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When the Academy Was Free

A review of an article by Dr. Alan Kors recalls a time when real academic freedom existed.

By George Leef

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June 02, 2008

Alan Kors is a highly-regarded professor of history who has taught at the University of Pennsylvania for decades. Kors was the recipient of the Pope Center’s Caldwell Prize for academic leadership in 2002. Among his other achievements, Professor Kors has recorded a lecture series on European intellectual history for The Teaching Company.

His recent essay "On the sadness of higher education" is must reading for anyone who wants to know why our colleges and universities seem adrift.

Kors contrasts his days as an undergraduate at Princeton with the intellectual atmosphere he finds on our campuses today. Although he was fairly sure that his professors were all on the left politically, they were not interested in trying to lead their students in any political direction, much less dictate conclusions to them. Their ideological leanings could not be inferred from their teaching or syllabi and, he writes, “Reasoned and informed dissent from professorial devil’s advocacy or interpretation was always encouraged and rewarded….”

One anecdote is particularly telling. Kors was in a course on 20th century European history and when the professor handed back the mid-term exams, he announced that he was disappointed because all the students had merely “told me what you thought I wanted to hear.” So he told the class that he was assigning them to read a book with which he disagreed, telling them to “re-create its arguments with intellectual empathy, demonstrating that you understand the perspectives from which (the author) understands and analyzes the world.” That book – Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom – proved to be a turning point for Kors.

When he first went out into the academic job market in the late 1960s, no one asked Kors about his political views.

Kors readily admits that the university world of the ‘60s and ‘70s had its flaws, but it had one paramount virtue: intellectual openness. And that’s the big change that makes him sad. Today, at least in many university departments, intellectual openness has given way to a stifling conformity. For all the talk about how colleges engender “critical thinking” we find that faculty and administrators are largely engaged in a project of thought control. We have gone, Kors writes, from the Free Speech Movement to politically correct speech codes, from mandatory chapel to Orwellian sensitivity training, from dreams of social integration to balkanized campuses organized around group characteristics. Today’s students, he says, are the victims of “a generational swindle of truly epic proportions.”

Sadder still is Kors’ discouraging prognosis. Administrators have no incentive to offer a better product than the politically constricted campus that has come to be the norm.
I strongly recommend Professor Kors’ powerful analysis of our off-track higher education system.


 


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