Historical amnesia about intellectual discourse in academia

Arnold Kling worries that there has been an erosion of intellectual integrity on college campuses:

I am becoming increasingly concerned that sending children to college is dangerous for their intellectual health. I am afraid that instead of being told how to think, students are being told not to think. They are being ideological role models, not intellectual role models.

Had someone expressed such sentiments to me fifteen years ago, I would have dismissed that person as a paranoid right-wing nut-job. I infer that in the meantime either I have turned into a paranoid right-wing nut-job or there has been a significant erosion of intellectual integrity at American colleges, or both.

I am inclined to believe that it was rapid erosion of intellectual integrity. I think that the last 15 years have witnessed a change in the demographics of the professoriate. Professors with intellectual integrity have aged out or otherwise departed.

Kling is not alone in this thinking. Even the New York Times is publishing opinion pieces decrying the rise of “trigger warnings”, safe spaces, and the banning of speakers.

But what these complaints ignore is that intellectual narrowness in academia has been a major problem for many decades. The devastating real world consequences have already happened.

Professors have been investigated or forced out for taking politically incorrect views about race or sex as far back as the 70s and 80s (although it does seem to be more frequent, and for lesser offenses recently). And for every professor purged, how many were simply quietly rejected by hiring committees or tenure committees? How many were screened out in grad school due to writing papers with a conservative bent? How many never entered academia in the first place, since they knew the odds were stacked against them?

Paul Graham, a Harvard PHD familiar with academia noted that: “In order to get tenure in any field you must not arrive at conclusions that members of tenure committees can disagree with.” That was my observation too. When I was in college a decade ago, a smart, popular, young conservative scholar admitted privately that he could never get tenure due to his conservative views. He is no longer in academia.

Years ago, Swarthmore professor Timothy Burke wrote advice about grad school:

I know that some people will object and say that even the most odd-duck graduate program can find a place for its students. But honestly, I have been on the other side in way too many grant competitions, job searches, panel selections and so on. In a tournament economy with hundreds of highly qualified competitors, just one thing that irks one judge or evaluator is enough to knock you out of the race. If it’s a consistent thing, e.g., something that rubs up against an orthodox way of defining a field or discipline, it’ll knock you out of most races…

Academic institutions endorse faculty diversity, but the conversation about diversity usually boils down to fixed identarian formulas, to improving the percentage of recognized groups, not to diversifying the kinds of experience (and passions) that professionals can bring to intellectual work. I feel intuitively that the generation of faculty just ahead of me, people from their late 50s to 70s, are more diverse in this sense if not racially so. I know considerably more first-generation scholars whose passionate connection to intellectual work got them into academia in that generation than in any younger cohort. The question is whether I should encourage someone who I think hasn’t been exposed to all the insider rules and codes to go on to graduate work. There’s no way I can make up for all that in one conversation or even several. The best I can do is tell someone bluntly that they’re going to be at a disadvantage and that they’ve got to do their best to break the code every chance they get.

In another piece, professor Burke writes:

Graduate school is not education. It is socialization. It is about learning to behave, about mastering a rhetorical and discursive etiquette as mind-blowingly arcane as table manners at a state dinner in 19th Century Western Europe. Graduate school is cotillion for eggheads.

Some commentators believe that the stifling of campus discourse has been exaggerated, that there will always be some example of crazy in a nation of thousands of universities. Others believe that it is not that bad now – but that it is a slippery slope.

On the contrary, it seems to me that we are already far down the slope. The intellectual discourse has been restricted for decades. There have already been devastating real world consequences, impacting the lives of tens of millions of people.

In college, I took multiple classes on urban decay, race, social problems, and the plight of the inner-city underclass. The standard explanation was that red-lining, deindustrialization, and white flight had isolated the urban poor and concentrated poverty. The consensus solution was to reintegrate the underclass with the middle class suburbs, either via Section 8 vouchers and/or by merging the suburbs with the cities. The most not-fully-left-wing writer we were exposed to was Jane Jacobs, who blamed the government planners of the 1960s for building housing projects that were hard to monitor, broke up communities, and concentrated poverty.1

As a student, I bought into these theories. It never really occurred to me that there were other more compelling explanations that I was missing. I remember feeling a bit of anger toward my parents for living in the suburbs and leaving the impoverished in the inner cities to suffer.

