Friday, October 26, 2012

Remembering the Work of Jacques Barzun

Jacques Barzun
The great teacher, cultural historian and social critic Jacques Barzun died yesterday (October 25, 2012) at the age of 104. The French-born Barzun’s father, Henri-Martin Barzun, was a civil servant in the French ministry of labor, but the elder Barzun was also a writer and many prominent authors and artists visited the family home.  In 1917, the French government sent Henri-Martin Barzun on a mission to the United States. The young Jacques went to the United States in 1920. Still a teenager, Jacques Barzun enrolled in Columbia University in New York City in 1923.

Barzun took his bachelor’s degree from Columbia in 1927 and then began teaching and graduate study at the same institution. He received the Ph.D. degree in 1932. His dissertation was published as his first book, The French Race: Theories of Its Origins and their Social and Political Implications Prior to the Revolution (1932). In this book, Barzun examined how the idea of race had developed historically in French thought and how this idea had shaped political and social behavior. This theme of the historical emergence of the idea of race, an idea that Barzun saw as misleading and dangerous, became the basis of his second book, Race: A Study in Modern Superstition (1937).  These two books were timely in their topic because the Nazi Party had risen to power in Germany during these years, advocating racial doctrines derived from the historical influences described by Barzun.

While teaching at Columbia, Barzun came into contact with prominent New York intellectuals. The literary critic Lionel Trilling became his friend and collaborator when the two taught a “Great Books” class in 1934.  Barzun and his first wife, Marianna, frequently socialized with Trilling and his wife, Diana, also a renowned literary critic.

Barzun’s third book, Of Human Freedom (1939), also treated the historical currents of his day. Written on the eve of World War II, the book offered a defense of democracy in the face of the absolutist doctrines of Nazism and Fascism. The political ideas in this book were inspired by the late nineteenth century American psychologist and philosopher William James, who formulated a version of the philosophy of pragmatism and saw American democracy as an imperfect but sound way of meeting the challenges of political life.

Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage (1941) was Barzun’s first best-seller. It was a skeptical examination of three nineteenth century figures who had shaped much of the modern era’s approaches to biology, politics and society, and music, frequently in ways that Barzun found troubling. Barzun’s interest in education led him to publish a number of works on teaching, including The Teacher in America (1945), The House of Intellect (1959), and The American University (1968). In these books, he was critical of progressive education and supported the ideal of traditional schooling in the liberal arts.

Although he always considered himself primarily a teacher, Barzun’s interest in shaping intellectual life went beyond his own classroom and even beyond his own books. Together with his Columbia colleague Lionel Trilling and the poet W.H. Auden, Barzun formed The Reader’s Subscription book club in 1951.  The three men of letters made selections of recent historical and literary works and made these available to club members at discount prices. Each month, one of the three would write an essay on the club’s main selection and the essay would be printed in the monthly newsletter.

Barzun served Columbia as Dean of Graduate Faculties from 1955 to 1958 and Dean of Faculties and Provost from 1958 to 1967. He was named Seth Low Professor of History in 1960. In 1975, he finally retired from Columbia’s active faculty and became an emeritus professor. In his retirement, though, he took up a second career as literary consultant to the publishing house Charles Scribner’s Sons, Inc.

The prolific Barzun managed one of his most impressive achievements when, at the age of 92, he published From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (2000), an massive overview of five centuries of Western cultural history that he had begun writing when he was 84. In this book, he regarded the modern period of history in the West as having begun in the sixteenth century. He divided this era into four stages. The first stage lasted from the Protestant revolution sparked by Martin Luther to the scientific revolution of Sir Isaac Newton at the end of the seventeenth century. The second stage began with the rise of the nation state during the time of French king Louis XIV and ended with the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. The third stretched from the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment to the appearance of Cubism in art and thought in the decade before World War I. The fourth and last stage lasted through the World Wars through the opening of the twenty-first century.  Barzun argued that by the time at which he was writing, the modern culture of the West had spent itself and had become empty, self-defeating, and decadent.  Even critics who disagreed with the representation of historical periods as having definable beginnings and endings thought that Barzun had written a masterpiece, and Barzun was often compared to the great historian Edward Gibbon.

