Renovating Academia, Part II

In my last post on this issue, I described a problem that rises at least as much from outside perception as from actual abuse: tenure. Here, I want to talk about something that arises from perception internal to academia and fostered by it: authority.

In neither case am I providing solutions to the problems I am trying to outline. My purpose is to spark discussion, not to provide answers.

Those of us who are college professors today have succeeded in an extremely authoritarian, top-dominated system (it has been decades, now, since there was any real attempt to create an alternative). To some degree or another, we are the ones who were willing to bootlick long enough to be allowed to establish our own credentials of authority. And, naturally, having come up that way, we often assume (usually without examining the issue) that this is the best way.

Our authoritarianism is rarely leavened by any sort of training as teachers that might allow us (even) to use it more effectively as part of a larger design. College professors are expected to be subject experts; few are also trained teachers. Our concepts of appropriate classroom behavior and management, therefore, come (for the most part) from our own experience, not from examination of the comparative effectiveness of various carefully delineated and described techniques.

Because of our background, we college professors become credential addicts whether we like it or not. Though I do not like it, when I meet someone who is ABD (“All But Dissertation”) and who is not actively pursuing the dissertation, I look down on them. Just slightly—and I fight the reaction—but it is there. An ABD is just as knowledgeable (generally) in her/his field as is someone who has completed a dissertation (most often a narrowly-focused and specialized work). Both have completed all of the coursework required for the PhD and both have passed whatever qualifying exams the particular department or university requires. Except for the very specialized knowledge represented by the dissertation, what’s the difference between the two?

The answer is best presented by the Wizard in the 1939 movie of The Wizard of Oz

Back where I come from we have universities, seats of great learning where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts—and with no more brains than you have. But, they have one thing you haven’t got: A diploma!

I get the humor; the sarcasm is right on point. Yet I, even knowing that the distinction is small, still look at those “just” ABD as lacking something. I can’t help it: I was raised in—and have succeeded (to some degree) in—a culture where the credentials mean almost everything.

A great deal of real work and learning also goes along with earning a PhD—and this, too, may be part of the problem. Few people earn a doctorate without real sweat and concentration. By the time you are done, you really know your narrow specialty, generally at a level equaled by only a small few anywhere else in the world. You also know, in excruciating detail, just how much work it takes to get to that level.

Having been involved in detailed research and writing, conversing with those few who are your peers in the particular subject area, it’s understandably easy to react with frustration (or even anger) when someone who has not put in the same amount of time and work comments on your field—generally making a claim that you long ago examined and jettisoned.

Others may see this as disdain for their ideas. Students, for example, may feel insulted by an almost accidental slight coming simply from the fact that, to the professor, the particular idea has long been debunked.

This, like the almost unconscious disdain for an ABD, infects us all in academia, whether we think about it or not. And sometimes it spills over into debates outside of academia—to academia’s detriment.

When it spills out, this is more easily examined. So, let me give two examples.

The first is the question of who wrote the plays and poems of Shakespeare. For centuries, there have been people claiming that Will Shakespeare from Stratford-on-Avon could not have done so. Samuel Clemens was enticed by this possibility. Today, even such non-academic intellectual luminaries such as Lewis Lapham (editor of Harper’s) have entertained doubts about the authority of Shakespeare.

What has been the response of academic Shakespearians? For the most part, nothing. Only recently have they gotten into the debate at all. Scott McCrea’s The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question, for example, appeared just this year from Praeger (my own publisher). In April, 1999, a number of scholars, headlined by Harold Bloom, participated in a Harper’s “Folio” (a grouping of short essays) entitled, “The Ghost of Shakespeare” (“Who, in fact, was the bard: the usual suspect from Stratford: or Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford?”). Beyond these, response from the academic community to the “controversy” has been desultory. It hasn’t seemed a controversy at all to Shakespeare scholars (to them, there never was a question of authority in the first place), so they rarely bother to respond.

The result? A rather useless debate has been kept alive for well more than a century.

