Tuesday, January 08, 2002

By far the least interesting aspect of the Great Cornel West Debate is the racial angle, i.e., "what if a high-ranking white Harvard professor were dressed down for too many extracurricular activities and too many 'A' students?". A far more interesting question is, "what if a high-ranking professor--of any race--at Harvard Medical School were out recording music and running political campaigns instead of producing research, and handing out A's to students as if they were candy?" Does anybody doubt that, far from merely complaining (and then backing off), university president Lawrence Summers (and the whole Med School faculty) would have done everything in their power to purge the faculty of such an irresponsible incompetent?

The thousand-year history of academia exhibits an unmistakeable pattern: the university finds an important societal role, and for a while it flourishes; eventually its role fades in importance, or is taken over by more specialized institutions, and the university decays into irrelevance as a refuge for obscurantism and a playground for wealthy youth--until it finds its next social purpose. Educating the clergy for the Church, training lawyers, supplying royal courts with civil servants, developing and populating the discipline of engineering--all were functions that once saved academia from decrepitude, then were gradually eliminated or diverted to specialized schools, leaving the university as a whole once again adrift without a purpose.

It is not often remembered today that the Ivy League was once a collection of mostly recreational finishing schools for the scions of America's ruling class. The postwar explosion of the liberal arts-based American academy that propelled colleges like Harvard into unprecedented positions of social leadership was a result of the university's newly recognized role in educating managers to run the industries powering the complex, modern postwar economy. In time, however, those would-be managers began to segregate themselves in business schools and economics departments, and liberal arts faculties were again left without a meaningful purpose. There followed the traditional decline into obscurantism, irrelevance and frivolity; today few students attend Harvard College (as opposed to Harvard Medical School, or Harvard Business School, or MIT) for any reason other than to burnish their resumes and network with other elite students. That's why Cornel West can get away with his flagrant indulgence of self and students; nobody really thinks it's doing anybody any harm. And he can count on the support of thousands of liberal arts professors of all races who recognize that they are every bit as naked as Emperor West, and must at all costs stop little Larry Summers from exposing them all.

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