First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
The Best Universities and a Good Education
This past week I had the honor and pleasure of delivering a speech at a real teaching university -- Cal State Stanislaus, in the heart of the Central Valley.
The night before, I had dinner with a geography professor, whose knowledge of the field and enthusiasm for it reminded me of what teaching is at its best.
And the hours before my address were spent in conversation with various faculty members, where I found a sense of real dedication to teaching their students and an openness to ideas they might not have considered before.
Just when I had been about to declare the death of actual education in the American University, too ...
Still, the fears that many of us have about where the American education system is heading are unallayed.
Take, for instance, the perfectly innocent remark made by the university's president in her own address to the incoming freshmen. It was almost an aside, really. She mentioned that the student body at CSU-Stanislaus was 65% female, which was not far from national trends, she said; and then commented on how wonderful it was that women had come so far.
I was dumfounded. Has it become such a habit to assume that any "progress" for women is a Good Thing that we have become blind to what that statistic actually meant?
If the balance between the sexes in American universities were at or near fifty-fifty, then we could applaud the progress of women -- or even, if we wished to be fair, the progress of American society as a whole, including the men in it, for having embraced the equal education of women.
But for women to be at 65% of the student body means that men are at 35%. That means that for every 65 women entering college, there are only 35 men. Barely more than half as many men as women.
Where are the rest of the men?
What does it say about the American educational system that by the time they reach college age, young men are either so turned off by education that they decline to continue (even though it is considered essential for most desirable careers), or so badly trained that they do not qualify to enter college?
I suspect that the 65-35 proportion is not correct nationwide, but I do know that there is no doubt that more women than men enter college now, and more women than men graduate.
Yet so ingrained is our habit of considering women a downtrodden "minority" that we still hear complaints that women are somehow being mistreated because so few of them choose to major in mathematics. (It is apparently inconceivable that women might simply be allowed to freely choose what they're interested in studying.)
When huge numbers of young men are being cut off or turned off from higher education, I'm afraid I can't get too worked up about our "failure" to get more young women interested in math.
This week, U.S. News & World Report came out with their annual "America's Best Colleges" issue. The results were predictable. Because schools with lofty reputations therefore attract the students with the best records of achievement in high school, these schools continue to have a disproportionate share of the best students, and therefore turn out the best graduates.
It's rather like most of the creative writing programs I've seen. By carefully screening applicants to admit only the most talented, the programs don't actually have to teach them anything at all -- because those who were most talented upon entry will be most talented upon exit as well.
Behind the statistics and the rankings is a much more complicated scenario. Most of these "best" schools do not necessarily do even a slightly better job of educating the students who come to them. I suspect that if you took the entire entering class of Harvard or Princeton and swapped them for the entering class of the 123rd-ranked Drexel University or University of Oregan -- without changing a single faculty member or course offering -- you would find most of the students emerging with almost exactly the same level of education as they would have attained at the other school.
What I would be far more interested in seeing is a rating of the intellectual diversity of the faculty.
Because that is where the American University is failing, despite the best efforts of a great number of truly dedicated and excellent faculty at every institution.
Every time someone complains about the Puritan-like insistent on ideological conformity at American universities (invariably in the name of "tolerance" and "diversity," the purest sort of doublespeak), someone on one of the faculties writes in and says, "We have no problem with political correctness here."
And that's probably true. Once you have carefully weeded out or stifled any faculty members whose opinions do not fall into line with the Pure Doctrine, you can dismantle the apparatus of the P.C. Inquisition, for its work is done.
It happens here in Greensboro. When I first moved here, I happened to know several people who either studied in or worked in the field of family studies. They uniformly reported that they dared not utter any hint that they thought the traditional two-parent nuclear family offered superior opportunities or benefits to children -- especially if their preference for the traditional family seemed linked to their religious beliefs.
Instead, the prevailing attitude of hostility to the traditional family had to be treated as if it had a shred of evidence supporting it (which it does not).
Naturally, I fully expect that every faculty member in that field at UNC-G would vehemently deny that any such bias exists. On the contrary, they simply follow where the science leads.
Who is telling the truth?
I suspect both groups are, in the sense that they are reporting what they believe. To the committed Puritans of the P.C. Left, they never persecute pro-traditional-family students or deny tenure to pro-traditional-family faculty. They merely insist on "excellence" in the field -- ignoring the fact that their definition of "excellence" includes fashionable hostility to any suggestion that the word "family" should not always have the word "dysfunctional" placed in front of it.
Similarly, I suspect that my friends might have been incorrect in their belief that the hostility to the traditional family was universal on the faculty, but the mistake can be forgiven because those who believed in the soundness (or even the existence!) of the traditional family had simply learned to keep their heads down and their mouths shut.
