Impostors In The Temple: American Intellectuals are Destroying Our Universities and Cheating Our Students of Their Future

Martin Anderson
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992
255 pp., $21.95 hc

Paul Trout

As the subtitle shows, Martin Anderson is so worked up over the way professors have corrupted higher education that he can't even wait until the first page to light into them. Once inside the book, he explodes like a cluster-bomb, sending shrapnel in every direction. Some of them draw blood, but a couple hit innocent bystanders and a few more whiz right by their intended target--the "corrupt priests" of academe.

Impostors in the Temple makes one thing very clear: it's getting harder and harder to come up with some really new wickedness, dereliction, omission, or maleficence that can be plausibly attributed to university professors. The damage has already been done by such trenchant faculty-bashers as Bennett, Bloom, Hirsch, Jacoby, Cheney, Johnson, Sykes, Shaw, Barzun, Kimball, Wilshire, Sowell, Smith, Epstein, Bromwich, Balch, Short, Huber, Rauch, and Magnet.

Anderson's modest contribution to the neocon academic jeremiad is to lump together the main accusations leveled against university professors over the past ten years. The specifics should be pretty familiar by now: professors prefer research and publication to teaching; teaching is deteriorating because it is being done by graduate students, who aren't educated enough to do it well; publishing is more prestigious and better rewarded than pedagogy; research in the humanities is either nonsensical or political; research in the sciences is corrupted by greed; male professors sometimes have sex with (both willing and reluctant) female students; administrators and grantmeisters rip-off the government; college athletics are corrupt, etc.

According to Anderson, this scandalous breakdown of undergraduate liberal education is the result of the way universities are structured. A university is like a mini-socialist state, he explains, free from the market forces and real-life accountability that think-tank intellectuals and ordinary people must face every day of their lives. Although titularly run by regents or governing boards, universities actually are run by professors (faculty and administrators) who have "no clear-cut owners to answer to" and who can pretty much do as they wish (39). Unchecked by outsiders and free to do what they want, professors have connived to jerrymander every aspect of the system to suit themselves, letting students, taxpayers, and everyone else be damned. They make up the rules by which they are governed and are the sole judges for what is and is not "meritorious" within their ranks. They have even connived to institutionalize tenure, thus giving themselves almost unlimited license to do as they please without worrying about losing their jobs.

Exacerbating this structural problem is the penchant of academic intellectuals (people with Ph.D.s) to view themselves as a superior elite bounded only by what they themselves believe is right and important. "Basically, they believe that the rules that govern others do not and should not apply to them." If there is a clash between their values and the more common values of society, professors--contemptuous of the world outside and resentful of its power--will follow their own without blinking and without a trace of remorse (129). Infected by the "arrogant conviction" that they are special and above the rules of the game, these "corrupt priests," these "great pretenders," scorn undergraduates, disdain teaching, prefer research, reward publication, push their politics, and overestimate the importance of their work.

There are varying measures of truth to each of Anderson's charges. His main point, that professors and administrators today have less "integrity" than they did in the past, is difficult to deny. Hot-shot celebrity "scholars" accept, presumably with a clear conscience, six-figure tax-funded salaries that entail no teaching whatsoever. More than a few prominent--and egregiously overpaid--administrators have been caught using government research funds to refurbish yachts, redecorate their offices, etc. During the last decade or so The Chronicle of Higher Education has carried so many stories about plagiarism, bogus credentials, research fraud, and downright theft that it may soon follow its "Business & Philanthropy" section with one headed "Cheating, Lying, and Stealing." Lingua Franca may drop its "Jobtracks" section for one entitled "Terminated for Cause."

Anderson suggests that the moral decay began in the early '60s, when hundreds of thousands were recruited into higher education to fill new positions. How many of these people, he asks, were intellectually and morally qualified to be conscientious, self-abnegating, professional educators dedicated above all to the education of undergraduates, with all their manifest and irritating frailties? "Very few" is the answer. As a result, we now have a horde of self-inflated, brown-nosing, careerist academics who just want to be left alone to produce the drivel that earns salary raises.

The trouble with Impostors in the Temple is that the cruel things it says about academics and the institution they have wrought are rarely nuanced or supported with cogent and convincing data. Nor does it offer any other explanations for the various ills of academe save faculty turpitude, "the root cause of the educational troubles which afflict us today."