While working on From Dawn to Decadence, Barzun finally left New York and moved to his final home in San Antonio, Texas with his second wife, Marguerite, who was a San Antonio native. Barzun became an active part of the cultural life of his new city, giving lectures and interviews. Through most of his life, Barzun had been in the public eye less than other New York intellectuals, such as his friend and colleague, Lionel Trilling. Nevertheless, he had maintained a consistent reputation as an elegant and insightful historian, an independent and clear-headed observer of higher education, and an incisive critic of modern culture. For my part, I regard Dawn to Decadence as the greatest achievement in a lifetime of great achievements. Reading or re-reading it may be the best way to memorialize Jacques Barzun.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Politics in Academia

The website Inside Higher Ed reports the results of a new survey of political attitudes among faculty in American higher education. The survey finds that university faculty members are not only more “left-leaning” than the population in general, but that the professoriate is moving further to the left. According to the data presented in the report, in 2007-8, 8.8 % of those teaching at colleges and universities identified as “far left,” but this went up to 12.4% in 2010-2011. Among those at private universities, 16.2% classified themselves as “far left” in the latter year. The percentage of faculty members who identified as “liberal” grew from 47.0 % to 50.3%.
I’ve expressed previously my skepticism about the “left-right” approach to thinking about politics and society. But I also think this approach creates its own reality. Those who categorize themselves as “left” or “right” often use that self-categorization as an easy way of deciding what they should think about difficult topics. This is especially true, I think, at the extremes, where self-identification with programmatic ideologies is strongest. So, these findings may represent a more serious problem than the mere fact that university professors differ from others in American society. While I would want more information on exactly how these self-descriptions predict opinions on specific issues, I strongly suspect that the classifications represent the intensification of political catechisms in institutions that should be devoted to free and open thought.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Why diversity?

Abigail Fisher and her attorney
The Fisher affirmative action case has inspired Philosophy professor Chris Surprenant to contribute an excellent opinion piece to today’s New Orleans Times Picayune. Professor Surprenant suggests that the Fisher case should encourage us to think about the value of diversity and diversity-promoting policies in education. He begins by pointing out that the effectiveness of affirmative action in achieving the most common definition of “diversity,” increased representation of under-represented racial groups, is highly questionable. Since 1993, he tells us, black student enrollment at our top universities has actually gone down, even as these universities have actively pursued race-conscious admissions. I suppose one might respond that this enrollment could have gone down even more without these kinds of admissions policies, but that response would still leave a big problem. In writing the Supreme Court decision in the 2003 Grutter case, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor opined that using race to achieve diversity must be a temporary strategy and she stated that in twenty-five years affirmative action would no longer be needed or justified, presumably because there would be no more significant academic differences among groups. But not only were the selected under-represented group differences not going down at the time of the Grutter decision, group differences in academic preparation have actually increased, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere. So, I would accept Professor Suprenant’s point, and add to it that affirmative action has not only failed to increase black representation in selective schools, it has also failed completely as a solution to inequality across groups. I would also add that much of the growing “diversity” of American education has had nothing to do with affirmative action and has, in fact, occurred in spite of such policies.  There are today many more students of East and South Asian origin in our elite universities, a trend that might well be even more pronounced were it not for the fact that preferences for under-represented groups necessarily mean disadvantages for over-represented groups.
But Professor Suprenant’s main concern is to question what the ultimate purpose of “diversity” is supposed to be.  He asks why we value diversity. He suggests that the goal is to “make students less ethnocentric.” This goal is accepted without question “It's a product,” he writes, “of an educational system where the goal isn't to make students scholars, but to instill within them the virtues of tolerance and acceptance.” In this environment, the “diversity” of a campus has become a selling point, and universities seek to bring in minority students as assets.
Philosophy professor Chris W. Surprenant
Now, there are those who make the extraordinarily far-fetched argument that recruiting less-prepared minority students somehow has academic benefits for everyone. But the most common and most plausible claim is, as Professor Suprenant recognizes, that bringing in under-represented students will make other students more open to demographic variety. Diversity is good, in other words, because it makes students more accepting of diversity. For my part, I can’t see why black and Latino students will contribute more to open-mindedness than students of Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, or Asian Indian backgrounds. But it remains the case that what our colleges are trying to achieve is not intellectual development, but attitudinal adjustment. Professor Surprenant is right that we should go beyond the question of whether affirmative action is achieving this goal, to the more fundamental question whether the goal itself is an appropriate one for our institutions of higher education.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Bernard Lewis on the Middle East and Islam

Historian Bernard Lewis
The part of the world dominated by Islam concerns all of us today, as we face a Syria already in a state of civil war, deal with the shock of an American ambassador murdered by religious fanatics in Libya, and attempt to block new terrorist attacks against our own country. Bernard Lewis is one of the most influential Western scholars of Islamic civilization, and a helpful guide to the problems posed by modern Islam, although I am not sure that he has the right answers to those problems. As an introduction to his work, I particularly recommend From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East, which offers a selection of fifty-one essays from his long career, dating from 1953 to 2002. Some of these are short newspaper and magazine opinion pieces, of only two or three pages. Others are more conventional scholarly essays. Lewis has divided them into three sections: “Past History,” “Current History,” and “About History.” He also provides an introduction that is interesting and useful because in it he reflects on his own career and discusses how these essays relate to that career.

