Sometimes truth emerges in offhand ways, even in subordinate clauses. One sentence, buried in James Traub's piece about the president of Harvard University in the Aug. 24 issue of the New York Times Magazine, carried implications that should terrify anyone who cares about education. Traub discovered that many Harvard professors despise the changes President Lawrence Summers has been making and hate him so much they refuse even to acknowledge his intelligence. Still, they speak only in secret. As Traub reported: "Despite the protections of tenure, virtually all of Summers's critics were too afraid of him to be willing to be quoted by name."
Could a vicious enemy of Harvard, or of academic life in general, say anything more damning than those few words? In fact, "virtually all" was a gentle way of putting it; all of the professors in the article delivered their poisonous opinions under cover of anonymity. In 7,000 words, Traub could not attach a single name to serious criticism of Summers.
These professors, though guaranteed lifetime employment by their profession's uniquely generous tradition, nevertheless live by a code of pusillanimity.
Allowed the freedom to criticize, they hide their criticisms. It seems that when the fear of unemployment was removed, they substituted others. They may be afraid the president will deny them a promotion. Perhaps they're afraid of not being invited to tea. In any case, they remain frightened.
The Canadian Encyclopedia concisely states the rationale for tenure: "University and college professors consider tenure essential because it enables the holder to exercise free but responsible criticism of his institution and all aspects of society without fear of dismissal."
But that's precisely what Harvard professors, the reputed leaders of their profession, decline to do. And their Canadian equivalents follow the same course. A few professors in Canada offer opinions in the newspapers, but most of them write only unreadable articles for unread journals or books directed at other scholars. Is there now, in English-speaking Canada, a Canadian professor who visibly generates some of the central ideas of a political party? I can't think of one. Okay, then, are there any who make it their business to analyze in public the sorry state of their own profession? Yes, maybe half a dozen of them, among thousands.
This seems to me the most surprising fact of all: Canadian professors were braver before they had guaranteed tenure than they are today. In the 1930s Frank Underhill (University of Toronto history department) and F.R. Scott (McGill law faculty) provided the intellectual basis for democratic socialism in Canada.
Together in 1933 they wrote the Regina Manifesto, the foundation of the CCF, which later evolved into the NDP. That pre-tenure contribution was more influential and more radical than anything done by Canadian professors since.
Underhill went on to become, in the pages of the Canadian Forum, the most serious and persistent critic of Prime Minister Mackenzie King. In Quebec, Scott became a vexatious enemy of premier Maurice Duplessis by defeating some of his most oppressive laws in court.
Today, tenured professors, far from setting the public agenda, have trouble even steering their own institutions. In the humanities they have done nothing to prevent the degradation of scholarship by all those forces clustered under the term "critical theory." The relentless march of wretched prose and derivative German-French philosophy across university departments has been the most striking cultural event in university life during the last three decades. I believe a majority of professors view it with contempt, but not one in 50 will make a point of saying so in public. They refuse to confront the furious political energy marshalled behind this new barbarism.
In the Times article Lawrence Summers himself appeared cowed. "It is more important for students to have a basic understanding of literature than of the current fashions in literary theory," he said. But he said it "with a nervous laugh -- he knew he was treading on thin ice." Even a smart economist with a Washington career behind him believes a self-evident truth can only be uttered with trepidation, as if he were saying something outrageous. Traub also tells us Summers has many misgivings about affirmative action but discusses them with candour only off the record. Obviously, the academic atmosphere has permeated his conversation.
The Canadian Association of University Teachers encourages its members to believe in tenure with a religious ardour and discourages all attempts to question it. Meanwhile, the CAUT has convinced a large part of the public that freedom depends on absolute job security for professors, a principle that applies in almost no other sphere of life.
Alas, there's only one subject on which nearly all professors are willing to state an opinion with bold passion. They believe the government should grant the universities far more money, and its blind refusal to do so excuses all the failures of post-secondary education. They make this case often, and are never discouraged when no one listens to them, any more than they are concerned about the fact that most of them have utterly failed to take any socially useful advantage of their own princely gift, tenure.