Take, for instance, his simplistic analysis of grade inflation, a phenomenon that no one disputes. For Anderson, it is the result of the "demise of conscientious, responsible grading" (59) on the part of faculty, many of whom do not grade students themselves but have TAs do it. As a result, "many of the grades received by students today are fraudulent," reflecting "dishonor on the faculty, not the students" (58). There is no doubt in my mind that the use of TAs has in fact exacerbated grade inflation. I understand that some canny students try to get TAs as their instructors because they know that untenured part-timers, particularly those working their way through graduate school, can't risk their jobs by giving out too many "low" grades no matter how stupid the students are. But there are other ways of explaining grade inflation which do not necessarily redound to the discredit of faculty. An increase in the number of high grades is also the result of students being allowed to contract for specific grades, to revise papers, to drop the lowest grade, to submit their best work for evaluation, to take courses pass/fail, etc. But Anderson does not want to entertain the possibility that these innovative pedagogic strategies may have contributed to grade inflation, because they also are "student-centered" and have improved undergraduate instruction.

Nor does he want to speculate about the possibility that student evaluation forms have also contributed to grade inflation. Anderson, I suspect, would support the use of student evaluations in determining retention, promotion, and merit, but these devices for improving the quality of undergraduate instruction have also contributed to the erosion of strict grading standards. As every teacher knows, there is a strong positive correlation between "easy grading" and high course-evaluation scores, if professors are soliciting favorable student evaluations by giving out more high grades, some of their dishonor should rub off on their grade-grubbing students, who play an equal role in this quid pro quo (see The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 6 and 17, 1993).

When Impostors in the Temple appeared, several publications reprinted portions of Anderson's scathing attack on the use of TAs. TAs are the "clearest proof" that prestigious schools "disdain" undergraduate education. These pseudo-professors are usually graduate students "barely a step or two ahead of the students in their charge" and, "as a group, they are manifestly unqualified to tackle the enormous responsibility the university entrusts to them." The "secret shame of most of our finest universities," he declares, is that "children [are] teaching children."

Although a strong case could be made against the use of TAs, Anderson does not make it; I find his much ballyhooed indictment of TAs the weakest section of this flawed book. For starters, Anderson does not cogently define the term "TA," does not know how many TAs he's talking about, does not adequately distinguish between their various duties, and does not offer any evidence that most, or even a majority, of TAs are unable to "teach" the selected lower-level undergraduate courses they've been assigned. He must be aware of these problems because he quotes from a report from a Big-Ten university that concludes, "We know almost nothing about these teaching assistants" (52). This is true throughout the country; there are no reliable statistics on which to pass an argument. So what Anderson does is premise his indictment on the presumed age, and therefore assumed inexperience, of TAs, thus justifying his exaggerated claim that "children [are] teaching children." Without any data at his disposal, Anderson assumes that (all? most? many?) TAs are "only a few years older than his or her charges." This assumption is weak, since some TAs are credentialed older men and women either picking up another degree in midlife or simply earning money as non-tenure track adjuncts and part-timers.

Anderson also seems to be blithely unaware that his argument that TAs are "too young to teach" disastrously collides with his argument that TAs are too old to be getting Ph. D.s. He argues, for instance, that if graduate students were prevented from being TAs, then they would get their terminal degree more quickly and not be so old when they actually begin their career. "The average graduate student is 34 years old before he or she breaks free of the cocoon of dependency that is the Ph.D. process" (74). If this is so, then the TAs who are working their way through graduate school can hardly be called "children." In other words, Anderson inconsistently maintains that TAs are at once "children" and also "middle-aged men and women" (75). Moreover, he also seems to miss the point that his proposal would result in new Ph.D.s being not only younger but also unexperienced as teachers, thus worsening, not lessening, the "children teaching children" problem he's trying to solve. These glaring inconsistencies aside, Anderson does not explain how--if TAs are outlawed--grad students would pay for their education or acquire the teaching experience their undergraduate students have the right to expect from fully credentialed professionals.

