopt a similarly distant horizon toward which they navigate their collegial efforts. When our frame of reference is small (like this afternoon's meeting, a hallway conversation, or a committee decision), small hurdles, problems and confrontations loom unreasonably large. When our sense of temporal context is longer (as in a two-year program curriculum, a three-year strategic plan, or a five-year promotion and tenure decision), then the same hurdles become manageable, like squalls that buffet us around while we right our ship to navigate towards that point we're aiming to reach on the horizon.
Higher education is under attack from just about every direction. Ironically, that which ought to liberate our creativity, to challenge us to find our better angels, may bring out the very worst in some of our colleagues. So let's be clear: in the long term the worst we can experience is never perpetrated by bad people who do bad things. The worst occurs when good people stand by and do nothing. The times call for each and every concerned colleague, those of us who are ambitious and see changes that need to be made, to step forward, work to understand, lead, persevere, and be strong.
Anonymous has experience as a dean at four universities during a 30-year career and is author of two books and several dozen articles on education and public leadership.
In response to the scandal surrounding the men's lacrosse team, Duke president Richard Brodhead has initiated a "conversation on campus culture." The first installment provided little insight. To Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American Studies, recent events showed that "we need an innovative and brave curriculum that will allow our students to engage one another in a progressive manner." It's worth remembering that only two years ago at Neal's institution, a department chairman jokingly explained the faculty's ideological imbalance by noting, "If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire." It seems rather unlikely that Duke's curriculum lacks a sufficiently "progressive" nature.
Indeed, far from needing a more "progressive" campus culture, the lacrosse scandal suggests that a considerable portion of the Duke faculty and student body need to reread the Constitution and consider the accused -- regardless of their group identity -- innocent until proven guilty. Moreover, if, as Duke officials have claimed, Brodhead seriously desires to use this event as a "learning opportunity," he needs to explore why voices among the faculty urging local authorities to respect the due process rights of Duke's students seemed so overpowered by professors exhibiting a rush to judgment.
In early April, prior to his peculiar commentary on campus culture, Professor Neal joined 87 other Duke professors in signing a public statement about the scandal. Three academic departments and 13 of the university'ss academic programs also endorsed the statement, which was placed as an advertisement in the student newspaper, The Duke Chronicle, and is currently hosted on the Web site of Duke's African and African-American Studies program. That 88 faculty members -- much less entire departments -- would have signed on to such a document suggests that whatever plagues Duke's campus culture goes beyond the lacrosse team's conduct and the administration's insufficient oversight of its athletic department.
Few would deny that several players on Duke's lacrosse team have behaved repulsively. Two team captains hired exotic dancers, supplied alcohol to underage team members, and concluded a public argument with one of the dancers with racial epithets. In response, Brodhead appropriately cancelled the team's season and demanded the coach's resignation. Yet the faculty members' statement ignored Brodhead's actions, and instead contributed to the feeding frenzy in the weeks before the district attorney's decision to indict two players on the team.
The 88 signatories affirmed that they were "listening" to a select group of students troubled by sexism and racism at Duke. Yet 8 of the 11 quotes supplied from students to whom these professors had been talking, 8 contained no attribution -- of any sort, even to the extent of claiming to come from anonymous Duke students. Nonetheless, according to the faculty members, "The disaster didn't begin on March 13th and won't end with what the police say or the court decides." It's hard to imagine that college professors could openly dismiss how the ultimate legal judgment would shape this case's legacy. Such sentiments perhaps explain why no member of the Duke Law School faculty signed the letter.
More disturbingly, the group of 88 committed themselves to "turning up the volume." They told campus protesters, "Thank you for not waiting and for making yourselves heard." These demonstrators needed no encouragement: They were already vocal, and had already judged the lacrosse players were guilty. One student group produced a "wanted" poster containing photographs of 43 of the 46 white lacrosse players. At an event outside a house rented by several lacrosse team members, organized by a visiting instructor in English Department, protesters held signs reading, "It's Sunday morning, time to confess." They demanded that the university force the players to testify or dismiss them from school.
The public silence of most Duke professors allowed the group of 88 to become, in essence, the voice of the faculty. In a local climate that has featured an appointed district attorney whose behavior, at the very least, has been erratic, the Duke faculty might have forcefully advocated respecting the due process rights of all concerned. After all, fair play and procedural integrity are supposed to be cardinal principles of the academy. In no way would such a position have endorsed the players' claim to innocence: Due process exists because the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition has determined it elemental to achieving the truth. But such process-based arguments have remained in short supply from the Duke faculty. Instead, the group of 88 celebrated "turning up the volume" and proclaimed that legal findings would not deter their campaign for justice.
