Don’t Know Much Biology

By Cat Warren

For a decade, I’ve used zoological metaphors to capture the complex relationship between arch-conservative foundations and higher education. At times, I may have stretched the metaphors to where they lost both illustrative power and accuracy. I said things about how barracudas reproduce, for example, that I’m not sure would have passed muster with my fisheries-biologist father. As end-of-grade testing approaches, I’ve resolved to tighten my metaphors, even if some are left behind. If you all could sharpen your number-two pencils? Remember, even you humanists, that scientific facts matter, and I don’t believe in the self-esteem movement. No automatic As or certificates of appreciation just for taking the test.

What best describes the relationship between higher education and conservative foundations? Pick one, and justify your answer without caviling, please.

A) A mule in a harness. Some early citations of the carrot-and-stick idiom feature the carrot tied to the end of a friendly little stick dangled in front of the mule, purely positive reinforcement. However, the most accepted version of this behaviorist metaphor is the carrot of money dangling in front of higher education and the stick of criticism being brandished on its skinny behind—where, according to conservative ideology, the university’s progressive humanities and social science programs are most appropriately located. This pushes the recalcitrant beast ever rightward in hope of avoiding punishment and getting a tasty reward. The “enticements,” instead of being rich in carotene and antioxidants, are bland, stale, and slightly toxic: BB&T’s Ayn Randian virtues of selfishness and capitalism, the Koch Foundation’s anti-government-regulation pabulum, and the Pope Foundation’s sterile mash of Western civilization, though the mule already gets a nutritious and more complex supply of Western civilization in his food at home.

B) A cuckoo in a nest. It may be species-ist to pick on cuckoos, but many of them are too lazy to build their own nests. The ornithological term for this is “brood parasitism.” These opportunistic birds lay their new program eggs—say, the eggs of the Virtues of Capitalism—in a university’s nest, alongside the university’s existing eggs. Cuckoo eggs have thicker skins (I am not kidding), and they also hatch first. The advantage doesn’t end there. The cuckoo chick grows faster, and it begs more loudly than its nest mates at black-tie events. That begging pays off. Administrator birds and sympathetic faculty birds feed it. They are apparently biologically programmed to do so. The cuckoo chick gets big while the original occupants of the nest are increasingly thin and starved. Then, what does the cuckoo chick do? It chucks the original occupants out of the nest.

C) A frog in a pot. Unlike A and B, which are based in solid Skinnerian and ornithological science, C is bogus biology. Here’s the folktale: Throw a university frog into water that is boiling from the heat of conservative strictures placed on funding, and the university will jump out immediately in great indignation. But put the frog in cold water, then gradually ramp up the funding constraints, and the university frog will doze off before reading the fine print in the memorandum of understanding. It will nap into stewed oblivion—and at that point, no one really wants it anymore. It’s gross.

But any herpetologist will tell you the above is an invention. It’s not biology, and it doesn’t have to be our destiny. This is what will really happen to the frog: If you gradually heat the water, the frog becomes more and more agitated. And if you haven’t completely clamped a lid over the pot? The frog will jump out. What a wonderful world this would be.