Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Requiem For an Academic World of Inquiry

Alan Charles Kors offers a requiem for the university as a world of inquiry and enlightening dissent from orthodoxy, in his essay, "On the Sadness of Higher Education."

This paragraph offers a pause for reflection:

The academic world I so loved revealed itself best in an undergraduate course I'd taken on the history of Europe in the 20th century. When the professor, a distinguished intellectual of the left, returned the midterms to the hundred-plus or so of us who were in his course, he said that we'd saddened and embarrassed him. "I gave you readings that allowed you to reach such diverse conclusions," he explained, "but you all told me what you thought I wanted to hear." He informed us that he would add a major section to the final exam: "I'm going to assign the book I disagree with most about the 20th century. I'm not going to ask you to criticize it, but, instead, to re-create its arguments with intellectual empathy, demonstrating that you understand the perspectives from which he understands and analyzes the world." I was moved by that. The work was Friedrich Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom," and it changed the course of my intellectual and moral life.

It also showed me immediately how I wanted to teach as an intellectual historian. Each year, I teach thinkers as diverse as Pascal and Spinoza, Hobbes and Butler, Wesley and Diderot. I offer courses on intellectual history, and the goal of my teaching is to make certain that my students understand the perspectives and rich debates that have shaped the dialogue of the West. I don't want disciples of my worldview. I want students who know how to read deeply, how to analyze, how to locate the essential points of similarity and divergence among thinkers, and, indeed, how to understand, with intellectual empathy, how the world looks from the diverse perspectives that constitute the history of European thought. I know that I am not alone, but I also know, alas, that I am in a distinct minority in my pedagogical goals in the humanities and the so-called social sciences.
I'm like this, as I get so many students who are of the idealistic sort. I try to have them think through issues from both sides, especially in my elective courses in comparative politics and international relations.

But note here too:

There also has been ... a dumbing down of the professoriate that quite numbs the mind—best seen not in the monographs that earn people their degrees, but in the egregious nonsense, crude meta-theorizing, self-indulgence and tendentious special pleading that are not merely tolerated without criticism, but rewarded at the highest levels. Those who want to understand critically the degradations that have occurred should look at, for starters, the stunning works of Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral, editors, "Theory's Empire: An Anthology of Dissent"; John Ellis, "Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities"; and Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, "Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science."
I agree, and I noted so much in my entry, "Republicans on the Fringe in Academe."

That entry, by the way, was ridiculed by
the author of an academic article entitled, "The Erotic Adventures of Stacy Koon in the ‘Rodney King Affair.’" The same author also wrote a blog post, "How to Write an Editorial about Higher Education," slamming Robert Maranto's essay suggesting that "professors need to re-embrace a culture of reasoned inquiry and debate."

Hey, can't we all just get along?