When faced with outside criticism -- about, for example, a professor who has plagiarized or engaged in some other form of professional misconduct, or in recent high-profile controversies like those involving Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado -- academics regularly condemn pressure for quick resolutions and celebrate their respect for addressing matters through time-tested procedures. Such an approach, as we have frequently heard since the 9/11 attacks, is essential to prevent a revival of McCarthyism on college campuses.
Yet for unapologetically urging expulsion on the basis of group membership and unproven allegations, few professors have more clearly demonstrated a McCarthyite spirit better than another signatory to of the faculty statement, Houston Baker, a professor of English and Afro-American Studies. Lamenting the "college and university blind-eying of male athletes, veritably given license to rape, maraud, deploy hate speech, and feel proud of themselves in the bargain," Baker issued a public letter denouncing the "abhorrent sexual assault, verbal racial violence, and drunken white male privilege loosed amongst us." To act against "violent, white, male, athletic privilege," he urged the "immediate dismissals" of "the team itself and its players."
Duke Provost Peter Lange correctly termed Baker's diatribe "a form of prejudice," the "act of prejudgment: to presume that one knows something 'must' have been done by or done to someone because of his or her race, religion or other characteristic." It's hard to escape the conclusion that, for Baker and many others who signed the faculty statement, the race, class, and gender of the men's lacrosse team produced a guilty-until-proven-innocent mentality.
Baker's attacks on athletics added a fourth component to the traditional race/class/gender trinity. It's an open secret that at many academically prestigious schools, some faculty factions desire diminishing or eliminating intercollegiate athletics, usually by claiming that athletes are lazy students, receive special treatment, or drive down the institution's intellectual quality. In fact, with the exception of the two revenue-producing sports (men's basketball and football), the reverse is more often true at colleges like Duke, Vanderbilt, Stanford, or the Ivy League institutions.
I admit to a bias on this score: My sister was a three-year starter at point guard for the Columbia University women's basketball team. Seeing how hard she worked to remain a dean's list student and fulfill her athletic responsibilities gave me a first-hand respect for the challenges facing varsity athletes at academically rigorous institutions. In addition to the responsibilities sustained by most students (challenging course loads, extracurricular activities, often campus jobs), athletes in non-revenue producing sports have physically demanding practice schedules, in-season road trips, and commitments to spend time with alumni or recruits. They play before small crowds, and envision no professional careers. It's distressing to see that many in the academy share Baker's prejudices, and view participation in college athletics as a negative.
With the most vocal elements among Duke's faculty using the lacrosse case to forward preconceived ideological and pedagogical agendas, it has been left to undergraduates to question some of the district attorney's unusual actions -- such as conducting a photo lineup that included only players on the team, sending police to a Duke dormitory in an attempt to interrogate the players outside the presence of their lawyers, and securing indictments before searching the players' dorm rooms, receiving results of a second DNA test, or investigating which players had documented alibis. In the words of a recent Newsweekarticle, the lawyer for one indicted player, Reade Seligmann, produced multiple sources of "evidence that would seem to indicate it was virtually impossible that Seligmann committed the crime." To date, the 88 faculty members who claimed to be "listening" to Duke students have given no indication of listening to those undergraduates concerned about the local authorities' unusual interpretation of the spirit of due process. Nor, apparently, do the faculty signatories seem to hear what The Duke Chronicleeditorial termed the "several thousand others of us" students who disagreed that "Duke breeds cultures of hate, racism, sexism and other forms of backward thinking."
The Raleigh News and Observer recently editorialized, "Duke faculty members, many of them from the '60s and '70s generations that pushed college administrators to ease their controlling ways, now are urging the university to require greater social as well as scholastic discipline from students. Duke professors, in fact, are offering to help draft new behavior codes for the school. With years of experience and academic success to their credit, faculty members ought to be listened to." If the group of 88's statement is any guide, this advice is dubious. Even so, Brodhead has named two signatories of the faculty group to the newly formed "campus culture" committee. Given their own record, it seems unlikely that their committee will explore why Duke's campus culture featured its most outspoken faculty faction rushing to judgment rather than seeking to uphold the due process rights of their own institution's students.
KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center.
