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The Fiction of Independence

We wonder why there is so much social chaos eating into the once secure centers of American life. Guns in schools or workplaces are obvious examples. Among a complex chain of causes, low commitment to societal institutions is having it’s effects.

A few years ago a local bank ran a series of print ads of a comfortable family relaxing on a spacious patio that was meant to signal money.  The headline for the private bank was “You Did it All by Yourself.” The tone-deaf headline was meant to pander to the affluent on how they arrived at their privileged position.  It perhaps said more than the bank intended. An old commonplace has it that it really does not ‘take a village,’ nor the shoulders of others’ to succeed. Instead, as the durable old commonplace has it, gumption and hard work are the keys to accessing American prosperity. The message many of us carry around and still promote is that we are masters of our own destiny; failure or success will depend on our efforts. In this simplified logic everyone is an island responsible for their success, obligated only to themselves. So goes the fantasy.

The misguided impression that gun ownership represents a form of personal freedom

What this view nurtures is a long and continuing suspicion of institutions intended to nurture a civil society. We still hear the tired overstatement that prairie settlers, immigrants and nineteenth century entrepreneurs provided for themselves, partially taking on responsibilities to deliver justice, protect property, and find our own pathways out of the depths of poverty. Other social goals like the education of children by professionals, and providing basic medical care for all are now contested territories, with a vocal minority doubting the virtues of these traditional social functions.  Florida is a case in point, where even the accurate portrayal of the nation’s origin stories, or the value of virus vaccines, are officially challenged. Arguably, the populace of the continent-spanning United States has never uniformly committed to institutions promoting public welfare. Mistrust of authority and disparagement of fiscally hobbled public services seem embedded in out national character.

Consider evidence of decreased faith in major institutions.  As researchers at the political website Five Thirty Eight recently noted, “disillusionment with pretty much every major institution” has set in.  They cited a recent Gallup public survey found that Americans registered a one year drop in confidence in virtually every kind collective enterprise.  For example, in 2022 “high confidence” in the military fell five points to 64%; confidence in the police dropped to 45%; the medical system to 38%; religious groups down to 21%; the supreme to court, 25%; the public schools to 24%; big business to 14%; and confidence in congress fell into a cellar of just 7%.  All of their categories showed a decline in spite of real advances in child and senior citizen protections.

What is left of the social structure stressed by a higher level of fear and the enduring birthright myth of survival by any means. It is little wonder that disenchanted youth believe they must be their own providers and protectors.  At this age, guns are now the leading cause of death.

The idea of the self-sustaining individual can easily fuel the view that, among other things, a firearm is a necessary defense. We can take our pick of either the founder’s woolly wording of the Second Amendment, or the woeful misapplication of it by the Supreme Court (District of Columbia vs Heller, 2010).  In either case the U.S. is now awash in guns that kill as intended.   Never has a claim to freedom carried such a destructive outcome.

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Academic Fiefdom

Young scholars will have to decide if they want to risk their academic careers in states where politicians are happy to be at war with the traditions of a liberal education.

Academic Freedom is under threat in a number of states, most notably in Florida. A person only needs to look as far as a recent gathering of the reconstituted Board of Trustees at New College, a small public liberal arts campus in Sarasota.  Recently, and in just a few seconds, the conventions of shared governance with the faculty and administration were trashed.

The video of the trustee meeting that resulted in a barrage of dismissals is a heartbreaker: the equivalent of vandals ransacking a gallery of carefully curated paintings.  The names of five scholars were proposed to the board for tenure: the most momentous event in an academic’s work history. All were summarily rejected, in spite of the support of their Department and their disciplinary counterparts from other campuses. Those who saw their careers ransacked in an instant came from the fields of oceanography, chemistry, Latin American Studies and music. In seconds, and with no debate, the life-altering decision that they prepared for over decades was rendered. They did not achieve the vote of confidence that at most universities is pro-forma at this stage.  A Board’s vote is normally the final step of a rigorous peer-review process after exhausting years of individual preparation.

A tenured position is the most significant hurdle for a scholar set on  making their mark in a chosen field.  Tenure at a reputable school requires years of research or writing, and usually a clear record of achievement in the classroom. An individual professor reaches this decision point usually between the ages of 30 and 40. It is the single best shot at a full career: a knife edge decision-point that is the stuff of nightmares and dreams. Many who fail to secure tenure are looking at a lifetime on the margins of academic life, with too little time for research and too many large classes to manage. Without tenure, limited contracts are offered, usually without the chance to become a meaningful force in the life of their department.

The newly reconstituted New College Board was chosen by a governor known to be intent on punishing the College for its reputation as a progressive bastion. That explains why the President was fired and the campus diversity office was closed. It has since become clear that an obscure religious school in Michigan is to be the model for New College. Like it or not, the school’s faculty have found that they are suddenly on a train that has left the main line for a sidetrack headed into the backwoods of nativist thinking.

It is good to remember that tenure is given to academics to allow them to pursue their chosen scholarship without pressure from college and departmental bureaucracies. When working properly, it should be enough to defeat attempts to silence teachers with the kinds of gag orders favored in Florida. In the same way, tenure at least indirectly protects students who can expect an expanded horizon of ideas to be explored.

Popular narratives like to poke at tenure as a license for faculty laziness. And it happens.  But it is rare for a senior scholar or a master teacher to lose interest in what they worked so hard to achieve.

What is at risk in states where legislators and governors are looking for ways to create political mischief?  More faculty will be shunned by newly enfranchised and anti-intellectual board members, many of whom have their eyes on traditional liberal arts departments. History, English, Philosophy, and Music: are among the seven liberal arts that have made up the core university curriculum since antiquity.  But they are not safe if legislators want universities to abandon ideas and turn themselves into trade schools.

Institutions that used to be the pride of specific states will have to guard against direct interference. Their many stakeholders will also need to push back.  And young scholars must decide if they want to risk their years of academic training in states where non-expert politicians are happy to be at war with the canons and traditions of a liberal education.

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