Dear Concerned Citizen,

Having divided academic life between two continents, and with higher education in the United States under increasing and much deserved suspicion, I am often asked what’s so different about Oxford.   The seemingly facile answer, “Everything,” was surprisingly valid not too many years ago, though the defensible reply these days would have to be “Many things,” some of them fundamental.  There may be a later occasion on which to spell this out at some length.  For now, I would offer some generalizations about the world of higher education here, opposing the now orthodox judgment that the main problem is one of ideological sameness and indoctrination.

The Faculty of Indignation

Regarding indoctrination, not much needs to be said to assign it to the category of non-lethal influences on the intellectual health and integrity of undergraduates.  The ruling ideologues on today’s campuses form a faculty unto themselves, by far the least numerous and, in the end, the least influential.  Their agendas are transparent, so even the less than alert student has it rightly focused without much difficulty.  Their addiction to sentimentalism and gothic interpretive resources excites contempt among the brightest students and embarrassed giggling among the rest.  The tiny cadre of the convinced actually arrived on the scene trailing comparable ideological convictions grounded in comparably defective critical resources.  This Faculty – politely classified as the Faculty of Indignation – is yet another bequest of the Class of ‘68 which learned early how easy it is to take over a place.  As they polluted the academic atmosphere of their own collegiate years, they now justify their earlier assaults by drawing attention to their current credentials.  In the past, they had to be listened to – lest they burn down the library.  Now they must be listened to, lest the luckless undergraduate find something other than the now ubiquitous “A-” on the transcript.  There is doubtless a price paid to retain the Faculty of Indignation.  Their labors do not really amount to a course, and there is the silent but pervasive effect of producing future alumni who will know better than to support Alma Mater in the years to come.  But the damage is confined.  Those most likely to succeed in later life will have had little commerce with this Faculty and will, if nothing else, graduate with – a subject!

The Faculty of Fashion

There is a second faculty, however, and one far more numerous, far less visible and equally alien to academic traditions and purposes.  This is the Faculty of Fashion whose region of activity is known as MY FIELD and whose loyalties are for sale to the highest bidders.  Here we find the leading and the lesser lights of those august peer-review journals in which one must be featured a half-dozen times annually, lest one lose one’s rank on the – well – Field Map.  Here we have the careerists, living off grants since their doctoral years, and still measuring their worth in the metric of “extramural support.”  If they offer undergraduate instruction at all, it’s because they’ve failed to land the really major position at the really major research university.  Had things been different, why they wouldn’t have to teach at all!

This, alas, is the most destructive element in today’s educational establishment, and for several related but distinguishable reasons.  First, they form the body that the academic bureaucracy points to in order to prove that funds are well spent and productivity moving in the right direction.  They thereby enjoy respect and attention in measures utterly unrelated to anything of consequence in the authentic academic world.  They are not scholars; their “science” is typically perfunctory and formulaic; their courses rather recipe-like, as lacking in challenge as in seriousness.  Their numbers are sufficient to suck the intellectual oxygen out of any room in which their perspective is dominant.

Worse, as careerists who are always on line for one or another inevitably limited resource, they are competitive in ways that are often vulgar and sometimes thuggish.  They know how to play political hardball and they know, too, that victory needs no excuses.  What they fail to earn by real distinction they steal by any number of now well known devices.  The weapon of choice is adapted to the particular conditions.  Thus, “discrimination” if one is female or the member of a minority; voting-block blackmail in matters of tenure; behind-the-scenes negotiating against colleagues foolishly behaving according to the received canons of fairness and decency.  Their ranks include just enough highly accomplished fellow-careerists to give the entire operation a patina of respectability.  More than one Nobel laureate has been certifiable as an “operator,” willing to do anything within the ambit of criminal law to satisfy personal ambition.  And who would even think of obstructing the progress of a potential winner?

The Remnant

The smallest of the faculties is the third, which, with suitable hesitation, I will call the Remnant.  I populate this category not with those who simply meet classes, grade examinations and have scheduled office hours.  Rather, it is reserved for those and only those who entered academic life as a calling, a vocation, drawn to a world of thought and inquiry as moths to the flame; those who needed no lengthy period of reflection to understand that learning is acquired for the express purpose of giving it away.  Somewhere along the way, they were smitten.  By what?  I am inclined to think that it was the perfectionist ideals of Western Civilization that did the smiting; that “criticism of life” which, in fact,  just is the examined life.

The examined life is entered by the act of examination itself; a curious and even childlike penchant for looking under the rock, behind the veil, into the clouds.  Words here are of marginal value.  On any campus these persons are readily identified by their students.  “He loves the subject and, dull as it is, you can’t ignore it; you can’t ignore his delight, his perplexity.”

Of course, those forming the Remnant include men and women of distinction.  It is not at all unusual for them to be highly productive – though they would be unlikely to describe their efforts in such terms.  Persons of such distinction, I should note, are least likely to regale Administration with “competing offers”; least likely to demand more space, more funds, special treatment.  If they have a natural predator, it is not the Faculty of Indignation.  I suspect Ward Churchill and Noam Chomsky both greatly admire colleagues of such intellectual integrity and academic authenticity.  No, the enemy faced by the Remnant is the Faculty of Fashion now shown by contrast to be such when appearing in the company of  these others.

Higher education will survive the ideologues.  But the Remnant for some years now has begun to look beyond the campus for sanctuary.  They regard themselves as less vulnerable in one or another “Think Tank,” one or another society or association not corrupted by the shabby politics of the Class of ‘68 and its devotees.  The danger is clear:  Once the Remnant has abandoned the campus to Indignation and Fashion, there will be nothing left in education that is “higher.”