The wedding announcements in The New York Times are, as all amateur sociologists know, a valuable source of raw data concerning prestige-display behavior among the American elite. But they do not provide the best index of any individual’s social status. Much more reliable in that respect are the obituaries, which provide an estimate of the deceased party’s total accumulated social capital. They may also venture a guess, between the lines, about posterity’s likely verdict on the person.
In the case of John Kenneth Galbraith, who died last week, the Times obituary could scarcely fail to register the man’s prominence. He was an economist, diplomat, Harvard professor, and advisor to JFK. Royalties on his book The Affluent Society (1958) guaranteed that -- as a joke of the day had it -- he was a full member. But the notice also made a point of emphasizing that his reputation was in decline. Venturing with uncertain steps into a characterization of his economic thought, the obituary treated Galbraith as kind of fossil from some distant era, back when Keynsian liberals still roamed the earth.
He was patrician in manner, but an acid-tongued critic of what he once called "the sophisticated and derivative world of the Eastern seaboard." He was convinced that for a society to be not merely affluent but livable (an important distinction now all but lost) it had to put more political and economic power in the hands of people who exercised very little of it. It was always fascinating to watch him debate William F. Buckley -- encounters too suave to call blood sport, but certainly among the memorable moments on public television during the pre-"Yanni at the Acropolis" era. He called Buckley the ideal debating partner: “pleasant, quick in response, invulnerable to insult, and invariably wrong.”
Galbraith’s influence was once strong enough to inspire Congressional hearings to discuss the implications of his book The New Industrial State (1967). Clearly that stature has waned. But Paul Samuelson was on to something when he wrote, “Ken Galbraith, like Thorstein Veblen, will be remembered and read when most of us Nobel Laureates will be buried in footnotes down in dusty library stacks.”
The reference to the author of The Theory of the Leisure Class is very apropos, for a number of reasons. Veblen’s economic thought left a deep mark on Galbraith. That topic has been explored at length by experts, and I dare not bluff it here. But the affinity between them went deeper than the conceptual. Both men grew up in rural areas among ethnic groups that never felt the slightest inferiority vis-a-vis the local establishment. Veblen was a second-generation Norwegian immigrant in Wisconsin. Galbraith, whose family settled in a small town in Canada, absorbed the Scotch principle that it was misplaced politeness not to let a fool know what you thought of him. “Better that he be aware of his reputation,” as Galbraith later wrote, “for this would encourage reticence, which goes well with stupidity.”
Like Veblen, he had a knack for translating satirical intuitions into social-scientific form. But Galbraith also worked the other way around. He could parody the research done by “the best and the brightest,” writing sardonically about what was really at stake in their work.
I’m thinking, in particular, of The McLandress Dimension (1963), a volume that has not received its due. The Times calls it a novel, which only proves that neither of the two obituary writers had read the book. And it gets just two mentions, in passing, in Richard Parker’s otherwise exhaustive biography John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005).
While by no means a major work, The McLandress Dimension deserves better than that. Besides retrieving the book from obscurity, I’ll take a quick look at a strange episode in its afterlife.
The McLandress Dimension, a short collection of articles attributed to one “Mark Epernay,” was published by Houghton Mifflin during the late fall of 1963. At the time, Galbraith was the U.S. ambassador to India. Portions of the book had already appeared in Esquire and Harper’s. One reviewer, who was clearly in on the joke, introduced Mark Epernay as “a gifted young journalist who has specialized in the popularization -- one might almost say the vulgarization -- of what one has learned to call the behavioral sciences.”
The pen name combined an allusion to Mark Twain with a reference to a town in France that Galbraith had come across in a book about the Franco-Prussian war. (Either that, or on the side of a wine crate; he was not consistent on this point.) “The pseudonym was necessary because I was then an ambassador,” recalled Galbraith in a memoir, “and the State Department required its people to submit their writing for review while forbidding them to take compensation for it.... However, it did not seem that this rule need apply to anything written in true anonymity under a false name. Accordingly, I wrote to the then Attorney General, Mr. Robert Kennedy, proposing that I forego the clearance and asking if I might keep the money. So difficult was the question or so grave the precedent that my letter was never answered.”
But Epernay was just the foil for Galbraith’s real alter ego -- the famous Herschel McLandress, the former professor of psychiatric measurement at the Harvard Medical School and chief consultant to the Noonan Psychiatric Clinic in Boston. The researcher was a frequent recipient of grants from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and sundry other nonprofit geysers of soft money. His ideas were the subject, as Epernay put it, “of some of the most trenchant debates in recent years at the Christmas meetings of the American Association for Psychometrics.” While his name was not yet a household word, McLandress had an impressive (if top-secret) list of clients among prominent Americans.