Why? Because if you speak out against the Pure Doctrine of the Established Church, you invariably awaken the screamers and name-callers.
The fervent guardians of political correctness on campus never feel themselves bound by the rules of ordinary civility or intellectual discourse. They resort immediately to McCarthyist rhetoric, using guilt-by-association, out-of-context quoting, deliberate misinterpretation, and unfair and inaccurate name-calling to savage the reputation of anyone who dares to question their doctrines.
So even though real uniformity of belief is rare outside of departments that are ideological in their conception -- women's studies and African-American studies and gay studies departments are extremely unlikely to have a single nonconformist in their ranks -- students can easily come away with the impression that everyone agrees with the politically correct because the P.C. faculty are loud in proclaiming their beliefs as "facts," and no one on the faculty dares stand up to them openly, even when their "facts" are myths or even utter fabrications.
I have had friends at universities (not in North Carolina) who have been denied tenure despite receiving major grants and publishing peer-reviewed articles in prestigious journals, while colleagues with far less impressive achievements have received tenure. No one ever dared admit what was obvious: Tenure was being denied because the faculty member in question had spoken out against bad science or bad thinking on the part of the Established P.C. Church. And like all heretics, their presence could not be tolerated.
We're not talking about right-wingers getting expelled, either. Most of my friends who have suffered the flames of the tenure-denial stake have been quite liberal, in the traditional definition of the term. Their "sin" was to insist that bad science was bad science, even if it had a politically desirable outcome.
The result is that when parents send their children to college, they are often putting them into an environment where they can easily come to believe that all the "smart" people believe in the far-left, anti-family, anti-religious, and anti-American doctrines of the politically correct.
Again, the very people I'm speaking of will be sure to call me a bigot and deny that there is any such bias -- and then return immediately to mocking or vilifying religion, sneering at the traditional family, and blaming America for most of the world's ills.
Which brings me to ask a couple of questions:
Is the reason that men in America vote, on average, more conservatively than women partly the result or partly the cause of the lower-than-expected number of men who attend American universities? (The majority of American men rejected Bill Clinton both times he ran for President, and among American men, George W. Bush won by a landslide.)
If the Supreme Court's recent insanely inconsistent and unconstitutional standards of "diversity" in admissions were to include an insistence on political and religious diversity in the faculties of American universities, would we discover that the faculties are already more balanced than anybody thinks?
In other words, if a premium were suddenly placed on having a believing practitioner of religion or a real live conservative on the faculty in every department at a university, would we discover that such people are already there, but have been in hiding in order to keep their jobs?
Meanwhile, as you send your kids off to college -- and as you help them prepare for college through their primary and secondary education at home -- remember that if you want them to remain true to the beliefs you raised them with, the best method is to encourage them to be rigorously skeptical.
The students who are most at the mercy of politically correct propaganda in the university are the young people who have been trained not to think for themselves and to believe everything that authority figures have taught them. It's a piece of cake for experienced faculty members to leave their previously unquestioned beliefs in tatters.
But if you have raised your children to be skeptical, to find evidences for their beliefs, to be critical of the evidence as well, and to demand that others do the same, then they are not going to believe every word that comes out of the mouth of charismatic professors.
They are far less likely to be disillusioned, because you haven't let them be illusioned in the first place.
And if your own beliefs are demonstrably true or beneficial, your children will come back from college reaffirmed in their beliefs, not because they have "resisted" the propaganda, but because they have subjected the propaganda to the fair test of rigorous skepticism and thoroughgoing inquiry and found it wanting.
In other words, you don't make your kids P.C.-proof by keeping them ignorant, you do it by helping them learn how to educate themselves.
And if you've taught them that, it won't matter a whit whether they go to Harvard or UNC-G -- they'll come out of college very well educated, having found the best professors and the best books and scrutinized them under the bright light of an honest scholarly mind.
But if you have left your children's education up to others, and therefore not taught them to take charge of it for themselves, then your kids will be far more likely to be captured by a strange and hostile ideology whose avowed goal is to destroy most of the traditional beliefs and cultural practices of America.
(And just watch: Those who deny there is any such ideological program dominating the universities will also snidely ask if, by "traditional beliefs and cultural practices of America," I mean slavery or segregation or some other odious thing that we are well shut of and which I would never advocate restoring. Just keep in mind that this is a standard witch-hunt and inquisitorial practice, to accuse the accusers of being in league with the devil, so that no one dares oppose them. When I speak of respect for the traditional family or traditional religions, and they answer with Jim Crow, it's because they have no answer to my actual arguments, which I am quite confident are true in general and in detail.)
Copyright © 2003 by Orson Scott Card.
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