By Jon Cogburn
Every Saturday at philpercs we post our Linkorama, which at this point has (d)evolved into an experiment in attempting to construct a weekly drudgereport type thingy for people with a radically different sensibility than drudgereport readers. As a result of my input into the process I end up reading quite a few articles on the fate of the university/humanities/academic philosophy. These articles are almost always written by professors with a lot of experience in the humanities and they almost invariably circle around a few set themes:
- Administration and/or their political appointment puppet masters are doing something radically at variance with how the American Association of University Professors think universities ought to be managed. This usually involves either not respecting tenure or spending gobs of cash on things not related to teaching (sports, student amenities, administrative pay, new buildings, etc),
- People who actually teach most of the courses have suffered a precipitous decline working conditions.
- Humanities and/or academic philosophy is a good thing.
- Universities/humanities/academic philosophy would be a good thing if we just did this one thing to make it better. These articles often involve making the curriculum more or less inclusive in various ways.
- Students today! These run the gamut from the kids are alright to you kids get offa my lawn.
- Neoliberalism bad! [As Gomer Pyle, USMC used to say, "Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!"]
The only real variance in these stories concerns the extent to which the author supports either of the two great missions of the humanities: (1) preserving/transmitting what is best in culture, and (2) critiquing what is worst in culture. People who stress the first (full disclosure, I err in this way) tend to see people who stress the second as at best committing disciplinary suicide. People who stress the second tend to see people who stress the first as part of everything that has been bad about Western imperialism. There's some justification to this, albeit I (see disclosure above) would have more charity towards the view if the canon bashers had at least a little awareness that the hegemony of critique is more of an (neo-Kantian in fact!) imperialist Western imposition than anything their opponents want to continue to teach. People teaching Hindu philosophy in India don't want to be told that they can't make Kant and Schopenhauer part of their story and certainly don't want to be told that students shouldn't have to learn the Whig histories they construct because it's all contingent man (/rant).
The (Ancient Psychic Tandem War) Elephant Trunk Fallacy
This suspicion is buttressed by the fact that most of the university/teaching/professional articles I catalog are written by people deeply invested and involved in that which they are writing about.
But sometimes relative outsiders have a clearer view of what's going on than people who are in the trenches. For anyone close to enough students who have fought in the last two wars this may be literal. About half of my returning veterans end up to the left of Michael Moore, furious that Bush et. al. are not being tried for war crimes, and the other half say the kind of jingoistic things that one could recognize from Fox News. For a while I just dismissed the Fox News speaking bunch, for good and bad reasons. The good reason is that the left of Michael Moore bunch weren't parroting anything one might find in popular culture and many of them independently came to the same conclusions. This is some evidence that they were converging on truth. The bad reasons concerned the way that my own views are on many issues left of Michael Moore, so what they say confirms my own biases. In any case, at some point in the past decade though I realized that both kinds of veterans can tell you detailed facts about their deployments that really do provide good evidence in support their own views. Individual soldiers really do fight radically different wars from one another depending on the nature of their deployment.
It ought to be clear that this is no concession to relativism. There is an actual elephant there, with legs, trunk, tusks and whatnot. And there is a very real sense in which a war crime for one is a war crime for everyone. So the Michael Moore soldiers probably win the debate. Instead of relativism, the conclusion is rather a prosaic one that sometimes (sometimes!) the kind of practical involvement relevant to securing expertise might actually work to undermine the reasonableness of one's general views about that kind of involvement. Tug boat captains have a miraculous ability to just look at and feel (via the boat they are on) a river and know how to steer a barge under a bridge. But everything that is required to master this ability is likely to interfere in characteristic ways (some truth conducive, some not) with their ability to track evidence concerning corruption in the granting of river pilot licenses.
In the context of this post, this might seem to support the contention that convergence is a good guide to truth, and thus make us less worried about the groupthink at work on reporting about the university. But it doesn't. For the second thing that strikes me as that part of the bitterness of the Michael Moore type veterans is that the "thank you for your service" narrative so effectively silences them in the broader culture. This kind of thing has a very old history in this country. For example, the only reliable accounts of service men in Vietnam being spit on are all of the time that pro-war protesters spit on anti-war veterans! The veteran anti-war movement was huge during that period and it's not just been written out of popular history, but put on its head and incorporated into the kind of Weimar we-were-betrayed Reagan/Rambo narrative that's been repeated constantly for the past thirty five years (thanks Obama!).
Could something similar be going on? The moral posturing that goes on in debates about the canon makes me think that it is quite possible with respect to the whole Boo! neoliberalism theology undergirding most of these articles. There are better and worse ways that inconsistent, disparate first person accounts get pulled together into a reigning narrative. Internet shaming is usually not one of the better ones. You want to end up with a story that gives people a good sense of the whole elephant, but if not saying it is a snake makes you a bad person, then convergence isn't going to be a reliable guide to truth.
The Parker Fallacy:
Oenephiles are a weird bunch. Most of them put some credit in a wine's Parker rating, that zero to hundred number you see next to them in the wine store. But on the other hand, everyone also knows that the way these are awarded messes up the process. The tasters might taste, spit out, and rank dozens of wines in one setting. This has the obvious effect of overtaxing their palates, which then has the obvious effect of making them rate much higher the wines whose flavor is still distinctive to an overtaxed palate. This is why heavy fruit bombs reliably get the best rating. And everyone knows this. It's destroyed classic varietals like Beaujolais, which used to be wonderfully light and effervescent but today is trending towards being a subpar Chateauneuf du Pape. Not unlike the way blue ribbons in dog shows select for certain physically destructive traits (sloping hips in big dogs, small brain pans in Dobermans, smushed hard to breath through faces in bulldogs, eyeballs that are prone to falling out in Pekingese, etc), a few decades of the fruit bombiest Beaujolais getting higher numbers has caused the grape itself to evolve into something unrecognizable.
I think something similar is always in danger of happening to film and music critics. Whatever the critical equivalent of one's palate is, it can get overloaded. The critic not only gets jaded but suffers an affective loss from overexposure and as a result can no longer reliably discern good and bad making features. Tarantino is deservedly lauded, but certainly lauded too much precisely because his movies are not boring to people who watch two or more movies a day plus a bunch of television shows and constantly write critical essays about what they are evaluating. And, when added to the hegemony of publish or perish in the contemporary academy, this has certainly had all sorts of weird effects on contemporary literary criticism. Only people with corrosively jaded palates would think Don Delillo or Cormac McCarthy are better (in any worthwhile respect) writers than Stephen King.
Perhaps the monotonous victory of neoliberalism really is all there is to say. And our job is to bear witness to this by saying it over and over and over again ad infinitum. But I do suspect that the overworked grind of teaching, service make-work, and publishing has something like the Parker effect with respect to our judgments concerning the university. I would like to give examples here, but as someone whose intellectual palate is completely shot, I'm quite possibly precluded from recognizing them.