The Old System Forces Out a Reformer

Lawrence Summers’s resignation from Harvard shows how precarious a position President Bollinger was in last year as the MEALAC controversy ravaged Columbia–and why the old University system simply does not work.
As Martin Peretz writes in the New Republic, the system of faculty governance has broken down: “This is not democracy; it is chaos, the politicization of an academic office.” Why has it broken down? Because scholars no longer envision themselves as fulfilling the same role as in the past. In previous generations, scholars attempted to build an Iron Wall between their studies and the world; history wasn’t history unless it happened fifty years before the semester begun, and everything else was too recent to be discussed. As the brilliant documentary Arguing the World shows, political activism was left to the students–and, as a result, some of the most innovative political thinkers developed their ideologies by debating with their peers, instead of being turned off by rhetorical overdose in the classroom.
The exact date this Iron Wall was breached is unclear to me, and I’m sure better informed pundits will have their theories, but what has developed is clear enough: scholars see their role at present to be activists. Knowledge has little worth of its own. Instead, knowledge has become a tool for power and political play, and those who are on the wrong side of the ideological line are seen as enemies instead of peers or partners in the human enterprise to advance knowledge. And, since peer review and faculty governance structures the system such that what should be a free-market of ideas is no more than a cartel-like oligarchy where a small sect controls the means of production, the Academy becomes more and more politicized with every appointment. Thus develops a balkanization of ideas, thus develops the disengagement of the youth from the field of politics, and thus develops a downward spiral of wisdom whereby professors are more interested in the ends of the minds they mold than in letting minds think for themselves and develop their own ideas.
So it’s not only that, as Peter Beinart writes, “Harvard’s, has just made an ass of itself,” but that the system as a whole needs to be rethought. Hopefully those people who will do the thinking won’t be on the Harvard (or Columbia) faculty.


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