Sunday, December 07, 2008

Blowhard of the Month: Joseph Epstein

Academia is one of the few places in American society where accepted truths get questioned. Ronald Reagan was a great president? The general public may think so, but historians definitely don't. Religion is a positive force in American society, and believers are more moral than non-believers? Sociologists might beg to differ.

Conservatives, however, like accepted truths -- and the older the truth, the better. This produces a certain kind of academic who yearns for an earlier time and, secretly or not-so-secretly, despises his students. Such a man (and it is nearly always a man) has little or no understanding of any discipline outside his own, and labels his colleagues as "sour" or "depressed" or "overpaid". He is almost always to be found in an English or philosophy department, and distrusts science because its achievements are beyond him and its practitioners are too excited by the joy of learning and discovery to be encapsulated by his thesis.

Allan Bloom was that kind of academic. In his screed, The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom claimed that what American universities really needed was a healthy dose of the Great Books. Reading Plato, Bloom said, would cure the University's ills, while modern science was not to be trusted.

And here's another: Joseph Epstein. In this egregious 2005 piece from the Weekly Standard, he calls university teaching a "racket", describes university working conditions as "complete freedom", and claims academics work "fewer than six months a year". His colleagues are "obviously disappointed, depressed, and generally demoralized". They are "dour". He wonders why no one has done a study on academic unhappiness. Well, someone has.

For example, in 1999 Melanie E. Ward-Warmedinger and Peter J. Sloane studied job satisfaction among Scottish academics. They concluded that "levels of overall job satisfaction among academics are high, though not with pay and promotion". By the standards of the study, 41.5% of respondents found their jobs highly satisfying, while only 5.9% reported being highly dissatisfied.

A 1997 study by Lacy and Sheehan, published in Higher Education in 1997, found that about 60% of academics in Sweden and the US were satisfied with their jobs. Job satisfaction was lower in the UK, Australia, and some other countries.

A 2007 NORC report found that teachers were among the most satisfied of all professions, with 69.2% "very satisfied", compared with 47% for all workers (but the survey report seems to have lumped together all teachers with college and university professors).

Yale Law School surveyed its graduates from 1996 to 2000 and found that academics were the most satisfied of all its graduates, with 75% reporting that they are "very satisfied". (By contrast, only 24% of those working at private law firms said they were "very satisfied".)

Finding these sources took me about half an hour. Why couldn't Epstein find them? Because he is not interested in the truth; he is, in the words of William James, only interested in rearranging his own prejudices. And prejudices abound: when discussing a black female English professor he met at Denison University, he feels it necessary to condescend parenthetically that she was "very nice, by the way".

Epstein's conception of academia seems entirely limited to English. He shows no awareness of the existence of other departments. He maunders on about "feminism, Marxism, and queer theory", but says nothing at all about quantum cryptography or string theory. Joe: there's an exciting world out there in other academic departments; maybe you should make an effort to learn what's going on.

When he says that aging professors "discover the students aren't sufficiently appreciative; the books don't get written; the teaching begins to feel repetitive", he's not describing anything in my experience. My students are absolutely terrific, and I don't waste time thinking about whether I am unappreciated. My books do get written, and so do those of my colleagues. While some teaching is repetitive, it is easy to enliven it by covering new topics. And when he labels academics as jealous of the success of others ("Meanwhile, people who got lots of B's in school seem to be driving around in Mercedes, buying million-dollar apartments, enjoying freedom and prosperity in a manner that strikes the former good students, now professors, as not only unseemly but of a kind a just society surely would never permit.") it gives you some idea of what Epstein himself thinks is valuable.

All this is typical blowhard fodder. But wait, there's more.

In his most recent piece in the Weekly Standard, Epstein criticizes Obama's administration because (wait for it) it has too many people who attended schools like Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Oxford, and Yale. Epstein dismisses such people because they "[work] hard in high school and [pile] up lots of activities, and [score] high on [their] SAT's". He seems to have no conception that good students might do well because they actually enjoy learning.

