Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Ascent of Frivolous Scholarship as an Element of American Decline

You will have noted from some of my previous posts that I am not enamored with a lot of what goes on within the academic world these days. I have problems with M.F.A. programs, for example, and found the recent political correctness exhibited by students at Smith College absurd. Furthermore, in hindsight, some of my undergraduate teachers seem to have been out of touch with reality according to the way I currently think. It doesn't help that I am now reading Thinks..., a novel by David Lodge, who is probably one of the best satirists of academia. And I live in a college town where I can pass for a professor and am occasionally amused to watch unacquainted academics mistakenly size me up to determine my rank within their strata. Then yesterday, on top of it all, I read an interview with Elizabeth Povinelli, who is the Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University.

The jargon used and the style of argumentation seemed so ridiculous to me that I don't see how any educated person could take Povinelli seriously. Yet she has a top faculty position at a leading university. What is even more alarming is that this state of affairs has existed for many years. In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal satirized postmodern cultural studies by publishing a hoax article, discussed here, which was accepted uncritically by the editors of the academic publication Social Text. Sokal intentionally spiced his article with statements that would obviously be questionable to scientists and mathematicians, but because the editors agreed with its conclusions, they didn't bother to have it checked by a qualified scientist.

As a non-academic, I don't have much contact with this cultural schism. However, since I've been reading more science-oriented writing lately, Povinelli's interview was jarring to me. The difference in language usage, terminology, concepts and worldview from that encountered in ordinary public discourse or even in the specialized philosophical discourse that I'm used to is striking. Particularly when you consider that this was an interview format, one would expect a higher degree of intelligibility than, for example, in a technical research paper. As written, I doubt it would meet the editorial standards of The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Review of Books, The Wilson Quarterly, etc.

Although I'm not in a position to say much about this phenomenon and am not particularly interested in looking into it further, I do see a disturbing pattern of balkanization in academia. The traditional academic disciplines of English, history, philosophy, mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, sociology, anthropology, psychology and economics covered different areas and often used different languages and methods, but they were not in conflict while I was in college. The difference now seems to be a politicization of academia rather than the emergence of new, defensible concepts. I get the impression that much of this is an offshoot of the feminism of the 1970's combined with French theory emanating from thinkers such as Derrida, Lacan and Foucault. Most of it sounds like utter nonsense to me.

The "two cultures" problem seems to crop up regularly in universities. It caused economist Larry Summers to be fired as president of Harvard in 2006, and no doubt adds pressures throughout the academic world. I am not usually sympathetic with people like Summers, who tend to be aggressive, insensitive careerist bullies, but in his case he had science and reason on his side. My concern is not that science ought to have more respect and funding than the humanities, but that the high castes within some of the humanities are populated with people who are just plain intellectually bankrupt. They are presiding over what should be meaningful branches of knowledge and turning them into fantasy boutique inventions that serve their own purposes. This kind of frivolity and bad judgment in major public and private institutions is probably symptomatic of the excesses in countries that are in decline, and it has parallels in the ongoing dysfunction of the federal government. Furthermore, academics like Povinelli are culpable for the dissemination of confused and false information that is likely to be a hindrance rather than a help to those students who take them seriously.

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