(Last Wednesday was chosen by NASA as a Day of Remembrance for the astronauts lost in the 1967 Apollo fire, the 1986 Challenger explosion, and the 2003 crash of the shuttle Columbia. The occasion reminded me of my 2003 post which appears below, with the links fixed.)
What does a space shuttle disaster have to do with the current troubling situation in the teaching of the humanities? Strange as it may seem, I believe that there is a connection.
Most observers believe that the Columbia disaster was caused, to a substantial degree, by the unwillingness of key individuals to speak up forcefully enough about their safety concerns. This is often phrased as a “culture issue” or a “climate issue”–but, however you phrase it, it seems that a significant number of people didn’t raise their concerns–or at least didn’t raise them forcefully enough–because of worries about the implications for their own careers. (This also seems to have been a key factor in the earlier Challenger disaster.)
And in today’s university humanities departments, there are many senior professors who understand that much of what is now being taught is nonsense, and who are heartsick about the “posturing and lies.” But, as Erin O’Connor says: “…an older generation of “dinosaurs” looks on, seeing it all, and saying nothing. They do this to minimize the open displays of contempt for their traditional ways that they have learned to expect as their due.”
Now, here is an interesting point. There are very few people in American who have more job security than a civil servant or a university tenured professor. But this security seems to have little payoff when it’s time to speak up about something important and truly controversial. Perhaps jobs that offer high security tend to attract people who are not risk-takers. Or perhaps concerns about being liked by one’s peers trump job-security issues per se. In any event, it does not seem that systems with a high degree of employee protection really yield the expected benefits in terms of outspoken employee behavior.
I’m sure there are some NASA employees who had and have the courage to speak out, just as I am sure that such courage exists among some senior professors of the humanities. But it seems that such people are too few in number, at both institutions, to make a real difference.
No set of organizational policies, however well-designed, can substitute for human character. It takes many virtues, including the virtue of courage, to make an organization perform effectively. That’s true whether the organization is a university, a corporation, or a government agency.