The really amazing thing about the j’accuse that Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith flung recently at U. S. higher education is what readers said: They said they loved it. Active professors, retired professors, and so on rejoiced that the establishmentarian Chronicle of Higher Education let Smith get away with writing “Higher Education is Drowning in BS.” “He’s right,” they said. Instead of getting up the usual lynch party for a teller of truth about their calling, commenters appeared ready to lift Smith to their shoulders and carry him from campus to campus.
For what? For arguing that academic conditions and practices are so bad they threaten “our larger culture and politics,” putting at risk “decent civilization itself.” “BS,” he contends, “is the university’s loss of capacity to grapple with life’s Big Questions, because of our crisis of faith in truth, reality, reason, evidence, argument, civility, and our common humanity.”
Students, he continued, go to “institutions modeled organizationally on factories, state bureaucracies, and shopping malls,” marked by a corrupt tenure system, “grossly lopsided political ideology” among the faculty, a “culture of offense that shuts down the open exchange of ideas,” “ideologically infused jargon,” an undergraduate mentality focused on money and partying, and general disregard for the liberal arts. BS!, Smith cries. BS! (He employs the unexpurgated term only once.)
Smith, a scholar-author admired at South Bend and beyond, won’t receive White House invitations for his candor. His bill of particulars, when it comes to the corruption of the culture, includes “torrents of blatant lies told with impunity” and “international diplomacy conducted through schoolyard taunting and self-contradictory tweets.” “These are exactly what develops,” he explains, “when even the ‘educated’ citizens of a country are for too many decades not educated well, and when the institutional centers of enlightened learning and debate become havens of ideology, intimidation, and mission drift. With academe in this condition, what hope can we have for the exercise of important social virtues in politics, law, diplomacy, the media, and the marketplace?”
If ever a question answered itself, that one would appear to. We’d better start ginning up some answers, is one possible takeaway from Smith’s essay. Yet the challenges, being so extensive, are daunting. “I too feel helpless,” he confesses. “It seems the most I can do now is to try to preserve whatever valuable remains in undergraduate liberal-arts education. Real change will most likely happen long-term and be forced on academe from the outside against its own lumbering inertia.”
Well, yes. On the other hand, notice what occasionally happens when it becomes widely recognized that something is badly amiss and in want of remedy. Magna est Veritas et praevalebit, as they sometimes said on campus in pre-BS times.