Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

For love or money

Our friend Patrick Deneen has a very interesting post responding to this "rebuttal" of this WaPo op-ed. My favorite line from the "rebuttal":

The lure of large salaries is likely to appeal more to conservatives than to liberals.

Now there’s someone who’s not entertaining stereotypes!

Patrick’s argument focuses more on the "progressive" character of the research ideal that has come to define the American university. Where once colleges and universities were "conservators" of a cultural tradition (which might have contained a plurality of views, not to mention the resources for self-criticism), they’re now essentially "progressive," in the sense that the accumulation of a body of knowledge is progressive (at least since the Enlightenment). Everyone’s a scientist of a sort:

The infiltration of the canons of scientific research into the humanities has been the root cause for the decimation of the very idea of the humanities on our campuses. In their efforts to prove their "originality" and progressiveness faculty glommed onto post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-colonialism, and post- everything in order to prove that they were "with it," and indeed, that they were anything but "conservative" - that is, the one thing that made the humanities defensible inasmuch its reason for existence is to be conservators. By demonstrating their hostility to the authors and books they studied or even the very idea of "humanity" (what is now fashionably called "the subject"), the humanities at once made themselves "relevant" and destroyed themselves from within.

Discussions - 13 Comments

From Uslaner's article: "People choose academic careers because they care more about intellectual pursuits than about making lots of money."

I offer an alternative theory: people tend to gravitate towards pursuits and professions that best match their own sense of risk-taking. Liberals are, to my experience, very risk-averse people. They seek as much promise of security from institutions and government as they can get. The academic life, with its practice of tenure, provides a good measure of this security. So too does work in entrenched government bureaucracies (State Department, CIA, etc.). So too does work in charitable trusts such as the Ford Foundation.

I add: and since those institutions have long since passed the tipping point of majority for liberals, they now have a self-selecting system in which to secure more like-minded people. Part of that is ideology; part of that is simply the rejection of those who might come in and stir up the pot, thus risking the carefully nurtured cocoon of security.

I will pass by Don's (merited) pessimism and baby-w-bathwater attitude towards old traditions like tenure, and simply stress that in this post, Dr. Pat has both in general KNOCKED IT OUT OF THE PARK, and has made a very imporant point, that so many conservative critiques of the academy are blind to, about the growing encroachment of the scientific research-model paradigmn.

In the immediate past, it was the "tenured left" that caught the conservative eye, but increasingly, its going to be the "techno progressives" that do so. Of course, few normal citizens can usually tell what the hell it is that the numbers obsessed techno-progressives are "writing" about, so the usual John Leo-like editorial trotting out the latest exercise in propoganda-stupidity isn't going to work in opposing them. The techno progressives write boring articles you can't understand, nor get excited about when you can, they maintain a defacto alliance of indifference with the more theory-adled of the tenured radicals whom they give the pure humanities over to--since no good techno progressive is going to waste his time with something non-scientific like E.M Forster or Cicero--and seem, despite all the apparently sincere avowals of non-partisanship, to almost always do what they can to keep good conservative candidates from being hired. They are usually too suave to hire a Ward Churchill in their own department, but they make damn sure that the sorts of academics you see posting on NLT don't get jobs in the big research universities. And they typically have a scientific-sounding rationale--"only published 2 papers in the most read by top profs journals, whereas so-and-so has 4"--to provide an excuse.

The students they produce are able to line up the numbers behind the latest pet cause, or pet complaint against conservative policies, and the know-how to feed these to the media. They produce "organization kids" on the track to become "activist lawyers" or "change-agent" managers. And the kids the techno-progs get excited about higher ed wind up being far more "professional" than "professorial" in the sense Deneen means.

The difficulty for conservatives is that the issue is as much about scientism and the structure of the disciplines as it is about the leftward slant. True, the iciest of libertarians can work within the techno-progressive scheme, although you can bet that any as eloquent for his time as Hayek was for his own won't make the cut. But the main point is that this is occuring under the radar of most citizens because it is so mind-numbingly boring, and has none of the flash of, say, a former Yippie who assigns papers on "sexual hegemony" and the like.

