Thursday, November 11, 2004

Groupthink in the Humanities

BAW links to this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about "Liberal Groupthink" in academia.

I've said previously that although it is undeniable that bias does exist (and I think it should be called 'leftist', not 'liberal'), I don't think in and of itself it is a huge problem (but of course it's not my conservative ox that is getting gored, or my career being damaged because I have the 'wrong' politics). Mere bias will eventually wash out, even from the humanities, because eventually too much dissonance will build up: the 'word to world fit' of the arguments will become unacceptable. (I know that's an idealized view, and that others would argue that politics can keep a stranglehold on intellectual worldviews; my counterexample is the eventual death of Lysenkoism -- which of course killed enormous numbers of people before being rejected, but was eventually rejected).
In any event, I'm in agreement with Bauerlein when he argues that the loss of intellectual diversity and counter-arguing voices is a serious problem for academia. All of the other problems that Bauerlein identified, including false consensus and group polarization are readily apparent, even (or perhaps especially) in a pretty idyllic, collegial environment like Wheaton.

In this blog I've avoided commenting very much on politics, because I don't think anyone is interested in my views, and because I'm not a partisan of either party (I follow George Washington in loathing political parties in general). But I've been reading all of the "what the Democrats have to do to win an election" and thinking how the critiques are similar to critiques of academia--and equally useless. Bauerlein's article combined two lines of thought for me:

I don't think there's any point in leftists in academia or Democrats in politics pretending that they don't believe in what they believe in, and I don't think all of their ideas are that unpopular. I certainly don't think that insincere invocations of religion are going to do anything. But I do think that there is a core problem of expression that might be addressed, and that is the assumed superiority in discourse conventions. From imposing solutions to problems via courts and regulatory agencies rather than by democratic processes to 'forced volunteerism' graduation requirements to politicized required classes, there's a really annoying tendency among leftists to assume that they are coercing people for their own good (people on the right do this also, of course, but their issues aren't at this moment as grating, I think; give them time, though...).

If both academic leftists and Democrats could try to force themselves to address their audiences not as children or inferiors (social, political, moral, educational), they would not alienate as many potential allies. And if they could finally reject the notion of the university/society as a quasi family (with superior parents telling inferior children what to do) but instead as a free association of equals, their arguments would be far more palatable.

That means of course tolerating dissent and not entering into a class with the idea that you are going to convince the students of their false consciousness. I know too many professors, even in my own department, who think that one of their jobs in a course is to break down student 'resistance,' whether that's resistance to theory or resistance to certain political ideas. Yes, they are our students, and we know more about our subjects and they less. But they are also adults, endowed with intelligence, experience and creativity of their own. Almost every question in the humanities is something about which reasonable people can disagree: we should nourish that disagreement, if only for the selfish reasons that it will make our own arguments stronger.

Unfortunately I think my above prescription is pie in the sky. Just as I can see no good method by which to solve the Ph.D. employment crisis (all the solutions end up creating as many or more problems than they solve), I can see no good method for incorporating conservative voices into academia. Look, I'm a libertarian anarchist and just barely fit into Wheaton's culture; I think a real conservative would be just miserable on campus--and that's a serious problem. The only real hope is that the my generation of young scholars will be so disgusted with the ossified orthodoxy of contemporary academia that we will overthrow it. I definitely want to do this, but I do not want to replace liberal orthodoxy with some conservative orthodoxy. Unfortunately, that we should wish to cast a system down and have no other one in its place is not a thought that occurs naturally to the academic or the political mind. The good news is that, if we do our jobs right, our own students will come along and overthrow us, just as we can overthrow the system built by our teachers.

Here's hoping.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Voter Fraud (in which a strange talent of mine would have allowed me to vote at least three times)

Took my six-month-old son to vote today (start good habits young, I say), and found no lines to speak of: the grammar school gym was empty at 10:00 a.m. The procedure was this: give you street address to a volunteer holding a big book. Then, when she's found the street address, give your name and take your ballot.

Now, I can read upside down. Very fast. It was a parlor trick in college for me to read the same homework as someone else, but reading the page upside down. This technique has also allowed me to suss out my competition for MLA interviews, etc.

Today it allowed me to see that the two guys who used to live in our house are still registered here in Dedham. I could have either called friends who vote at different precincts and asked them to vote as 'Brad' and 'Jamie', or I could probably have come back to the polling place, differently dressed, carrying different kids, etc., and voted three times.

Now I didn't want to do this, so I didn't. But the Commonwealth of Massachusetts needs to do something to prevent me from putting this evil plan into action.

Seriously, if a doofus like me, with not particular interest in voter fraud, can figure this out, it's obvious that the Mayor Daleys of the world are gaming the system big time. I don't actually think it would turn the result of a state or national election, but it allows for an enormous amount of electoral corruption in local politics.

Why don't the good government types try to solve this problem, which seems to me quite tractable? Obviously there must be something in it for them in keeping the current mess.

Monday, November 01, 2004

News: Nov 1
Blogging has been very light lately because I've been on the road, first at a conference on Tolkien at Marquette University, and then at a teaching institute at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Both events were excellent. At Marquette, I got to meet many people I've only known from email, which is always a pleasure. I also had a lovely, long dinner with Prof. Arne Zettersten, who collaborated with J. R. R. Tolkien for 13 years working on the AB Language and Ancrene Wisse. I wish I knew 1/10th the philology Prof. Zettersten knows.

At New Mexico I got to give a talk on Tolkien to a large audience of secondary school teachers. I absolutely loved it: they were enthusiastic and smart and well-informed. If there is to be any hope for saving medieval studies for the next generation, we have to reach out to secondary school teachers. The Medieval Institute at New Mexico, under the leadership of Tim Graham, seems to me to have the absolute best approach to doing this I've ever seen. They get graduate students to work with teachers in New Mexico to come and guest-teach classes on Arthurian Lit, Tolkien and Beowulf, and other medieval topics. It's a brilliant idea, and in a year or so I hope to steal it.

In other news, I just signed a contract with Recorded Books to do 14 lectures on Chaucer to be recorded on CD and distributed by them. Now I'll be spending November preparing those lectures. Should be fun, and great prep for teaching Chaucer again this spring.

Finally, and most importantly, Halloween was a big success. Rhys went as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz (her own idea), and looked amazingly like her. Mitchell was a lion and fell asleep in the stroller. It was a warm, beautiful day and evening for the second year in a row.