Most of the pieces in the first section are scholarly in character and will probably be less immediately appealing to most readers than his works on current events. This first section is important, though, because in it Bernard considers the complicated ways in which Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle East have understood and misunderstood each other over the centuries. The title essay, the second in part one on past history, was first published in 1998 and deals with some of the earliest intermediaries between these two neighboring civilizations. The word “dragoman” in English refers to someone who is a guide or interpreter in the nations of the East. As Lewis explains, it comes from an Arabic word that means “to translate.” The two major civilizations of the Mediterranean, Christendom and Islam, needed to communicate with each other. Since most of the Islamic world had fallen to the control of the Ottoman Turks by the end of the Middle Ages, this meant that the Turkish rulers of Istanbul and the powers of Europe needed to find interpreters.

Many of the earliest interpreters were slaves, refugees, or renegades. They were Europeans who had been captured by the Turks, Jews fleeing European persecution, or former Christians turned Muslim. Eventually, some groups came to provide professional dragomans. The Levantines, usually Catholics of Italian origin living in the eastern Mediterranean, provided many of the professional interpreters. However, the Levantines had no commitment of national loyalty to the European embassies they served and no diplomatic protection from the Ottoman rulers under whom they lived. The dragomans were reluctant to deliver messages that might give offense and they often engaged in systematic mistranslation, compounded by the problems of finding precisely equivalent meanings in different languages and cultures. Lewis made a good choice in selecting this as his title essay because it gives readers a cautionary tale about taking the explainers of Islam uncritically.

Most of the essays in the past history section do not touch directly on contemporary events. One of the exceptions is “Religion and Murder in the Middle East,” which treats both the political and the religious meaning of murder and draws parallels between the past and the present. Beginning with the assassination of the caliph ‘Uthman in 656 C.E., Lewis poses the problem of seeing a religiously motivated killing as a crime or as a legitimate act of justice. He traces religious killings through the emergence of the medieval order of the Assassins. He suggests that assassins are dedicated volunteers, motivated by promises of reward in the afterlife, and willing to engage in elaborate planning. He draws parallels between older historical assassinations in the Middle East and modern acts of terrorism and the Iranian death sentence on writer Salman Rushdie. He observes that claiming justification for killing in the religious teachings of Islam can have devastating consequences. Although initially delivered as a lecture in 1998, this essay has a great deal of relevance for the events of the early twenty first century.

The essays of the second part, on current history, present some of Lewis’ most controversial works. “The Roots of Muslim Rage,”originally delivered as a lecture and published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1990, brought Lewis to wide popular attention. It is an effort to explain why many Muslims seem to be angry with the West. In it, Lewis argues that the conflict between Christendom and Islam really is a conflict between two civilizations, originating in the spread of Islam by conquest through Christian lands in the Middle East, across North Africa, and into Spain. For centuries, the Muslims had the cultural and military advantage, but were generous enough to tolerate the Christians and Jews who lived among them. Since the late seventeenth century, though, Muslims have suffered a steady series of defeats at the hands of the Christian West. In modern times, the Europeans, and more recently the Americans, have dominated the Islamic world in thought and cultural practice, as well as in politics. This domination by people formerly regarded as inferior has been humiliating for Muslims, whose traditional ways have been undermined by the new Western ways. Muslim anger is an expression of frustration by those who were winning but are now losing.

The argument presented in “The Roots of Muslim Rage” lies behind many of the other essays in this section. Part of it is well-founded. There is clearly frustration at Western domination among many nations of Africa and Asia, all of whom are deeply influenced by Europe and the West. Still, radical Islamic movements have arisen across the Muslim world, in nations that have a wide variety of historical experiences. Some of these movements, such as those in Indonesia and the southern Philippines, are in regions entirely outside of the Mediterranean world in which Christendom and Islam have historically faced each other as competing civilizations. This led me to wonder whether Lewis’ generalizations are just too broad.

The question of how the West, and America in particular, should respond to Muslim frustration at Western penetration is a difficult one. If one accepts this view, one may conclude that the best thing for the United States and the European nations to do is simply leave the nations of Islam alone. Some commentators point out that the defense of Kuwait against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the first Gulf war brought American troops into the Muslim holy land of Saudi Arabia, and that outrage over the presence of these foreign troops sparked the terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda. The invasion and occupation of Iraq by the U.S. and its allies, according to these commentators intensified the rage and contributed to the problem, rather than solve it. Lewis presents an entirely different view in these essays. In “Did You Say ‘American Imperialism?’: Power, Weakness, and Choices in the Middle East,” first published in the conservative National Review in December 2001, Lewis argues that the United States cannot hope for friendship or good relations in the region. He maintains that the U.S. should not seek to be even-handed in its relations with Middle Eastern nations, such as Israel and the countries that surround it. Instead, realistic self-interest demands that the U.S. attempt to benefit its friends and harm its enemies. Lewis suggests that the American government is faced with the stark alternative of getting tough or getting out of the Middle East. He leaves little doubt that he favors getting tough.

