U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Customer Service from Kimball’s Tenured Radicals

kimballRoger Kimball opened his 1990 jeremiad Tenured Radicals with a chapter called “The Assault on the Canon,” and concluded that chapter with a discussion of “the Stanford debacle.”[1] Kimball adduced the conflict over Stanford’s Western culture course to support two broader claims about the academy that figured prominently in many a jeremiad about higher education published during the late 1980s and early 1990s: the notion that student radicals of the 1960s had seized control of the academy from within, and the related allegation that these radicals were stifling free intellectual inquiry on campus in the name of a Leftist, anti-colonialist ideology.  But in the process of making his argument, Kimball valorized inquiry of a different kind:  not free inquiry, but ideas bought and paid for.

The main title of Kimball’s work conveyed the gist of that first common claim about the university in decline: that the professoriate of the 1980s included an entire cohort of established scholars who were still pursuing the anti-Western, Marxist ideological agenda they had embraced when they were students engaged in the radical movements of the 1960s. Kimball himself recognized that there was nothing particularly revelatory in pointing out that some former radicals had settled into the seemingly bourgeois occupation of the university professor. “It has often been observed,” he wrote, “that yesterday’s student radical is today’s tenured professor or academic dean. The point of this observation is not to suggest that our campuses are littered with political agitators.”[2]

Nevertheless, that is precisely what Kimball did argue in this work. The “twist” to his argument was in suggesting that the purported radicalism of the contemporary professoriate was not just a betrayal of the values and ideals of contemporary students, but also a dereliction of the professors’ duty to students as consumers. Kimball noted that “the undergraduate population has moved quietly to the Right in recent years,” but “the men and women who are paid to introduce students to the great works and ideas of our civilization have by and large remained true to the emancipationist ideology of the sixties.”[3] This description of what professors were “paid” to do – teach undergraduates – may have comported with general notions of what the work of college professors entailed, but such a conception discounted entirely the labor or the value of research.

In this respect, Kimball’s work built upon a broader animus toward the professoriate as an overpaid bunch of freeloaders “scamming” American taxpayers to support their research while shirking their teaching duties. This was the premise of Charles J. Sykes’s Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education, a book that Kimball reviewed for the New York Times while he was working on Tenured Radicals.[4] In his review, Kimball approvingly summarized Sykes’s main critique: that, pursuing Clark Kerr’s vision of the “multiversity,” the American university had gone from “an institution concerned chiefly with teaching” to “a lavishly funded research institution that…is concerned with everything but teaching the tens of thousands [of students] that supposedly form its raison d’être.”[5]

Interestingly, this was the same basic vision of the university that had attracted trenchant criticism from radical students of the 1960s, though for seemingly different reasons. For example, the authors of the Port Huron Statement criticized the professoriate for pursuing a research agenda that furthered military industrialists’ aims, offering up their “skills and silence [to be] purchased by investors in the arms race.”[6] To prevent the further use of “academic resources…to buttress immoral social practice,” the Port Huron authors called for “national efforts at university reform by an alliance of students and faculty.” The reform these student-critics of the university envisioned would include bringing “major public issues into the curriculum – research and teaching on problems of war and peace is an outstanding example.” The students did not deplore a research agenda per se, but argued that it should complement, not dominate, the work of the professoriate. The students envisioned that work as primarily pedagogical, arguing that professors must “make debate and controversy, not dull pedantic cant, the common style for educational life.”[7]

That radical 1960s student critique of professors’ “dull pedantic cant” found an echo of sorts in Kimball’s critique of “abstruse” academic jargon and the teaching of professorial “commentaries” in lieu of primary texts, which, when used, were only introduced into the classroom in order to support a professor’s “pet critical theory.”[8] These various pet theories revealed the professoriate’s commitment to a Marxist, anti-colonialist political agenda aimed at dismantling “Western democracies.”[9] For Kimball, no recent event better exemplified this faculty strategy in action than the Stanford canon debate – “the most notorious” of all recent disputes about college curriculum.[10] Though Kimball acknowledged that “agitation by members of the Black Student Union” and others had prompted a review of the Western Culture curriculum, he argued that “the faculty was, in the end, to blame for the demise of the Western culture course.”[11]