Epstein justifies his criticism by saying that "some of the worst people in the United States have gone to the Harvard or Yale Law Schools: Mr. and Mrs. Eliot Spitzer, Mr. and Mrs. William Clinton, and countless -others [sic]". Whatever you think of Hillary and Bill Clinton, labelling them as "the worst people in the United States" is ridiculous rhetorical excess. (If he gets to mention the Clintons as examples of bad people who attended elite schools, then I get to mention George W. Bush, Pat Robertson, and Phyllis Schlafly. I think I win.) As for Mrs. Spitzer -- that is, Silda Alice Wall Spitzer -- it's not clear why Epstein despises her. Was it her founding of Project Cicero, which works to improve classroom libraries? Or her founding of Children for Children?

Epstein clearly doesn't believe in government by educated, knowledgeable people who attended good schools. What we need, he says, is someone who attended a second-rate religious school like Eureka College: Ronald Reagan. Reagan, Epstein tells us, was one of the two greatest presidents of the 20th century. Reagan, that most conventional of small-minded men, is, in Epstein's view, "without the least trace of conformity or hostage to received opinion or conventional wisdom." I guess that explains why Reagan believed that evolution is a "theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science and is not yet believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was believed. But if it was going to be taught in the schools, then I think that also the biblical theory of creation, which is not a theory but the biblical story of creation, should also be taught." Yup, it sure looks like a Eureka College education made Reagan challenge conventional wisdom there. If this passes for intellectual conservative commentary, it is yet more proof that intellectual conservatism is dead.

Or maybe, what we need is government by second-rate hacks who achieve their positions by being born to achieving fathers. You know, like George Bush and Epstein's employer, William Kristol?

Maybe Epstein thinks academics are "sour" and "unhappy" because he is, I don't know. Maybe Epstein is unhappy because his fellow academics don't put up with the kind of fact-free claptrap he displayed in these two articles, I don't know. But I do know that Joseph Epstein is December's Blowhard of the Month.

Postscript: It might be objected that I addressed job satisfaction, not happiness. So I went to the NORC survey website and, based on the interface at sda.berkeley.edu, I tabulated the happiness of "teachers, college and university" for the years 1972-2006. The cumulative results are: 37.95% report being "very happy"; 54.8% report being "pretty happy", and only 7.3% report being "not too happy". By contrast, for all professions the results are 34.1% report being "very happy", 54.6% report being "pretty happy", and 11.25% report being "not too happy". I conclude that academics are, on the whole, slightly happier than the average person.

16 comments:

SJC said...

"... good students might do well because they actually enjoy learning."

This is a little off topic, but I really like that you use this reasoning; it's a central thesis to my own education. There are a lot of students, especially in undergrad, who seem to be in university for the wrong reasons, and I see a lot of problems for them and the academic system in general because of it. Personally, I have found that enjoying learning, I have never had to work nearly as hard as one might think to obtain quite a nice average to take home to mom and dad. I attribute that to education never being too much of a chore. That old adage about work and fun sure rings true for me.

Great post.

Tim Kenyon said...

"He is almost always to be found in an English or philosophy department"

Whoa, now, let's not say anything we can't take back!

An overriding theme of your post is that we should base our criticisms on solid data, right? I hereby tender my doubt that anything rising above the anecdotal is available to support this shot at Philosophy departments.

Of course it's bang-on about English. Why, I once knew this one English prof who one time said... ;-)

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Touche!

In my own defense, I will only say that it would be very hard to assemble hard statistics about the kind of professor I have in mind, and what department they belong to. Not so, however, for "happiness" or "job satisifaction", where statistics abound.

Tim Kenyon said...

"In my own defense, I will only say that it would be very hard to assemble hard statistics about the kind of professor I have in mind, and what department they belong to."

I guess it's a defense relative to Epstein's sheer bone-laziness, yes.

It's also worth mentioning that Epstein, never more than a lecturer at Northwestern, is not the clearest example of a core academic. My anecdotal experience is that there is a Type of tenure-stream academic who sees himself (gender judiciously chosen) bravely bearing the standard of academic values while his colleagues sink into miserable clannish "political correctness" of one sort or another. That strikes me as the greater cohort of academy-loathing academics, to be honest, though of course it may well substantially (even predominately) overlap with self-identifying conservative academics.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Hmm, are there two or three people in (or previously in) your department that come to mind?

