Belmont Club, commenting on a debate about war between Victor Davis Hanson and Ronald Edsforth, argues:
The possibility of heaven is purchased at the risk of hell and the gift of fire balanced by the danger that we should set ourselves ablaze. The Leftist impulse is at heart a longing to be rid of the burden of freedom. What was the dreamed-of Worker’s Paradise except the same old places repopulated by the New Soviet Man?
Wretchard, with his usual wit, notes the tragic nature of man; with that we see both diminished options and enlarged heroism.
The desire for a cocoon – the fear of challenge– is perhaps most characteristic of the modern academic world. And, thus, it is not a surprise that such professors have been moved to find answers in Arthur Miller rather than Sophocles, in Foucault rather than Shakespeare. They view courses in the great books with suspicion (note Foster’s point below.) But Sophocles’ tragic vision energizes us. Responsibility and risk-taking (when necessary and it costs us, not merely because we can) exercise the muscles of maturity. Without these we have no authority, even over our own lives. Challenges make us conscious of what it is to be human.
Lately this blog has discussed memes that underlie choices in the MSM but also much liberal arts & social science thinking. Occasionally, the comments either describe or reflect how much these have permeated modern thought. Some think that Shannon raised a straw man; this suspicion indicates how little communication there is with the academy. But the blank slate is not the only meme where the academy is likely to differ from the “real world.” Within its ivory walls is a broad belief in the noble savage and immutable pie of goods; scholars regularly contend red staters are ignorant of both the world and what is best for them; scholars have great faith in the liberating force of the sixties with its emphasis upon the unleashed self leading the unrestrained life; they believe globalization destroys the poor and enriches the rich. Finally, of course, they are sure war never solves problems nor frees people. They find no resonance in the choir’s words at that post-9/11 service:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
To a modern academic these words have no resonance; the mind stops at the word “die” and thinks of the nightly solemnity of the Lehrer show’s “honor roll”–appropriately. But it doesn’t note its tragic balance with those raised and purple fingers. Only an impoverished imagination finds no power in one and no purpose in the other.
What strikes me about these memes is that they have not been true to my experience nor my understanding. Edward Feser, in ”Why Are Universities Dominated by the Left?” and in “The Opium of the Professors,” discusses the “left-leaning” nature of the academic life. Quite controversial, these two essays give much food for thought. Another essay from the market perspective of Tech Central takes exception to George Lakoff’s specious argument:
“A Democrat on the Berkeley faculty, George Lakoff, who teaches linguistics…said that liberals choose academic fields to fit their worldviews. “Unlike conservatives,’ he said, ‘they believe in working for the public good and social justice, as well as knowledge and art for their own sake.”‘
Instead, in “The Academic Ego Game,” Arnold Kling argues that:
The view expressed in the quote from Lakoff, that professors have better moral judgment than people in other fields, is the ultimate Type M argument. That is, instead of talking about the consequences of different political philosophies, Lakoff imputes a disreputable motivation to those with whom he disagrees. But in the end, I believe that it does not matter whether professors are better motivated or not better motivated than those outside of the academy. Ultimately, a policy proposal should stand or fall on its merits, not on the basis of whether a professor supports it.
Of course, such vanity irritates us. Perhaps it irritates us most if we understand the joy of specialization, of diving into works of the past or a theoretic world of ideas, but we also understand that is our joy, not necessarily one the community need support. And we note that teaching one or two classes every semester or two, only to specialists, is not altruism. We know duty and sacrifice; it is hard to sell this work as both onerous and necessary; such work is a privilege not a martyrdom. As sympathetic as we might be, we note a disproportionate regard for one’s own choices and one’s own comfort.
Such egocentric disproportion is adolescent and leads to angst. The academy too often encourages naval gazing, a sense of entitlement. With these arguments comes a worldview that emphasizes differences rather than universals, believes how we are different is more important than how we are the same. Despite the complaints to the contrary, the Great Books curriculum is likely to produce humility and empathy; its assumption is that we share with others the universals of human experience. It is the immediate and the “relevant” that feeds disproportion and elitism. Of course, that curriculum does, indeed, make such people uneasy because they are concerned with the tragic. The academy would choose, on the other hand, to flatten human experience; Pinker may be a materialist but one that sees this universality; therefore, he vivifies – encourages our sense of three-dimensionality. Feser sees this as arising in part from the academy’s feud with religion. I suspect that is true.