Kimball viewed the fate of such courses as inextricably linked with “nothing less than the traditional liberal understanding of democratic society and the place of education and high culture within it.”[12] This “high culture,” Kimball argued, was something professors valued for themselves but stingily withheld from their students. “Because many professors have been the beneficiaries of the kind of traditional education they have rejected and are denying their students,” Kimball wrote, “it is the students themselves who are the real losers in this fiasco.” He surmised that students “enrolled in a liberal arts curriculum in the first place because they wished to be educated; alas, after four years they will find that they are ignorant of the tradition and that their college education was largely a form of ideological indoctrination.”[13]

Thus there was at least a formal similitude between Kimball’s critique and the Port Huron critique: a demand that the professoriate shift its research and teaching agenda to prioritize what seemed most relevant to students. However, Kimball’s critique premised that demand explicitly upon a notion of students (or their tuition-paying parents) as customers, and implicitly reduced the humanistic tradition and the “high culture” of the Western heritage (or a suitable sampling thereof) to a commodity available for purchase with tuition dollars.


[1] Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1990), 1-33; on Stanford, see pp. 27-33.

[2] Kimball, xiv.

[3] Kimball, xiv, emphasis mine.

[4] Charles J. Sykes, ProfScam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1988); Roger Kimball, “Burn the Buildings, Hang the Professors,” New York Times, Feb. 19, 1989, p. BR16, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times, accessed Mar. 15, 2015.

[5] Kimball, “Burn the buildings.”

[6] Tom Hayden, The Port Huron Statement: The Visionary Call of the 1960s Revolution (New York, NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005), 49.

[7] Hayden, 168.

[8] Kimball, Tenured Radicals, xvii.

[9] Kimball, Tenured Radicals, 23, 30-32.

[10] Kimball, Tenured Radicals, 26.

[11] Kimball, Tenured Radicals, 32.

[12] Kimball, Tenured Radicals, 2, 26.

[13] Kimball, Tenured Radicals, xvii.

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Three thoughts:

    1) This post raises some very interesting — and salient — questions about the relationship between the “Great Books”-oriented conservative critique of the university, which seemed so central in the 1980s, and the more market-oriented conservative critique of the university, which has been dominant since at least the late 1990s. Education in service of timeless truths seems, on the face of it, to be very different from education in service of students’ (“customers'”) desires, let alone their economic needs. But there are a number of ways to resolve the apparent contradictions between these two programs (these contradictions are a kind of microcosm of larger tensions between traditionalist and libertarian strains in American conservatism). One is simply to assert that the values of Western civilization _are_ the values of the free market, that capitalism and the “American Way” are somehow immanent in the canon. But this argument is both complex and tendentious. Kimball seems to be searching, in a way, for another method of wedding education-as-consumer-good to education-in-service-of-the-canon.

    2) Everybody hates the Multiversity. It was the object of contempt for Berkeley’s FSM. Shared opposition to it made Allan Bloom (briefly) sympathetic to the New Left in the mid-1960s (though he thought that their alternative to the Multiversity was in many ways wrong-headed). Like many other aspects of Sixties liberalism, it was attacked from both left and right. But I think Kerr’s educational scheme deserves a bit more attention, if only because it plays such a large role in others’ educational imaginaries. The Multiversity was dedicated to practical social needs as defined by corporate America. The New Left saw it as destructive of individualism and blind to its own ideology. Many of the canon (like Alan Bloom and Roger Kimball) argued that it demoted high culture and the cultivation of citizens in favor of research and the supposedly practical. But the Multiversity still saw education as a social, not an individual, good. The vision of the University of California system during and immediately after the Kerr years was to provide citizens of the state with free college education (in fact, the UC system was the top of a much broader system of free — or nearly free — public higher ed that also included community colleges and the Cal State system). Kimball and later conservative thinkers saw education as an individual investment. Today many people on what is casually referred to as “the left” share this view. The Obama administration, for example, consistently treats college as an individual investment.

