Monday, July 15, 2013
The Brodhead Commission Report
That any commission, of any type, could consider Richard Brodhead as a vehicle to build public support for anything related to higher education is nothing short of astonishing. That a figure who presided over one of the highest-profile university scandals of recent years—a scandal in which his school’s humanities professors played an outsized role—would seem like a good choice to improve public backing for the humanities is almost comical.
Yet a 53-person commission of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which produced a lengthy report at the behest of a bipartisan groupof legislators, did just that. The Brodhead commission report is a combination of the banal with the wonderfully self-unaware. (By the way, the 53-person committee included Ken Burns; perhaps his work on the project suggests theorigins of filmmaker Burns’ . . . unusual . . . interpretation of the lacrossecase.) The commission featured not only Brodhead but several other paragons of campus political correctness, Harvard president Drew Faust, Amherst president Carolyn Martin, and Penn president Amy Guttmann.
Some of the report’s conclusions were almost caricatures of the banal. For instance, who could disagree with the following statement, which appears on page 16? “Our need for a broadly literate population is more urgent than ever. As citizens, we need to absorb an ever-growing body of information and to assess the sources of that information. As workers, we need to adapt to an ever-accelerating rate of technological change and to reflect on the implications of these changes. As members of a global community, we need to look beyond our borders to communicate and interact with individuals from societies and cultures different from our own. As a nation, we need to provide an educational foundation for our future stability and prosperity— drawing on all areas of knowledge.”
Or consider this item, from the study’s acknowledgements: the report “identifies three overarching goals: 1) to educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy; 2) to foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong; and 3) to equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world. These goals cannot be achieved by science alone.” Do those who oppose the study’s recommendations favor a society that is luddite, uncompetitive, and weak?
The report also champions such public policy goals as strengthening support for teachers, enhancing access to material available online, supporting study abroad programs, boosting funding for NEH, and promoting the learning of foreign languages. Of course, all of these proposals (each of which seems to me an excellent idea) take money, and the Brodhead commission doesn’t quite explain how or why more tax revenue will find its way into higher education.
And there’s one funding-related question that the Brodhead commission dare not touch. We live in a society that’s deeply polarized along ideological and partisan lines. And yet the humanities skews—wildly—in one direction, to such an extent that it seems almost certain that today the ideological median of humanities professors is further away from the ideological median of society at large than at any other point in American history. Is it possible—just possible—that this ideological chasm, a general sense among most politicians that today’s humanities departments aren’t exactly the most intellectually diverse entities around, has caused a reluctance to fund? The Brodhead commission doesn’t ask that question—perhaps because it doesn’t want to know the answer.
In at least three other respects, the commission is almost blissfully self-unaware in its commentary. First, the commission expresses grave concern about the state of affairs in high school history and social studies instruction. We need more high school civics classes, the report declares, and the quality of teacher preparation is dangerously low. The report (p. 19) foresees “grave consequences for the nation” that “humanities teachers, particularly in k-12 history, are less well-trained than teachers in other subject areas.”
It’s not hard, however, to detect at least one importance reason for this problem. Public school curricula continue to be set by state boards of education—which are responsible to the public, and which generally mandate curricula that would be deemed somewhat “traditional.” Students in high school history classes are supposed to learn about, among other things, Presidents, and wars, and key court decisions, and major elections.
Yet Brodhead and the many other college presidents who were part of the commission have presided over universities that have emphasized “diversity” and the hiring of specialists in areas related to race, class, or gender over the study of more traditional aspects of the American past. I most recently discussed this issue in a multi-part series at Minding the Campus. As a result, most public school teachers can go through college and M.A. programs with little—or in the case of U.S. military or constitutional history, almost certainly no—exposure to specialists in the fields that they then have to teach to the nation’s public school students.
And so the report urges an expansion of “education in international affairs” (p. 12)—without mentioning the massive decline in the past generation in faculty positions devoted to U.S. diplomatic or military history, the result of hiring decisions that these very same presidents (or their predecessors) have ultimately approved.
The nation’s founders, the report intones (p. 15), understood that the country’s well-being depended on citizens who “understand their own history,” and it’s particularly important to study “jurisprudence.” Yet the report makes no mention that the field of U.S. constitutional history has been all but eliminated in the nation’s history departments, the result of hiring decisions that these very same presidents (or their predecessors) have ultimately approved.
Indeed, virtually the only high-profile president in recent years who was concerned about such matters was Harvard’s Larry Summers. And he was deposed via a faculty revolt.
Second, the commission’s report veers into territory that it would seem to want to avoid—in that it calls into question the ideological imbalances in the contemporary academy. For instance, on page 10, the report asserts that “humanists and social scientists are critical in providing cultural, historical, and ethical expertise and empirical analysis to efforts that address issues such as the provision of clean air and water, food, health, energy, and universal education.”
Health, environmental, and energy policies are among the most contentious in our current political climate. What incentive would GOP legislators or conservative donors—two groups ostensibly targeted by the report—have to boost humanities funding if the result is increased attention to policy proposals where 90 percent or more of today’s humanities professors are on the other side from the targeted funders? I find it hard to believe, for instance, that this line of argument would persuade the Kochs that it’s a good idea for them to start making more donations to college humanities programs.
Finally, the commission itself was blissfully self-unaware in allowing Brodhead to function as its public face. In its section analyzing the problems facing higher education, the report’s first footnote is none other than an item from Brodhead, entitled, “Rebuilding the Public’s Confidence in Higher Ed.” This would be the same Brodhead whose highest-profile off-campus appearance came in a widely-panned 60 Minutes appearance in which he tried, in vain, to defend his university’s rush to judgment in the lacrosse case. Or whose highest-profile off-campus reputation dealing with the humanities came in his presiding over a school that had dozens of humanities professors sign a public declaration affirming that something had “happened” to false accuser Crystal Mangum, and thanking protesters who had urged among other things the castration of the lacrosse captains.
The Brodhead commission report seeks to build off-campus support for the humanities—from legislators, from donors, and ultimately from the public. Yet Brodhead’s record in the lacrosse case is merely a click away for any of these target audiences. Could the commission not have found someone less compromised than Brodhead to serve as its public face?
The commission’s selection of the Duke president as its member most likely to persuade legislators or the public would be a little like trying to persuade a gay rights group by turning to a high-ranking figure in the Catholic Church; or seeking to solicit financial contributions from a mining organization by soliciting a report penned by a prominent Sierra Club lobbyist. After his performance in the lacrosse case, why should any public official accept Richard Brodhead’s advice about anything?