The work that defined his career was his discovery of “the McLandress Coefficient” – a unit of measurement defined, in laymen’s terms, as “the arithmetic mean or average of intervals of time during which a subject’s thoughts centered on some substantive phenomenon other than his own personality.”
The exact means of calculating the “McL-C,” as it was abbreviated, involved psychometric techniques rather too arcane for a reporter to discuss. But a rough estimate could be made based on how long any given person talked without using the first-person singular pronoun. This could be determined “by means of a recording stopwatch carried unobtrusively in the researcher’s jacket pocket.”
A low coefficient -- anything under, say, one minute -- “implies a close and diligent concern by the individual for matters pertaining to his own personality.” Not surprisingly, people in show business tended to fall into this range.
Writers had a somewhat higher score, though not by a lot. Epernay noted that Gore Vidal had a rating of 12.5 minutes. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Vidal responded, ““I find this ... one finds this odd.”
What drew the most attention were the coefficients for various political figures. Nikita Khrushchev had the same coefficient as Elizabeth Taylor – three minutes. Martin Luther King clocked in at four hours. Charles de Gaulle was found to have the very impressive rating of 7 hours, 30 minutes. (Further studies revealed this figure to be somewhat misleading, because the general did not make any distinction between France and himself.) At the other extreme was Richard Nixon, whose thoughts never directed beyond himself for more than three seconds.
Epernay enjoyed his role as Boswell to the great psychometrician. Later articles discussed the other areas of McLandress’s research. He worked out an exact formula for calculating the Maximum Prestige Horizon of people in different professions. He developed the “third-dimensional departure” for acknowledging the merits of both sides in any controversial topic while carefully avoiding any form of extremism. (This had been mastered, noted Epernay, by “the more scholarly Democrats.”)
And McLandress reduced the size of the State Department by creating a fully automated foreign policy -- using computers to extrapolate the appropriate response to any new situation, based on established precedent. “Few things more clearly mark the amateur in diplomacy,” the reporter explained, “than his inability to see that even the change from the wrong policy to the right policy involves the admission of previous error and hence is damaging to national prestige.”
One piece in the book covered the life and work of someone who has played a considerable role in the development of the modern Republican Party, though neither Galbraith nor Epernay could have known that at the time.
The figure in question was Allston C. Wheat, “one of the best tennis players ever graduated from Cornell” as well as a very successful “wholesaler of ethical drugs, antibiotics, and rubber sundries in Philadelphia.” Upon retirement, Wheat threw himself into he writings of Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, and Barry Goldwater, among others. His studies left Wheat sorely concerned about the menace of creeping socialism in America. As well he might be. Certain developments in the American educational system particularly raised his ire. Wheat raised the alarm against that insidious subversive indoctrination in collectivist ideology known as “team sports.”
“Every healthy able-bodied young American is encouraged to participate in organized athletic events,” Wheat noted in a widely-circulated pamphlet. This was the first step in brainwashing them. For an emphasis on “team spirit” undermines good, old-fashioned, dog-eat-dog American individualism. “The team,” he warned, “is the social group which always comes first.... If you are looking for the real advance guard for modern Communism, you should go to the field-houses and the football stadiums.”
The tendency of the Kennedys to play touch football at family gatherings proved that “they are collectivist to the core.” And then there was the clincher: “Liberals have never liked golf.”
Wheat’s dark suspicions had a solid historical basis. “In 1867,” Epernay pointed out in a footnote, “the first rules for college football were drawn up in Princeton, New Jersey. That was the year of the publication of Das Kapital.... Basketball was invented in 1891 and the Socialist Labor Party ran its first candidate for President in the following year.” Coincidence? Don’t be gullible. As the saying has it, there’s no “I” in “team.”
The goal of Wheat’s movement, the Campaign for Athletic Individualism, was to ensure that young people’s McLandress Coefficients were low enough to keep America free. Today, Wheat has been forgotten. No doubt about it, however: His legacy grows.
In many ways,The McLandress Dimension was in many ways a product of its moment -- that is, Camelot, the early 60s, a time of heavy traffic on the wonky crossroads where social science and public policy meet.