A few years later, I came across an Atlantic Monthly article called An American Murder Mystery. This article shocked me and dramatically changed my views:

At this point, he still thought of the stretch of Memphis where he’d grown up as “quiet as all get-out”; the only place you’d see cruisers congregated was in the Safeway parking lot, where churchgoing cops held choir practice before going out for drinks. But by 2000, all of that had changed. Once-quiet apartment complexes full of young families “suddenly started turning hot on us.” Instead of the occasional break-in, Barnes was getting calls about armed robberies, gunshots in the hallways, drug dealers roughing up their neighbors. A gang war ripped through the neighborhood. “We thought, What the hell is going on here?” A gang war! In North Memphis! “All of a sudden it was a damn war zone,” he said. … Lately, though, a new and unexpected pattern has emerged, taking criminologists by surprise. While crime rates in large cities stayed flat, homicide rates in many midsize cities (with populations of between 500,000 and 1 million) began increasing, sometimes by as much as 20 percent a year. In 2006, the Police Executive Research Forum, a national police group surveying cities from coast to coast, concluded in a report called “A Gathering Storm” that this might represent “the front end … of an epidemic of violence not seen for years.” The leaders of the group, which is made up of police chiefs and sheriffs, theorized about what might be spurring the latest crime wave: the spread of gangs, the masses of offenders coming out of prison, methamphetamines. But mostly they puzzled over the bleak new landscape. According to FBI data, America’s most dangerous spots are now places where Martin Scorsese would never think of staging a shoot-out—Florence, South Carolina; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina; Kansas City, Missouri; Reading, Pennsylvania; Orlando, Florida; Memphis, Tennessee.

He [criminologist Richard Janikowski] began mapping all violent and property crimes, block by block, across the city. “These cops on the streets were saying that crime patterns are changing,” he said, so he wanted to look into it…The inner city, where crime used to be concentrated, was now clean. But everywhere else looked much worse: arrests had skyrocketed along two corridors north and west of the central city (the bunny rabbit’s ears) and along one in the southeast (the tail). Hot spots had proliferated since the mid-1990s, and little islands of crime had sprung up where none had existed before, dotting the map all around the city.

Memphis demolished its first project in 1997. The city gave former residents federal “Section8” rent-subsidy vouchers and encouraged them to move out to new neighborhoods. Two more waves of demolition followed over the next nine years, dispersing tens of thousands of poor people into the wider metro community.

If police departments are usually stingy with their information, housing departments are even more so. Getting addresses of Section 8 holders is difficult, because the departments want to protect the residents’ privacy. Betts, however, helps the city track where the former residents of public housing have moved. Over time, she and Janikowski realized that they were doing their fieldwork in the same neighborhoods.

About six months ago, they decided to put a hunch to the test. Janikowski merged his computer map of crime patterns with Betts’s map of Section8 rentals. Where Janikowski saw a bunny rabbit, Betts saw a sideways horseshoe (“He has a better imagination,” she said). Otherwise, the match was near-perfect. On the merged map, dense violent-crime areas are shaded dark blue, and Section 8 addresses are represented by little red dots. All of the dark-blue areas are covered in little red dots, like bursts of gunfire. The rest of the city has almost no dots.

Betts remembers her discomfort as she looked at the map. The couple had been musing about the connection for months, but they were amazed—and deflated—to see how perfectly the two data sets fit together. She knew right away that this would be a “hard thing to say or write.” Nobody in the antipoverty community and nobody in city leadership was going to welcome the news that the noble experiment that they’d been engaged in for the past decade had been bringing the city down, in ways they’d never expected. But the connection was too obvious to ignore, and Betts and Janikowski figured that the same thing must be happening all around the country. Eventually, they thought, they’d find other researchers who connected the dots the way they had, and then maybe they could get city leaders, and even national leaders, to listen.

In another article, property managers and landlords describe the problem with Section 8 tenants:

“Section 8 tenants are much more difficult to deal with,” says Mark Engel, president of Langsam Property Services Corporation, which rents out 1,700 Section 8 apartments in five- and six-story apartment buildings throughout the Bronx. “The families are fragmented. There are no husbands, and so there’s not as much control over the children. So there are more damages—graffiti, breaking appliances, leaving garbage out in the hallways, breaking the entranceway door.” Another Bronx landlord, who leases 700 apartments to Section 8 tenants, agrees. “A lot of those most eligible for the subsidy,” he says, “are the least appreciative and the least sensitive to their obligations as tenants—either to owners or their neighbors.” They can create truly bad environments. “I’m dealing right now with a tenant, a 29-year-old single mother with five kids and one on the way,” he offers by way of example. “There’s loud music, teenagers congregating in the hall. The apartment’s in chaotic shape—hygiene bad, housekeeping a disaster.”

The experiment was performed. The results came in. Mixing the underclass into the suburbs did not improve the behavior of the underclass. The consensus theory of academia was proven false.

In retrospect, this should have been predictable. In the decade since graduating, I have done a lot more reading on the topic. The reasons for the policy failure of Section 8 are actually blazingly obvious. Uplift via integration had already failed multiple times before. The forced school integration of the 1970’s did little to close the gap in test scores. The original housing projects of the 1950’s were actually originally mixed race and mixed income, yet the bad behavior of the underclass drove away the middle class. Works of ethnography, such as Canarsie by Jonathan Rieder, provided counter-evidence that was completely ignored. Having the middle class in proximity did not magically uplift the underclass. Furthermore, if you look at actual ethnic groups that have been uplifted, such as the Irish in the 1800’s, you see that uplift does not require integration; it requires enforcing old-school values.

