Academic charlatanism these days includes not only defenses of plagiarism and violent campaigns of intimidation against proscribed opinion. These symptoms of the bankruptcy of humanistic learning worry some and find celebration among others. But who on either side of the fault line in the academic humanities can find grounds to defend giving degrees in subjects on which no member of a faculty has professional qualifications or expertise of any kind? And who can exculpate approving doctoral dissertations on literature the original language of which the doctorate’s signatories read with difficulty, if at all? You would think accrediting agencies would ask some tough questions. But, busy with their search for sufficient stigmata of cultural diversity on the campus, they lose sight of the more fundamental question of mere charlatanism.
My case in point involves Claremont Graduate School, where, last spring, the theologians gave a doctoral degree for a dissertation devoted to—of all things—some ideas of mine. Only after the dissertation was accepted and the doctoral degree granted did the young scholar send his work to me for my comments. What I found was that he had completely misrepresented my ideas, which he claimed to criticize. With predictable humility, he announced in his preface that all of my work would have to be redone because of his “discovery,” But, alas, his entire dissertation rested on a simple misreading of a book of mine and no reading at all of several dozen others on the same problem. It was a simple mistake that he could have cleared up had he asked me whether he had gotten my point right. He hadn’t gotten it at all. But he spent some 400 pages disproving what he (wrongly) thought I’d said. His “teachers” did not notice. But, not knowing the territory, either the primary sources or the scholarship on them, how could they have noticed? Nor did they ask mc to read the work while it was in progress, let alone to serve on the dissertation committee (it is common to invite outside experts for just that purpose).
Now, when I considered those who served on the dissertation committee and signed the document as an acceptable contribution to learning, I could not find the name of a single scholar who publishes in the field of the dissertation. Indeed, I doubt that anyone on the dissertation committee could read and accurately explain 30 or 40 consecutive lines of the ancient document that is subject to analysis; as a matter of fact, most of them cannot even read the language in which it is written. But that did not stop the university from collecting tuition nor prevent these scholars from signing their names to the dissertation.
When I wrote to the president, the provost, the dean of the graduate school, and the chairman of the dissertation committee, not one of them even thought it necessary to respond to my letters. One member of the committee, an old friend of mine, wrote to say, “I don’t know why you’re so mad,” as though issues of sentiment intervened. But neither he nor any other academic officer of Claremont Graduate School or its theology faculty possessed enough respect for the just indignation of a colleague even to write back and say. “You’re wrong because. . . . The dissertation is sound because. . . . “
Why not? It is because reason has ceased to matter; professors in the humanities no longer conceive that they have to give reasons for what they endorse as a responsible and professional contribution to learning. What I deem to be the charlatanism at play at Claremont disgraces not the young doctoral student—his error was one of mere arrogance—nor even the members of the dissertation committee, who pretentiously passed their opinion about things of which they knew not, for this happens every day in the American academy. But what—other than complete indifference to the integrity of their work—can explain the silence of the college administrators, who obviously don’t think they have to answer their mail? If there is academic malpractice, surely this qualifies: not even to defend the integrity of their own degrees.