In his most recent post on that wonderful site Heterodox Academy, GMU economics professor Dan Klein comments on a Chronicle interview with a professor who was looking into the Flint water problem. That professor, Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech, discusses his attempts to get information about it: “But when you reach out to them, as I did with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and they do not return your phone calls, do not share data, do not respond to FOIA requests…In each case I started asking questions and turning over rocks and I resolved to myself that the second something slimy doesn’t come out, I’m gonna go home. But every single rock you turn over, something slimy comes out.”
Klein relates this to the general problem he sees among academics who are not frank and open, but prefer to avoid intellectual challenge.
Former National Endowment for the Humanities chairman Bruce Cole recently wrote an essay entitled “What’s Wrong With the Humanities?” A terrific slice of the essay is included in today’s Wall Street Journal. Summarizing, what’s wrong with the humanities is that profs alienate students and the public with lots of incomprehensible blather. Many research proposals he received “were simply frivolous and added no discernible value to their fields of study.”
Here’s the piece:
Let’s face it: Too many humanities scholars are alienating students and the public with their opacity, triviality, and irrelevance. A good case in point is this passage from Manifesto for the Humanities, a recent book by the director of an institute for the humanities at a major US university:
“Writing this book, I came to see the new scholar subject as a performative of passionate singularity, hybrid materiality and networked relationality. This is one sense in which the humanities scholar that is becoming is possibly posthuman, and a posthumanist scholar. The locus of thinking, for the prosthetically extendable scholar joined along the currents of networked relationality, is an ensemble affair.” . . .
In some parts of the academy, such obscurantist writing is seen as a sign of brilliance, but that’s something I never understood. I suppose I’m very old-fashioned in believing that clear writing is the result of clear thought and that the use of jargon is sometimes the lazy way to avoid hard thinking. Whatever the cause, too many books and articles written by humanities professors are needlessly opaque. Moreover, great numbers of the applications I read dealt with amazingly tiny fragments of the applicants’ fields, a sort of atomization of inquiry.
Now, I am not against deep dives into seemingly arcane subjects. There was no more fervent defender and supporter of funds for The Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon or The Sumerian Dictionary than I, because these seemingly obscure reference works advance and enrich our knowledge of their important subjects. The problem was, however, that many of the fellowship proposals asked for support for projects that did neither. They were simply frivolous and added no discernible value to their fields of study.
Last fall, American campuses were wracked by ugly protests over tiny incidents that mob leaders easily turned into grounds for absurd demands. The most infamous of those protests was at the University of Missouri, where the protesters managed to bring down the president because he didn’t kowtow to them at first.
Several months have passed and the campus has returned to calm, but long-run damage has been done. In today’s Pope Center Clarion Call, University of Missouri law professor Thomas Lambert takes a look at the after-effects of the capitulation.
He sees three self-inflicted wounds: fewer applications, especially from high-scoring students; loss of free speech; and a worsening to race relations.
The university is getting fewer applications this year, with the big drop coming in out-of-state students (who pay much more to attend) and students with strong ACT scores. Also, applications from black students are down, and also applications for grad school. Lambert writes, “It’s hard to believe that last fall’s widely publicized protests aren’t largely to blame for the decline.” Certainly — why spend lots of money to attend a campus that might re-erupt at any time and where you have to watch what you say for fear of being reported to the speech police?
Declining enrollments will lead to financial stringency, but, thanks to the way the protests have poisoned the well, less money will be forthcoming from the legislature and from donors. I have heard others confirm what Lambert mentions about the response from long-time donors: Not another dime.
Second, free speech is suffering. There is more aggressive enforcement of the university’s rules against “hurtful” or “offensive” speech. You’ll love the story Lambert tells about the doctor who was going to give a talk to his medical colleagues and students, but was prevented from doing so by the Diversity Office. You see, his chosen title could have been offensive.
Finally, racial tensions will probably be exacerbated because there will be fewer black applications at the same time there is pressure to increase the numbers admitted. As a result, the academic mismatch problem will become more acute, and that in turn will give those eager to protest about “implicit bias” grounds for doing so.
What is happening to Mizzou due to the administration’s spinelessness is sad, but at least other schools might learn something from it and not grovel when campus bullies start issuing demands.
At the annual meeting of the American Historical Association held in January, members considered a resolution against Israel proposed by a group within the Association, Historians against War. The resolution condemned Israel “for its conduct affecting higher education in Gaza, Israel itself, and the West Bank,” according to Cary Nelson writing in the Wall Street Journal (“Pushback for Anti-Israel Academics,” January 29, 2016).
Nelson notes that “an academic discipline that is supposedly a forum for disinterested scholarship and open debate was at risk of abandoning its traditions and intellectual integrity.” In addition to using “disinterested” correctly, a rare occurrence nowadays, Nelson is glad to report the happy outcome. A “strong majority of historians didn’t want to see their field turned into a propaganda machine and voted down the factually flawed resolution.” Bravo.
However, Nelson also goes on to say, rather blandly, that organizations such as the National Women’s Studies Association that have endorsed anti-Israel resolutions have less at stake. “Born of political movements and forged with political agendas, they sacrificed little in terms of disinterested scholarship.” The discipline of history is a different story for Nelson, history being “one of the venerable humanities fields,” and “its loss to ideological politics would have wide and deeper implications.” This seems odd. Nelson doesn’t seem to mind if Women’s Studies is a propaganda machine, devoid of intellectual integrity, endorsing “factually flawed” anti-Israel resolutions. But he sets a higher standard for other disciplines.
“If the key humanities and interpretive social-science fields–from literature and language to history and anthropology–become centers of anti-Israel indoctrination, they will not only be economically marginal they will be discredited.” Nelson is especially concerned with the decline in prestige, as well as funding, that has affected the humanities. Instead of making a stand for open debate and intellectual integrity all around, he excuses the openly politicized areas and seeks only to gain respect for the “venerable humanities.” But the venerable humanities are at least partly responsible for the intellectually compromised and propagandized areas of study, and are, moreover, infected by them.
How about demanding honest scholarship from all fields and disciplines; that would help the humanities and the academy in general regain the lost credibility and stature that worries Nelson.
Quite a few social science disciplines have become wholly-owned subsidiaries of the Left. Leftist academics don’t just disagree with scholars who don’t hold with their pro-government mindset, they try to keep them out of the club — no publications, no good faculty posts. If asked about this, they might answer honestly and say something like, “Right-wingers aren’t very intelligent, so of course they don’t belong on the faculty and of course their papers don’t merit publication.”
One of the fields where this is true is industrial relations. If you don’t assume that workers must have union representation and lots of purportedly pro-employee laws, the senior academics want nothing to do with you.
Among the few scholars who dissent from that orthodoxy is Professor Mitchell Langbert of Brooklyn College. He has recently published a paper in Econ Journal Watch entitled The Left Orientation of Industrial Relations.
Langbert finds strong dominance for left-leaning articles even though the journals deny that they have any ideological orientation. Furthermore, the higher up in the academic hierarchy a journal is, the more exclusively leftist it becomes.
So here’s yet another chunk of academia that would benefit from some heterodoxy.