In the last essay of the current history section, “A Time for Toppling,” Lewis makes the clearest statement in favor of the getting tough option. Originally published in the Wall Street Journal in September 2002, he maintains that the tyrannical rulers of the Middle East encourage the rage of their own people in order to turn anger away from themselves and against foreign enemies. Peace can only come with the defeat of those rulers, and their replacement by freely chosen governments. It is not clear, though, how this argument is connected to the Lewis’ observations on the historical conflict of civilizations. I wonder, for example, whether it is possible for the United States, or any other power, to impose representative governments throughout the Middle East.

Now, ten years after this last essay, we have seen many of the rulers in the Middle East overthrown and we have seen the attempt to overthrow the ruler of Syria push that country into internecine conflict that will probably not end soon. I have no doubt that our overriding goal in the Middle East and in other Muslim parts of the world should be the pursuit of our own self-interest. But that pursuit may require us to recognize that our powers over these foreign lands are limited, and that their populations are likely to burn with rage, against us, their own leaders, and even against each other for some time to come. Rather than seek peace by encouraging internal political developments, I think it may be better for us to try to devise a new containment strategy, on the principle that the rage cannot last forever.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Affirmative Fantasy

In one of the latest contributions to the commentary on the Fisher case, sociologist Thomas Espenshade speculates that institutions of higher education may be facing the end of affirmative action. Citing the study of affirmative action students he did with his co-author Alexandra Walton Radford, Espenshade acknowledges in a New York Times opinion piece that students admitted to selective colleges tend to graduate toward the bottom of their classes. However, Espenshade argues that no policy, including socioeconomic affirmative action, would generate as much racial and ethnic diversity as race-based affirmative action. “Most important,” he writes, “our study found that without affirmative action, racial diversity could only be preserved if there were no racial differences in learned skills and knowledge or in college preparedness.” In other words, he sees affirmative action as necessary precisely because it brings relatively unprepared students with comparatively low academic skills and knowledge into selective colleges, and these students tend to remain behind others throughout their academic careers.
Professor Thomas Espenshade
If affirmative action ends, Espenshade observes, maintaining racial and ethnic diversity will require either “giving more weight in admissions to those factors that are sometimes close substitutes for race” (i.e., engaging in subterfuge) or “putting their endowments and influence behind a comprehensive effort to close the learning gap that starts at birth.” Now, according to most indicators, contemporary colleges and universities are not doing a very good job of educating their own students. Yet, Professor Espenshade would have us believe that these institutions have almost limitless potential to re-shape the lives of children across the nation, taking over the work of communities and families, and ending all variations in educational preparation across demographic categories. If you believe that this is within the capability of higher education, I’d like to forward you some of the investment opportunities I’ve been receiving in my email from unknown parties abroad.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Class-Based Affirmative Action

Richard Kahlenberg
The website Inside Higher Education discusses a new report issued by the Century Foundation. Part of the debate on affirmative action on the eve of the Supreme Court’s consideration of the Fisher case, the report, authored by Richard Kahlenberg, argues in favor of replacing race-based affirmative action with class-based affirmative action. The report is an updating of policies Kahlenberg has been advocating for years, most notably in his 1996 book The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action. Kahlenberg maintains that public policy should pursue preferences in educational admissions and employment based on socioeconomic class, rather than race. In his view, this would be more acceptable than racial preferences to the American public and it would accomplish the same goals as racial preferences, since people in the racial and ethnic categories favored by race-based affirmative action are disproportionately at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.
Essentially, the Century Foundation approach would place public institutions in the position of the old Queen for a Day show, rewarding those who could tell the sorriest stories about their misfortunes. Since every college admission or job that one person receives is an admission or job that someone else will not receive, by definition class-based affirmative action must mean that public institutions would discriminate in favor of those with less fortunate and less successful family backgrounds and against those with more fortunate and more successful family backgrounds. Whatever families accomplish through work, ability, or luck will be counterbalanced (in theory) by systematic governmental discrimination in favor of families that have accomplished less.
One difficulty that I see with the class-based preferences approach is that it is clearly unconstitutional. The Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment forbids states from denying the equal protection of the laws to any person in their jurisdiction, and this clause is commonly regarded as applying also to the federal government under the Fifth Amendment requirement of due process. If states or the federal government adopt policies that give preferences to persons based on socioeconomic background, then the laws are clearly being applied unequally.  I have no doubt that a sophisticated constitutional scholar could find an elaborate interpretation demonstrating that discrimination based on economic standing is not denial of equal protection. But any straightforward reading of the clause leads to the conclusion that the law, and public policy as an expression of the law, must treat every person in exactly the same way. It cannot, through policies at public institutions, treat the children of the rich one way, those of the middle class another, and those of the poor still another.