Today, after reading a reply by Scott Nokes to this post, I went to my mailbox and found this month's MLA (Modern Language Association) newsletter.
Domna C. Stanton, a scholar in French and Women's Studies who apparently is now president of the MLA, in her "President's Column" manages to illustrate beautifully why my profession is slouching towards irrelevance.
Although there are many more than two problems with this column, I'm going to focus on two that should be particular embarrassments to the profession: ideas whose dumbness is illustrated in the very argument of the column and poor writing.
The title of the column is "The Paradox of Academic Freedom." Stanton argues (ok, that's being charitable, "asserts" would be a better description) that it is essential for "us" to defend "academic freedom" while at the same time "we" must admit that a definition of academic freedom is impossible.
So we're going to defend something we can't define, and we will do this by defining it, but it won't be a real definition. This campaign is sure to be a smashing success.
Let's look at Prof. Stanton's description of academic freedom:
It is historical, not a transcendent notion; its meanings are contextual, relational and open to change.
Well good luck defending it, then. I'm not a big fan of transcendence, myself, but if we can't assign transcendent value to freedoms that are at their foundation speech and thought, then we might as well pack up our stuff and quit. How can you possibly defend academic freedom if you won't argue that it is a universal good, a benefit not only to the individuals who practice it, but to the society (any society) in which it is embedded? Why should the Chinese or Cuban or Saudi Arabian authorities give their scholars freedom of thought and speech if we can't even make the argument that it is a fundamental human right to think about, teach and communicate what, to the best of your knowledge, you think is true ?
Stanton stumbles around this point, bringing in the utterly useless Universal Declaration of Human Rights and trying to tie academic freedom to this particular piece of paper (and noting that it's not really possible). By choosing to argue from a textualist position (that the rights are Universal because some dead people declared it so in 1948), she chooses to occupy the weakest possible ground to make any kind of substantive argument. Beorhtnoth is a tactical genius compared to Stanton.
But this doesn't stop Stanton from coming up with a laundry list of specific, US political developments that she doesn't like (some are reasonable: the "Academic Bill of Rights" is a terrible idea, though an incredibly clever bit of political judo, turning idiotic speech codes and stifling "hostile environment" rules against their authors), others are childish (the Federal government had the power to subpeona library records before the Patriot Act, so whining about this now seems a little, well, opportunistic; that said, the Patriot Act is a bureaucratic power grab and most of it should be allowed to lapse). But as best I can tell, her reasons for opposing these particular problems but not others doesn't arise out of any principle beyond 'I don't like these.' (She doesn't argue against speech codes or "hostile environment" lawsuits even though these things actually are in force and repress freedom while the Academic Bill of Rights is proposed legislation that hasn't passed anywhere yet. But I digress...)
The point is: bad ideas have consquences. If you accept the bad idea that really, really important freedoms, like Academic Freedom, are merely historical and contingent, then you are going to lose really important arguments.
There is indeed a lot of knowledge whose "meanings are contextual, relational and open to change," but not all knowledge. A proton has a positive charge. One carbon and two oxygen atoms form one molecule of carbon dioxide. In Anglo-Saxon, "witan" is a preterite-present verb. These are facts. You can get all freshman-philosophy on me and argue that because they are embedded in language and convention that they are just language, but that view cuts no ice outside of the MLA, as well it shouldn't.
Stanton has made the mistake of apparently actually believing in a bad piece of contemporary dogma, and it has led her to undercut her own argument about a really important problem facing the profession.
Even worse, when the president of the MLA demonstrates poor writing skills, citizens not in the organization might reasonably conclude that perhaps they don't need to take the organization seriously. I quote:
As crucial as conceptual clarity may be, and as difficult--perhaps impossible--as it may be to realize this idea(l) in any society, academic freedom nonetheless needs to be defended whenever it is under attack. In this column, I examine some of the problematics of the concept in the present context and at the same time affirm the need to combat recent instances of the infringement of academic freedom that are central to the concerns of MLA members.
Where to begin?
Prof. Stanton, did you really just use "idea(l)"? What is this, 1988? That whole multiple-meanings-indicated-by-silly-typography shtick stopped being clever fifteen years ago. Why not just write The Secret of My Succes$ and be done with it? Embarrassing.
What about that parenthetical "--perhaps impossible--" : is this supposed to be a parody? I know you work in French, but come on, even the French aren't doing that whole "X is impossible" thing anymore. Does it embarrass you that the Postmodernism Generator can write this sentence?
You didn't really just make the played-out adjective "problematic" into a plural noun, did you? What is wrong with "problems" if you need a plural noun? What exactly are "problematics," and why do we need this term here?
Did you really mean to use that "I examine ... at the same time ... [I] affirm" construction? Are you really examining and affirming at the same time? Don't you examine first and them affirm later? Doesn't the phrase "in this column" make the "at the same time" phrase unnecessary?
Even worse: "As crucial as conceptual clarity may be... academic freedom nonetheless nonetheless needs to be defended." This makes no sense. How is the cruciality of conceptual clarity in contrast to the academic freedom needing to be defended? Why did you begin that sentence with "as... may be" if you're not giving a contrast in the second half of the sentence?
Prof. Stanton, you write like a committee.
That's probably enough. I could continue through the whole column, but after a certain point it's just mean. Confused thinking, poor writing and political special pleading: is it any wonder no one pays attention to the MLA?
And I am not an MLA basher (Really. Stop laughing.) I think a strong, effective MLA would be very valuable to American society and to our profession. But what we have ain't that.
Instead, the people at the top of our profession (in the MLA as a whole, but also in my own field of Anglo-Saxon studies) are failing us. They are not communicating effectively to the public. They are involved in how-many-angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin debates within the academy that are visibly stupid to those outside (and that wouldn't withstand the intellectual scrutiny of even a first-year grad student in philosophy). And most damningly, they are letting us become irrelevant because by the time the intellectual bills need to be paid, they will be comfortably retired.