What happens when we replace rage with complacency and radical caring with a benign, yet dangerous, indifference?


We are facing a measured turn in higher education where the old, radical lions — liberal and conservative professors with tenure — who were baked and seared in the radical ’60s, are now retiring and are being replaced with tasteless, wan, and passionless instructors with no vested interest in change or dynamic learning.

The New York Times recently reported this pox academe:

Baby boomers, hired in large numbers during a huge expansion in higher education that continued into the ’70s, are being replaced by younger professors who many of the nearly 50 academics interviewed by The New York Times believe are different from their predecessors — less ideologically polarized and more politically moderate.
“There’s definitely something happening,” said Peter W. Wood, executive director of the National Association of Scholars, which was created in 1987 to counter attacks on Western culture and values. “I hear from quite a few faculty members and graduate students from around the country. They are not really interested in fighting the battles that have been fought over the last 20 years.”

Individual colleges and organizations like the American Association of University Professors are already bracing for what has been labeled the graying of the faculty. More than 54 percent of full-time faculty members in the United States were older than 50 in 2005, compared with 22.5 percent in 1969. How many will actually retire in the next decade or so depends on personal preferences and health, as well as how their pensions fare in the financial markets.

Yet already there are signs that the intense passions and polemics that roiled campuses during the past couple of decades have begun to fade. At Stanford a divided anthropology department reunited last year after a bitter split in 1998 broke it into two entities, one focusing on culture, the other on biology. At Amherst, where military recruiters were kicked out in 1987, students crammed into a lecture hall this year to listen as alumni who served in Iraq urged them to join the military.

If a university professor is passionless and has no true experience tempered in the real world where lives are at stake and the future of the universe is held in the balance of their decision-making — what do they really have to teach anyone?

Learning is more about experience than memorization and relies upon altruism and not propaganda.

We must require our educational arbiters to be more about divining perception than honoring emotion

The university experience should be testing, teasing, radical, contemptuous and, above all, cynical in its essence. 

To risk anything less is to mock the true purpose of the university aesthetic:  Shattering expectation and driving home the unbreakable idea that conflict is a necessary part of living and that the sign of an educated mind is its ability to hold equal, but opposite, arguments in the same moment and finding value in each even if you agree with neither.

10 Comments

  1. The neat thing about college is meeting people that don’t agree with you. They force you to think about things in different ways. You don’t have to agree with them. There’s no harm in listening.

  2. Janna —
    It is unfortunate how the current political climate in Washington has demonized negotiation, thought, tact, and conversation as effective weapons for protecting the Homeland. Might only rarely makes right and often creates generational wrongs.

  3. What a beautiful article, David!
    And love the fact that it links to some of my other favourite articles that I had the pleasure of reading again!
    The grey area isn’t a cold, dead place somewhere in the middle, it’s where the light fights the darkness!

  4. Right, Danajay!
    I have seen these faceless, grey, meaningless “professors” who are on their way up into tenured positions. They have no spirit or backbone. They’ve been taught to bow and barter and never take an all-or-nothing stand.
    I can’t imagine having to sit and listen to them as a student when these instructors have no driving force behind their education except to do no wrong and not make waves.

  5. Hi David,
    Very interesting article!
    Does this survey say how did this “boomers” act before being tenured?
    Though I do not support being “grey or politically correct” – but I wonder, is it a situational effect?
    Passion generates involvement, but may be insecurity breeds this “grey”-ish ness?

  6. In the late 960’s and early 70’s there were campus “sit-ins” to protest the War in Vietnam, Katha. Some of the incidents were deadly… like Kent State… others were confrontational like Columbia University… most were benign protests that took a hard point and drove it home.
    The rallying cry for those kids was, “Kill your parents!” Because they wanted to overthrow the current political condition and replace repression with self-expression. Parents, administrators and other authority figures were the object of their hatred.
    That radical passion to kill in order to bring about world peace was a driving mandate for many people of that Age and they found a safe haven in universities where they could be heard and not punished because of free speech and tenure. The whole idea of tenure is to allow the radical thought to be expressed without punishment — but we’re losing that battle as well.
    As those angry, courageous, tigers retire — they are being replaced with kids who were raised to be politically correct, express no opinion other than the mainstream meme. and to — at any and all cost — get along by dumbing-down. We’re in for a fit of trouble, I think, in 20 years as we’re stuck with those mediocre minds in protected positions.

  7. I have some comfort when I see the angry zines being made by the youth of today – it is fortunate that not everyone fits into the category of “sheeple” as someone decided to call said mass of overly politically correct people.

  8. Gordon —
    When I was an undergrad, there was a member of the English Department faculty who was a self-confessed “Communist” and he had all the propaganda in his office and he would openly discuss the merits of the system with anyone that asked. He would have a hard time existing in the “role” today without being tenured because he would never get there in the first place because of his radicalized — but, I argue, necessary — views.
    Let’s hope some of those angry kids get in the educational system and keep their smart rebellion as they fight for the few tenure jobs available. The trend today is for universities to try to kill all tenure tracks by not filling the slots when they open up and then using “work for hire” adjuncts to fill full time positions at an hourly rate. The university saves time and money but the students are cheated out of intellectual honesty in the faculty.

  9. Hi David,
    Calcutta was one of the major centers in the world for the Vietnam War protest in ‘70s, so I know a little about it – second hand knowledge though.
    I heard about Kent State and Jackson State too, later.
    The next part it is what is interesting – the protestors got a safe heaven in the universities to express their mind but in this side of the globe the rebel took a different turn…but that’s a different story.
    http://venus.unive.it/asiamed/eventi/schede/naxalbari.html
    Usually, a generation is affected by the “time” and the baby boomers were frustrated/ influenced/ by their time and was charged enough to look for a change – the stimulation is not there today.

  10. Katha —
    The sad thing about our current state of war is that protesting is not allowed. We aren’t allowed to see coffins or the bodies of the dead. Journalists are not allowed to record the harsh reality of the war. Families mourn in private. This is a cleansed war that is sanitized of any sentimentality or mourning — and yet those are necessary pieces for national support and protest and they must be allowed to serve as historical warnings for the future.