Until last week, I’d never heard of Amy Wax. She is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who landed in hot water after she co-authored a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed last August 9 with Larry Alexander, who teaches law at the University of San Diego. Under the headline “Paying the price for breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture,” Wax and Alexander began their piece by listing some of the sociocultural pathologies currently plaguing America – low job skills, widespread opioid abuse, inner-city gang violence, one-parent homes, and high-school and college students who lack basic skills. They went on to attribute these problems to “the breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture.”
They recalled the precepts by which Americans lived in the mid twentieth century: get married before you have kids; try to avoid divorce; get educated; work hard; be patriotic, neighborly, charitable, respectful, and law-abiding. Yes, they admitted, mid-century America was hardly perfect. There was racism; there were rebels who broke the rules. But the rules themselves were good. They resulted in “productivity, educational gains and social coherence.” Now they’re gone, replaced in many subcultures by “antisocial habits,” “rap culture,” “anti-assimilation ideas,” an obsession with group identity, and other destructive forces that do a terrible job of preparing young people for responsible adult lives.
Every word of that op-ed was sheer common sense. (As NYU professor Jonathan Haidt observed, Wax’s concerns about the black subculture were expressed in the 1960 by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who at the time “was roundly condemned as a racist” but whose analysis is now echoed by countless sociologists.) Yet the op-ed was widely seen as scurrilous. The very next day, the Daily Pennsylvanian ran an interview with Wax in which she declared that “Anglo-Protestant cultural norms” were “superior” to others. “I don’t shrink from the word, ‘superior,‘” she said. “Everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans.” She underscored that Western norms “aren’t just for white people” but “can help minorities get ahead.”
Again, pure fact. But her Penn Law colleagues were outraged. Five of them, writing on August 20, accused Wax of waxing nostalgic for bigotry and exclusion. Ten days later, in an open letter, thirty-three Penn Law profs condemned Wax for affirming the superiority of Western culture – although the letter presented only assertions, no arguments. (One of the signatories told Wax to her face that her words of praise for the West were “code for Nazism.”) There were demands for Wax’s firing, or at least her removal from academic committees. But she survived.
On February 16, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed by Wax in which she recounted the fallout from her Inquirer op-ed and proposed that academic leftists try responding to dissenting views not by hurling ad hominem abuse and making accusations of racism but by attempting “to explain, using logic, evidence, facts and substantive arguments, why those opinions are wrong.” (Good luck with that.) On February 20, Wax gave a riveting talk at the American Enterprise Institute in which she repeated much of the content of her Journal piece but also offered some bleak prognostications about the fate of higher education: even as the last few remaining classical liberals on the university faculties are retiring or dying off, they’re being replaced by young profs who have no regard for robust debate or free speech; meanwhile students think that “feelings are everything” and that “there’s no need to read …or…know anything” because “the whole past is tainted by sexism and patriarchy.”
In her AEI talk, Wax made one claim that seemed destined to get her in hot water: while the great majority of students today (even in the Ivy League) lack “a storehouse of knowledge,” the females are far worse than the males. “Men know far more than women know about every subject,” she said, except for one: fashion. All the polymaths she knows are men: “we have dumbed down our women.” One might have expected this comment to renew the hysteria over Wax, but as it happened she had already said something that, in the current environment, was perhaps even more earth-shaking: in a September YouTube chat with Glenn Loury, the veteran black economics professor at Brown University – who, like Wax, opposes affirmative action – Wax noted that she couldn’t remember a black student ever graduating in the top quarter of a Penn Law School class. (As Heather MacDonald indicated in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Wax’s memory may be a bit faulty on this detail, but the general point is a valid one.)
For some reason, it was not until earlier this month that Penn Law students and alumni noticed the Loury interview and replied with a petition calling her “cavalierly offensive” and a liar. Apparently this did the trick: on March 13, Theodore Ruger, dean of the Law School, wrote a letter to law students stating that “law schools are not free-standing debating societies or think tanks”; that Penn Law prizes a “diverse” student body; that Wax, by speaking publicly about black student performance at Penn, had violated the confidentiality of student grades; and that black students assigned to her classes consequently had reason to worry that her “belittling statements” about race reflected a prejudicial attitude toward them. For this reason, Ruger maintained, he had decided that Wax would no longer be permitted to teach mandatory first-year courses.
The pusillanimity of humanities professors and administrators at some of the most respected American universities today is well documented. It’s long since time for the public reputations of the Ivy League institutions to undergo a dramatic downward adjustment. It’s long since time for rich alumni to start withholding donations from almae matres that are already drowning in cash and spending it in all the wrong ways. It’s long since time for parents to begin caring more about actual learning than about the names of the institutions on their kids’ diplomas. It’s long since time to find some way to circumvent the ideologues and their enablers and put education back in the hands of the Amy Waxes of this world.