Professors as Welfare Queens?

Professors as Welfare Queens?

Long-time Liberals join neocons in attack on professors and colleges: Hacker and Dreifus’ “Higher Education?”.

Fish Stink From the Head

From Obama on down, the political atmosphere is deeply polluted by the use of “centrism” as a self-description of what are essentially retrograde right-wing views. Under Obama, the US wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq continue, as do the lies put out about them. Guantanamo goes on. Obama’s “Deficit Commission” warms us up for cuts in Medicare and Social Security. “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” and, thus, we have health care “reform” by and for the insurers, with higher premiums and profits, and more evasions of coverage by merchants of death like UnitedHealthCare. Evictions continue and are genteelly hidden from view. A heroic life-long struggler for racial equality is fired by Obama on the say so of a reactionary fool. Government reads our emails. Your credit card company finds new ways to fuck you, big time.

From Reagan’s nonexistent “welfare queens” to today’s “unnecessary medical tests” and old people viewed as burdens to be put out on the ice, atypical large expenditures – or rumors of them – are used as justification for enormous cutbacks. We associate these arguments with the right, but more and more they come, as well, from the “liberal” center. Consider Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’ hot new “Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing our Kids – and What We Can Do About It,” (Times Books/Henry Holt, published August 3). Hacker is professor emeritus of political science,at Queens College, City University of New York, and earlier taught at Cornell (a character in Alison Lurie’s “The War Between the Tates” is based on him). He has written about race, class and gender and appears frequently in the pages of The New York Review of Books. He is second-generation in higher education: his father was a dean at Columbia. Dreifus has a long and honorable history in feminism and the left (going back to Students for a Democratic Society). Readers may share my admiration for her interviews with scientists in The New York Times’ Tuesday science section, and, particularly, her attention to women in science. A collection of her “Scientific Conversations” was published in 2001. (In admiration, I befriended her on Facebook, from which some of the following information comes, as well as from the book itself and from the official site.)

Before I read this book, I thought of Hacker and Dreifus as liberals, which remains the case – but helps us to see what liberalism has all too often come to mean, even for some veterans of the left. (But for a strong critique from the left of Hacker’s 1992 “Two Nations,” see Micaela di Leonardo, “Boyz on the Hood,” The Nation, August 17, 1992. Di Leonardo sees Hacker as “a classic bleeding heart,” whose work is marked by “unconscionable carelessness,” “egregious historical errors,” “no evidence whatsoever,” “pure hogwash,” whose “favorite statistical source [is] off the top of his head,” and who fails to understand how governmental policies cause and could reverse residential racial segregation and the impoverishment of blacks. The failure to understand the impact of government policies, for bad and potentially for good, is also a central flaw of “Higher Education?”)

To my dismay, the book turns out to be propaganda for a neoliberal program of cuts in higher education, part of the international retreat from earlier social gains in pensions, vacations, education, health care, and part of the mounting attacks on social services and on public employees. Although I was never an Obama fan, I guess I feel a little like those who were, but who now see their illusions smashed by another blast of right-wing centrism – in Hacker and Dreifus’ case, dressed up as liberalism.

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As I read Hacker and Dreifus’ (HD) book, I found myself at home with their endorsement of unionization of teaching assistants, a cause which I have long supported. (See, for example, this, this and this.) And, of course, I share HD’s disapproval of enormous salaries for college presidents, (page 242) as well as against NYU’s opening of an Abu Dhabi campus. (page 39) And, certainly, I agree with their protests against through-the-roof tuitions (although it never seems to occur to them that government support of the kind we see in Western Europe might do away with exorbitant tuitions.) In “Higher Education?,” these widely available platitudes, easy targets, are used as the vehicles to carry conservative freight. Similarly, Reagan’s 1976 attacks on welfare flowed into the destruction under Clinton’s supposedly more decent auspices of a program, the necessity of which was then clear and has become clearer than ever in the current economic catastrophe. To HD, professors are the new welfare queens.

