TCS Daily


The Problem with Dead White Males

By Arnold Kling - February 27, 2004 12:00 AM

"It's a pretty good zoo,"
Said young Gerald McGrew
"And the fellow who runs it
Seems proud of it, too."

-- Dr. Seuss, If I Ran the Zoo

University presidents seem pretty proud of their undergraduate colleges. However, their answers to a recent poll suggest an alarming gap in their knowledge: the past two hundred years. Asked by Michael Adams, President of Fairleigh Dickinson University, to name the books "you believe every undergraduate university student should read and study in order to engage in the intellectual discourse, commerce, and public duties of the 21st century," the academic leaders came up with a list that pretty much excluded anything written after 1800.

Overall, the top ten were:

  • 1) The Bible
  • 2) The Odyssey
  • 3) The Republic
  • 4) Democracy in America
  • 5) The Iliad
  • 6) Hamlet
  • 7) The Koran
  • 8) The Wealth of Nations
  • 9) The Prince
  • 10) The Federalist Papers

The most recent of these books, Democracy in America, is from the first half of the nineteenth century. Even though the question specifically tilted the academics to look toward the future, they chose to bury themselves deeply in the past. Further down the list of about 70 books that received mention from at least two university presidents are only about two dozen written since 1950. Given that these include such dubious intellectual choices as What Color is Your Parachute? and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the modern portion of the university presidents' reading list appears to be as thin in quality as it is in quantity.

As biology professor Marion McClary and blogger Randall Parker pointed out, the academic leaders' choices are highly deficient in science. Most university presidents would have their students face the 21st century with no knowledge of experimental science, the theory of evolution, or technological change.

My List

If I were asked to select five books that every college student must read in order to be prepared to engage in discourse in the 21st century, my list would be as follows:

The Blank Slate compares the belief systems of evolutionary psychologists with those of many humanities scholars. In that sense, it compares the best of modern thinking with the worst. It offers an excellent survey of modern philosophical and scientific issues concerning human behavior and development.

The Age of Spiritual Machines extrapolates trends in the capabilities of computers, tracing out the implications of Moore's Law for the co-evolution of humans and machines. Of necessity, Kurzweil branches into other fields, including biology and economics, with profound, provocative assertions.

The Transparent Society addresses what is certain to be one of the most fundamental issues of our time: the implications of the communications revolution for our concepts of privacy and power. If 18th-century political philosophy, with the theory of checks and balances, was the blueprint for solving the problem of designing a constitutional democracy, then Brin's work may be the blueprint for designing an approach for the modern age.

The Diamond Age is a work of science fiction. My view is that Stephenson provides a better introduction to the potential of nanotechnology than any nonfiction work on the subject.

Eastward to Tartary delves into some of the most politically backward societies on our planet. It is a powerful antidote to naive theories of economics and politics. Unlike modern technocrats who confer in four-star hotels when they visit the underdeveloped world, Kaplan ventures into the countryside, where bandits and police can be indistinguishable.

Extending the List

College students have time to read more than just five books in four years, even taking into account the need to select a major and to take "practical" courses. Here are some more books that I believe could benefit any undergraduate.

The Skeptical Environmentalist, by Bjorn Lomborg, combines ecology with statistics and economics. It is a fine example of the scientific approach to a complex subject.

The first two volumes of Robert Skidelsky's biography of John Maynard Keynes are remarkable intellectual studies. Keynes is a very difficult mind to penetrate, and Skidelsky's success is remarkable.

Great stories help to illuminate human psychology and social context. Tom Wolfe is an outstanding writer, combining keen human insight with colorful prose. His first fiction work, Bonfire of the Vanities, is what I would recommend the most, although it is hard to pass up some of his earlier journalistic efforts.

I have said before that I believe that young people should study the 1930's, because of the economic and foreign policy disasters that occurred during those decades. I recommend reading economist Randall Parker's Reflections on the Great Depression and Winston Churchill's The Gathering Storm. Churchill's mastery of the language is justification itself for reading his work.

Of all of the scholars who have attempted to provide perspective on the war between the United States and militant Islam, Ralph Peters is the one who impresses me the most. One example is his book Beyond Terror.

Given my own background, I believe that the insights of contemporary economics are important. In particular, it is important to understand the ability of decentralized markets to process information and provide technological dynamism. If students do not take an economics course -- and even if they do -- I recommend something like Virginia Postrel's The Future and its Enemies or Thomas Sowell's Basic Economics or Sowell's The Vision of the Anointed.

Justifiable Caution

I mean no disrespect to Shakespeare and Homer. I certainly have no objection to students reading the ancients -- or, for that matter, the works of Kant, Locke, and other great scholars who did not make the university presidents' list.

In some respects, the caution shown by focusing on classics may be justified. When professors at the University of Maryland have selected modern works for courses for my oldest daughter, these have included the films of Michael Moore, the play "The Vagina Monologues," and postmodern sociological history. She showed me a quiz in which "Gender is socially constructed" was given as a true-false choice. No room to explain, argue, or analyze. Just True or False! And the correct answer was supposed to be "True"! If this is the professors' idea of contemporary thinking, I would rather that they stick to Plato.

Humanities professors are capable of inhabiting the modern world if they choose to do so. The head of the philosophy department at Muhlenberg, where one of my daughters attends college, is very much up to speed on where biotechnology is going and the ethical issues that it poses.

Barriers to Entry

If I ran the zoo, so to speak, then a liberal arts education would include more books from my reading list and more professors like the Muhlenberg philosophy chairman. In a competitive environment, this updated liberal arts education would beat out what is currently offered to college students.

The defective curriculum is protected, however, by strong barriers to entry. The nation's top-tier colleges benefit from network and lock-in effects. No single Ivy League undergraduate has the incentive to attend a start-up college, unless a large number do so simultaneously. In many industries in our economy, a fresh new player with a bright idea can make inroads into the market. The academy is highly insulated from that sort of competition.

Individual colleges do experiment with their curriculum now and then. However, such experiments are limited by the power of tenured faculty to resist change.

The Real Issue of "Relevance"

In the 1960's, radical students launched a concerted attack on the "irrelevance" of the college curriculum. What they demanded, however, was not more study of science and technology, but instead a new focus on gender and ethnicity. These leftists are now ensconced in positions of power in universities. I would bet that a fair number of the university presidents in the Fairleigh-Dickinson survey were student protesters back in the day.

Looking at the poll results, particularly when broken down into the most-cited authors, it would appear that the battle to unseat the "dead white males" from their commanding position in the academy has been a failure. My concern is that while there is a lot of handwringing over the dominance of "white males," the real travesty is that the writers recommended by academic leaders are so long dead. The ancients have no familiarity with the opportunities and challenges posed by widespread affluence, scientific medicine, electric power, high-speed communication, and computers.

If students today wish to protest to demand more "relevance" in their education, then I believe that they have a case. How can they face the twenty-first century if their academic leaders are oblivious to the nineteenth and twentieth?


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