Reviews > Culture

Can we recapture the ivory tower?

Culture | And why is this even important? Because universities shape the culture well beyond their ivy-covered walls

Issue: "Gunpoint evangelist," Oct. 9, 1999

Universities, to most Americans, are ivory towers. Academics are thought of as pursuing their lofty ideas, in sublime indifference to ordinary life. Students put in their time at college before venturing out into the "real world."

Academia and reality are thought of as two different realms, with both academics and ordinary folk liking it that way. Scholars can pursue their most eccentric ideas, wrapped in the mantle of academic freedom, protected from the vulgar masses, and safely ensconced in their ivory towers. At the same time, Americans seem quite willing to pour vast sums into taxes and tuition to keep the intellectuals locked up where they can do little harm.

But make no mistake about it: Academia, however isolated in its own self-contained universe, has a huge effect on the "real world."

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In the academic world, literary critics pontificate about the "narrator as character" and wax eloquent about how there is no real difference between fiction and nonfiction.

That seemed like ivory-tower theory. Yet now, Pulitzer-prize-winning historian Edmund Morris, given a multimillion-dollar advance and unprecedented access to Mr. Reagan, has, after 14 years, finally published the biography-and it is told from the point of view of a fictional character.

Mr. Morris's angle in Dutch (Random House) was to make himself a fictional character in the president's life. He describes himself as attending school with the future Gipper in Dixon, Ill., hanging out with the lifeguard whose friends called him Dutch. The author makes up a new family for himself, including a radical son who becomes a weatherman in the 1960s, who then can put in his two cents' worth on Mr. Reagan. The fictional Edmund Morris joins other fictional characters, such as a Hollywood columnist who expounds on Mr. Reagan's movie career. To document his inventions, the author makes up fictional footnotes.

It has become a common belief on college campuses that objective truth is impossible, that all we can have are "multiple perspectives." Thus, "multiple points of view" and "the blurring between fiction and reality" have become old hat in academic fiction. With this worldview firmly entrenched in academia, what other kind of biography would we expect?

What is accepted in the academic world eventually finds its way into the culture as a whole.

The ivory-tower myth-that the academic world constitutes a sheltered, privileged, and self-contained culture of its own-contains much truth. Its peculiar dynamics help explain some of the wackier ideas that nevertheless gain cultural currency.

Political correctness began as a behavior code on left-wing college campuses; it spread when hard-headed, conservative businesses began requiring their employees to take "sensitivity training seminars" (taught by academics, of course). Feminism became orthodoxy on college campuses. Then, so-called "queer theory"-a research approach in the humanities that looks at history, literature, art, and philosophy in terms of the expression and repression of homosexual desires-grew into a respected academic discipline. No wonder college graduates today tend to look kindly upon feminism and "gay rights."

Because academics must publish or perish, a research culture emerges with a bias for whatever is on the "cutting edge." "New ideas" are a surer road to tenure than "old ideas." This works well for scientists and engineers, who have to submit their new discoveries to the discipline of empirical testing. But few such restraints hold back scholars in the softer disciplines. And old ideas, however relevant, often receive short shrift.

The "whole-language" approach to teaching reading was developed in the nation's schools of education. It began as a "new theory" of how children learn. Teachers-in-training soaked it up from their education professors. Education experts enshrined it in textbooks. State departments of public instruction made it a requirement.

One big problem: This academic theory didn't work. After the state of California required the public-school system to employ whole-language methodology in the teaching of reading, reading scores plummeted. Empirical studies showed that phonics instruction is far more effective than the whole-language approach, which involves memorizing the shapes of letters, students' writing their own textbooks, and making up their own spelling rules. It turns out that the whole-language method was adopted without any prior empirical testing. It sounded like a good idea because of its academic prestige. Now California has gone back to phonics and its reading scores have vastly improved.

When the university schools of education catch a virus, it is the nation's school children who get sick.

Combine the academic desire to be "cutting edge" with narrow academic specialization, a permissive moral climate, and the loss of a biblical worldview, and what follows? Just about anything.

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