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The lost honor of academia

What must it be like working in a profession in which a pleasant out-of-her-depth fantasist like Elaine Pagels or a thuggish hack like Houston Baker (see this discussion) are named-chair superstars at top universities?

It appears that in Professor Pagels’ case there’s a certain amount of snickering, so academics don’t lose their critical abilities when discussing colleagues who lead charmed lives because of fashion or politics. The snickering almost always stays behind the scenes, though, since there’s no advantage to saying things that are unfashionable or politically incorrect.

That situation undercuts academic life as a disinterested search for truth, which requires rather demanding standards of honor, and makes it an activity in which you have to pay lip service to what you know to be fraudulent. That doesn’t sound like fun. It’s rather like becoming a doctor and discovering that your HBO expects you to let patients die to cut costs.

One problem with compulsory lying is that it’s hard to contain. A repellent feature of the Duke Lacrosse hoax has been the license enjoyed by the academic Left, who often hold their positions for reasons that have nothing to do with the goals of the academy, to make whatever outrageous assertions they choose without significant opposition from the rest of the faculty. I don’t doubt that the academic Silent Majority are mostly decent, intelligent and rational. They are also tenured in many cases, and so able to speak their minds more independently than most of us.

So what’s behind their sins of omission? Part of the problem in the Duke situation is that race is involved. There aren’t many competent blacks available for academic positions, but you have to fill positions with what you have, so if you start being critical where will it all end? Beyond that, academic specialties are narrow, and outside his specialty an academic can’t appeal to his status as an expert but only to understandings generally held by academics as such. What seems to have happened since God died in academia is that a professorial class that’s lost its grip on the Good, Beautiful and True has adopted an orthodoxy based on its own aggrandizement. Even though most academics do not accept it completely enough of them hold enough of it so that in the absence of other common commitments it can shape events.

That orthodoxy is leftist through and through. As an ideology of self-aggrandizement it holds that academics and other experts should run everything, because only they possess knowledge as opposed to folklore and prejudice. Since they don’t, society is organized illegitimately and as such consists exclusively of aggressors (since all actual social compulsion is illegitimate) and their victims. The solution to that situation is to support those systematically victimized, and expose the aggressor class and make it as difficult as possible for it to function as such. One might, for example, smear its members and disrupt the social understandings and connections (e.g., cultural ties and traditional standards of conduct) that make it possible for any group to function without constant expert supervision and control. Then authorities other than expertise will be debunked and rendered nonfunctional, and the experts will rule the world!

Something of the sort, it seems to me, is going on at places like Duke, not only in times of crisis but in the day-to-day work of the classroom. The ideology is not altogether articulate, since it mostly operates as a sort of lowest common denominator and since ideologies based on interest are always obfuscated in various ways, but it seems operational nonetheless. “Question authority,” the slogan goes, but there is no questioning authority as such since there will always be authority somewhere. When social institutions and hierarchies are attacked the real question is always what—and who—is waiting in the wings to replace them.

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Comments

Dear Mr. Kalb,

It is not so bad as long as you are mostly discreet about your views and do not challenge the boss, that is, the status quo. The boss is just trying to manage the workload and does not necessarily agree with liberalism. Academic tenure should shield many conservative academics, so I do not know why they are silent, for the most part.

You and your site provide the intellectual tools to challenge the status quo, which I do. For example, I am part of a national firm and various internal discussion groups. The irritant to one of the discussion groups is the effort by the antidiscrimination lobby to propose legislation permitting the Dept. of Justice to prosecute supervisors found to have discriminated.

Proudly, I brought out your observation that antidiscrimination makes one unable to prefer one’s parents to others. I further proposed that the legislation was the inevitable result of making equality an absolute truth (always true) rather than a relative truth. Well, the moderator, a sweet lesbian, repeated her idea that she/we (conservatives) should not discuss politics online. Disappointing was the failure of anyone to post a comment supporting me. This must be the result of ignorance?

Paul