Dr. Claudine Gay has resigned as president of Harvard University. A tepid nonresponse to congressional questioning about opposing antisemitism and calls for genocide of Jewish people on college campuses was enough to doom Liz Magill, former president of the University of Pennsylvania. But Dr. Gay survived that fray, only to be done in by evidence of multiple instances of plagiarism in her scholarship, including her Ph.D. dissertation.
In her resignation letter, Dr. Gay opted not to address the plagiarism (which the Harvard Corporation — its governing body — had referred to as “missteps,” “inadequate citation” and “duplicative language”), but defended her own academic standards and expressed hope for a brighter future in her continued role as a faculty member.
But the circumstances surrounding Gay’s resignation seem more likely to expose the deep fissures between academia and the rest of society.
Some at Harvard had bitterly complained about the university’s hypocrisy — that the grace and forgiveness offered to Gay in the wake of her evident plagiarism would not have been extended to students under Harvard’s own plagiarism policies. (Harvard’s history of enforcing plagiarism standards against faculty — even prior to the present controversy — has been spotty.) Others are happy to see Gay go, assuming that the antipathy to Jewish students will abate now that she is out of the president’s office.
Still others admit but downplay Gay’s plagiarism, bemoaning the fact that it was exposed by political conservatives. (Academic standards are necessary, of course, until they are “weaponized” by the Right.)
And it was inevitable that some would ignore the issues of plagiarism and hostility to Jews on college campuses and go straight to accusations of racism. Ibram X. Kendi, a bestselling author and professor at Boston University, posted on Instagram: “Racist mobs won’t stop until they topple all Black people from positions of power and influence who are not reinforcing the structure of racism.”
There is much to unpack in that statement.
First, implicit in Kendi’s social media post is the notion that a “white” person — male or female — would not have suffered the same fate in similar circumstances. Liz Magill’s resignation — even without evidence of plagiarism — disproves that. And plagiarism has long been considered gravely serious, if not the “kiss of death” to any faculty career.
Second, Kendi’s statement implies that Black academics cannot succeed if held to the same academic standards as others, which is both insulting and demonstrably false.
But Kendi’s loudest accusation — that Gay’s critics are racists — is also the most insidious: It is racist to have academic standards. It is racist to enforce them — at least against Blacks and other minorities.
Kendi is probably the premier academic voice promoting what he calls “antiracism” — an ideology which states that any system in which minorities do not perform as well as “whites” must be racist. The “antiracism” movement is closely tied to concepts of “white privilege,” and attacks on academic standards are part and parcel of both ideologies.
But Kendi is not the only person pitching the notion that academic standards applied to minorities is “racist.” That ideology entered our primary and secondary schools a long time ago. If Black or other minority students are underperforming according to traditional academic standards, the theory goes, the standards themselves must be “racist.” English is racist. Reading is racist. Even math is racist.
The state of Oregon recently lowered the bar even further, eliminating the requirement to show “mastery” (however defined) in reading, writing or math in order to graduate from high school. These requirements were eliminated (just for a few years, they say), because those standards discriminated against “students of color,” those with disabilities or for whom English is a second language.
Has anyone who thought this was a good idea considered its implications? What will employers think they are getting now, if they hire a graduate of Oregon public schools? Can they read? Can they write? Can they operate a calculator or check sales invoices for mathematical errors?
What are colleges getting — particularly colleges that have made their application processes SAT- or ACT-optional? What assurances are there that the students admitted will be able to successfully complete a rigorous college curriculum? When they cannot do so, what then?
The unspoken implications of lowering standards are many, and serious.
First, blaming academic standards and “systemic racism” allows educators and administrators to avoid confronting the real reasons why students are underperforming, or failing outright. Without honest assessments of the causes for failure, the problems are never addressed, and the students most affected by these causes continue to fail.
Second, lowering or eliminating standards avoids the uncomfortable conversations about why so many of our teachers are unwilling to educate underperforming students — or frankly incapable of doing so.
Third, it permits the infusion of all kinds of fluff and nonsense into the K-12 curricula, like promoting gender confusion or defending pornographic books in the school library.
Fourth, the reduction or elimination of standards is never limited to disadvantaged, impoverished or minority students; eventually, it spreads to all students at every level of education, and impacts those who attend college, as well as entrants into the workplace and the professions.
The answer is to stand up to those who attack academic rigor and educational standards as “racist” and expose their ideologies as the corrosive forces that they are.
Everyone involved with education, from preschool through graduate school, needs to raise expectations about student behavior and student performance, not lower them.
The key to success in America lies not in believing that standards are tools of racism, but milestones that anyone can achieve with the right support.
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