Saturday, January 10, 2004

This post by Stephen den Beste (of whom I am a regular and grateful reader), and this one by 'Big Arm Woman,' (ditto what I said for SDB), and this one at Invisible Adjunct seem to be somewhat different variants of a meme that is spreading throughout the blogosphere. In general it is focused on criticism of humanities academia (and in particular the Modern Language Association). [N.B.: After I began composing this post, I found this discussion at Roger Simon's linked via this post at Glenn Reynolds.' I find the comments at Roger's blog the most troubling, but haven't really changed what's below to respond directly, yet.]

Let me start by admitting that while I am a member of the MLA, I think you would find it hard to find anyone who is more embarrassed about the organization than I am. Set aside the horror that is the MLA conference (you'll never find more miserable people who aren't actually incarcerated in any one place), the unbelievably useless resolutions passed by the delegate assembly, and the elevation of charlatans, like Edward Said (who didn't know squat about Dante, but that didn't stop him from opining...). Also forget that PMLA (the journal, supposedly the most prestigious in my field) has become boring and unreadable over the past ten years. But you can't forget or ignore the fact that seemingly a lot of intelligent, well-read, sophisticated people are just disgusted by humanities academia.

This is a problem.

For a lot of reasons, I think it's a bad thing to have so many people alienated from the professional world of letters (yes, yes, you can be educated and intelligent without any contact whatsoever with the academic world. Maybe it even helps. But the whole purpose of academia is to expand and disseminate human knowledge). Obviously if we are alienating so many smart people, we're doing something wrong.

Maybe we need to ask ourselves: "Why do they hate us?"

There are any number of 'standard' answers to this question, any maybe all together they do explain it, but I'm not so sure.
The first is the political one: academics are extreme leftists who practice Leninist tactics in order to preserve the ideological cocoon they have created.

There's no doubt that there are plenty of such people, and they're the most vocal on campus, but they are also mostly ignored by everyone except politically involved people on the other side. For example, my campus passed an anti-war resolution (stupid waste of time, regardless of what you think of the war, as I doubt there are ten people on earth who care what some percentage of the Wheaton College faculty thinks of the war) this year. There was any amount of sound and fury, but a large chunk of the faculty didn't bother to attend the faculty meeting at which the resolution was passed (including yours truly: perhaps the greatest benefit of tenure is that you can skip useless meetings and no one can do anything to you). And the students didn't appear to even notice.

Now I am disgusted and appalled that there are faculty who apparently have ideological criteria for grades. And the browbeating of students discussed in many of the posts I've referenced above is totally out of bounds. But I had some of the most doctrinaire leftists one could imagine when I was a student, and I never saw that kind of behavior, and I don't know anyone in my department who would even think of acting that way (and my dept. is comprised of very politically typical left-liberals for the most part). I don't doubt that there are such people, and they should be shunned and fired, but I tend to doubt that they are wide-spread enough to engender the kind of grass-roots hostility towards academics reflected in the posts above.

Another possibility for the hostility of engineers and scientists is the one suggested by SDB and by many posters on Roger's blog: humanities students, and professors, are simply stupider than those in the sciences and so they create jargon, confusion, rigid ideological tests, etc. to keep themselves from being challenged and shown to be stupid.

The problem with this analysis is that the most jargony, ridiculous, doctrinaire academics are, truth be told, really very smart. In fact they may be smarter than me and smarter than a lot of the technical people whose company I prefer: you have to be ridiculously clever, widely read, mentally agile, etc. to deal with the kind of theory, jargon, ideology that these folks deal with. Engineering and science (and I'm not just popping off; I have my first degree from Carnegie Mellon; I'm married to an engineer with a Ph.D. and helped with her dissertation in places; I can read technical papers; I passed DiffEQs, etc.) are in one very important way easy: they describe the real world and so they have to make sense. Things might be counterintuitive (though I don't include work by EE's and ECEs who deal with quantum stuff here), but even Fluids fundamentally makes sense; it's hard, but it makes sense. The postmodern stuff doesn't (which is why I think most of it is wrong), but you do need some pretty major mental skills to play the game. [n.b.: at this point in the argument I'm not taking a position on the tripartite division of philosophy that SDB brings up; it's probably mostly correct. I'm just trying to figure out where humanities academia has gone wrong].

So what is the problem? I think, as much as anything, it is a matter of style, and that humanities professors are, on the whole, in the wrong. You only have to read the comments on Invisible Adjunct, where the academics rather pathetically try to defend the MLA, to realize that way too many humanities academics don't know how to debate. They only know how to sneer.

I've seen this first hand too many times to count, and there is a fabulous dramatization of the process in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, where dinner at a restaurant turns into a train wreck when an engineer dares to tell a famous academic that he's full of shit when he's talking about the "information superhighway" strictly in terms of metaphor. The academic can't directly challenge the engineer's claims (since the engineer knows much more than the academic), so instead he shifts the debate to "meta" discussion about the influence of metaphors, etc.

If academics would recognize that there are a lot of very, very smart people out there who put their considerable brainpower into trying to understand things like packet-switched networks or football formations or concert hall sound dynamics, and if they would force themselves to recognize that such things are just as important as understanding literature (though they're not quite as important as knowing the date of the composition of Beowulf. Nothing is that important), they'd be able to carry on conversations with other folks in which they didn't come off as pompous, sneering jerks.

But jerks they do appear to be. Which is sad, because I know a lot of humanities academics and as individuals they are generally not jerks. But there is a deep, deep insecurity in humanities academics that makes them over-reach with their theories and their literary analyses. Tom Wolfe (I think) makes the point that, think what you want about Jackson Pollock and other abstract expressionist artists, they never doubted for an instant that what they were doing was important and justified in and of itself. But the newer generation of 'political' artists give away, by the very lack of subtlety in their work, that they have no confidence that doing art is really justified. They have to make their art accomplish some other work such as solving the homeless problem or fighting racism.

When the art -- or the humanities scholarship -- fails to solves those problems, the artist is forced to deal with the cognitive dissonance of the claim of importance and the actual results. This kind of dissonance leads, I think, to the attitude the everyone who disagrees must be stupid. Thus, the sneer elevated to the most commonly used tool of rhetoric.

So, 'why do they hate us?' Because we tend to act superior, and people loathe people who act superior.

What's my solution? No much, sadly, though we fail to adapt at our peril. If academia continues to lose the interest and respect of people like those I've linked to above, it is a great loss for our culture, and for academia.

And that's unfortunate not only for opportunities lost, but also because what we do in the humanities actually really does matter. We are supposed to be engaged in the study of humanity and its works. A healthy self-confidence would mean that we could recognize that, well, a new theory on the dating of Beowulf ain't the polio vaccine, but not much out there is, really. That doesn't mean that my theory, or my teaching, or my research can't change people's lives in some small way. I'm proud of the bricks I've added to the tower of human understanding, small as they may be, and my goal is to do everything I can to keep adding bricks and, more importantly, to keep ushering people up the stairs of that tower. Then one day, perhaps, I'll be able to climb high enough to glimpse the far-off sea.

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