With the exceptions mentioned above, HD is compatible with current right-wing thought on the frivolity of higher education and the need to cut it back. Any day on Limbaugh, Beck or O’Reilly you can hear attacks on academics for the same reasons as those offered by HD. Indeed, although HD solicited blurbs from liberals, support is beginning to emerge from neocons and will doubtless flower when the book is officially published and public debate begins.

What Is Hacker and Dreifus’ Program?

They deny that their view is political. In addition to the book itself, interviews and abundant favorable pre-publication reviews, I had exchanges (excerpted below) with Dreifus, wall to wall, on Facebook, where it is to her credit that she replied:

Dreifus: “We don’t think issues of university reform run on a left-right axis.”

Lemisch: “‘At a time of world-wide neo-liberal cutbacks …. you had better see the political context in which you propose your wholly compatible cutbacks.”

Dreifus: “Jesse, I’m a journalist, not a politician. I don’t think about ‘political context.””

Lemisch: “Say it ain’t so, Claudia. People who don’t think about the ‘political context’ are well on their way to accepting bad political ideas rather than questioning them …

Your failure to think about political context leaves you ill prepared for praise from right-wingers … the tragedy of this … is that you don’t indeed think that you are advocating a conservative agenda, but with some exceptions, that’s what it is.”

The book most nakedly exposes its politics in a major omission: a positive role for government is off their table. Instead, they recommend more savvy selection of recipients of private donations. When asked whether there should be more federal and state support for higher education, the best that Dreifus can come up with is, “I’m not against that, but this whole sector of the economy has to stop wasting money”

It’s simply amazing that, claiming to be the student’s friend, they protest against student debt while avoiding an obvious solution – government support for students. (This almost precisely duplicates the blind spot that Micaela di Leonardo found in Hacker’s “Two Nations”: silence on the role of government in causing such horrors, and inability to consider what positive government might do to reverse and improve things.) We hear outcries against waste every day, as an evasion of the need for Medicare for all and, indeed, across the spectrum of funding for critical social purposes. This is what neoliberalism is about, all over the world.

Instead of fighting against the crisis in higher education, HD seek quite explicitly to cut back – as mere expensive gewgaws – faculty research, publication and sabbaticals. This can only worsen the crisis. They describe the abolition of tenure as their most important goal: “tenure serves no useful purpose.” (pages 239-240) (“If we could achieve only one reform, that would be it.“) They want to banish medical schools and research centers and institutes from campuses and to send into such exile those who want to engage in research. (page 242) They want to abolish paid sabbaticals: as they see it, summers and three-day weekends are enough, and anyway, “Do we really need that many new books or articles?” (page 240) Apparently having some slight second thoughts, Hacker worries that his position “sounds like book-burning, doesn’t it?“) (My experience is at odds with HD’s rosy picture of wasteful sabbaticals. Like many, I had but two sabbaticals in 39 years of teaching, the last one at 50 percent of salary. In an era of HDian cutbacks, sabbaticals are rarer and rarer.) Depending on which of HD’s promotional materials you read, they will tell you that your daughter’s supervising prof will, when needed, be absent in Tuscany or Bologna. Really? This simulation of a New York Review of Books personals ad has little to do with most academics’ real lives. Tuscany, wow: I hope to live to see it.

Anyway, why should a faculty member go to Tuscany, or is it Bologna? Dreifus says, “If a professor wants to advance her career by writing a book, she should do it on her own time.” They dismiss as a mere “mantra” (page 82) the idea that engagement in research enhances teaching; Hacker singles out some colleges as meeting his standards: “They provide a good education because they don’t expect professors to do research.” HD seem to understand the connection between research and teaching in only the most limited sense – keeping up with the literature – and, in any case, they dismiss the supposed mantra with a quotation from right-wing ideologue William Bennett (page 83), who was, among other things, Reagan’s secretary of education. (HD like what Bennett says so much that they quote it again: page 238). Addressing Dreifus on Facebook, I parodied their views, saying that if they “achieve what you want in this book, I guess the scientists will be even more dependent on corporate funding. Certainly you don’t want these unproductive drones taking up space in expensive buildings for their career-building research, and all the while, not spending enough time teaching undergraduates.”