    3) While working on a post a couple months ago on academic freedom, I was very struck by the fact that the AAUP’s 1948 statement on academic freedom, which is usually treated as a kind of definitive American description of it, refers throughout to “teachers” not “professors” or “scholars” (a later footnote to the statement clarifies that, for the purposes of the statement, “teacher” encompasses all faculty at universities). Kimball — and even some of his opponents — seem to treat research as the realm of academic freedom and teaching as a part of one’s job in which one entirely serves the needs of others and that academic freedom is necessary in direct proportion to the amount of research one’s job entails. Indeed, over the decades, a system has developed in which faculty positions that don’t involve research have tended to lack both the possibility of tenure and the protections described in the AAUP statement. For at least a couple decades the argument that professors ought to spend more time (or effort) teaching has been closely linked to the argument that professors ought to have less academic freedom and less job security. One of the interesting things about Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth’s recent book The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom is it directly confronts this linkage by proposing that universities provide teaching-intensive faculty with the same protections and similar compensation packages as their colleagues in more research-oriented positions.

    • “to treat research as the realm of academic freedom and teaching as a part of one’s job in which one entirely serves the needs of others and that academic freedom is necessary in direct proportion to the amount of research one’s job entails.”

      Isn’t this a nice summary of Kant’s position in “What is Enlightenment?” You’ve got (something like) absolute rights to free discussion in print, which is understood in fact as private, but then your public role–preacher, university professor–which involves speaking in an official capacity, can legitimately be constrained.

    • The conservative critique based on education in the service of timeless truths resulted in the the creation of new universities (e.g. Ave Maria), the invigoration of older conservative institutions (e.g. religious colleges), and the takeover (real and attempted) of older institutions by conservative activists (e.g. Shimer, recently). Most of these actions occurred at smaller institutions rather than larger ones.

      On #1, (and I think Ben knows this), there is the “Great Books-oriented conservative critique” and a critique by great books-oriented educators. The latter were composed of moderates, liberals, and even some lefties. …Just making that clear to discussion observers.

      On #2, the problem seems to be that, in the 1980s, parents didn’t seem to hate the so-called multiversity. Parents’ views seemed instrumental—will the institution replicate or further my child’s class interests. In this, I agree with Guillory. – TL

  2. Thanks for this great comment Ben.

    I should note — though it’s probably clear from the footnotes — that the above post is a chunk lifted straight out of the last chapter of my dissertation, which I am revising now. And your point #1, above, is a major concern of the chapter. (The fact that I have just dropped a chunk of my dissertation onto the blog lets you know that (a) I am running on empty in terms of blog ideas and (b) I’m so damn ready to have this thing done and out of my hands. These two facts may be related.)

    As to point #2, I am on board with people not being so curmudgeonly about Clark Kerr. His vision wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was a far sight better for the citizens of California than what is happening now, and it is absolutely not the case that Kerr’s multiversity would lead inevitably to the neoliberal monstrosity that higher education has become.

    On #3 — This is an important point, and this is why critiques like Kimball’s (or Sykes’s) strike a chord: the general public expectation of the professoriate, or the general image, is really of professors as first and foremost teachers. There are pressures upon the professoriate to valorize other aspects of academic work not just ahead of but really instead of teaching, and I think that’s not good in the long run for academic culture, never mind for any sense of connection between the academy and the culture beyond it.

    • Clark Kerr is a major part of Ethan Schrum’s work/dissertation, which is currently becoming a book, and seems to needed/wanted by us—whether or not we my agree or disagree with his narrative. The conversation on Clark needs a new first down, if not a touchdown. – TL

  3. Very interesting post, like always. The connection is fascinating, but I am not so sure about the formal similitude argument. Like you point out yourself, the problem that radical student movements in the 60s–in the US and beyond–had with higher education was with how its structures reproduced–politically, economically, culturally–the status quo, be it the arms race, imperialism or classism (and later, racism, sexism). These issues were precisely what, from their perspective, should ground “debate and controversy” in general, be it through research or in teaching. The question, I think, was not so much about if the research agenda dominated or complemented teaching–can one actually separate research from teaching? in the radical vision, no–but more about opposing a state-determined technocratic agenda through an agenda for radical emancipation, which included breaking away with the “pedantic dull” authorities that ruled the world of higher ed. But maybe there’s more I am missing, context wise, about the radicals’ discourse on education. Obviously, much of their critique applies to the university of today, how even so-called radical politics has become another value to be measured away by the university’s number crunching structures of knowledge production.

