Troubled waters in academe

Monday Book Reviews

August 03, 1992|By Dan Berger

IMPOSTORS IN THE TEMPLE. By Martin Anderson. Simon & Schuster. 256 pages. $22.

THE MAIN contribution of this indictment of academic practices is an assault on the use of graduate students -- teaching assistants -- to teach university classes. "Children teaching children" cheats the undergraduates and exploits the graduate students, delaying the degrees of both.

All because professors want to do research and not teach. Or not actually do the research; research is pretty tedious. The vulnerable graduate students can do that, too -- as long as the tenured professors who hold the fate of the graduate students in their hands get credit in academic journals for the papers.

The papers need not be significant. They may not be read. They are counted. A professor's worth rests on how many articles his resume claims and how many times his articles are cited in other articles. Denounced, perhaps; it doesn't matter. The references are counted, not evaluated.

So if three scholars each writing one article agree to put all three names on all three, all get credited with three articles. Should they cite their own past articles, they get credit for the citations, without losing points for the conflict of interest. Beats teaching, apparently.

The expose of academe is getting to be my favorite genre. It points with alarm, excoriates conformism on the left, alleges violation of liberal principles and spotlights outright anti-intellectualism. It comes from the right and pretends there is no center.

There are many such books, all citing each other and dredging up the same atrocious anecdotes. They are almost the same book. By their differences shall you know them.

Martin Anderson follows in the path pioneered by such younger men as Charles Sykes and Dinesh D'Souza. He beat the latter out of Dartmouth by three decades and is a longtime business scholar, think-tanker and policy adviser to President Reagan. (So, though he reckons himself in the club, feminist theorists or physicists might quibble.) He is nobody's disciple. These are his own ideas.

Mr. Anderson's book is mostly about the sins of pride -- hubris -- of much of the professoriate. These include more than short-changing undergraduates and sweat-laboring grad students. He makes the obligatory stab at left-wing conformism.

But Mr. Anderson conforms to no stereotype himself. He throws in a vigorous attack on sexual abuse and harassment, by some professors, of persons over whom they have authority. His point is not the gender or sexual preference (if restricted to adults) or the temptation to romance inherent in scholar-pupil relationships. Rather, it is the abuse of power. Given the institutional whitewashes he documents, it needs saying.

And on to institutional corruption, athletic corruption and related matters. Mr. Anderson winds up advocating 10 reforms, half of which I agree with. But where to put the pressure?

He concludes surprisingly that it is the responsibility of people like me (!) ("professional intellectuals," specifically including editorial writers and op-ed contributors) to focus pressure on the trustees -- administrators are hopeless -- of these institutions.

To help, he prints the names of trustees of the 10 leading (in his mind) universities. (Johns Hopkins is omitted; burn this book.) You can then find their addresses in "Who's Who in America" and write them angry letters. Get it?

Trustees are part-time, unpaid dignitaries who make sure finances are responsible and otherwise refrain from meddling in academic minutiae. They do it for the prestige, I think. But this author says the cleanup is their responsibility, if only I -- the "professional intellectual" -- will make them do it.

In other words, don't blame Baltimore on Kurt Schmoke. He is only the mayor. But Yale is his fault. He's a trustee.

If this book makes administrators wince on institutional use of teaching assistants to balance budgets without inconveniencing anyone tenured, or makes scholars justify their own publication, it will have done good. You don't have to be a right-winger to enjoy this book. You only have to like such passages as:

"Over the last 30 or 40 years an almost impenetrable cocoon has been spun around most academic writing, until today it is almost as tough and dense as fiberglass. The fiendish combination of writing in the language of mathematics and jargon, of breaking ++ up whatever shreds of recognizable thought remain with long streaks of citations in the text, and then hiding any personal accountability behind multiple authorship, has created a secret world in which we are all guilty of complicity. We might not have the foggiest notion of its worth, but we generously assume its worth is considerable. That is a mistake."

Dan Berger is an editorial writer for The Sun and The Evening Sun.

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