Of course, in the larger frame, it doesn’t really matter who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. My second example, however, does matter.

It’s the “new” proposition of “intelligent design.”

As has been true with the question of the authority of Shakespeare, many academics have refused to debate the issue of creationism simply because they have not wanted to give a platform to what they see as an untenable position. Just by debating, the thought has gone, both “theories” are presented as equals—and the academics feel quite strongly that they are not equal. One has both a research and an intellectual pedigree; the other does not. One has authority—academic respectability; the other does not. So they cannot be presented as two sides to one issue, as debate format insists.

Also, the scholars who refuse to debate argue (there’s a good segment on this from NPR last week) that debates themselves add nothing to science (or any other academic knowledge). Nothing can be resolved on a debating platform—it exists completely outside of the requirements of the scientific method or of scholarship in general. Winning a debate does not add to the authority of a position—so why debate? Coming from where the establishment of authority is of paramount importance, this is completely understandable, even though rather unhelpful.

Because evolution is a complex issue, scientists also hesitate to debate its opponents simply because they feel the topic is too involved for explanation in such a forum. In an hour, for one thing, it’s much easier to attack than to defend. As few scientists have bothered to spend the time really looking into “intelligent design” or “creationism,” they can’t attack these ideas nearly as well as their champions can attack evolution, which these latter generally have looked into. Furthermore, if they do break their topic down in such a way that the lay audience can understand, the scholar can be accused of being a “popularizer”—often a kiss of death in academic communities.

Such attitudes on the part of the scientists stems in part from what I described above, from the stupendous amounts of time most PhDs have put into study of their topics. As a result, they see even the most educated lay audience as woefully lacking in even the basic building blocks of the debate. And they don’t feel they have the time (outside of the authoritarian classroom) to provide that knowledge when no scholarly framework exists (making the task all that much more difficult).

Because they did their learning in an authoritarian system, few scholars have really learned how to explain the complex issues they consider to people outside of that system and who have no investment in the system. A student desiring a degree will listen and accept (for the most part) what the professor is saying, ingesting it almost without question. Questioning does come in later but, for all of our emphasis on “critical thinking,” it is generally accepted only within certain well-defined frameworks.

For this reason, a professor debating evolution outside of the academy can be knocked for a loop by questions that seem completely out of the blue. Scholarly authority counts for little outside of the university, and so debaters used to relying on that authority for at least a part of any discussion suddenly find themselves at a distinct disadvantage.

To a smaller degree, we do have similar problems each time we enter a classroom. We professors expect students to accept our authority, limiting debate to issues set up by ourselves. When students step beyond those, we can react poorly. Some of us simply avoid responding (“That doesn’t even deserve consideration”) or brush the question off with sarcasm. Others do try to respond, but few have the time to really consider issues that we find tangential (at best) to the central questions.

It is here that we give an opening to the likes of David Horowitz with his “Academic Bill of Rights” and “Student Bill of Rights.” We find it hard, given our authoritarian backgrounds, to treat seriously ideas that were rejected by our own teachers and that we, in turn, rejected. We want to lead our students down paths that go places, not simply into dead-ends for the exercise of it. For whatever reason, Horowitz wants to break down the current authoritarianism of our universities, giving what he sees as a wider panoply of “viable” theories and points of view.

Now, I feel that what Horowitz is doing is ultimately an attempt to take advantage of one of the weaknesses of our academic system (its dependence on authority) in order to change it into a politically-dominated system—and I want to fight him, every step of the way. At the same time, however, I would like to see those of us in academia begin to examine ourselves a bit more carefully.

Few academics would readily admit that they operate quite happily and successfully as part of a rigid, authoritarian system—and I expect to get a great deal of negative reaction from academics to my assertion that they do. Most of us, in our personal lives, fancy that we eschew authority. Maybe we could really gain by examining why we don’t, in our professional lives.


That’s enough for now. I’ll wait to see what sorts or responses I get to this (here, and on dKos and BoomanTribune, where I will also post) before continuing.