Heather Mac Donald’s The Burden Of Bad Ideas

American society has been increasingly influenced by a small number of men and women from a rarefied social and educational background. Through education, politics, journalism and the media, a clique of intellectuals shape opinion and evolve policies that impact millions of citizens and capture billions of dollars of public money. Take a look, for example, at the educational background of the New York Times Editorial Board, or better yet, the Supreme Court: five of the eight sitting Justices attended Harvard Law School – the remaining three were graduates of Yale Law School. This class of people who labour with their minds might broadly be termed “intellectuals,” and their influence, over the last 100 years, has grown considerably. Television, film, and the internet have united the American culture like never before; the Federal government has grown to a size and scope without precedent in American history; newspapers, in concert with social media, have given individual journalists a national and even global reach; and our best universities, once finishing schools for the very rich, actively seek out the best and brightest and shunt these prodigies on to careers that will best make use of their talents. Many of the consequences of this shift have been salutary: good ideas have found a wider purchase, and talented men and women have helped to bolster the institutions, public and private, that run our democracy. However, the same shifts that have enlarged the potential impact of good ideas have similarly broadened the consequences for bad ideas. Heather Mac Donald’s The Burden Of Bad Ideas is an investigation into the consequences of bad public policy, whether that’s with respect to education, criminal justice, or welfare regulations, and how a handful of influential thinkers – in the media or in academia – can “misshape” society without ever bearing the cost of their mistakes.

It should be said, to begin with, that Mac Donald resembles the very intellectuals she challenges, at least in terms of her career and education. She is a product of Phillips Academy, Andover, one of the nation’s elite prep schools, and has degrees from Yale, Cambridge, and Stanford. She’s a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and City Journal, and a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, one of America’s more prestigious and well-funded think tanks. But with regard to the regnant ideology among the class of people broadly defined as “intellectuals,” Mac Donald is decidedly an outsider. For example, earlier this year, in a tediously familiar scenario, protestors at Claremont McKenna, a small liberal-arts college in Southern California, successfully disrupted a speech Mac Donald had been scheduled to give that was broadly critical of the Black Lives Matter narrative and supportive of America’s police, which she described as “the group most dedicated to the proposition that black lives matter.” (Side note: She was, eventually, able to deliver her speech to a more-or-less empty room, but the audio quality is abysmal; this is the same speech, delivered to a more captive audience – it’s worth listening to.) In The Burden of Bad Ideas, Mac Donald begins by remarking upon a significant change in how large, wealthy foundations, established in a bygone era by the likes of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford, fell captive to a fashionable approach in the “war on poverty,” which involved, in Mac Donald’s estimation, addressing “the causes rather than the effects of poverty.” Whereas charitable foundations across the United States, including the New York Times‘ own annual Christmas charity, once sought to make moral distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor – orphans were always worthy of aid, for example, whereas alcoholics were not, the modern foundations treated poverty itself as the problem, and poured their millions into social welfare programs, or the advocacy for social welfare programs. Mac Donald quotes the Harvard social theorist Paul Ylkivaker, who urged foundations to identify and support “programs and policies, such as social security, income maintenance, and educational entitlement that convert isolated and discretionary acts of private charity into regularized public remedies that flow as a matter of legislated right.” Bolstered by the millions of dollars bequeathed to them in trust by their founders, the foundations became magnets for a group of theorists, produced by the American universities, who lay the blame for all manner of social ills on American society itself.

The universities, in turn, were influenced by the foundations, particularly in the establishment and funding of the so-called “studies” departments: originally just African-American studies and women’s studies, but today encompassing Latino studies and even, in some particularly progressive universities, fat studies. “From 1972 to 1992,” Mac Donald writes, “women’s studies received $36 million from Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Mott, and Mellon, among others,” producing classes that “consider feminine ways of analyzing cellular metabolism,” or “study the hidden misogyny in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.” The “diversity” mandate, that has propped up affirmative action programs, for example, and relentlessly attacked the canon of Western literature and philosophy as being “unrepresentative” of the diversity of the student body, has also been underwritten by foundation money; its implicit assumption is that all institutions should have proportionate representation of the wider society, and any disparities are de facto evidence of prejudice. Mac Donald quotes Edgar Beckham, the program manager in charge of the Ford Foundation’s Campus Diversity Initiative: “Every domain of institutional activity might be involved – buildings, grounds, financial aid.” The fruits of their labour were on display earlier this year, when radical student groups took over Evergreen State college in Washington, charging the campus and its administration with all manner of hatreds, prejudices and biases.

What began in undergraduate programs has since migrated into graduate studies, and even into high schools. Feminist theory now holds sway in many of the nation’s law schools, thanks to the efforts of professors like SUNY/Buffalo’s Lucinda Finley, who criticized law schools for their reliance on “rationality, abstraction, a preference for statistical and empirical proofs over experiential and anecdotal evidence,” which she contends reflect only “the life experiences typical to empowered white males.” She goes on to lament that “Rage, pain, elation, the aching, thirsting, hungering for freedom on one’s own terms, love and its joys and terror, fear” are “all diffused by legal language.” Mac Donald makes the obvious point: that legal language seeks dispassionate expression because a judge animated by “rage” or “terror” is unlikely to render an impartial judgment. Next, Mac Donald trains her sights on the nation’s high schools, in the uproarious and disheartening essay “Why Johnny’s Teacher Can’t Teach.” She begins by pointing out the rather dismal talent pool available to schools: “Nationally, undergraduate education majors have lower SAT and ACT scores than students in any other program of study. Only 16 perfect of education majors scored in the top quartile of 1992-93 graduates, compared with 33 percent of humanities majors. Education majors were overrepresented in the bottom quartile, at 30 percent.” Next, she picks on the New York State Teacher Certification Exams, a product of the social theorists’ emphasis on “concepts” and “critical thinking” over actual knowledge. “If any teachers in the state know anything about American history, English literature, or chemistry,” Mac Donald tells us, “it is a complete accident, for the state’s highest education authorities have not the slightest interest in finding out.” From here, it is only a short path to “Hip Hop 101,” an actual high school course at El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, an actual school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Mac Donald’s reporting on this class and the school that birthed it strained credulity; even I, cynic that I am, did not believe we could have fallen so low as to be teaching students classes on break dancing, deejaying and “tagging” (graffiti), but not only does such a course exist, it has been extolled by educational reformers. What is lost by dedicating precious class time to such trivialities? Literacy, numeracy, and a respect for the kind of stubborn persistence and rote memorization that is the basis of education itself.

Bad ideas, it should be stressed, are not dangerous in and of themselves. Mistakes, after all, are necessary prerequisites for the acquisition of knowledge. But when the burden of bad ideas is not borne by the progenitors of those ideas – when, in fact, the intellectuals are perfectly insulated from the calamities they cause – well, there the trouble begins. Thank god, then, for Heather Mac Donald, for her entire career has been a calling to account.