Philistine at Columbia

In my last Sandstorm column, I criticized Rashid Khalidi’s fact-free assertion that the universities are dominated by conservatives. In an interview, he had focused on schools of law and international affairs. But in a remarkable speech last spring, he issued a blanket indictment of many more academic fields.

It happened at a Columbia rally in support of professors accused by students of political harassment. Khalidi insisted the profs were victims of a concerted campaign run from outside the university, and added this:

It’s a campaign that’s based on an utterly spurious argument that the universities are strongholds of radical and liberal ideas. Would that they were strongholds of radical and liberal ideas. (Applause.) Would that the medical schools and the pharmaceutical schools were challenging the stranglehold of industrial medicine, of the industrial pharmaceutical industry. (Applause.) Would that agriculture schools or business schools were challenging the reigning orthodoxies. Would that economics departments, would that engineering schools, would that schools of international affairs were vigorously challenging the reigning orthodoxies in their fields. Would I could go on and on and on.

(You can read and listen to this speech at the link.)

It’s an astonishing statement. People in these branches of the academy challenge the reigning orthodoxies all the time when they have the evidence to do it. After all, they can be proven wrong. Reputations are impaired when a medical treatment or drug fails a test, a structure collapses, a crop disappoints, a business model loses money, or an economic policy kills growth. Yet each innovation in these areas is the result of people boldly deciding to “challenge the reigning orthodoxies in their fields.”

During my twenty-five years as a university faculty member, I always felt a certain humility in the presence of these risk-takers. In Middle Eastern studies, you get ahead by slavishly mimicking the reigning orthodoxies, which are almost entirely the product of politically-driven fad. So for someone in my retarded field to inveigh against “the stranglehold of industrial medicine,” or deride economics faculty on a campus that’s produced three Nobel Prize laureates in economics over the last decade—well, it’s philistine.

I can’t imagine Edward Said saying something even remotely similar, because he felt a very deep attachment to the idea of the university. “The modern American university seems the last utopian place,” he told an interviewer in 1997, “a liberal ideal that has helped the Middle East, in its manifestations in Cairo and Beirut.” Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor, but he’s no Edward Said: he doesn’t have a scholarly vocation separate from his advocacy. So for him, the rest of the university is damnable, because not all its members subscribe to every last item in his radical political agenda. It’s poor recompense for all that academe has bestowed upon him.