What's on my mind
2001-12-13 13:55:23 (UTC)

This is a homerun as far as I am concerned

The Academy Encounters the Real World

Sept. 11 brought a major change to academia. Suddenly the
outside world was paying attention to what university
people were saying — and that world didn't like what it was

Professors who applauded the attack on the Pentagon, or
claimed that U.S. wrongdoing somehow justified the Sept. 11
attacks, found themselves being denounced. These
denunciations have found support from within the academic
community, including a new group made up of faculty,
trustees and alumni of major universities. Even Harvard
President Lawrence Summers has joined in, calling for his
university to embrace patriotic values and get more in line
with mainstream Americans.

In response, some are proclaiming a new era of McCarthyism
and censorship. Such proclamations ring hollow: So far, no
one has suffered anything worse than public criticism for
making anti-American statements, and surely criticism does
not count as censorship. If it does, after all,
the "critical theorists" of academia, who criticize almost
everything about American society, would constitute
America's foremost censors.

Of course, in a way, they do. As even The Nation has come
to notice, America's campuses are not free-speech zones,
but among the most pervasively censored environments in our
society. Campus newspapers that displease powerful ethnic
student groups may find themselves the targets of theft,
vandalism and intimidation. University administrations
often adopt and enforce speech codes that are advertised as
promoting civility, but that in fact are used to punish
those expressing politically incorrect views, however
civilly such expression is made. And peer pressure is very
strong, both among faculty members and in classrooms, with
the undeniable intent of chilling the expression of certain
points of view.

Everyone knows this, and only a few bother to dispute it.
As a result, complaints about censorship and neo-
McCarthyism have fallen flat: Speech without consequences
isn't the rule on campuses anymore. So perhaps it's time
for the academic community to follow the advice we are
always giving the rest of America, and ask what
characteristics of ours have caused such a loss of
confidence in the academic establishment, and what we can
do to get that confidence back. Here are a few observations:

1. Cleverness isn't everything: In the academic world,
originality is prized, and cleverness is almost as good as
originality. But cleverness is overrated. To argue (as
Cornell historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg and women's health
advocate Jacquelyn Jackson did in the Boston Globe) that
women who wear bikinis to be fashionable are somehow just
as "trapped" by "cultural confines" as Afghan women who are
forced to wear burqas on pain of lethal beatings may be
clever, but it's also wrong — absurdly wrong. Academics may
appreciate the cleverness, but non-academics tend to focus
on the "absurdly wrong" part. Not surprisingly, they also
tend to lose respect for the people, institutions and
disciplines that appear incapable of making
straightforward, comparative judgements. Clever
explanations for hypocrisy (on PC versus free speech, for
example) don't help, either.

2. Being contrary isn't the same as being insightful: As I
said, academics want to look original. Actually being
original, however, is hard work. The second-raters,
therefore, tend to look for ways of seeming original
without doing the heavy lifting required to actually come
up with something new. One way of doing this is to set
yourself against whatever the popular view is in the hopes
that others will mistake this for incisiveness. (This
frequently works, since other people are often not willing
to put in the necessary effort to tell the difference). But
knee-jerk contrariness isn't original — it's just
conformity in the opposite direction. After a while, this
becomes obvious even to casual observers.

3. Professors aren't aristocrats: Today's academia is
descended from the clerical scholars and courtier
intellectuals of the middle ages. Those folks naturally
identified with the princes and potentates who provided
their funding. Today's academics affect to identify with
the working classes, but many of their attitudes — a
contempt for popular culture, a low regard for business and
commerce and a desire to set themselves apart from the
common herd — are leftovers from a bygone era. There's a
reason why kings and princes are no longer found in our
society; emulating them isn't going to make you popular.

4. Professors aren't saints, either: Academic work is, in
my opinion, a noble calling, at least when it is done well.
But engaging in a noble calling doesn't necessarily make
you noble. Too many professors seem to think otherwise,
believing that because their work is good, they must be
too, giving them a pass on examining their own actions and
positions as critically as they examine those of others.
Non-academics, however, aren't buying this, nor should they.

Not surprisingly, people who would rather be clever than
right, who confuse oppositionalism with originality, who
hold ordinary Americans and their beliefs in faux-
aristocratic contempt, and who do all of this with an
unshakable degree of self-righteousness, are not likely to
be especially popular. (Note the similarity here to the
also-unpopular news and entertainment media).

Academics who value their place in society will think about
these things, and look for other ways in which they may be
alienating Americans through attitudes that have more to do
with selfishness than with intellectualism. And academics
who want to see things change will speak out on these
attitudes and criticize colleagues who display them, just
as they would where, say, racist attitudes are concerned.
So will people outside the universities, who are now paying
attention to what happens there, and even reading campus
newspapers via the Web. After years of wanting to make
academia "relevant" to the rest of the world, academics are
in a poor position to complain.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is Professor of Law at the University
of Tennessee, and writes for the InstaPundit.Com website.