But, let’s lay that aside and examine these paradigms as Benjamin Franklin would: what brings felicity in this life? Not these memes. All reflect relations with others–especially outside academic circles–that are likely to be accusatory and envious, elitist and superficial, that lead to a tone proud rather than humble, dictatorial rather than consultative. These counter the expansive with the centripetal. In addition, these are arguments of theory rather than action, as such, they are likely to lead to anger and impotence. They reject the tragic and prepare for the therapeutic.
Accepting the tragic (and often tainted) nature of human experience is the first step, moving on is the second. Academics may fancy themselves “above” the sordid world of commerce, but they fight mightily for raises, time off, perks. Like Pap Twain they look enviously at others – believing they could easily try on another’s life, deserve another’s benefits. Aren’t they a bit like the weak student who can’t decide between being the medical examiner they see on television or the neurosurgeon who saves, but, looking at their record, we note a series of Cs and Ds in science? Some of these people haven’t done all that well at life, but still compare themselves with CEOs who took the big risks. As Kling observes, an academic is not likely to become a CEO.
Academics, especially cosseted ones and those who have won their turf battles, sometimes despair for they recognize a certain hollowness. They seldom teach. Without that feeling of engagement, they think of their next book. But, they also sense they are wives (most often) to the state’s husband. One of the typists at my business had a Harvard Ph.D. He was charming and well-read, if often ironic. Of course, he was not without his flaws – he wasn’t, of course, particularly ambitious but there wasn’t much to be ambitious about. Typing freshmen papers at an ag school was probably not something he’d thought he’d do as he labored over pre-Semitic texts. His complaint, however, that the town had failed him in not providing work for such a major always seemed to me a bit ingenuous. He enjoyed the martyrdom if not the work for it emphasized the purity of his intellectual choices. It was not, he would argue, his job to produce a demand for his services; his services were entitled to a job.
The large majority of such specialists are employed by large state institutions. Their protection hasn’t the inevitability, perhaps, of a woman with numerous illegitimate children in the projects, but once they are wrapped in the soft feather bed of tenure, the protection is a good deal more comfortable in salary and rank. Provided for by the state, indeed by the hard-working classes for whom they have only contempt, the specialized scholar becomes a trophy wife. Such a wife feels compelled to complain about her husband, aware of the artificial nature of their relationship, chafing at the fact he has bought her. But she’s vain; she keeps her nails in good shape (publishing an article here) and her hair trimmed (a conference there). The state feels – and the scholar reinforces that feeling – that the ability to maintain large divisions of esoteric scholars whose primary purpose is ornamentation (teaching a class every other year, lending a name to faculties) enlarges the prestige of the college and therefore of the state. This is, of course, less true in the “old” fields of languages, philosophy, literature, history; it is most true of the specialized “hot” areas – ethnic studies, feminist studies, queer theory. These “centers” demonstrate, like a lovely woman’s tiny bound feet, the state’s plenty. And the scholars secluded in these centers feed each other, reinforcing their prejudices. But they also suspect (I suspect) that their resumes, in a less “hot” topic and with a less “hot” applicant would not have gotten them hired nor gotten them tenure. If they point their fingers often enough and shout loudly enough of their oppression then maybe others won’t notice their own weaknesses and inadequacies.
This is a great paradox – power comes from weakness, oppression from suppression. And so these academic memes emphasize impotence rather than power. Ah, we complain, someone wrote upon our slates a life we aren’t responsible for and therefore have not chosen. We, ourselves, are noble – that is, once we were, before all these unnecessary constraints of society’s institutions bound us. (We see our whole lives as that couple returned from a cruise do – in humble exile.) It is not my fault but society’s that my life is in shambles and my ethics compromised. Of course, our core selves are pure (only our traditions, our cultures and not we ourselves are tainted). If we envy someone else’s goods or joys, that is because they have taken from us; restlessly, we look around with the logic of Pap in Huckleberry Finn – what exists is mine. The self, our self, is at the center – any attempt to restrain us (with the needs of others, with responsibilities, with, indeed, the limits of our biology) keeps us from being ourselves. Ah, to be myself, I must be able to do anything another can do. And so, we strain against biology, feeling that society fails us if as a woman we can’t bench press three hundred pounds or as a man we can’t breast feed.
Contentment is probably overrated. Restlessness is generally more productive, more “alive.” Challenge & change are exhilarating. I don’t think our ideal is always happiness nor always peace. But felicity is, in the end, something to be sought. Do we really want to be unhappy? And the vigor of challenge, the happiness of responsibility is often more productive. Alienation, passivity, impotent anger, greed are not useful responses to challenges.