To pick up Carl's baseball metaphor (and commendation of Patrick Deneen's fine post): Carl "crushed" the pitch and "put it into orbit." "Techno-progs" should go into our lexicon. Both analyses should be commended (inter alia) for their "structural" cast, i.e., the observation and drawing out of the implications of the turn to a new(er) notion of what the university is, research-oriented/progressive, as well as what scientific research is (and can be used for). Kudos to both. (I also can add that Carl has one particular department (and their cronies) squarely in mind, so his thinking is also rooted in empirical facts.)

Of course, the tenured rads are still very much with us. Here's a priceless bit from a post-doc advert I ran across today, from the institution that Dinesh D'Souza and others identified as a prime culprit years ago, Duke: "The humanities have come to be characterized in recent decades by an overarching concern for a result, almost all humanities scholarship is now considered political in one sense or another." There, they just admit it. The pure humanities, English and History especially, BELONG TO THEM. Conservative or moderate students, FUGHEDDABOUTIT. You like novels, poetry, history, but your parents want you to go to a big time school, well, LIFE SUCKS FOR YOU, doesn't it? Dr. Pat's post has a link that demonstrates Duke has a history faculty of 30 profs w/ none of them republican. Lord only knows what the English dept is like.

And lest there be any question about what sort of "politics" we're talking about here, they later say, "The seminar [for which the post-docs are invited] is interested in...political alternative imaginaries...[we want to use] this topic to rethink what we see as the predominant way in which humanities research approaches politics today, namely critique: the critique of commodity culture, representational practices, colonial thought, patriarchal structures,...racial hierarchies, sexual normativities, and so forth." So forth indeed! Let's see if we can do the math: almost all humanities = political; political = critique; critique = WHAT PROBABLY NINE OUT OF TEN AMERICANS WOULD ADMIT IS FAIRLY FAR-LEFT THEORY. Parents? Oh Parents? Do you see what this amounts to? Do you see why it is not a grouchy thing for a conservative or moderate academic to say, well "liberal education at the larger research institutions is in ruins," (Stanley Katz) or that "19 out of 20 English depts are disasters." (yours truly) So why do you keep sending your kids to these folks?

But I've saved the best for last--again, from Duke U's John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute post-doc advert, as put together by Micheal Hardt and Robyn Wiegman: "Such critical practices generally seek to unmask domination and speak truth to power with the implicit belief that doing so will undermine and topple its control. When critical practices fail to overthrow the structures of domination, however, and when power unmasked nonetheless maintains its force [i.e., when Ralph Nader is not elected president] critique often begets melancholy and cynicism, two affects we find widespread in the humanities. [i.e., all our colleagues are depressing cranks who every election cycle say, 'if so-and-so from the right is elected, America is thoroughly doomed,' but who nonetheless don't leave the country, and don't change anything about their lives.] We sense, however, that a search is already underway within the humanities for alternative political imaginaries that will enable producing not just different affects but different itineraries for political scholarship and action."

Wow. So they finally admit they're burned out with critique, critique, critique in the service of a marxisant/multiculturalist politics, and that it has accomplished little and has been highly self-indulgent, but the Alternative Imaginative answer is, it seems, to make the humanities even more politicized.

All righteous jeremiads, above.

In a slightly different direction, I was struck by this statement by Dr. Pat and its implications:

The problem is that it is our "research universities" that credential future professors, and those institutions are now dominated by scientism.

Where does this leave higher ed. teaching, i.e., the "profession" of teaching? Even more tradition-oriented liberal arts colleges require their teachers to have Ph.D.s (and thus to be "original" in some way), and they even boast that "90 percent of classes are taught by Ph.D.s" etc. But if Dr. Pat is right, as I think he is, graduate school is increasingly simply a dead end (either practically or intellectually) for non-activist, philosophically-minded students. This is not only a present problem for those students, but also a future problem for intellectually curious students who are now high-schoolers. And then on and on.

