Renovating Academia, Part III

Not surprisingly, most academics want to focus on the work they are doing, some of which (and it is impossible to tell, now, what will prove so) will be extremely important to our future lives. “Just let us alone; we’re doing work that has helped you in the past—and it will again, in the future.”

That’s true. Unfortunately, it misses an important point, and one that might endanger the ability to do any research.

And that is, quite simply, that the academic ivory tower contains the seeds of its own destruction; you cannot completely separate our universities from the wider public and its discussions and concerns without endangering both the means and opportunity for the research the universities desire to conduct.

Academics want the wider public to have faith in them—but academics show little faith in the public. Academia believes it has something to offer the public—and it does—but it doesn’t often seem to appreciate what the public offers it in return. And the public, often, is unsure that it wants what academia has to offer. This uncertainty provides an opening for those antagonistic to academia, leading to statements like this, from an article called “Can We Recapture the Ivory Tower” by Gene Edward Veith in World Magazine that starts with a grain of truth but that can be used to undermine the scarce confidence left on the part of the public towards academia:

Universities, to most Americans, are ivory towers. Academics are thought of as pursuing their lofty ideas, in sublime indifference to ordinary life. Students put in their time at college before venturing out into the “real world.”

Academia and reality are thought of as two different realms, with both academics and ordinary folk liking it that way. Scholars can pursue their most eccentric ideas, wrapped in the mantle of academic freedom, protected from the vulgar masses, and safely ensconced in their ivory towers. At the same time, Americans seem quite willing to pour vast sums into taxes and tuition to keep the intellectuals locked up where they can do little harm.

But make no mistake about it: Academia, however isolated in its own self-contained universe, has a huge effect on the “real world.”

Veith sees the isolation of academia as leading to all sorts of mischief:

The ivory-tower myth-that the academic world constitutes a sheltered, privileged, and self-contained culture of its own-contains much truth. Its peculiar dynamics help explain some of the wackier ideas that nevertheless gain cultural currency.

Political correctness began as a behavior code on left-wing college campuses; it spread when hard-headed, conservative businesses began requiring their employees to take “sensitivity training seminars” (taught by academics, of course). Feminism became orthodoxy on college campuses. Then, so-called “queer theory”-a research approach in the humanities that looks at history, literature, art, and philosophy in terms of the expression and repression of homosexual desires-grew into a respected academic discipline. No wonder college graduates today tend to look kindly upon feminism and “gay rights.”…

When the university schools of education catch a virus, it is the nation’s school children who get sick….

Taxpayers who know their favorite university primarily by way of its football team would do well to peruse the college catalog and browse the academic journals. Here they will find a smorgasbord of unrepentant Marxism, hysterical anti-American propaganda, defenses of every kind of sexual perversion from child sex to sadomasochism, and anti-Christian bigotry.

The threat here, though directed at the humanities, spills over onto the sciences: stem-cell research, climate change—if the people who are funding a great deal of the work in our universities (the taxpayers) see what is being done there as contrary to their own views of the way the world should be, they will cut that funding or change the universities from research institutions into sites for the verification of prior conclusions—and we will drift into a new dark age.

Does that sound alarmist?

It is. And what bothers me is that we in the universities, secure and self-righteous, seem to believe that our virtue guarantees our victory.

It does not.

Once, there were discussions within the universities over the very structure of universities. That has died, smothered by a complacency that has grown over the past thirty or forty years. The idea of an “experimental” college has become something of an oxymoron.

Once, there were academics concerned over the divide (long standing) between academia and the general public. They actively tried to overcome it, becoming public intellectuals… something we see less and less today, while we need it more and more.

Once, public intellectuals could spend their time bringing new ideas and possibilities before the public. People like Bertrand Russell felt a responsibility to make concepts such as relativity accessible to the general public. B.F. Skinner had the courage and stamina to bring to the public ideas that it didn’t want to hear—and to withstand the vilification (most of it unfair) that attended the reception of his ideas.

Today, about the best a public intellectual can do is try to fight a losing battle against the forces of fear and deception. Carl Sagan, in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, and Robert Park, in Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud, spend their time trying to stem the tide towards belief in contemporary versions of witchcraft (and I am not speaking of Wicca, here) instead of presenting the new and fascinating ideas that our scholars are creating.

Though some scholars, such as Esther MacCallum-Stewart (see ”Inside the Ivory Tower”) are finding new ways of moving academic studies beyond the ivory tower (by using blogs, in her case), too many of us continue to think all of our needs can be fulfilled by the inside, that we don’t need to general public. And that we have no more responsibility to the general public than a willingness to allow others to partake in the results of our labors.

Today, popularizers and scholars working outside the narrow bounds of academia are few and far between. It seems hardly worth the effort to try to explain complex subjects to non-specialists. Not only will critics from within arise (many academics resist popularizations, seeing them as a “dumbing down”) but the attacks from without can be vicious. Millions upon millions of people, for example, believe that Skinner raised his daughters in boxes and ruined their lives—a malicious rumor started by his detractors. The truth is that the boxes were not operant chambers (“Skinner boxes”—tools for teaching students about stimulus/response continuums through the “teaching” of rats and pigeons) but “air cribs” (baby beds with controlled temperature and humidity and things that have since become commonplace like a sound system allowing parents to monitor the sound of the infant’s breathing from anywhere in the house). The truth is that one of Skinner’s daughters grew up to be a psychologist herself and the other is a successful artist. Not surprisingly, in the face of such vilification, not many want to follow and become public intellectuals themselves.

We need to find that courage, however—just as we need to learn to be willing to examine ourselves.

There are two tasks that we, in academia, need to take on: first, we need to examine our institutions (especially in relation to the greater world of contemporary America) and reform them (something few in academia want to do—I get more nasty comments when I write about reforming academia than I do on any other topic—and I get them almost exclusively from academics. They don’t want to face the need to self-examination). Second, we need—each one of us—to recognize that we have an obligation to take our work outside of the ivory tower, to find ways of presenting it to the general public and to listen to that public.

If we even start on these tasks, the threat represented by people like Veith and (of course) David Horowitz will be diminished.

And our contribution to our culture will increase.

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