Friday, September 17, 2010

In a recent review, David A. Bell compares Mark C. Taylor to Thomas Friedman -- it's cold, but apt. Taylor isn't a public intellectual so much as a public anti-intellectual, an outlier who can't possibly represent higher ed in general but whose voice is disproportionately amplified by the mainstream media. In fact, it may be Taylor's own tunnel vision that's the most powerful argument against (a segment of) the academic system that he decries, for the problems he rails against, when they are real problems at all, only exist in his highly idiosyncratic situation. As Bell puts it:
He dismisses—in a few sentences—the idea that [tenure] might protect academic freedom, noting that he has never personally seen it under threat, and that in forty years of teaching he has never met a professor “who was more willing to express his or her views after tenure than before.”

On the second of these points, I can only conclude that Taylor and I know a very different set of academics. As to the first of them, well, Taylor’s personal experience came at Williams College and Columbia University. Perhaps he should think for a moment of what it might be like to teach at a large public university in a state where Tea Party members increasingly dominate the legislature, denouncing “radical professors” and calling for the further slashing of university budgets. Would he feel entirely free, at such an institution, to start a research project on, say, homoeroticism in American poetry? The evolution of dinosaurs? The history of racial discrimination in American evangelical churches? Corruption in the state senate? Lifetime tenure, for all its problems, still provides a very real safeguard for the advancement of unpopular ideas.

It's like Tina Fey told us: if you can't see outside it, then being in a bubble causes you to become a little bit dumb. Historiann has recently written about the failure of the national "conversation" on higher ed to meaningfully acknowledge state universities; Dean Dad similarly points out that such polemics never even consider the single most powerful component of public education: community colleges. The discussions of higher ed that are being privileged in the mainstream press totally ignore the vast majority of higher ed, at no risk to the people making their pronouncements but to the great detriment of most of higher ed and the students and public it serves. Mark C. Taylor, his book contract, and his repeat invitations to the New York Times are exhibit A.

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