Diverse as these memes are and at odds in many ways, they are likely to produce youthful angst; this is the period of dawning self-consciousness. It is an important stage; it is where we feel our own potential–our self separate from others, active. And it is where we also usually see for the first time constraints. We rebel against what we can’t do. We test those boundaries. Some break and we enter new lands; others hold, defining the limits our life will know.
These are memes of transition – when we want to rethink society and ourselves, when we want to “take charge” and aren’t yet allowed to do so. But if we stick to them, we stunt our growth. And, these do not fit well with adult lives, when we are responsible for ourselves and content with the choices we’ve made. At first, we see responsibility as limiting; eventually, we see it as liberating. Some constraints we push aside; some internalized as restraints we choose. Taking responsibility for our lives gives us a liberating authority. As the sonnet’s structure frees our creativity, by accepting our limitations we free ourselves to act with purpose. Life offers us a cake – we decide to keep it or eat it. Sure, we don’t get both. But we do get the choice. This freedom is a paradox – not a contradiction. We don’t realize the heady pleasures of such paradoxes if we obsess about boundaries. We rail against what is lost when young and take joy in what is gained later. I took a detour – at least I thought I did. Now I’m not so sure.
This is the voice from the margin: I’ve watched the academic life with jealousy and impatience for the last twenty-five years. Since I’ve always been ridiculously compulsive, the adjustment to running a business after, what, sixteen years spent in academic surroundings, was relatively easy. Besides I don’t think much and once an impulse has landed me somewhere I just start bailing. But during those first months, still chatting with “adjunct” faculty (pretty much faculty spouses) who had taken the position I’d rejected, I remember telling one that I felt stronger, I’d felt muscles I didn’t know I had. Despite those burdensome bills, I felt strangely & yet wonderfully, independent. Muscles flexed from judgment calls–requesting bids, giving bids. It was a new world. Frankly, a lot of those judgment calls weren’t good. And even thirteen years later, as I was selling the business, I felt a poseur at Chamber of Commerce meetings. But when my judgment calls were good, I could write a bigger check to myself; when they weren’t, I couldn’t. I lost out on scholarship; it is perhaps hard to argue that that choice I made so long ago was intelligent. But it did give me something. And, every day, I’m thankful that, for a while, I stepped outside the academic world and can now bring that outside world in with me.
But what was going on across the street, in the midst of a large university? I would argue that the problem with academics is that they chose those memes (adolescent ones, ones that encouraged jealousy and a sense of entitlement) because they reflected their lives. They found that teaching a class well or teaching a class poorly had little effect on their salaries–and their success was not likely to be easily certified. Their publications – well, they did have an effect. In fact, the correlation is probably roughly just. But only roughly. And how well is importance gauged in a world where academic fads reign in briefer and briefer spans? That article so important today may be an artifact tomorrow. If we compare Ward Churchill’s resume and his salary, we note how superficial and fleeting such criteria can be. And we question the justness of tenuring him, certainly of the size of his salary and administrative reach. And Churchill is not unique nor is the University of Colorado.
When the only gauge of worth became salaries carved out of departmental budgets, the economics of the unforgiving zero/sum seems real–is, for academics, real. And when the criteria aren’t exactly transparent, faculties become cynical. Although a percentage of the faculty has rallied to his side, I suspect most have better records than Churchill. Opaque standards, though, make everyone fearful. I suspect that they fear the attention Churchill’s remarks bring.
Elitism is a defense, it barricades the self against potential questioning. We see this assertion of the self, of the subjective vision as the truth in the deranged response of Ward Churchill, again as analyzed by Wretchard. Doesn’t this sound like crazies we’ve heard all our lives, at the front of the room or from the back of the room, drunk at a party, an adolescent poseur? He shifts the argument not because he thinks but because he doesn’t. He has halfway bought his own bluster and bullying, manipulating others almost unconsciously. On some level, he’s bought his own shallow absurdity. And always the movement to the self, to the subjective that we have seen more and more common in the disciplines that once disciplined such reactions and now encourage them. Still, we remember the trophy wife, perhaps a bit drunk–boisterous as Ward Churchill, angry as Ward Churchill. And, in the end, foolish and impotent. Its just that they are so damn expensive and fritter away so much that is good.
(Of course, none of the scholars who live in or visit my house with any regularity are such trophy wives; they think only of the good of their students, embrace teaching with vigor, grade papers honestly and closely. They love their work, wishing to inculcate in their students the joys of scholarship and, indeed, of thought. They respect the Victorian virtues. In addition, they try to bridge the gap between the academic world and the community that surrounds it. They understand well the tragic nature of life and its reflection in the tragic world of literature. And, well, I’m only being partially ironic between these little parentheses.)