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  • Professors and the Pornography of Power

    Posted by David Foster on November 25th, 2017 (All posts by )

    Jonathan Haidt on Identity Politics:

    Today’s identity politics . . . teaches the exact opposite of what we think a liberal arts education should be. When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a utilitarian or as a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or as a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any given question or problem.

    But what do we do now? Many students are given just one lens—power. Here’s your lens, kid. Look at everything through this lens. Everything is about power. Every situation is analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult. It’s a fundamentalist religion. It’s a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety and intellectual impotence. . . .

    Read the whole thing.

    So why is the single-lens approach so attractive to many academics?

    More than 50 years ago, C S Lewis wrote about some similar tendencies that he observed in British primary education, in his book The Abolition of Man.  Referring to two textbook authors who he had critiqued, he remarked that “literary criticism is difficult, and what they actually do is very much easier.”  Indeed, it is surely easier to base one’s classes around fashionable themes than around serious intellectual topics, and it probably results in better student reviews, as well.

    I’m also reminded of something asserted by Andre Maurois:  people who are highly intelligent, but not in any way creative…who are not capable of formulating a system of thought on their own…tend to throw themselves voraciously on those systems they come across, and to apply them more vigorously than would their originators.

    Particularly given the vast expansion of higher education in recent decades, it does seem likely that a lot of academics–perhaps the majority–do fall into the “intelligent but not creative” category, and hence will be eager system-adopters rather than objective analyzers and integrators of systems.  People of this sort also probably have a tendency to reify abstractions…to treat some categorization  or conceptual model, which may be useful under particular circumstances, as if it were actually something real and tangible.


    36 Responses to “Professors and the Pornography of Power”

    1. Mike K Says:

      His dialogue with Peterson on academia is worth the hour and a half to watch.

    2. Brian Says:

      The Yale he attended had more in common with the Yale of 1800 than the thing that exists today.

    3. PenGun Says:

      Read the whole thing? I see four paragraphs, but there is this little gem:

      “Because until now, it has always been wrong to bet against America”

      You are a young superpower, ‘always’ is massive hyperbole.

      It’s not even reasoned. I’m not sure what this even means:

      “Many students are given just one lens—power”

      Is this in the curriculum, or an interpretation of something he does not like. I have no way of telling.

    4. David Foster Says:

      Case in point: a tunnel of oppression at the University of Kansas

    5. Mike K Says:

      Vice Provost for Diversity and Equity
      Professor, American Studies and African and African American Studies,

      Orwell would recognize this in an instant.

    6. Ginny Says:

      Another symptom: Paul Rahe’s “Amending the First Amendment” which includes a handy list of congresspeople who bought into the argument.
      from Academic Questions (the organ of the National Association of Scholars.)

    7. Korora Says:

      “[O]ne lens–power.” The first step to the Sith misosophy that only power is real.

    8. David Foster Says:

      Ginny…indeed, the proposed amendment is represented as reducing ‘corporate power’…but actually would have the effect of concentrating power in one particular kind of corporations: media companies.

    9. Bill Brandt Says:

      A true superior intellect can look at all sides – or as many sides as discernible – and weigh them. Universities today are – in many cases – simply incubation factories and not institutions that give the students the various lenses that they can use themselves and weigh each merit.

    10. Mike K Says:

      I think that leftist students in the 60s stayed on grad school to avoid the draft and ended dominating Humanities faculties. Engineering and Biology not so much.

      Now, Haidt finds the Humanities faculties are 99% left. I’ve got one in the family.

    11. Ginny Says:

      Apparently attractive concentration to academics. NAS is valiant but fighting an uphill battle.

    12. Ginny Says:

      Brian – I suspect you are right.
      David – Have you seen Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: the American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, reviewed in the New Republic by Vivian Gornick (“Little House, Small Government” –
      Observations? Its picture is a much less appealing view of human nature than either that of Wilder or Anderson/Hill’s The Not So Wild, Wild West
      (Sorry about my inability to link well)

    13. Brian Says:

      From that New Republic “review”:
      “I never opened one of these books until I set out to write this review”
      Ugh. I knew it. Notice how little she actually discusses anything to do with the books at all. I bet she skimmed the first few of them, at most. There’s this crazy hostility towards Wilder from the left today that is based on complete ignorance of her works, and rooted entirely in their own hatred of America’s past. You can read lots of these sorts of hatchet jobs that are transparent attempts to justify to their ideological fellows why they needn’t bother to read the books. What pitiful creatures, they’re missing out on such beauty as they fester in their own bitterness and misery.