A better sociology education would have had us reading American Millstone about the black slums in Chicago, and then comparing it to Robert Roberts’ book, The Classic Slum, about Salford, England in the early 1900’s. Both slums had massive problems of poverty and inequality. Yet the murder rates in Salford, England were 100 or 1,000 times less, the social problems not at all comparable. Why? If you examine how old-school churches, neighborhoods and schools functioned there are certainly lots of clues. The collective works of Charles Murray have a lot of compelling evidence for alternative theories. But such books are never taught in academia.

The general theory, that simply moving lower-class people of ethnic group A into proximity of middle-class people of ethnic group B, and that somehow the traits of group B will rub off on group A, is ludicrous. Perhaps the policy might work to some extent, if ethnic group B had strong institutions and rules that it could impose on group A. It might work if ethnic group B had churches teaching old-school morality; schools where nuns could slap your wrist for misbehaving; respected neighborhood cops who could deal a little tough-love street justice; and welfare officers who would require strong household discipline in return for handing out checks to those on welfare. But none of this is allowed in the modern world. So when ethnic group A moves in, they continue to engage in the same unruly behavior as before, and there is no force that shape them up, no force to forge them into well-behaved members of society. It is magical thinking to assume that the traits of ethnic group B will rub off on A, without giving group B any tools to enforce their values and mores.

Here is an email written by a resident in a town that saw an influx of Section 8 tenants:

How can we get them to clean up the trash overflowing in the front yard, turn off the loud music after 10 PM, as well we have seen them drinking and smoking pot in their front yard, and children running in the streets after 11 PM or 12 PM! We cannot stay up until 1 or 2 AM listening to their music since we have jobs and have to pay our rent and utilities, why do they not have to work? The neighbors have all but given up on the police, after calling many times they last stated to one of our neighbors they would not come out to our neighborhood any longer unless it is an emergency.

The theory was that these middle class residents would uplift the incoming, lower-class tenants. Yet how on earth are they supposed to do that when the lower-class tenants are not subject to any form of discipline, when the police ignore all complaints?

Thus, here we are in 2015 and the government is doubling-down on these same policies. The Obama administration is launching a new effort to increase the amount of vouchers and to further penetrate the rich suburbs. Worse, the administration has also launched investigations and lawsuits of school systems for punishing black students at a higher rate than white students. This is despite the weight of the evidence says that black students, unfortunately, commit violations at a much higher rate than other students. So to create equality in total punishment numbers, schools will have to be much more permissive toward black student offenses. In total, the the government is moving group A into proximity of group B, while at the same time stripping group B of the tools needed to better the behavior of group A. Such a policy is a disaster for all involved.

Why is the Obama administration trying these same failed policies? In part, because this generation of policy leaders were educated in universities where they were taught the same thing I was taught: underclass pathologies were a result of black people not living near middle-class white people. Any explanation involving culture, incentives, institutions, or God forbid, genes, was filtered out decades ago. The consensus academic opinion – that integration was the only answer – should have been seen as ridiculous. What other ethnic group, in all of history, has needed to live near a second ethnic group in order to do well in school or in order to not shoot each other at ridiculously high rates? Yet I believed this academic consensus, my classmates believed it, and most of my classmates who are now in policy positions still believe it.

College fifteen years ago was already poisonous to intellectual health. Had there been no courses on urban problems, leaders could make up their own mind by observing the facts with their own minds. Instead, we learned all sorts of theories about why 2 + 2 equals 5.

And so the intellectual narrowness of academia is not some recent phenomenon. It has been ongoing for years, and the results have been devastating. The wrong policies have been put in place, time and time again, and tens of millions have been subjected to unnecessary violence and disorder. The real crazy to worry about is not the obvious crazy, the crazy that makes headlines. Even 15 years ago most students did not buy into the arcane nonsense of critical theory and post-modernism. The dangerous crazy was that of my urban studies class, which was just sane enough to be taken as truth, but in reality has led to very bad policy decisions.

Yet each generation seems to accept the craziness of the past generation, even when balking at the craziness of the new generation. We think that in the past, academia was on track, and that those who opposed progress were crazy, right-wing nut-jobs. But we dissidents think that this time, this new generation – well – they have gone to far and have gone crazy. There is a certain Cthulian horror when suddenly you realize that many of the nut-jobs in the past were actually right. Many were slandered retroactively, not because they were wrong, or evil, not because they made bad predictions, but because they lost and the winners wrote the histories. There is a horror in realizing that you are just like them, this cycle has played out before, and that your children’s generation will see you as the nut-job.

  1. It is surprising to me that Jane Jacobs gets so much praise, because her view on crime and high-rises does not stand up to the slightest scrutiny. Do the ranch home lined streets of Comptom, or the row houses of North Philadelphia somehow have less crime than the high rise projects? No. Are the Pei towers in Philadelphia, not to mention the many high-rises of New York, or anywhere in Asia, infested with crime? No. The hypothesis is ridiculous.