Tim Kenyon said...

"are there two or three people in (or previously in) your department that come to mind?"

Hmm... possibly. But I've seen the Type tokened in many departments from various faculties across this campus and others.

Blake Stacey said...

Ooh, ooh, I get to provide an anecdote!

He maunders on about "feminism, Marxism, and queer theory", but says nothing at all about quantum cryptography or string theory. Joe: there's an exciting world out there in other academic departments; maybe you should make an effort to learn what's going on. [...] My books do get written, and so do those of my colleagues.

One of the best experiences I had in my university education was helping Barton Zwiebach's textbook A First Course in String Theory come into existence. This book was based on a class on string theory intended for undergraduates (an untried idea). I took the course the second time it was offered, during which the lecture notes made from recordings of the previous effort were being turned into a book. My fellow students and I got each chapter of the book in PDF form as we went along, and we hunted through them for mistakes, finding all the misplaced minus signs and factors of 2π that we could. I stayed on after the end of the course and did the same for the chapters we hadn't had time to cover, working the homework problems to make sure that a student could actually do them.

It was a blast!

Incidentally, I was one bureaucratic technicality short of getting a literature minor in addition to my physics degree (I had to have one more class on material written before 1900, and I didn't feel like fighting it out my last term for an extra piece of paper. . .). So, I dealt with a fair number of people over in the literature department, in The Other Culture as it were, and I don't recall ever having to deal with Marxism or queer theory. We were much heavier into comparative media, which lead into source criticism and a historical retrospective on the abortive field of hypertext fiction and its associated theory. . . Anyway, we touched on some issues of feminist relevance, but we didn't have to go deep into the writings of any particular feminist theorist. I think I'll have to give Epstein about 0.75 stars out of three.

Richard Wein said...

Off topic, but I'm curious as to why--in the Slate article you linked to--Hitchens objects to the term "ballistic missile":

"not that there are any non-ballistic missiles—a corruption of language that isn't his fault!"

Why shouldn't a cruise missile be considered non-ballistic? Any thoughts on what he's on about here?

Tim Kenyon said...

He maunders on about "feminism, Marxism, and queer theory", but says nothing at all about quantum cryptography or string theory. Joe: there's an exciting world out there in other academic departments; maybe you should make an effort to learn what's going on.

Not to mention that feminism, Marxism, and queer theory include works of great established scholarship, and some brilliant people currently doing rigorous and invaluable work. I'm underwhelmed by some of it, to be sure, but it's unwarranted to suppose that one must turn to "other departments" to find interesting and intellectually sound goings-on. (As unwarranted as it would be to suggest that just because something is "string theory", it's intellectually sound. Pauli's quip "not even wrong" has been applied by sceptics both to aspects of cultural theory, and to aspects of string theory. No doubt a good deal of novel and risky work in any field is destined for the scrap heap in fairly short order.)

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

An off-topic comment... Have you written or seen anything about h factors, citation indices, etc? I recently came across an interesting report which I discuss here.

I'm also extremely interested on views about "new methods" for students' teaching evaluations. Some colleagues claim that
http://www.ratemyprofessors.com/
is what we shall be basing evaluations upon. (Horror of horrors!) I'm searching for a "scientific" study of such claims...

Anonymous said...

As unwarranted as it would be to suggest that just because something is "string theory", it's intellectually sound. Pauli's quip "not even wrong" has been applied by sceptics both to aspects of cultural theory, and to aspects of string theory. No doubt a good deal of novel and risky work in any field is destined for the scrap heap in fairly short order.

Let me put in a word in defense of string theory. String theorists are definitely on to something important; the only question is what sort of thing it is, specifically mathematics or physics. String theory has already led to very important advances in mathematics (such as counting rational curves on quintic threefolds). This is the most powerful argument for why it should describe the real world: never before has any idea in physics led to such important mathematics without actually describing the world, and it's reasonable to have faith that string theory will end up being right (especially considering how few good alternatives people have found). However, even if string theorists are really just doing pure mathematics and deluding themselves into thinking it has physical significance, that will just mean string theory will move to mathematics departments. It will continue to be an important area of study.