Books like Vance Packard’s The Status Seekers were showing that the American social hierarchy, while in transition, was very much in place. A celebrity culture in the arts, politics, and academe was emerging to rival the one based in Hollywood. The sort of left-liberal who read Galbraith with approval could assume that the McCarthyist worldview belonged in the dustbin of history.
The McLandress Dimension satirized all these things -- but in a genial way. It said, in effect: “Let’s not be too serious about these things. That would be stupid.”
So Galbraith’s timing was good. But it was also, in a way, terrible. Articles about the book started appearing in early December -- meaning they had been written at least a few weeks earlier, before the assassination of the president. There was a lightheartedness that must have been jarring. Most of the reviewers played along with the gag. One magazine sent a telegram to the embassy in India, asking Galbraith, “Are you Mark Epernay?” He cabled back, ”Who’s Mark Epernay?”
But the season for that kind of high spirits was over. If Herschell McLandress was the embodiment of the number-crunching technocratic mentality in 1963, his place in the public eye was soon taken by Robert McNamara. Such “extremists in defense of liberty” as Allston Wheat were trounced during the 1964 presidential campaign -- only to emerge from it stronger and more determined than ever. Galbraith’s serious writings were a major influence on the Great Society programs of the Johnson administration. But that consummation that was also, with hindsight, a swan’s song.
As for The McLandress Dimension itself, the writings of Mark Epernay found a place in the bibliographies of books on Galbraith. But they were ignored even by people writing on the development of his thought. I recently did a search to find out if anyone ever cited the work of Herschel McLandress in a scholarly article, perhaps as an inside joke. Alas, no. All that turns up in JSTOR, for example, is a brief mention Galbraith’s book in an analysis of the humorous literature on Richard Nixon. (There is, incidentally, rather a lot of it.)
And yet the story does not quite end there.
In 1967, the Dial Press issued Report from Iron Mountain: On the Possibility and Desirability of Peace, which the publisher claimed was in fact a secret government document. The topic was the socio-economic implications of global peace. It was prepared, according to the introduction, by a group of prominent but unnamed social scientists. The prose was leaden, full of the jargon and gaseous syntax of think-tank documents.
The challenge facing the Iron Mountain group, it seemed, was to explore any adverse side-effects of dismantling the warfare state. The difficulties were enormous. Military expenditures were basic to the economy, they noted. Threat from an external enemy fostered social cohesion. And the Army was, after all, a good place for potentially violent young men.
It would be necessary to find a way to preserve all the useful aspects of war preparation, and to contain all the problems it helped solve. A considerable amount of social restructuring would be required should the Cold War end. The think tank proposed various options that leaders might want to keep in mind. It could prove necessary to sponsor new forms of extremely violent entertainment, introduce slavery, and concoct a plausible story about the threat of extraterrestrial invasion.
This was, of course, a satire on the “crackpot realism” (as C. Wright Mills once termed it) of the Rand Institute and the like. It was concocted by Leonard Lewin, a humor writer, and Victor Navasky, the editor of The Nation. But the parody was so good as to be almost seamless. It proposed the most extreme ideas in an incredibly plodding fashion. And the scenarios were only marginally more deranged-sounding than anything mooted by Herman Kahn, the strategist of winnable thermonuclear war.
Serious journals devoted articles to debating the authenticity of the document. One prominent sociologist wrote a long article suggesting that it was so close to the real thing that one might as well take it seriously. At one point, people in the White House were reportedly making inquiries to determine whether Report from Iron Mountain might not be the real thing.
In the midst of all this, Herschel McLandress, who had retreated into silence for almost four years, suddenly returned to public life. In an article appearing in The Washington Post, the great psychometrician confirmed that Report from Iron Mountain was exactly what it claimed to be. He had been part of the working group involved in the initial brainstorming. He chided whoever was responsible for leaking the document. By no means were Americans ready to face the horrors of peace. He did not challenge any of the report’s conclusions. “My reservations,” McLandress stated, “relate only to the wisdom of releasing it to an obviously unconditioned public.”
Writing from behind his persona, Galbraith turned in a credible impression of social-science punditry at its most pompous. (You can read the entire review here.) It must have been very funny if you knew what was going on. And presumably some people did remember that McLandress was himself a figment of the imagination.
But not everyone did. Over time, Report from Iron Mountain became required reading for conspiracy theorists -- who, by the 1990s, were quite sure it was a blueprint for the New World Order. After all, hadn’t a reviewer vouched for its authenticity in The Washington Post?
And what did Galbraith think of all this? I have to.... One has to wonder.