Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obama and academic change

K. C. Johnson, the Brooklyn College historian whose Durham-in-Wonderland blog did so much to bring about justice in the “Duke rape case,” is hopeful that the election of Barack Obama might bring about change in academe.

Although he is a self-identified Democrat, Johnson writes that “only the most closed-minded ideologue“—most English professors, in other words—“would deny that conservatives have dominated the recent battle of ideas in higher education.”

He names several of the problems facing American universities, especially in the humanities, which have been observed by conservatives: “groupthink” (that is, the tendency to elevate consensus over the rigorous individual testing of conclusions, as if scholarship were a popular election), “the alarming decline in intellectual pluralism on today's college campuses” (or what more appropriately should be called, what I have called elsewhere, the transformation of American universities into “institutions of one-party rule”), the usurpation of merit by “diversity” in academic decisions.

Johnson does not touch upon the underlying problem, however. Namely: the loss of the university principle altogether. The current principle animating university life in America is the social principle. The contemporary university is a little society, a self-contained and self-governing body of people living together, where one behaves oneself in accord with common rules so as not to disturb or offend any other residents of the community.

Hence collegiality, an irrelevant value in scholarship, becomes a minimum standard for participation in academic society. Here is an example of what I mean. Norman Finkelstein, a man whose work I loathe, was denied tenure by DePaul University. Not, however, because his work was incompetent, derivative, or false. No, the University Board on Promotion and Tenure worried that “some might interpret parts of his scholarship as ‘deliberately hurtful’ as well as provocative more for inflammatory effect than to carefully critique or challenge accepted assumptions.”

Those who have built their entire lives on “accepted assumptions” will be hurt by having them criticized and challenged. And, yes, any scholar worth hiring (and promoting) will set out “deliberately” to criticize and challenge the assumptions in his field. That used to be what scholarship meant—at a bare minimum. So, yes, I suppose that Finkelstein can be described as “deliberately hurtful.” DePaul has elevated the protection of some people’s feelings over the pursuit of truth.

Where the social principle animates the university, collegiality and the concern for other people’s feelings will be minimum standards. The highest standard, then, will be sophistication. As Gerald Graff wrote in Beyond the Culture Wars (1992), brushing aside the very sort of conservative criticisms that Johnson now recognizes, “[T]he professionalized academy above all values sophistication, a fact that limits the influence of simple doctrinaire arguments”—or valid arguments, for that matter.

Sophistication is a social attainment. It is a class marker. You know the correct names, you use the correct pronunciation, you quote the correct books. You are not guileless and direct, but subtle and (if possible) ironic. Sophistication is the sworn enemy of truth, because truth can be rude and boisterous and may speak with an accent.

Until the old idea of the university as a common pursuit of truth is able to conquer the desire for sophistication and social acceptance, the university will continue to be dominated by groupthink, one-party rule, and “diversity.” And Obama’s election, I am afraid, may indicate anything but a longing for academic change.