Another topic Anderson examines is the conflict between teaching and research. He is quite right to say that most universities prize and reward publication more than teaching. Although administrators try to obfuscate this relationship, every graduate student in the country knows the score: publish your little tushes off but make sure you also get "respectable" student evaluations. Once tenured, keep on publishing, if you don't want to suck hind teat the rest of your life. Relying on superior teaching alone, or even for a few years, brings financial disaster and opprobrium.

But Anderson draws some unwarranted conclusions from this ethic. He believes that "there is now a widespread contempt for teaching...on our university and college campuses" (46), that "more and more professors are not teaching or grading or counseling" (49), and that "writing for publication is now the essence of what the academic intellectual does" (102). What data are available do not support these conclusions. Research by Ladd, Lipset, Boyer, and others shows that few faculty members nationwide actively engage in scholarly research or ever publish anything, that those who do publish are in some measure coerced into it by tenure requirements, and that most faculty members prefer to concentrate their energies on teaching, not publication. Fifty-five per cent have never published a book, twenty-two per cent have never published in a professional journal, and almost thirty per cent are not now engaged in scholarly research that will lead to publication. In a survey of more than 35,000 faculty at 392 two-year and four-year institutions conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, ninety per cent of faculty said they viewed teaching as their primary activity (On Campus, November 1991). Another study conducted by the Carnegie Foundation found that the primary interest of seventy-one per cent of the professors surveyed was teaching (CHE, December 5, 1990). In other words, the university reward structure has not led to a widespread contempt for teaching or to a drastic shift in the priorities of university teachers.

Ironically, Anderson indirectly endorses research productivity. When quoting from a respected authority, for example, Anderson always mentions the number of books the person has written: "the writer of numerous books on social policy," "the author of twenty books," etc. An academic does not write twenty books without taking a lot of time off from teaching. But this does not bother Anderson because he agrees with what they have produced. What really bothers him, I suspect, is that much of the scholarship produced (with and without released time), especially in the social sciences and humanities, is not congruent with Anderson's political values.

But instead of admitting this, Anderson condemns "most" research as trivial and unnecessary. Indeed, the low quality of academic research and writing constitutes "the greatest intellectual fraud of the twentieth century" (85). The university reward structure, by "giving disproportionate weight to the quantity of intellectual production, not its quality" (113), has contributed "powerfully to the decline of important, significant research" (114), to the pretence that trivial or even misconceived work is important, and to such corrupt practices as multiple authorship to inflate credentials, and to the group-think intellectual log-rolling and brown-nosing called "peer review."

Some of this, so to speak, is on the nose. "Objective peer" review is easily corrupted and in some disciplines used to enforce herdthink (see "Peer Review Doesn't Stand Up in Court," Wall Street Journal, April 26, 1993, A15). And, like Anderson, I find a lot of publications in my field scandalously inane and stupefyingly arcane. But it is easier to say that scholarship is trivial and obvious than to prove it. Triviality and obviousness are frequently in the eye of the beholder. In experiments conducted by Daphna Baratz and then by Lily Wong, groups of students found true and false findings to be just about equally obvious, suggesting that people have a tendency to regard as obvious any research finding they happen to read about. Labeling something "trivial" is even more problematical. I may have no need to consult the dissertation entitled Electrical Measurements on Cuticles of the American Cockroach but somebody else may, and use this material in a very productive way. No doubt many scholars regarded with disdain a 1977 dissertation on Fat Albert as a teaching aid, but its author eventually helped create The Cosby Show. The celebrated historian and education critic Page Smith also thinks that many academic publications are "trivial." How many of his "twenty books" can you or anybody besides his wife and mother name? Does that make his work trivial? To whom?

There is another problem with Anderson's critique of contemporary scholarship. How, for example, does he know that important research is declining? Who is counting? Who is measuring? And even if it were somehow possible to determine that there are now more "insignificant" publications than in the past, that would not mean, as Anderson assumes it would, that there are fewer "significant" ones; they could be increasing too. And once again Anderson stumbles into an inconsistency. He claims, for instance, that the opportunity to discover new and important ideas is "increasingly unlikely with each passing day" (119). What could account for this but the fact that with each passing day new and important ideas are in fact being discovered?

There is a lot wrong with higher education, but its hydra-headed hypocrisies will best be lopped off with sharp-edged logic rather than with blunt tirade.

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