So then, what should be the alternative to this scientism and all the blinkered pettiness and fevered activism it begets?

The nineteenth-century small liberal arts (and religious) colleges, with their "conservator" function? Can these be revived today? Practically, is this an option without such school's energy coming from some fideist enthusiasm that suspects the life of inquiry?

And what is the avenue for advanced study and intellectual excellence, if the grad school convention is exhausted?

The basic problem has nothing to do with liberal or conservative anything; it's the rise of the use of the scientific method to study the humanities.

It's one thing to use scientific methodology to study quantifiable, repeatable, laboratory-setting conducive events. However, it's quite another thing to think that humans or anything relating to humanity's history can be reliably studied with the scientific method. Human thought is so tied to time--past, present and future--that we have no reliable independent stance by which to judge anything about ourselves or our history, let alone repeatedly and reliably test and re-test these hypotheses.

Don't misunderstand me, I don't think science is useless or that all scientific/historical/critical, etc. study of the humanities should be abandoned. What is sorely lacking, though, is some perspective on how humans understand themselves in time and that there is no such thing as objectivity when it comes to the study of humans--even when undertaken under strict scientific terms.

This is not headline news or anything; Heidegger, Gadamer, and Charles Taylor and I'm sure others as well have been making this point for nearly a century. But this understanding of the science's (mis)application to the humanities has, to my mind, been completely ignored, uninvestigated, or deemed beyond the modern pale that what we are left with are debates like this that completely mistake the perpetrator.

It doesn't take a liberal to make bad critiques any more than it takes a conservative to forward cogent defenses of tradition. Bad thought and, most insidiously, under-investigation are equally attributable to and present on both sides of the aisle.

I agree with all the metaphorical superlatives launched by Carl and Paul.

All the commentary offered above on the "scientific research model" helps explain the current condition of higher education, most notably the humanities.

What about other non-academic institutions?

  • The entertainment industry
  • Public television
  • Newspapers and other print media
  • Government bureaucracies
  • Large charitable trusts

All victims of the "scientific research model?"

Please offer an explanation for the drift of all those institutions to a progressive monopoly status.

Well, yes Don, other forces are at work in causing the onward institutional march of liberalism. But you could read the parts of Deneen's excellent book that talk about 1930s political science and John Dewey, or if you're really masochistic, you could read Dewey himself, say, chapter 3 of Liberalism and Social Action to get an idea of the link between all aspects of contemporary liberalism with a kind of idolization of the modern scientific model of knowledge.

I mention E.M. Forster above b/c I recently re-read his Howard's End , a book I'm sure Deneen would like since it's about surburbanization among other things. Here's a good line from it however, on the subject of scientism: "Science explained people, but could not understand them. After long centuries among the bones and muscles it might be advancing to knowledge of the nerves, but this would never give it understanding. One could open the heart to Mr. Mansbridge and his sort without discovering its secrets to them, for they wanted everything down in black and white, and black and white was exactly what they were left with." There's a type of voice from the humanities we used to have in the academy, which boldly said "the best novelist KNOWS human nature better than the typical psychologist," but now, it must largely live on elsewhere.

JQA wrote: "Practically, is this an option without such school's energy coming from some fideist enthusiasm that suspects the life of inquiry?"

My own direct experience as a father of seven, three of whom have graduated from, or are currently attending, "fideist" schools, is that such schools...*because of* their "fideist enthusiasms" CELEBRATE the life of inquiry...and demand that their students engage in it. I sure as hell (oops, there's that "fideist enthusiasm" again!) wouldn't support - morally and financially - their decision to study there if the life of inquiry wasn't vibrantly present.

Gary Seaton, I am happy to hear the school year is going well.

Kate: The school year (for the younger kids) *is* going well. A local "homeschool enrichment program", started and run by a Baptist couple, offers...Latin!:
Ergo, there *may* be hope for the nascent tradition of "metaphorical superlatives" in the family to be handed on to nieces and nephews...

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