    This topic makes me think of a review I recently read on Wendy Brown’s latest book, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Media theorist McKenzie Wark argues in the review that Brown ignores the transformational impact of information on how the neoliberal state and economy work. Towards the end he points out how there’s a whiff of nostalgia in Brown’s book for the postwar university that has since the seventies been been absorbed by the neoliberal model, corporatized, etc. Wark says he doesn’t share this nostalgia because he doesn’t see the contemporary model emerge from nowhere; he actually links it to the very same structures that, as he admits, “delivered a broadened liberal arts education.”

    I found his argument quite powerful, especially since the nostalgic discourse he criticizes is a convention of much critiques of the corporatization of higher ed (including mine).

    I am copying below the paragraphs that discuss these points, the article can be found here: http://www.publicseminar.org/2015/08/on-wendy-brown/

    “A liberal arts education was one appropriate to free men, not slaves. It lifted a student’s sights from the immediate and local to wider horizons. For Brown, the extension of such an education beyond a narrow elite was a significant achievement of postwar America. But one might wonder here, as in the ancient context, how citizenship is connected to war. The GI Bill could be seen as a way of recognizing and also defusing the demands the citizen-soldier makes on the polity it has risked itself defending. One might question how much this concern for educating citizens was a cold war project, sustained by the Soviet ‘menace’. And one might also ask if it already had an economic rationale, in turning out labor with the broader ‘skill set’ for a more complex and increasingly information-driven economy.

    Perhaps it is also worth recalling that the postwar university was a complex beast. In part it delivered a broadened liberal arts education. But it was also the heart of the military-industrial complex, from which today’s military-entertainment complex was born. (Not to mention a parallel medical-industrial one). From wartime through to the seventies, the state funded basic research, much of it on the Pentagon’s dime, contributing to a common stock of innovation. The crucial change was to allow universities to own the intellectual property they created, which put places like Stanford and MIT into the information business in an unprecedented way.

    Perhaps it is because I am not a product of it that I am not so enamored of the myth of the great American university. It is, after all, where one of the two branches of neoliberalism in Foucault’s account actually came from. It was not just a safe-haven for humanisms, of the homo politicus variety and otherwise. Brown: “Even its critics cannot see the ways in which we have lost a recognition of ourselves as held together by literatures, images, religions, histories, myths, ideas, forms of reason, grammars, figures and languages. Instead, we are presumed to be held together by technologies and capital flows. That presumption, of course, is at risk of becoming true, at which point humanity will have entered its darkest chapter ever.” (188) To me this sounds like that old discourse my New School colleague Mark Grief identifies as the ‘crisis of man’.

    How are the old ‘figures and languages’ not also technologies, or dependent on technologies? How was the postwar university not already held together by capital flows? Here I don’t think the toolbox Brown has chosen leads to particularly sharp analysis. It may be the case that the “worldly development of mind and character are outmoded and have been displaced by another set of metrics: income streams, profitability, technological innovation and contribution to society construed narrowly as the development and promulgation of marketable goods and services.” (190) But Brown has rather naturalized the postwar university and lost sight of how it too appeared as something alien and coercive in its time. On which see for example ‘On the Poverty of Student Life.’”