    14. David Foster Says:

      Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, was an interesting thinker and writer. I wrote about here here:

    15. Ginny Says:

      Vivian Gornick has a good-sized bibliography but as one of the Amazon reviewers noted about one of her books, it would be especially enjoyed by red diaper babies (not that that is necessarily a bad thing, I suppose, but it might indicate why she wouldn’t appreciate the Wilders.)

    16. pst314 Says:

      Many students are given just one lens—power.

      Yes. Traditional Marxism was bad enough in this respect, and then along came Post Modernism which was even worse.

    17. David Foster Says:

      Related…a discussion at NeoNeocon on why so many students aren’t learning to think, keying off of the Adam MacLeod essay that I linked previously:

      In comments to this thread, I suggested that formal debate…in which participants are required to advocate for and against *both sides* of an issue…would be very useful in this regard. Also, a comment by Oldflyer:

      I have always heard that study of law improved critical thinking. Other disciplines can have the same effect. When I was first introduced to computer programming, using zeros and ones in an octal number system, I soon realized that the computer simply didn’t give a damn how charming I was, or how much I hoped for success. Unless everything was presented in a logical sequence and in the approved syntax, bad things happened. That was a fact; and could not be ignored.

      I should think that any activity which includes a consequence attached to ignorance or sloppy thought processes would beneficially sharpen skills. I have seen it in practice with handy men planning complex projects.

      Related to Oldflyer’s comment, see this discussion at Ricochet about the mental benefits of gaining experience with things mechanical:

      The great distinction between the liberal arts and the engineering disciplines is that bridges fail. Gravity doesn’t grade on a curve; the Young’s modulus of a steel girder isn’t concerned about your ethnicity, politics, or feelings. Things work or they don’t, and your tricked out Buick does the standing quarter mile in just as long as it takes, no more or less, and everybody knows it. Mechanical failure cannot be hid long: in engineering, the truth will out.

      Think of the perspective this must have given the men of the early 20th century, this experience with inflexible nature, this acquiescence to reality. Is it any wonder that their generation worked so hard, built so much, and complained so little?

      If more people had experience working on cars..building electronics projects…or even computer programming (real programming, not just running apps)…would this help give them some degree of immunity to the academic single-lens indoctrination?

    18. Mike K Says:

      Donald Trump, many of whose followers yet believe that he will restore to them the dubious glory of the frontier America that Wilder so passionately celebrated in her books.

      She has no idea of why those people left the cities and went to the west where they could own land and not be a servant or a near-slave.

      I have done a bit of research on my own family. They are examples that she would never understand.

      The immigrants were William Kennedy and Jane Hammill who were married in a small church in Quebec. He was born in 1798 in Antrim in what is now County Armagh, Ireland. She was born on June 4, 1804 in County Antrim, Ireland 1804.

      They settled in northern New York state where they had 9 children, one of whom, Michael, was my great grand father.

      According to family legend, Michael moved to Illinois about 1855 following two of his brothers who had already moved to the area around LaSalle IL

      About 1860, he returned to New York state to marry my great grandmother, Ellen Brennan. They were married February 14 1863 in a small French church in Hogansburg, NY.

      In 1862, two of Michael’s brothers, James who was 18 and William J who was 35 and married with two children, joined the Union Army. Both died during the war.

      The first child of Michael and Ellen, James, was born in December 1863 in Potsdam, NY. Their second, John, was born in 1865 in Illinois where Michael had begun a farm, perhaps a Homestead.

      These are the people who the writer is so contemptuous of.

      What the people in the covered wagons did not grasp was that to a large extent they were pawns in the hands of political and business interests—especially those of the railroads—that needed to see ground broken across the entire continent. The pioneers never understood the hucksterism behind the “go west, young man” rhetoric that urged them to go where none had gone before, with no hard knowledge of what actually lay before them. All the pioneers knew—in their fantasies, that is—was that just over the horizon lay adventure, opportunity, possible wealth, and certain freedom.

      Red Diaper babies indeed.

    19. Mike K Says:

      “If more people had experience working on cars..building electronics projects…or even computer programming (real programming, not just running apps)”

      After I retired, I went back to programming, which I had done before medical school when I was an engineer. I was taking a “C” class and found that, when writing a program even a simple one, I could feel the effect of one beer.

      It was an interesting experience. I didn’t give up beer but I did when writing programs.

      Of course, it could also have been a sign of aging.

    20. David Foster Says:

      Mike K…Some people have asserted that much software written during the early days of the PC era suffered (or maybe benefited) from marijuana consumption by the developers.

