The Mises Institute monthly, free with membership

Sort archived Free Market articles by: Title | Author | Article Date | Subject

September 1997
Volume 15, Number 9

Up From Polylogism
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.

Academia has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years. Take a look at the recent book catalog of Duke University Press, once a prestigious publishing house. Today it features third-rate, race-obsessed, sex-obsessed, solipsistic tirades masquerading as scholarship.

Let's take a peek. In Between Jesus and the Market: The Emotions That Matter in Right-Wing America, Linda Kintz puzzles as to why "so many women are attracted to" conservative Christianity since it is "an antiwoman philosophy." And she criticizes the left for "underestimating the power" of public menaces like militias, Rush Limbaugh, and groups that promote "Christian entrepreneurship."

As revealing as Kintz's treatise must be, it is surpassed by Jane Lazarre's Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness This is her "memoir of coming to terms with" the reality that, though her father is black, her mother is Jewish, and her husband is black, she is not black but white, or so her biracial son reveals to her. This "painful truth" informs her "powerful meditation on motherhood and racism in America."

She's got a comrade in Katya Gibel Azoulay, who has written another classic, Black, Jewish, and Interracial: It's Not the Color of Your Skin, But the Race of Your Kin, and Other Myths of Identity This work is praised as a "brilliant analysis" by Michael Eric Dyson, author of Between God and Gangsta Rap Think of both as companion volumes to Displacing Whiteness, edited by Ruth Frankenberg, which in turn is praised as "excellent" by David Roediger, author of Towards the Abolition of Whiteness

Then there's the emerging classic Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction edited by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. The contributors "explore queer worlds of taste, texture, joy and ennui, focusing on such subjects as flogging, wizardry, exorcism, dance, Zionist desire, and Internet sexuality." At 520 pages, the publisher suggests it is "essential for all literary critics."

Indeed it may be, which is all we need to know about literary criticism, and the modern academy. It is possible, these days, for a student to blast through undergraduate and graduate school without being required to know the first thing about American or European history, constitutional law, Western literature, economics, or political philosophy.

Thanks to the proliferation of elective-based academic ghettos within the university, students can isolate themselves into a host of phony fields. And the message in each is one of malice: hate bourgeois civilization and the ideas and literature that spawned it. Spin that thought out, and you'll get an "A" most of the time. Ironically, the more prestigious the school, the more malevolent the teaching.

How can we account for the crumbling of the liberal arts education? It is not, as many conservative critics suggest, due to a mysterious evaporation of the canonical texts. Such a problem might be easily dealt with by gimmicks like "national standards." The problem has deeper roots in three institutional shifts that afflicted the academy from the New Deal to the present: democratization (1930-1960), affirmative action (1964-1985), and polylogism (1987-present).

It was a staple of American economic life, from the founding until quite recently, that each generation would be better off than the previous one. The level of education each generation could achieve was a reflection of the growing prosperity that capitalism made possible. But in time, cause and effect were reversed: instead of seeing how prosperity generated a better-educated public, it was widely believed that education by itself created prosperity.

The education myth took hold as the Great Depression hit, as parents aspired to put their children through college as a way out of lower-class living standards. On the face of it, this was an absurd assumption. Education is among the most economically costly activities a person can undertake. The student leaves the workforce during what would otherwise be some of his most productive years. He graduates with rarified knowledge which may or may not help him. Only some can benefit.

That's why, from ancient Greece until this century, higher education was reserved for the wealthiest and smartest segments of the population. Capitalism made the wealthy segment much larger, but it did not erase and could not erase distinctions between social and intellectual classes. Even in the freest societies, there has always existed a marked separation between an educated class and a working class, a separation that only violent intervention in the market could destroy.

And destroy it, it did. Academic standards began to unravel as early as the mid-1930s, with the growth of centralized, tax-funded higher education, and the democratization of elite private institutions. Cultural critic Albert Jay Nock saw this early on. He wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, much to the shock of readers, that academic standards would continue on their downward path so long as we embrace the idea that everyone is equally educable. The curriculum would be watered down to shore up that mythology.

Democratization received a huge boost after the Second World War, as the G.I. bill poured government aid into universities in unprecedented amounts. The purpose was not, as is assumed, to give soldiers academic training for civilian life. Government planners had wrongly feared the consequences of so many new entrants into the workforce. The purpose of the G.I. bill was to keep as many as possible out of the workforce, thereby restraining unemployment. In fact, a growing and recently unshackled economy was able to absorb all of them almost overnight. However, government control followed government money, as it always does, and one G.I. bill legacy was the virtual nationalization of accreditation boards and thus the centralization of educational standards. By the time of the civil-rights revolution of the early 60s, universities would become instruments of federal race policy and its affirmative-action subtext. Quotas in admissions followed, and over the next decades, what was left of academia's high standards was pushed aside to accomplish egalitarian goals.

