A piece on Tech Central Station makes a good case for looking at beleaguered Harvard President Larry Summers as academia’s Martin Luther. It’s an interesting concept, even for those of us who could go all day without having the Catholic Church compared to Harvard. But Tech Central’s Arnold Kling uses the novel comparison to suggest that Summers is a reformer whose heresy might be a good thing for academia.
“Lawrence Summers,” writes Kling, “has rejected some of the sacraments of the academic clerisy. In particular, he has denied the doctrine of Righteous Victimhood. He faced down a professor of Afro-American studies [Cornel West]. He denounced the movement to divest University endowments from funds with a stake in Israel. Most recently, he brought on the no-confidence resolution by speculating that discrimination is not the reason that women are the minority among high-level math and science professors.
“The doctrine of Righteous Victimhood states that people who belong to certain victim classes are immune from challenge, particularly from someone who does not belong to such a class. Women, African-Americans, and Palestinians are supposed to enjoy infallibility under the doctrine. Summers dared to dispute that.”
Even if you’re not comfortable with King’s portrayal of the Church, he does make some very good observations about the debased academia of today:
Just as the Church helped one to a heavenly paradise, the elite schools offer a way to heaven on earth — they are the first step to financial success. Parents who can do it pay exorbitant fees to give their kids this advantage. But they don’t like it and are ripe for revolt on this score. The professoriate today is “intellectually enfeebled” and unused to being challenged — that is why it has reacted to Summers’ reasonably challenges with such hostility.
Academic rebels haven’t succeeded in reforming academia in the past. But Kling says that things have changed:
“The conditions may be ripe for reformation of the academy,” he writes. “The Internet, like the printing press, has the potential to broaden the availability of scholarly work. Just as the printing press allowed people to study scripture outside the traditional Church, the Net makes it easier to study outside of the traditional college. Just as the Protestant denominations catered to a Biblically literate public, perhaps a competing system of higher education will arise to cater to people who are used to tapping into expertise via the Internet.”
But there is just one problem with the concept of Larry Summers as a fiery reformer: Larry Summers. He has shown much more contrition than Luther, writes Kling, and seems much more willing to back down.
But things are so rotten in academia that sooner or later some real reformer is bound to emerge. When this happens, there will be no turning back.