From Real Engineering to Social Justice Engineering
American higher education evolves slowly but, every so often it becomes convulsed, enters the crisis mode and hundreds of millions are spent on newly created projects. Since WW II at least two such crises some six decades apart have occurred, and it is hard to imagine two more unlike events. The first was America’s response to the “backward” Soviet Union unexpectedly launching the world’s first orbiting satellite, Sputnik I on October 4th, 1957 (see image below). Not only did this technological feat come as a shock given our past technological leadership, but we believed (erroneously) that the USSR now possessed nuclear-tipped Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that could hit a defenseless America. The second upheaval is more recent, namely countless colleges and universities, including the most prestigious, spending tens of millions to promote diversity and inclusion which, in practice means recruiting and graduating more academically marginal minority students.
Begin with Sputnik. Though American intelligence agencies were aware of the Soviet rocket program, its sudden success pressed the national panic button with higher education being singled out for the harshest blame, and it was now all hands-on-deck to catch up. The prospect of atomic annihilation did concentrate the mind. Military notables, including Admiral Hyman Rickover (who developed the nuclear-powered submarine) and a worried Congress demanded quick action and a committee of distinguished scientists were soon assembled. Panicky newspapers and magazines condemned America’s inability to match Russians brainpower. According to a Gallup Poll, 70 percent of Americans thought that American high-schoolers should work harder. Polls also reported a new-found infatuation with tough standards while the news media also relentlessly condemned the push for equality and making learning fun.
Congress quickly overcame historic resistance to meddling in education and in 1958 enacted the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) that allocated money to states to identify the intellectually gifted and counsel them to study science and mathematics. Student loan programs were established in some 1,200 colleges; 1,000 fellowships were awarded at 23 universities and 12 foreign language institutes were created. Some $33 million was spent on new scientific equipment. But the centerpiece of this reaction was a heightened focus on brainpower as a national resource, not the pastime of a few oddball geeks. Absolutely nobody worried that super-charged science programs would “not look like America” or ignored the talents hidden in America’s under-privileged.
Tellingly, the mobilization of American science education top-to-bottom was assigned to scientists, not professors of education. Brainpower was even celebrated in the mass media—the popular TV program “the College Bowl” ran from 1959 to 1970 where predominantly white males from top universities competed to be the smartest of the smart. To be sure, not every catch-the-Russians proposal succeeded (remember the “New Math” fiasco?), but the focus on the very best was indisputable. Nobody worried too much about Wernher von Braun’ s tainted Nazi past. A candidate who campaigned on the platform of saving America from the Commies by “investing” millions in students who could barely read would have been judged a dangerous pinko. Public discussions spoke of enlisting the “best minds,” “eminent men” or “best people” so as to restore the glories of American science.
Some six decades later American Universities are once more mobilizing to combat perceived threats, but it is hard to imagine two more dissimilar perils. We have moved from dreading nuclear-armed ICBM’s to obsessing over our lack of campus diversity.
It is again all hands-on deck. As an old folk saying would put it, the diversity mania is spreading faster than head lice at a daycare center. Columbia University has recently pledged to spend $100 million to enhance its diversity (its Medical School has committed $50 million to the quest). Not to be outdone, American University in Washington D.C. intends to spend $120 million for its diversification while similar multi-million-dollar commitments have also been made at Yale, Brown University, Harvard, New York University, Princeton, Amherst, Occidental and many, many more. Even the smallest financially troubled schools, including those with a sectarian mission, now find the money to fund a diversity bureaucracy.
This enterprise is obviously foolish, a form of mass hysteria though nobody seems inclined to challenge it, at least openly. Put it this way, if diversification is the cure, what is the disease? No doubt, every single American, regardless of ideology at the end of the 1950s understood what atomic bombs did and how they could be delivered by an unstoppable ICBM. Now imagine a 2017 poll asking respondents to complete the following sentence: “We need diversity in education because….” Picture a university president who insisted that a diverse student body would more quickly help find a cure for cancer? Are universities so flush with tuition and government handouts that they can afford the luxury of spending tens of millions to enroll students who require multiple remedial classes? What is to be accomplished by enrolling students in “Defining Whiteness” (an actual American University course) or teaching them “cultural competence” when American undergraduates often struggle with basics literacy and numeracy?
Most important, past failures are indisputable and surely known to every campus apparatchik over the age of forty. Since the late 1960s, universities have struggled and failed to hire academically qualified minority professors and there is no reason to suppose that spending a few million more to the budget will, at long last, hit pay dirt. At most, the usual suspects will be rounded up and offered financially lucrative professorships in Department of Black Studies or the social sciences to teach race-related courses. Will coercing students to master the nuances of white privilege and identity, implicit racism, classism and ableism and all the rest help future citizens to function in an increasingly brown America?
Particularly bizarre is the pedagogical “philosophy” that assumes that the academic performance of struggling minority students can be boosted by focusing on the allegedly toxic traits of whites and the university’s traditional “too white” curriculum. Is there any scientific evidence that minority students with dismal SAT scores will master Organic Chemistry if white freshman are detoxified of racist stereotypes, trained to spot hostile microaggressions while their white or Asian instructors learn to suppress unconscious biases?
The catch-the-Russians effort that began in the late 50’s clearly succeeded. Millions of federal funds poured into universities and thanks to the creation of NASA, DARPA and all the rest, we quickly caught up and passed the Russians. Any visitor to a decent American university can see the triumph of Big Science: rows of government-financed building and laboratories, thriving programs in the STEM fields all dedicated to keeping America’s technological edge. Out of this little Sputnik panic has grown a mighty colossus.
Now, what about the diversity/inclusion upheaval? Will it, too, succeed, and create world-class higher education that “looks like America”? Yes and no. As we noted, if past efforts (and this would include similar Silicon Valley failures) are any guide, the odds of academic success are zero. Exorcizing white racism and white privilege while imposing draconian anti-hate speech codes, building safe spaces everywhere while adding trigger warnings to everything, all supervised by multicultural ideologues cannot possibly equalize academic outcomes. If diversification could be accomplished, it would have occurred decades ago. Nor will this urge subside since even cash-strapped schools will not pull the plug on this nonsense given the likelihood of violent reaction.
Nevertheless, there will be successes but I predict that diversity will arrive entirely in the form of Potemkin academic departments whose sole function is to provide ersatz diplomas and academic sinecures to those who cannot master the real thing. Ironically, a policy not all that different from long-standing programs targeting academically marginal athletes and the not too smart children of major donors. These diversity homelands will be administratively top-heavy departments where the giveaway is the designation “Studies.” Current examples include Black Studies, Political Studies, Women’s Studies, Disability Studies, Postcolonial Studies, Queer Studies and on and on. I’m sure additional ones are on the drawing boards.
These are ideological, orthodox safe spaces for those who reject discovering knowledge in favor of exposing bias and malevolence associated with race, gender and class. Undergraduates will earn degrees in “Oppression Studies” while “Science Studies” scholars will author a paper on how Principles of Continuum Applied Mathematics (MIT 18.300) acts as a barrier to exclude people of color from STEM careers. Meanwhile undergraduates in Medical Studies might scrutinize the gender imbalance of cadavers used to teach anatomy.
Both upheavals will have benefited American higher education albeit in dramatically different ways. While thousands of university-based disproportionately white, male and Asian scientists currently flourish, their more heterogeneous colleagues in Schools of Social Justice will be safely off to the side going to and fro, deconstructing Michelangelo or otherwise making America better. Peace will prevail.
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