Ah, Academia – That Lovely Place Where No One Can Do a Damn Thing for Anyone Else

The letter below is taken from Willmoore Kendall: Maverick of American Conservatives, by John A. Murley, published by Lexington Books in 2002. Kendall founded the Politics program at the University of Dallas.

May 14, 1961
Professor Willmoore Kendall
Pinar 21
Madrid 6

Dear Willmoore:

I have frequently wondered why I did not hear from you but there were always so many distractions which prevented me from writing to you to find out. Yesterday I received your letter. It made me very sad, not only for you but above all for the future of political theory in this country. For I have no doubt that the root of your troubles is the enmity of the department at Yale to anything which is not “behavioralistic.” I was approached by Dahl both indirectly and directly with a request to recommend to them a young man trained by me in theory. I recommended the best one available but when he began to become interested he found out that he would have no future there: apparently they still bow to the convention that one must throw a bone of theory to the puppies but not a step beyond that. I myself feel very sad for two reasons: first, that I see no way in which I could help you; secondly, I am mortified by the fact that I, a fairly recent immigrant, could get a job as a full professor of theory whereas you, the best native theorist of your generation, have the fate of a political refugee without the consolations of a political refugee. I do not know what advice I would have given if you had asked me, but this is now water over the dam. As for the action possible now, i.e. raising the question of academic freedom, I am all for it if there is a serious prospect, I do not say of success, but of making any imprint. In this connection I would be very anxious to know how far Walter Berns could go in supporting your judgment, not on the intellectual and moral qualities of the department at Yale (for there is no question in my mind regarding that) but regarding a definite policy on their part to kill everything non-behavioristic. You must also be prepared that as good liberals they will act in a perfectly “value free” manner, i.e. not hesitate to use any pieces of mud within their reach. In a word, the case must be well prepared and be put on the broadest basis so that it does not appear to be merely an affair of the National Review people. Could you expect any support from professors now at Yale in any department of the Social Sciences or the Humanities?

I shall be very happy to see you. But let me know as soon as possible when you plan to visit me. My present plan is to stay here in Stanford until early in July. But this plan is subject to change, so to say, at any time.

Cordially yours,

Leo Strauss

(brief comment by me below, meant more for discussion than to say anything new)

It’s quite obvious that Kendall’s situation is the situation of every academic today. The market is horrible – why on earth does anyone even need “behavioralists” now when all you need are adjuncts to teach that yes, there are a 100 senators and 50 states?

It is true good candidates get hired. It’s also true that good candidates get screwed. Anybody who denies that academia is in disrepair is an idiot. We need major structural change, and not merely so more people get hired, although that would be nice.

The real problem is the utter lack of diversity – and I don’t mean merely liberal vs. conservative, or Straussian vs. New Historicist, or having lots of lit crit schools of interpretation – in scholarship.

I don’t know how to explain this diversity to you, because it isn’t as simple as “lots of people having lots of positions and thoughts.” By that standard, the academy is incredibly “diverse.”

It’s something more like this: Mushin Mahdi, in his essay on Alfarabi in the History of Political Philosophy, seems to say that for Alfarabi the spirit which unites genuinely spiritual people amongst all religions is achievable by going back to Platonic thought and seeing the initial inquiry into matters of reason and revelation. In other words, if you’ve ever seen a fundamentalist Christian get along better with a Reformed Jew than other Christians and both of them get along with a Buddhist or Pagan or atheist, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. You’re seeing something that’s genuine at work, and it is beautiful, and it usually doesn’t arise from something like multiculturalism, where diversity is forced.

That hints, to me, at the real issue underlying the problem with the academy. The academy is fundamentally not reconcilable with the logic of capitalism.

The problem with capitalist logic applied to the academy is that it thrives on an immediate sense of demand. Are people interested in something on TV? Offer a course in it – never mind if the topic is worthy to be considered. Do students want video games and cable? Spend the money on those things, don’t bother with classrooms in disrepair. Need to lower costs? Cut faculty – purposely ignore that faculty are the core of the institution.

None of the solutions to immediate problems take into account what an institution of higher learning is. In the link above, I defined “higher education” negatively – if it isn’t different from the rest of the world, what good is it?

Now I will define it positively: We’re teaching each other, in higher education, to see better and see differently than we otherwise would.

We’re working towards that spirit which an older sense of rationality encapsulated.

And if that’s true, then at the very least, we need the “theory” Strauss talks about in the letter. It isn’t an end to how political science or any other field is practiced. It’s merely a beginning, one that should reinvigorate every other field, every other approach, and give our students something they will cherish and not want to forget.


  1. It is possible that I may have missed the point entirely but it occurs to me that academia has always ‘sucked’ in the eyes of all but academics.

    However, it may be that this is a growing trend and that academia is increasingly marginalised.

    We live in a rapidly ‘dumbed-down’ society where sensationalism rules. Having recently caused a bit of a stir myself I am almost disturbed to see a resultant increase in apparent popularity.

  2. Matt (who is long gone):
    I think he’s trying to say something along the lines of: pop academia is useless garbage. And in that case, I kind of agree. If I can learn something by turning on the tv or browsing the internet why in the world would I want to pay absurdly high tuition costs to hear some random professor’s take on it? His opinion, not some factual or analytical-based thing.
    And yet we “need” an education. Corporations are wanting degree’d receptionists and cashiers… and it doesn’t seem to matter to anybody what we learned as long as somebody forked over that tuition.

    Honestly, I don’t get it.

  3. For me at least, the answer to what this diversity is lies in something a professor recently told me. Asking about my plans, and hearing that I was deciding between law school and grad school in politics, he said “politics is something good in and of itself.” I think I might be starting to understand what that means…

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