the Atlantic‘s war on the university

I could, if I felt like it, take this latest anti-university screed from the Atlantic apart. Laura McKenna’s piece is one of the most tired, cliched articles I’ve read in years, a collection of the classic warmed-over complaints about ivory towers and uninterested professors. It works purely on argument by assertion, speaks only in generalizations and stereotypes, and seems almost offended by the idea that arguments have to be defended by evidence.

I could, for example, point out that teaching demonstrations are a big part of the hiring process in many or most fields. I could point out that there are dozens of journals, hundreds of conferences, and thousands of articles dedicated to practical pedagogy. I could point out that organizations like the Modern Languages Association have been agitating for more focus on teaching in hiring and promotion decisions for years. I could bring up that it’s precisely the professors and the organizations that represent them that have pressed most vocally, ardently, and consistently against the rise of the all-adjunct faculty, fighting the fight that McKenna pretends she is interested in fighting. Or I could simply resort to anecdote and point out that I have personally met hundreds of professors who are absolutely dedicated to the educational mission, and who don’t deserve to be painted with a vast generalization that is shameless in its lack of evidence.

But it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter, because the Atlantic has declared war on the university, and nothing as tired as facts, evidence, or counterargument are going to slaw it down. It’s now almost a daily event: the Atlantic publishes a piece excoriating the academy and the people who inhabit it. I don’t exaggerate when I say that it seems to happen several times a week. The complaints are usually the same, the arguments are usually advanced by people with a clear bias (like Megan McArdle, who hates academics with such an intense passion I’m afraid she might take a swing at me the next time I see her), and there’s no attempt at all to hide the agenda behind them. Search their archives; there are literally hundreds of posts just like this one from the last several years alone.

I have to believe that this is a coordinated effort. The leadership at the Atlantic is advancing a specific agenda. It’s a matter of basic logic and common sense to assume that one organization that consistently advances the same complaints and the same conclusions is working in a coordinated fashion. I can only guess why the magazine’s leadership has decided to make the website a repository of anti-university propaganda. Certainly, the Atlantic is staffed by the kind of (faux) high-brow journalists who believe that only they should be granted the laurel of creating knowledge; each of these pieces speaks of nothing so much as the author’s bitterness that other people make knowledge in other ways. The kind of lukewarm neoliberalism that animates the magazine’s staff is also likely a culprit. Neoliberals, after all, have always had warm regard for conservatives and hatred for leftists, who they assume populate the academy. Or perhaps it’s the magazine’s owner, an avowed neoconservative who has never been above using the magazine to advance his own ends.

Whatever the case, it’s happening. Limp denials can’t overwhelm the preponderance of the evidence. The question is, does the staff of the Atlantic care? Do they ever ask themselves why the publication has become a propaganda outfit in this way? Whether it’s appropriate for the magazine to be so showily, irresolutely biased? I doubt it. Usually, with a publication like that, everyone is so busy getting high off their own self-regard and gravitas, self-criticism simply doesn’t exist.


  1. Of course, I would say this, but you seem to have read an article she didn’t write. She’s not saying professors suck and deliberately don’t do a good job for their students; she’s saying that colleges are not currently set up to reward teaching. I don’t see you disagreeing with that; rather, you seem to be arguing that many professors would like to change that. Laura might well agree with *that*. Btw, she’s a left-wing former poli-sci adjunct who, to the extent that she *is* bitter, has earned the right to be so. She is not on some sort of machiavellian tear against The Academy.

    PS I love academia, and academics, and I’m very fond of you. Thinking that tenure is a bad system which is having catastrophic results for lots of graduate students is not the same thing as thinking that academics are bad people. Nor is thinking that academics are biased the same thing as believing that they do evil. I think everyone is biased.

  2. Coates blogs a fair bit about the liberating and deepening power of higher education and academic research. But it’s true that this distinguishes him from some of his fellow bloggers, at the Atlantic and elsewhere.

  3. Fair enough. But none of that changes the fact that the Atlantic is undertaking a coordinated, deliberate effort to assault the American university.

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