Jacob Neusner does not mince words.rnCritics might confuse his unimpeachablernstandards with high dudgeon, but,rnin fact, his judgment about people andrnplaces with which I am familiar is impeccable,rnand his courage in the face ofrnpetty criticism admirable. I should noternfor the record that I was a student at Columbiarnwhen Neusner was there; I studiedrnwith his advisor Morton Smith, and Irneven lived on the same street (115thrnStreet) in the year (1961) he residedrnthere. But to my knowledge, we did notrnmeet. After reading this book, that is myrnregret.rnThis book does have its flaws. Columbia,rnfor example, did not provide thern”first great spectacle” of student rebellionrnin 1968. That occurred four yearsrneariier at Berkeley with the Free SpeechrnMovement. And the University ofrnChicago was less insulated from studentrnrebellion than the authors assume.rnThere are also occasional lapses in syntax.rnOn balance, however, these are nigglingrnconcerns. What stands out in thisrnvolume is the integrity of the authors,rnthe plaintive plea for high standards inrnan institution overrun by relativism,rnmediocrity, petty jealousies, and radicalrnegalitarianism. I never thought a professorrnwould have the temerity to sayâ€”asrnJacob Neusner doesâ€”that “universitiesrnwork best under benign dictatorships,rnand, as the next decades were to teachrnme, they fall apart under mob rule, especiallyrnthat of the common professors.”rnAfter having spent more than threerndecades in the academy, I am convincedrnProfessor Neusner is right. Yet seeingrnthese words in print is startling nonetheless.rnWhen Professor Neusner relocatedrnfrom Dartmouth to Brown, hernentered his new academic home at preciselyrnthe moment radical egalitarianismrnhad reached its apogee, and grading, inrnthe febrile minds of youthful avatars, wasrna conspiracy to foster class stratification.rnSoi disant revolutionaries managed tornconvince a browbeaten faculty that undifferentiatedrngrades were fair and coursernrequirements retrograde. Professorsrnmade peace with what they should haverncontested. And administrators cowed byrnstudent contentiousness acquiesced tornalmost every demand as “no trouble onrnmy watch” becameâ€”with rare exceptionsrnâ€”the administrative calling-card.rnInto the avalanche of academic corruptionrnstepped Professor Neusner. Hernwas in the minority opposing the MagazinerrnReport on academic reform atrnBrown (the same Magazincr who attemptedrnto engineer the Clinton nationalrnhealth care plan: fortunately, thernAmerican public is more astute than thernBrown faculty). He refused to compromisernhis scholarly pursuits when he wasrnaccused of “doing too much,” rate-bustingrnamong faculty members accustomedrnto teaching nine hours a week, And hisrnfaith in the standard of reason and the rationalernof skepticism and “self-criticismrnfor all” remained unwavering. Neusnerrnwrites, “I like to think that I was an equalrnopportunity critic.”rnCoaded by the elimination of grades,rna liberalization of admissions requirements,rnand a conquering belief that allrnopinions have validity, Neusner was drivenrnto write a commencement speechrnthat converted him into an internationalrncelebrity, and with 580 words he searedrnthe collective memory at Brown, deploringrnthe surrender of the academy to therndemands of spoiled kids and the extentrnto which professors praised marginalrnstudent performance. Although he wasrnnow a pariah, excoriated by his colleaguesrnand criticized by Brown’s president,rnNeusner had displayed yet againrnhis unequivocal dedication to scholarshiprnand idiosyncratic courage in a sea ofrnpusillanimity. His days at Brown wererneffectively over. He blew the whistle onrna great academic fraud, and those with arnstake in the system could not let him getrnaway with it.rnAccelerating the shift in academic liferndescribed by the Neusners was the demographicrntrend of the 1980’s. With thernpool of students available for colleges decliningrnsignificantly, selectivity could notrnbe sustained. During this period, I likedrnto say that if a student passed the featherrntestâ€”that is to say, if he blew upon arnfeather and it movedâ€”a college couldrnbe found to accommodate his talent, orrnlack thereof. With students on all mannerrnof university committees, “decisionsrnfound definition in mere personal opinion,rnthen prejudice, and finally bigotry.”rnThe Neusners contend that when academicrnachievement was no longer valued,rnthe golden age (if there ever wasrnone) had come to an end. “It is the endrnof the wish to excel, resulting in the levelingrnof the academy,” Jacob Neusner reflects.rnIn their conclusion, the Neusners ask,rn”Why concentrate on the university’srnunique union of research and teaching?”rnIf the case can no longer be made for thernacademy in its present form, marketrnconditions will demand change. Signs ofrnthat are already on the horizon, whatrnwith courses on the Internet and widespreadrnpublic discontent with collegesrnand universities.rnRenewal depends upon facing squarelyrnthe challenges of the moment. In a recentrnarticle about Duke University in thernChronicle of Higher Education, a studentrnsays, “The lack of intellectual focus herernmakes people more approachable,” whilernin another article, a professor contendsrnthat academic civility is an oxymoron.rnAn AAUP study reports that “many juniorrnfaculty want new criteria for grantingrntenure. They press for placing morernweight on teaching skills and studentrnevaluations instead of publications andrnresearch” (my emphasis). Well, if an intellectualrnfocus does not help to definernthe role of a student, and professors canrnno longer engage in the rational exchangernof opinion without hurling insults,rnand tenure is to be conferredrnthrough student evaluation with researchrnsubordinated to teaching, thenrnone can only hope that from thisrnintellectual bankruptcy initiatives willrnemerge to restore the once great traditionrnof teaching and research. That isrnunquestionably the aim of the Neusners,rnwho have chronicled in a remarkablyrnhonest way the woeful story of higherrneducation’s decline.
January 1975April 21, 2022By The Archive