    21. Jonathan Says:

      I’m also reminded of something asserted by Andre Maurois: people who are highly intelligent, but not in any way creative…who are not capable of formulating a system of thought on their own…tend to throw themselves voraciously on those systems they come across, and to apply them more vigorously than would their originators.

      Isn’t it typical for the most devoted acolytes of any school of thought to be more zealous and more intellectually rigid than the founder was?

      “The great distinction between the liberal arts and the engineering disciplines is that bridges fail”.

      One of George Will’s most memorable lines, in a column about some Hollywood idiot, was something like: Moviemakers’ mistakes are bad movies; engineers’ mistakes are bad bridges.

    22. Brian Says:

      “Moviemakers’ mistakes are bad movies; engineers’ mistakes are bad bridges.”
      Yet the products of Hollywood in the past 40+ years have caused massively more human suffering than all the badly built bridges going back to the dawn of time.

    23. PenGun Says:

      “Mike K…Some people have asserted that much software written during the early days of the PC era suffered (or maybe benefited) from marijuana consumption by the developers.”

      This is true. A marijuana high is useful in code writing, I’m not sure why. Booze will definitely ruin any coding, and most other things that require precision. Working on cars, well I can do that mildly smashed, but I always did all my own car and truck work.

    24. Jonathan Says:

      After I retired, I went back to programming, which I had done before medical school when I was an engineer. I was taking a “C” class and found that, when writing a program even a simple one, I could feel the effect of one beer.

      I’ve always found that my programming skills are much better during the first few hours of the morning than at any other time of day. Any significant fatigue or illness or distraction degrades my abilities. All of this is probably also true for other quantitative or analytical work, for working with my hands, probably also for writing and for reading comprehension. But with programming fatigue-related skills degradation is obvious and you can’t fool yourself.

      Many people don’t understand that self-delusion is characteristic of human nature. People who do understand it – from observation, reading or personal experience – may be more likely to be cautious about their and others’ abilities to “create change” (or whatever the current buzz phrase for telling other people how to live is).

      It’s odd that so many computer programmers at companies such as Google seem to be leftist control freaks. Maybe in part it’s because these companies are hiring more women and women are more vulnerable to being herded. Maybe it’s partly due to online group-think. Perhaps the lefty computer programmer is the latest version of the old cliche of the brilliant engineer or scientist who generalizes from his parochial experience in organizing things to “scientific socialism” as a way to organize people. Even the most apparently rational among us are subject to the weaknesses of human nature. Traditionally religious people seem to have advantages in resisting some of the worst impulses, even though traditional religion itself may be vulnerable, and there are other ways than religion for people to learn to resist.

    25. Brian Says:
      Opinion: If you let boys be boys, they will murder their fathers and sleep with their mothers

      The New York Times is infinitely more destructive than the very worst bridge built by the very worst engineer could possibly ever be.

    26. dearieme Says:

      There’s an old saw to the effect that the lawyer can blame his mistakes on the judge, the architect can coverl his in vines, the doctor just buries his, but the engineer has to accept his responsibility.

    27. Mike K Says:

      “the doctor just buries his, but the engineer has to accept his responsibility.”

      The “old saw” was written before malpractice suits.

      Abraham Lincoln once filed a medical malpractice suit and got his client $3.50.

    28. Korora Says:

      “Abraham Lincoln once filed a medical malpractice suit and got his client $3.50.”

      How much would that amount to in today’s dollars?

    29. PenGun Says:

      My $100 CAN I spent on Bitcoin, a few weeks ago, is now worth $166. Today’s dollars should be running scared.

    30. Jonathan Says:

      I was at a Thanksgiving gathering where one of the guests, who is a tech guy, told another of the guests about Bitcoin and the other guy created an account and bought $500 worth of Bitcoin on the spot, using a credit card. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bitcoin price is near some kind of top.

    31. Mike K Says:

      “How much would that amount to in today’s dollars?”

      Roughly 600 x 3.50. Probably more.

    32. dearieme Says:

      Tangentially related: ‘New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall said in a statement on Monday …
      “The days when the President of the United States was held as a moral authority around the world were over 11 months ago …”

      The world rocks with laughter at the dating, and even at the proposition.

    33. Mike K Says:

      ““The days when the President of the United States was held as a moral authority around the world were over 11 months ago …”

      McKinley ?

      Wilson thought he was.

      Democrats all have Trump living in their heads like Toxoplasma gondii.

      “Crazy cat-lady syndrome” is a term coined by news organizations to describe scientific findings that link the parasite Toxoplasma gondii to several mental disorders and behavioral problems.

