Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Continuing the Discussion
Rose Nunez continues the discussion begun here and continued here, here and here.

Rose writes:
The excuse that over-reaching professors really just have society's best interests at heart doesn't cut any ice with me. And that's because--this is humiliating to say on a public blog--I'm really just a disillusioned teenager inside. I expected better of academics. I expected them to care about facts, to care about truth with both a big and a little "t," to not wave the white flag of intellectual surrender, the one that says "reality is ideology." I expected them to analyze their own ideologies, and to place objectivity above ideological allegiances, and to go for long hard archaeological expeditions beyond their social and political comfort zones. I expected them to be more than human, which was wrong and immature of me, and what's worse, I still expect that of them.

I think Rose (and everyone else) should expect more from academics. The academic position is a privileged one, and with the privilege should come the responsibility to make sure that when a professor opens his or her mouth in an official capacity, that professor tries to be certain that what comes out is true. And in my experience, most (not all, certainly) professors really do try to promote the truth. The problem is, what they believe to be the truth bears little resemblance to what most other people think is the truth. But professors are so cocooned that they don't often get their ideologies questioned. I consider myself extremely lucky to have gone to an engineering undergraduate school (Carnegie Mellon), lived in a fraternity full of engineers, been married to an engineering Ph.D. for 10 years, lived next door to a Chicago Transit Authority cop and a master mason and a retired nurse and two wheelchair using, self-described "Good Old Boys" from the Missouri bootheel, managed a pet store in Columbia Missouri, ... you get the point. My wife and I don't do the typical academic thing. We've never tried to live in a college town or an academic community (when she was at Northewestern, we lived in Rogers Park, not Evanston). I'm not saying this as some kind of moral superiorty: we're just comfortable in different situations than my colleagues are. But those colleagues are in a cocoon. They rarely meet people who disagree with them, and so their ideas get wackier and wackier. I still think that my colleages have good hearts: they genuinely believe most of what they say they believe, or at least give the strong impression that they do.

Rose continues:
In my last two years at the university, it became clear to me that most of my professors didn't really think hard about what might be best for society; or, more to the point, their notion of society was something abstract, removed from the world of people and jobs and striving and suffering. I heard a professor lament the end of feudalism because it cleared the way for the rise of democracy and capitalism (for readers who haven't been English majors: I'm not kidding. In class.) I heard a professor say not that the Soviet threat during the Cold War was exaggerated, not that America overreacted, but that the Soviet Union in fact did not expand--its expansion was a figment of the macho American imagination. I had a professor who was upset because a Vietnamese woman's memoirs that said unsavory things about the Vietcong might encourage readers to invest in the American myth.

Rose is, I think, the victim of academic malpractice here. And I use that term advisedly and with the intentional parallel to medicine. Medicine is an art as well as a science (like the humanities), and if a doctor get the 'art' wrong, he or she can be sued for malpractice. I don't see why humanities professors shouldn't be similarly responsible for their actions. And I'll note that the malpractice arises, at least in the last instance, is a perfect example of what I was talking about in my earlier posts: academics who don't trust the audience to handle the truth and so skew their research, their teaching and their presentations so as to manipulate the audience to the conclusions that they (the professors) genuinely believe are correct. I think that professors should categorically never do this. It is, in my opinion, source of the rot in academia.

Rose continues:
What kind of concern for society is it that refuses to look at actual people and their actual lives, but instead uses some philosophical dilettante's fractured and unfactual musings as a map? What kind of good intentions continually exalt the superior vision of the "intenders" while discounting the "false" consciousness of the objects of their ministrations? And, for God's sake, what kind of intellectual integrity is it that weaves webs of obfuscation and deceit around demonstrable, repeatable, embarrassingly pedestrian truths?

There are two indictments here. The first is of out of touch academics. I don't have a programmatic solution, but I do wish my colleagues got out more and interacted with different people. There should be empirical testing of ideas in the world, not just theorizing. In that way I am unapologetically from the Anglo-American empiricist tradition and opposed to the French rationalist tradition. But many fields, with their deference to continental modes of inquiry, don't test their hypotheses against the real world with enough regularity and rigor.

The second indictment is, I think, just another example of what happens when you cross the old bright line that used to separate academics from everyone else: the pursuit of truth no matter where it takes you. I think that the pursuit of truth is more important than being sure that the truth you find is used the way you think it should be used, and I've tried to justify my position. But it is certainly true that there are a great many people who would argue that not recognizing what the general public (or anyone, for that matter) will do with your truth is the height of irresponsibility. In some future posts I hope to answer that charge.


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