Rousseau, A Golden Past, & the Academic as Luddite

This was a comment that got out of hand. It is not a great point, but I do think that some of the academic response to – well, everything – is at once more complicated and simpler than sometimes posited here.

Sure, academia is turf building – and this really didn’t happen until faculty moved from teaching 3-5 classes at all levels to only teaching upper level and teaching 1-2 a semester. (And we probably don’t want to get into “Studies” and “Centers”.) You don’t have time to build turf with the old loads. We certainly don’t at our jr college, where everyone but administrators teach 5, all teach mostly freshmen, and even departmental administrators (to departments of 100 in schools of 13,000 students) teach a class or two and have no secretaries. (I will say that we are an unusually hard-working or, perhaps, an unusually hard-worked campus, but we appreciate one another. We have to – nor do we give “walks”: if we are in the hospital, someone covers.)

Research university faculty sometimes loses its ability to communicate with generalists, let alone freshmen. Intense publish or perish standards sometimes led to superficiality and new theories for the sake of “newness.”

I would argue, though, that Schumpeter’s theory, as I understand it, does have remarkable relevance. So does modern criticism’s alienation from the Scottish common sense guys and alignment with Rousseau: they are Luddites who fear change. The word progressive to describe such thinkers is preposterous.

They fear change. The great paradox is that it is the tea party, the modern conservatives and the modern libertarians who confidently embrace change – not academics. They disdain the great belief that a free market (eschewing crony capitalism), and all that the first and second amendments allow leads to a better life: appropriate pricing as well as the true religion, a better (if not perfect) understanding of truth in theology and science. In one sense it is conservative (and religion often accompanies this vision). It is often accompanied by a firm religious belief or, as for some founders, a strong belief in the providential creator. Such confidence requires a belief in a harmonious order; certainly, it assumes that man may be drawn by emotion but in the end reasons. We are capable of building both a better mousetrap and discerning a true religion, honestly seeking to understand the nature of man and of our world.

Distance has helped me understand my obsessive days as I began my business after years in academia. I remember muscles grew – and not just from carrying forty-pound boxes up steep stairs. As I signed leases for machines worth more than our house, as I smiled at each customer as they came through the door, as I put up our house as collateral – I risked something. It was scary. I hadn’t known risk. Perhaps I was too generous or too hard on a student, perhaps my interpretation of James’s Golden Bowl didn’t convince someone on my committee? Really, that wasn’t risk, much as I loved my interpretation – now I risked that house, my children’s Montessori tuition.

I think I understand this world. These people feel remarkably superior (for very little reason); sure, they can look at the 20th century and even argue the communists (after a hundred million dead) really care about the working classes; they separate literature from life and therefore imperil literature). All that is true. They think words are important. Well, they are – but that is because our words communicate, live, perhaps, but take that life from what they represent. Those theories betrayed a discipline I loved. Indeed, I am thankful my business took me, for 13 of the worst years in academic theorizing, away from it and then deposited me in a little backwater, one that nurtures its students with a certain purity and focus.

But the real deal – the point I’m getting to – is that when Foster says it is a good life, he is right. The incomes are high (historically and next to any other job most are trained for). Incomes in the technical fields are high, but our biggest customers were consultants, especially in pet e but other engineers as well. The position gave them clout in their more lucrative side careers. And in the liberal arts, if there aren’t huge salaries there are comfortable ones, with flexible schedules that let faculty spend most of their time at home – or live a country or even a continent away. Getting to tenure can be brutal, but once there, life is never going to be really harsh, no matter how petrified you become.

But this comfort & this particular measure of success leads to softness – a fear of risk, of the unknown, of the different. My husband heard from a contributor to an anthology he just edited; when her colleagues found out her critical interest, they posted a sign on her door saying Racist/Sexist. She laughed about it, but most of us want a level of comfort when we go to work. Academics fear questions, enforce consensus by sarcasm, by isolation, by aloofness.

And this is prompted by a fear of change. Global warming is attractive because it buttresses their beliefs the elite should reign, reinforces the romantic distrust of inventions that ease work and commerce that builds. Romantics (and as such more Luddite than embracers of growth or change), they believe in an idyllic moment in the past when all was in equilibrium. They want stasis. They fear movement – other than in the most rarified theories they spin.

And that is why they see the economy as a pie – not one of many, not one that can be improved with a richer crust or a different filling, not an expression of skill and art that another can copy or improve – but rather a given pie in which one larger piece takes from one smaller one. It’s an old story, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t permeate academia. It devalues productivity and creativity of a richer, more real kind. Indeed, I suspect it misunderstands the nature of creativity. I suspect the idea of creative destruction would be unsettling.

What I realized, as I ran (not always brilliantly but honestly) my business, was that change was bracing and scary and strengthened muscles that academia let atrophy. The disdain for the practical and the disdain for the marketplace come from a fear of the unknown. The left has always wanted stasis – the only way you get stasis is through threats and violence because people and life and the weather and business – and, well, everything, is not going to stay in place. Or, if it does, it will die. And that will be the next round of deaths after the first one to achieve this illusory and fleeting stasis.

They want an order imposed on the world not just because they want to be those who order it, but because they fear the change. They would scoff that Romney represents change, but he does – it is the change that is always a part of the free market. And they would scoff that Obama represents stasis, but I think they listened to those long meandering answers and thought, ah, he will not change our world. That they haven’t noticed their world will be irreparably damaged by the policies of this Luddite, this . . . . well, those of his politics promise what they don’t even, themselves, intend to deliver.

Jonathan, did you always have “trade-off” as a category? Isn’t everything a trade off?

1 thought on “Rousseau, A Golden Past, & the Academic as Luddite”

  1. When I was a medical student, I knew a medical research physician who was a nice guy. I forget how we became acquainted but I liked him. I later heard that his grant ran out and he numbed his chest with xylocaine and stabbed himself to death with a butcher knife. Cut his heart in half. That was what young doctors now regard as a golden era of medicine. He could have gone into practice and done very well. His son later owned the LA Lakers.

    Fear of change.

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