Cold War Embers in Catonsville

January 05, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace -- It's a hoot and a half to think that the dim bulbs at the University of Maryland Baltimore County actually declined to grant tenure to an instructor because she wasn't Marxist enough to satisfy their discriminating standards.

Why are academics always the last to get the word? Marxism? Get real. Hello, out there in Catonsville -- is anybody home?

In their rarefied satellite-campus atmosphere, the intellectual leadership of UMBC evidently didn't notice that Marxism as an operable philosophy has been on the dust heap of history for at least five years, except at certain universities. Perhaps the radical cadres on the faculty were so busy cudgeling their rank and file into line they lost track of exactly where the cutting edge was.

That sort of thing happens a lot on campuses. Academic intellectuals get so preoccupied with ideology they don't have time to read the news. ''The whole history of civilization is strewn with creeds and institutions which were invaluable at first, and deadly afterward,'' observed the British journalist Walter Bagehot in 1869. And academics are always the last to find out that the rot has set in.

What seems to have happened at UMBC is more comic than outrageous, because above all it's so quintessentially bush-league. In aping what they take to be the current culture of Yale or Berkeley, it's not at all unusual for back-country faculty members to go parading around in the ideological costumes of 1969. To them it's sophisticated. To everyone else it's slapstick, like the cartoon hobo in a top hat.

But while Marxism survives in the radical enclave of Catonsville, there has been a great awakening on the famous campuses where trickle-down intellectual trendiness begins. There old Marxists can hang on in their tenured irrelevancy, but they are increasingly ignored by bright students, who do follow the news. And although college administrations may be stuck with these toothless old relics, they're certainly not hiring any more of them.

At UMBC, where Marxist residue from the state university system seems to have drained and settled, the insufficiently Marxist instructor, a person named Dibble, is now suing for $1 million. This is 50 times the most she ever made in a year as a teacher of German. The functionaries in charge of course deny that any politically motivated discrimination occurred, and eventually the whole farce will play out in federal court.

In a way, it'll be sad when the last Marxists finally disappear from the campuses of state universities, because they used to provide good theater. Back in 1978, when the University of Maryland nominated a Marxist professor named Bertell Ollman to head its department of government and politics, all sorts of amusing things happened.

The acting governor at the time, a Princeton graduate, naively opined that while the appointment of a Marxist might be all right PTC for Harvard, it might not be the best interests of a public university. As this assertion seemed to imply that students at public universities are too dumb to be exposed to radical philosophy, there was a great outcry, and the acting governor retreated.

Meanwhile, the American Association of University Professors flexed its rhetorical muscles, and lectured the acting governor on the meaning of intellectual freedom. Politically-charged diatribes from the campus are free speech, they explained, but the same sort of thing from elected officials in the the state capital comes close to totalitarian repression.

On reflection, even some of those who had feared that Dr. Ollman might turn the College Park campus into a hotbed of Marxist thought soon began to modify their positions. If the bearded bomb-thrower -- actually, although he looked like an old-fashioned anarchist, he was a perfectly normal professor -- could turn the university into a hotbed of any kind of thought he'd have earned his salary, they concluded.

Sometimes it's hard to believe that we leave education in the hands of academics. The recent upheaval over proposed national standards for teaching American and world history is a case in point.

The educators like the idea of telling teachers of history what to teach, and making sure they pass along the accepted dogma without deviation. But the dogma accepted by some educators isn't necessarily accepted by everybody. For example, Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, assailed the proposed standards for pushing ''leftist point-of-view history,'' in which everything that ''has do do with white people is evil and oppressive, while Genghis Khan is a nice, sweet guy just bringing his culture to other places.''

But the point, which the educators miss, isn't that we need better standards. It's that this is a big, resilient country, and we don't need national standards at all. Even at poor old UMBC, the kids will probably learn to distinguish the mildewed Marxism of Karl from the more enduring version of Groucho.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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