Academic Man and His Topsy-Turvy Ivory Tower

PROFSCAM: PROFESSORS AND THE DEMISE OF HIGHER EDUCATION by Charles J. Sykes, Washington: Regnery Gateway, 304., $18.95

SO long, Mr. Chips!

In Charles Sykes's view, the befuddled yet learned college professor has been ousted by Academic Man, a surly new breed sporting ``the pretensions of an ecclesiastic, the artfulness of a witch doctor, and the soul of a bureaucrat.'' With absolute control of administrative matters and ironclad job security, these professors rule a topsy-turvy ivory tower, where teachers don't teach, students don't learn, classrooms are overcrowded, and the curriculum is narrow and incoherent. ``For parents who pay college costs,'' Mr. Sykes writes, ``it has meant one of the biggest cons in history.''

The first task of Academic Man, according to Skyes, was to dismantle ``the foundations of liberal education,'' jettisoning ``traditional authors [who] are too white, too male, too old, and too hard.'' Likely enough, he urges the restoration of ``the curriculum and the canon,'' which he does not define beyond saying that ``there are certain books and certain authors that every college graduate should read if he is to be considered truly educated.''

Sykes shows no interest in having undergraduates study the dynamics of canon building, like the process whereby Shakespeare, who was once considered a rude and vulgar author, came to occupy a cultural pinnacle. As a consequence, he is hard pressed to explain how the abstruse language of contemporary literary criticism, which he lavishly derides, has been attracting rather than repelling students, renewing their interest in cultural warhorses like ``The Faerie Queene.''

Sykes argues that the social sciences have mystified more of life than they have enlightened, but he hits hardest on what Clark Kerr, former president of the University of California, called the ``multiversity.'' Sykes sees these large, depersonalized institutions as more adept at absorbing outside funding than teaching undergraduates.

He locates the purest form of academic corruption in the sciences. He contends that instead of advancing knowledge and easing human suffering, professors have let cushy consultancies and well-funded research grants distract them from teaching. As a result, he says, American students are fleeing the sciences and foreign students are taking their places in the academy.

Ordinarily, a book with such throbbing rhetoric and sparse examples would be ignored by academics. Despite its anecdotal penchant, ``ProfScam'' has put some university spokesmen on the defensive. Its double-edged claim that professors are ``grotesquely underworked,'' and that research has replaced teaching as an academic priority, has reinvigorated questions about the social responsibility of large research universities. Moreover, Sykes articulates the growing public suspicion that professors have too few contact hours (office and classroom hours) with students, an idea also voiced in the New York and Wisconsin Legislatures during the last year.

While Skyes and his opponents heatedly volley the matter of academic workload in the press, other points raised by ``ProfScam'' have received less attention. The increased interdependence of university science departments and business, what Martin Kenney, who teaches at Ohio State University, calls the university-industrial complex, does threaten to shrink the scope of freely available knowledge. As MacArthur Prize fellow Michael T. Ghiselin writes in ``Intellectual Compromise: The Bottom Line'' (Paragon House, 1989), the ethics of academic research is a subject likely to occupy a greater share of the public-policy terrain in the 1990s.

Skyes's charge that most academic research is valueless is seriously undercut by what he recognizes to be its value to business. Nevertheless, even if most research were expendable, it does not mean that professors, freed from the obligation to publish or perish, would be able to teach one whit better than they do now. Training to teach at universities is nonexistent, save for teaching assistantships, and most professors consider teacher-training beneath them. Pious lip service aside, teaching skills are not rewarded as much as research is.

Sykes concludes with a series of recommendations. He calls for an end to tenure, suggesting that the practice invariably corrupts individuals. He omits examples of tenure protecting free speech. He urges that faculty workloads be publicly disclosed, but cannot advise a formula for computing them. Does reading a new book in one's field constitute work as much as reading students' papers? What about reading a book in a different, but related field?

In a larger frame, ``ProfScam'' is not just about universities. Today, the professions are increasingly measured between the axis of perfect performance and pristine private morality. ``ProfScam'' ends with the suggestion that a national association of students and parents - a kind of consumers' union - be formed as a counterweight to the institutional powers of the universities. Sykes seems convinced that such an organization would follow his recommendations to the letter. It seems more likely that such an association would pattern itself on the National Education Association or the Parent-Teacher Association. In any case, greater representation of parents in campus life should be welcomed.

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