Erdos56 said...

"Intellectual conservatism," when put under a microscope, is almost wholly built on factually incorrect assertions, unbalanced history riddled with omissions, and a deep willingness to intellectual dishonesty. It survives by dint of being unchallenged and the traditional presentation in monograph opinion pieces.

That's changing.

Thanks for the link to the Hitchens piece on Reagan. I hadn't seen it.

cody said...

Richard Wein, my dictionary defines ballistic as, "of or relating to projectiles and their flight", so my guess is that Hitchens is merely pointing out that missiles are inherently ballistic, and the term "ballistic missile" is redundant. Like talking about mobile cars or flying planes.

About the rest of the post:
Wait, whether they got good grades because they enjoyed learning, or because they worked hard to earn good grades, how is either one of those detrimental to a person's notoriety? Aren't both of those people somewhat non-typical in their ability to accomplish things? Isn't that what we want in government? People who either work hard, or find hard work easy? And how can academia be a racket if it doesn't have those sweet fruits like mercedes and million dollar apartments? I agree, it is a racket for those of us who enjoy learning, but the word 'racket', in this context, generally implies financial benefit, which most academics would probably agree doesn't really exist. Full disclosure, I didn't read either of the articles, these comments are the consequence of the post.

lenewyorkais said...

Windbag Epstein, in the current Newsweek (1/17/09), rails against Jewish nouveau-riche clients of Bernie Madoff. He dusts off some half-century-old Jackie Mason jokes about loud golf outfits, the tsar's army, Jews voting liberal ("Puerto Rican," he calls it). Best of all, he re-works Jackie's old "Tiffany Horowitz" bit, without attribution, into FOUR names that he repeats twice again in the piece. Saddest of all, Jackie was JOKING, while Epstein is dead serious. Oy veh!

cherylf said...

In his book Snobbery Joseph Epstein confesses right up front to doing no "research" at all, so I suppose he presents the chapters of the book as essays in some sense or other - though a pity his offerings do not heed the great tradition of eighteenth century essayists, who knew and were inspired by the science of their day. True intellectuals grasp the role of modesty in moving off their usual maps.

I admire the work you did for your observations and appreciate the vigor of your prose. In this spirit I would ask only that you think at some point about the oligarchic assumptions about "second rate" colleges in your own observations. Epstein may well be a reverse snob, but surely we ought not blame poor Eureka College for the choices of Ronald Reagan?

As a current professor at a state university, a graduate of several allegedly elite institutions, a former admissions counselor at a highly selective institution and a veteran of national selection committees for several major undergraduate fellowships (such as Marshall and Truman), I have come to hold a far more nuanced view of access to higher education than I might have held while, say, an undergraduate at selective institutions.

If one's family has little education, one's school has low expectations and one's community has no knowledge of the practices and procedures by which strong talent can develop into tangible achievement, then the odds of one gaining ANY access to higher education at all diminish considerably. If one nevertheless ends up at a less than selective but perfectly acceptable college, where one might not suffer the social intimidation that comes with being at more elite institutions, then surely that is the achievement.

You are right of course that love of learning, a cautiously judicious temperament and clarity of mind matter most. These virtues are harder to come by for some children of the working class, but they can be practiced and modeled at third rate institutions as well as at first tier ones - albeit with fewer resources and far less pay for the faculty who encourage them!

Epstein IS a snob. How dull. And clearly you are NOT. Thanks for the good thoughts.

unca said...

No, not all missiles are ballistic. Ballistic has a specific meaning, as noted in wikipedia: "A ballistic missile is a missile only guided during the relatively brief initial powered phase of flight and its course is subsequently governed by the laws of classical mechanics." A non-ballistic missile would be one that was "powered" during its entire flight. Hitchens (and those concerned about English profs not knowing anything about science)should know this.