    • Not having read Wark or Brown before now, it’s hard to respond to this. But it seems that Wark’s reading of Brown neglects (or is ignorant of) a prior discourse on the history of higher education from the likes of Veysey, Rudolph, Reuben, Brubacher/Rudy, and others. Those works do begin to show how older university models were displaced, and provide perspective on how the 20th-century university, and especially the wartime and Cold War university become something different. Also, no university is ever entirely alien from its time; it’s always both a product and producer of its time. The university reflects thought currents and practices, but also may occasionally incubate something (idea or product) that helps change its times. Granted, the university as producer of material products and capitalist practices is, in the American context, a post-Civil War innovation, courtesy of the Morrill Acts (1862 and 1890) and the integration of applied science work in higher education (sometimes connected to the modeling of German university ideals). Indeed, it is through the analysis of how the Morrill Acts changed higher education that past historiography on the same began to analyze the intersections of capitalism and higher education. – TL

      • This is great, thanks Tim! Wark’s research is not at all related to the history of higher education–his idyosincratic works range from an analysis of situationism to information and media technologies, gamerism and hackerism–so I wouldn’t be surprised he doesn’t know in detail the historiography you allude to. But in a way, your comment would seem to back up his call for grasping the history of the university (and where it finds itself in the present), without mythologies or nostalgias. I would describe his approach as high theory materialist, a heterodox Marxism that borrows from critical theory, poststructuralism, and anarchism.

  4. L.D., This is a really fascinating and provocative reading of Kimball’s argument–thank you!

    I don’t have anything very substantive to contribute, but I am wondering if you could elaborate a little bit on that tantalizing claim made by Kimball, that “the undergraduate population has moved quietly to the Right in recent years.” What is the evidence he gives for that purported shift? If he is resting his argument, as you say, on the idea that academics are freeloaders who use the cover of teaching to further their own research and political agendas, a lot depends on the assumption that students actually have moved (back) to wanting a more traditional liberal arts curriculum. Does that claim about the students’ desires have any merit, in your opinion?

  5. Thanks for the additional comments.

    On Kimball’s assertion that students have moved to the Right — he doesn’t really offer evidentiary support for that. It’s part of his more general claim about the relative quiescence of campus life, the lack of demands for social transformation compared to the days when the “tenured radicals” themselves were young. As to the connection between “the Right” and the desire for “a more traditional liberal arts curriculum” — that wasn’t so straightforward. It’s a connection that works one way, but not in reverse — IOW, while it might be fair to say that “the Right” in general favored (at least for polemical purposes) “the canon,” plenty who defended the canon/traditional liberal education were most decidedly not on the Right and were even quite hostile to the politics/values of the Right. In any case, I think this bit in *Tenured Radicals* about professors not delivering what they are paid to provide is a bit of performative populist outrage (is there a populist bone in Kimball’s body?) made possible by appealing to notions of the university as a site of transformative encounters with truth, wisdom, etc., that owed a great deal to the idealism of 60s activists.

    On whether the post-war university was such a Great Thing (and it looks like Kahlil and I were both posting our comments at about the same time) — well, it sure wasn’t perfect. But what is? And this passage, from the quoted review — “One might question how much this concern for educating citizens was a cold war project, sustained by the Soviet ‘menace'” — I don’t think there’s much of a question at all. But where does that leave us? Should we all demand the defunding and dissolution of, say, the National Endowment for the Humanities because of its Cold War origins/mission? I think a better response would be (and has been) to “spoil the Egyptians” — or, to borrow a phrase from Jesus’s parables, to “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon.” Maybe that means taking the Br’er Rabbit approach and demanding that federal and state funding for education cease altogether because that money is just feeding the monster of American exceptionalism, or something.

    I don’t mean to minimize the scourge of neoliberalism — if my dissertation has a villain, neoliberalism is it. Big time. But is the emergence of neoliberalism within the university an inevitability of history, or an irony of history? Right now, it looks like irony to me — though it sure isn’t the funny kind. But that’s because we are still in the middle of the story, hopefully headed toward a comic ending.

    • And I guess I was writing the above comment while Tim was writing his several comments above, so I missed those. But, basically, yes to this: “The university reflects thought currents and practices, but also may occasionally incubate something (idea or product) that helps change its times.” If the university posed no danger to the dystopic world-building of reactionary neoliberals, then people like Scott Walker and his ilk wouldn’t be trying to delegitimize it, defund it, or co-opt it.

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