It was only a matter of time before egalitarian standards invaded the composition of the faculty itself. Special interest groups argued that it is as unjust to have predominantly white faculties as it is to have predominantly white student bodies, whether merit was involved or not.

The imposition of multiculturalism — where affirmative-action professors guide affirmative-action students to degrees in the glories of affirmative action — was merely the mopping-up operation. Of course, the publishers joined forces to produce specialized books for these classes. One result is the Duke book catalog, not atypical for an academic press these days.

The key to understanding multiculturalism is Mises's 1957 classic Theory and History He identified a central assumption of Marxist social theory: polylogism, the view that standards of reason are not independent of person and place.

Remarkably, as early as 1949, Mises, writing in Human Action, had seen how the left would apply this menacing doctrine to race theory. Racial polylogists nod in agreement with the Nazis who said there was a specifically "German" way of thinking that is valid in its own terms. The members of racial groups, too, have different structures of mind, and so all judgments regarding valid and invalid forms of reasoning are either arbitrary or an expression of group self-interest.

In practice, this results in the exaltation of irrationalism and the demand that any theory that asserts the universality of logic and truth — meaning practically all Western thought — is to be done away with. In modern academia, where polylogism reached its wits end, there is only one invalid and even evil way of looking at the world: with Western eyes using Western concepts such as truth and reason.

Decent faculty and students have been subject to a terror campaign on behalf of this new and perverse orthodoxy. Faculty conduct their classes as best they can while avoiding conflicts and lawsuits; and students suffer through periodic Pol-Pot style re-education camps in the aftermath of any political flare-up.

Meanwhile, non-leftist faculty have been forced to drain serious, systematic thought from their presentations, for fear of the polylogist thought police. And students have been forced to suffer in silence as their dream of true learning turned into a politically correct nightmare.

In the social sciences, economics remains one of the few disciplines that has not been seriously damaged by the new polylogism. The profession has its share of feminist economists, who claim there is a specific woman's way of theorizing, but it has remained largely untouched by this nonsense. It has its own problems — positivism, unreal modeling techniques, and the planning mentality — but the student who likes economics is mostly spared the polylogism of the modern academy.

Indeed, just as it is possible for students to take only PC courses and read only Duke-style books, it is also possible for the conscientious student to avoid them. This is what the good student must do, or risk wasting years of his life.

Moreover, for a complete education, it is not enough to take classes only in fields that have yet to be bowdlerized. Wilhelm Röpke once commented that an economist who knows only economics can never be a good economist. To be thoroughly understood and intelligently applied, economics needs disciplines like history, philosophy, and the history of ideas. In short, economists need a liberal arts education of the sort that Mises, Rothbard, Hayek, Menger, and Böhm-Bawerk had.

But where are they going to get it today? Every summer the Mises Institute holds an intensive program that attempts, in a small way, to make up for the deficiencies of modern education. The students who come our way are interested in economics in part because it has been spared the multicultural mania. And though they are among the brightest students in school today, they too have been denied an opportunity to root economics in a wider and more systematic worldview.

Our faculty provide this, and we see our summer university's value appreciating each year. This is expressed in the student evaluation forms, which praise the faculty's fearless approach above all else. These students typically continue on in their studies and obtain the requisite credentials for entering academic life themselves, all the while carrying on separate reading programs to give them the grounding in serious thought that the modern academy has denied them.

Contrary to the pessimism of many conservatives, there is no reason to despair. Our programs are reinforced by dissident faculty and curricula in independent-minded colleges and universities across the country. This dissident force, and their students, is growing larger by the day, and it displays a warrior-like courage.

The signs of success are all around us. The left is no longer reproducing itself, even at the academic level. The best students no longer believe the nonsense they are force-fed. A new generation is being raised up amid the excesses of egalitarianism, determined to reverse them.

In the long run, ideas can't rule by intimidation alone. When a new generation of brave and well-educated teachers has the lion's share of intellectual passion on its side, their opponents can be toppled.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. is president and founder of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.


Image of Mises Coat of Arms Ludwig von Mises Institute
518 West Magnolia Avenue
Auburn, Alabama 36832-4528

334.321.2100 Phone
334.321.2119 Fax
AOL-IM: MainMises

Contact us button Menu