    34. Helian Says:

      “Referring to two textbook authors who he had critiqued, he remarked that ‘literary criticism is difficult, and what they actually do is very much easier.’”

      I recently read “Egoists; A Book of Supermen,” by James G. Huneker. H. L. Mencken mentioned Huneker favorably in his memoirs, and any author recommended by the Sage of Baltimore is usually well worth reading. The book was published in 1909, and consists of literary criticism of various authors, including Flaubert, Anatole France, Baudelaire, etc. The first chapter was devoted to my own favorite author, Stendhal. I’m not sure about the other authors, but I’ve read pretty much everything I could get my hands on about Stendhal. As I read the book, I saw that Huneker was familiar with everything I’ve read, and a great deal more – comments about Stendhal by a host of other authors and critics that you would be hard pressed to find today, even with the help of the Internet. But beyond that, his analysis of Stendhal was brilliant. He wrote with great insight about all the qualities of Stendhal’s work that I personally find attractive, and a great deal more that I hadn’t ever considered. That insight was based on a depth of knowledge of his subject that was truly stunning. See for yourself. The book is available on Google Books at,

      I don’t think a phenomenon like Huneker exists today, or is even possible, for the very reasons given by David in his post. When it comes to literary criticism, and virtually any other related subject that comes to mind, we live in a time of profound decadence. The reason is just what C. S. Lewis identifies in the above quote: “what they actually do is very much easier.” What passes for literary criticism today is shallow, and typically includes copious virtue signaling about how the author in question doesn’t measure up to whatever the currently fashionable version of morality happens to be in academia. It’s sad because, as Orwell pointed out, there is no better vehicle for setting forth certain truths about the human condition than great literature. When it comes to Stendhal, for example, I’ve always thought his novels would fit just as well in the non-fiction section of the library on psychology as anywhere else. Lacking critics like Huneker, it can be much harder to grasp what an author is trying to tell us, or even to realize that he had anything important to say. When it comes to literature, we live in an impoverished age. Perhaps there will eventually be an allergic reaction to the prevailing malaise. Shakespeare attacked the “devils of Puritans” in his time. Today we face a similar fight against our own, leftist “Puritans.”

    35. dearieme Says:

      It’s well worth reading this short piece by Keynes on the disillusionment that set in once Europeans had to deal with the real Mr Wilson rather than an ideal one. Given that Keynes was a lifelong Liberal rather than a Conservative, his remarks are utterly damning of the man.

    36. Ginny Says:

      This paragraph has long been in my syllabus and is a tribute to Lee Lemon:
      Lately I read an old teacher’s book (one quite old and dated). His advice, however, is not dated. He argues that one of the most important tasks of a literature class is to develop a certain humility and affection before the works. You are developing the skills of the literary critic he describes, one whose “chief obligation” he cogently argues, “is to evaluate works of literature and to make his evaluations intelligible; all his other professional tasks are subordinate to this double duty. The importance of the facts that scholars unearth and the significance of what they publish is borrowed from the value of the works they study. But most importantly, readers read poetry (in the broad, Aristotelian sense) because it has a kind of value that ordinary writing lacks. That special kind of value should be the concern of the critic.” Lee Lemon – The Partial Critic. This is a conservative (or perhaps revisionist) approach to literature, but one this course encourages. Let us try to enter the world of these works and see that what they have to offer is extraordinarily rich.

      And when I wrote about him earlier here, I pointed out that he did 3 important books between 1965 and 1970, but that wrote little after that. I’ve always suspected it was in part the way criticism had become condescending and politicized, though there are plenty more reasons people turn from literary criticism than that. Of course there was some really terrible Freudian and Marxist criticism in the decades before – it isn’t surprising that narrow ideologies that can be applied to a famed work often to denigrate the writer or the work didn’t just happen later.

      When I returned to teaching in the mid-nineties after 15 years running a business, criticism had changed – ideology wasn’t something outliers did but central to getting graduate degrees. It didn’t touch me – the nice thing about junior colleges are that publishing isn’t rewarded all that highly or certainly necessary. But I saw disillusionment in them. One of my husband’s students wrote him a wonderful but weird comment when he read my husband’s essay on Tennyson’s King Arthur – this was, he said, the kind of criticism men used to write. Both are certainly respectful of women’s work, of course, but he was speaking of a work that seemed from another era. Well, I suppose it was. And he’s retained his sanity. (He uses Darwin to define human nature which puts him in this kind of odd category – and not very securely in it.)

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