TCS Daily

Lawrence Summers as Martin Luther

By Arnold Kling - March 24, 2005 12:00 AM

"Long before Luther arrived to lead his disgruntled countrymen, the chancellor to an archbishop of Mainz had angrily written an Italian cardinal that...'The Germans have been treated as if they were rich and stupid barbarians, and drained of their money by a thousand cunning devices."
-- William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire

There are some interesting parallels between the state of the Catholic Church prior to the reformation, as recounted by William Manchester, and the state of the professoriate today. When the Harvard Faculty conducted its Diet of Worms and voted "no confidence" in its President, Lawrence Summers, perhaps this was equivalent to excommunicating Martin Luther.

The Economic Parallel

The Catholic Church in 1500 was a debased, corrupt monopoly. It collected onerous taxes, which people paid because they believed that there was no alternative if they wanted a decent afterlife. However, inwardly people seethed at the amount that the clergy extracted and the debauched uses to which the funds were put.

Colleges and universities are in a similar position today. They may not use "a thousand cunning devices," but they certainly extract onerous tuitions, taxpayer support, and alumni contributions. Parents pay because they fear that to do otherwise would condemn their children to a hell of low-status occupations and spouses.

However, inwardly, the customers are seething. Most of my friends are parents of college-age children, and all of them condemn the extravagant ways that colleges compete to be The World's Nicest Holding Pen. When Muhlenberg College (ironically, a Lutheran-founded institution) sent us the notice of its annual tuition increase, my wife became uncharacteristically angry, sneering at the college President's pride in the multi-million-dollar spending projects that he used to justify yet another increase in the tithe. Parents would seethe even more if they could see the administrative bloat on campus and the princely salaries of tenured professors.

In economic terms, the Reformation can be viewed as a pure instance of what Schumpeter called "creative destruction." The Catholic Church became so profitable, corrupt and exploitative that its seemingly impregnable position was broken by new entrepreneurs, such as Calvin and Luther, who were able to build viable competitors. Perhaps higher education has reached a similar point today.

Rejecting the Sacraments

Lawrence Summers has rejected some of the sacraments of the academic clerisy. In particular, he has denied the doctrine of Righteous Victimhood. He faced down a professor of Afro-American Studies. He denounced the movement to divest University endowments from funds with a stake in Israel. Most recently, he brought on the no-confidence resolution by speculating that discrimination is not the sole reason that women are in the minority among high-level math and science professors.

The doctrine of Righteous Victimhood states that people who belong to certain victim classes are immune from challenge, particularly from someone who does not belong to such a class. Women, African-Americans, and Palestinians are supposed to enjoy infallibility under the doctrine. Summers dared to dispute that.

Conditions for Reformation

The conditions may be ripe for reformation of the academy. The Internet, like the printing press, has the potential to broaden the availability of scholarly work. Just as the printing press allowed people to study scripture outside the traditional Church, the Net makes it easier to study outside of the traditional college. Just as the Protestant denominations catered to a Biblically literate public, perhaps a competing system of higher education will arise to cater to people who are used to tapping into expertise via the Internet.

Important scholarly works, such as Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate", are challenging prevailing academic orthodoxies. Moreover, just as Erasmus mocked the excesses of the Church, a book like Tom Wolfe's "I Am Charlotte Simmons" mocks the current state of the university.

Like the Catholic clergy in 1500, the professoriate today seems isolated and intellectually enfeebled. Many of their views are dogmatic, and they tend to confront disagreement with arrogant denunciation rather than reasoned argument.

Like the Catholic Church of 1500, the countries' colleges and universities have gone unchallenged for a long time. When was the last time that a major college or university was started, or went under?

Maybe an academic reformation will take place in the next two decades. Perhaps some sacred practices, such as tenure, will be overthrown. Perhaps parents and students can be persuaded to shift en masse to an alternative approach for assuring a middle-class lifestyle in the hereafter.

Will Summers Play Luther?

Lawrence Summers has shown more contrition than Martin Luther. Luther did not issue multiple apologies and promise to change his tone. Instead, he famously said, "Here I stand. I can do no other." Some of us believe that Summers could have fittingly used that formulation when he met the Harvard faculty.

Probably Summers does not possess the intense anger that fueled Martin Luther. Perhaps Summers has not yet reached the point of exasperation that caused Luther to excommunicate the excommunicators (for a while, Luther himself seemed amenable to mending fences). Perhaps Summers believes that he can do more to reform the academy by working from within than by rebelling. But he might consider this: Martin Luther is an important historical figure; the Renaissance-era Cardinals who attempted to reform the Church from within are mere footnotes.


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