Thursday, November 11, 2004

Groupthink in the Humanities

BAW links to this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about "Liberal Groupthink" in academia.

I've said previously that although it is undeniable that bias does exist (and I think it should be called 'leftist', not 'liberal'), I don't think in and of itself it is a huge problem (but of course it's not my conservative ox that is getting gored, or my career being damaged because I have the 'wrong' politics). Mere bias will eventually wash out, even from the humanities, because eventually too much dissonance will build up: the 'word to world fit' of the arguments will become unacceptable. (I know that's an idealized view, and that others would argue that politics can keep a stranglehold on intellectual worldviews; my counterexample is the eventual death of Lysenkoism -- which of course killed enormous numbers of people before being rejected, but was eventually rejected).
In any event, I'm in agreement with Bauerlein when he argues that the loss of intellectual diversity and counter-arguing voices is a serious problem for academia. All of the other problems that Bauerlein identified, including false consensus and group polarization are readily apparent, even (or perhaps especially) in a pretty idyllic, collegial environment like Wheaton.

In this blog I've avoided commenting very much on politics, because I don't think anyone is interested in my views, and because I'm not a partisan of either party (I follow George Washington in loathing political parties in general). But I've been reading all of the "what the Democrats have to do to win an election" and thinking how the critiques are similar to critiques of academia--and equally useless. Bauerlein's article combined two lines of thought for me:

I don't think there's any point in leftists in academia or Democrats in politics pretending that they don't believe in what they believe in, and I don't think all of their ideas are that unpopular. I certainly don't think that insincere invocations of religion are going to do anything. But I do think that there is a core problem of expression that might be addressed, and that is the assumed superiority in discourse conventions. From imposing solutions to problems via courts and regulatory agencies rather than by democratic processes to 'forced volunteerism' graduation requirements to politicized required classes, there's a really annoying tendency among leftists to assume that they are coercing people for their own good (people on the right do this also, of course, but their issues aren't at this moment as grating, I think; give them time, though...).

If both academic leftists and Democrats could try to force themselves to address their audiences not as children or inferiors (social, political, moral, educational), they would not alienate as many potential allies. And if they could finally reject the notion of the university/society as a quasi family (with superior parents telling inferior children what to do) but instead as a free association of equals, their arguments would be far more palatable.


That means of course tolerating dissent and not entering into a class with the idea that you are going to convince the students of their false consciousness. I know too many professors, even in my own department, who think that one of their jobs in a course is to break down student 'resistance,' whether that's resistance to theory or resistance to certain political ideas. Yes, they are our students, and we know more about our subjects and they less. But they are also adults, endowed with intelligence, experience and creativity of their own. Almost every question in the humanities is something about which reasonable people can disagree: we should nourish that disagreement, if only for the selfish reasons that it will make our own arguments stronger.

Unfortunately I think my above prescription is pie in the sky. Just as I can see no good method by which to solve the Ph.D. employment crisis (all the solutions end up creating as many or more problems than they solve), I can see no good method for incorporating conservative voices into academia. Look, I'm a libertarian anarchist and just barely fit into Wheaton's culture; I think a real conservative would be just miserable on campus--and that's a serious problem. The only real hope is that the my generation of young scholars will be so disgusted with the ossified orthodoxy of contemporary academia that we will overthrow it. I definitely want to do this, but I do not want to replace liberal orthodoxy with some conservative orthodoxy. Unfortunately, that we should wish to cast a system down and have no other one in its place is not a thought that occurs naturally to the academic or the political mind. The good news is that, if we do our jobs right, our own students will come along and overthrow us, just as we can overthrow the system built by our teachers.

Here's hoping.


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