HD also call in that amazing follower of neocon patron saint Leo Strauss, (and defender of Lawrence Summers at Harvard), Harvey Mansfield, to testify in support of their ridicule of courses on such subjects as gay autobiography and the break-up of Yugoslavia (83-85), while they ridicule the large number of history courses taught at Stanford. It never occurs to them that doing research acquaints the researcher first-hand with the complexities of establishing truth and causality – a notion that should be close to the heart of good teaching. I don’t see how I could teach history, or for that matter, anything else, without engaging in such basic struggles with evidence and trying to make sense of things through writing. But for HD, “there’s an inverse correlation between good teaching and academic research.”(page 89) How shallow, what militant know-nothngism!

(After I had said to Dreifus, on Facebook, “Look forward to adoring reviews from the right,” I came across the following in support of HD in a comments page on the Chronicle of Higher Education web site. The writer, Robert W. Tucker, is a noted neocon, who finds himself at home with HD’s right-wing agenda:

“Great article! I appreciated the fact that you are willing to put yourselves on the line with concrete suggestions which, for the most part, generate empirically testable claims … Again, with so much rancor and narrow opinion expressed on these pages, it is refreshing to see your piece. My disagreement with some of your points is part of the rational process.”

While describing the university as “a haven for professors,” (Hacker on Sam Roberts, “New York Times: Close-Up,” NY 1, 7/31/10) HD belittle the work of preparing and teaching and instead comment on “how little is asked from professors during the months when classes are taught.” (page 26) Until his retirement, Hacker taught political science at Queens College in City University of New York (CUNY), but there is next to nothing about how besieged CUNY is by people who share HD’s ideas, with neoliberals like Benno Schmidt (a former student of mine, since gone rogue), vice chair of the privatizing Edison Schools and, at the same time, chair of the CUNY board of trustees. Huh? Thinking back several years, Hacker manages to single out from his years at Queens snide memories of the job candidate who had the temerity to ask about teaching load and sabbaticals. (pages 13-14) (I retired from CUNY when I found that my body could no longer support teaching four courses in a semester.) Seemingly happy with the disasters sweeping through academe and the resultant huge number of job applicants, Hacker sniffs contentedly, as if he were hiring for McDonalds, “Current candidates accept the templates of the job, no questions asked.” (pages 14) Talk about the virtues of the reserve army of the unemployed! And, yet, Hacker wants to step up the cutbacks which gave rise to this situation.

What about the curriculum that HD’s ace-teacher nonresearchers will carry out? HD hope for a return to teaching the “Great Ideas.” They praise Allan Bloom’s teaching (page 80), but never mention this University of Chicago professor’s national impact with his 1987 “Closing of the American Mind” – the right wing of the culture wars – of which their book is in a sense a sequel/updating. (Readers will also want to compare with Charles J. Sykes 1988 “Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education,” from which there is a direct line to “Higher Education?”.) I taught at the University of Chicago, in whose college there was a Hutchins-Straussian alliance, so I have some first-hand experience of the conservative potential of a curriculum consisting of “Great Ideas” and “Great Books.” As I wrote to Dreifus, I can’t imagine praising Bloom’s teaching without at least a parenthetical mention of disagreement with his right-wing views. (An appreciation of Bloom without mention of political ideology presents a milder version of the old Leni Riefenstahl puzzle.)

In short, HD don’t think about the grotesque consequences of the massive current cutbacks in higher education from coast to coast of this great land of ours. Instead, they offer rationales for more of the same – they seek to carry over into higher education the values and systems which contribute to the collapse of the health care system. Their vision for American higher education is quite Dickensian, with the professoriate playing the role of Oliver Twist, foolishly asking for more, not less, with which to pursue the goal of education for all. As the system goes under, they cry out, “Waste Not!” This is unspeakable, especially at a time when the students who HD claim to support are rising up in protest against the destruction of their universities, a destruction that HD’s views will only accelerate.

A preliminary version appeared on the New Politics blog July 27.