Friday


The University of Toronto more than a hundred years ago in 1910.

The University of Toronto more than a hundred years ago in 1910.

When I attempt to look back on my personal history in a spirit of dispassionate scientific inquiry, I find that I readily abandon entire regions of my past in my perhaps unseemly hurry to develop the next idea that I have, and which I am excited to see where it leads me. Moreover, contemplating one’s personal history can be a painful and discomfiting experience, so that, in addition to the headlong rush into the future, there is the desire to dissociate oneself from past mistakes, even when these past mistakes were provisional positions, known at the time to be provisional, but which were nevertheless necessary steps in order to begin (as well as to continue) the journey of self-discovery, which is at the same time a journey of discovering the world and of one’s place in the world.

In my limited attempts to grasp my personal history as an essential constituent of my present identity, among all the abandoned positions of my past I find that I understood two important truths about myself early in life (i.e., in my teenage years), even if I did not formulate them explicitly, but only acted intuitively upon things that I immediately understood in my heart-of-hearts. One of these things is that I have never been, am not now, and never will be either of the left or of the right. The other thing is, despite having been told many times that I should have pursued higher education, and despite the fact that most individuals who have the interests that I have are in academia, that I am not cut out for academia, whether temperamentally, psychologically, or socially — notwithstanding the fact that, of necessity, I have had to engage in alienated labor in order to support myself, whereas if I had pursued in a career in academia, I might have earned a living by dint of my intellectual efforts.

The autodidact is a man with few if any friends (I could tell you a few stories about this, but I will desist at present). The non-partisan, much less the anti-partisan, is a man with even fewer friends. Adults (unlike childhood friends) tend to segregate along sectional lines, as in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization we once segregated ourselves even more rigorously along sectarian lines. If you do not declare yourself, you will find yourself outside every ideologically defined circle of friends. And I am not claiming to be in the middle; I am not claiming to strike a compromise between left and right; I am not claiming that I have transcended left and right; I am not claiming that I am a moderate. I claim only that I belong to no doctrinaire ideology.

It has been my experience that, even if you explicitly and carefully preface your remarks with a disavowal of any political party or established ideological position, if you give voice to a view that one side takes to be representative of the other side, they will immediately take your disavowal of ideology to be a mere ruse, and perhaps a tactic in order to gain a hearing for an unacknowledged ideology. The partisans will say, with a knowing smugness, that anyone who claims not to be partisan is really a partisan on the other side — and both sides, left and right alike, will say this. One then finds oneself in overlapping fields of fire. This experience has only served to strengthen my non-political view of the world; I have not reacted against my isolation by seeking to fall into the arms of one side or the other.

This non-political perspective — which I am well aware would be characterized as ideological by others — that eschews any party membership or doctrinaire ideology, now coincides with my sense of great retrospective relief that I did not attempt an academic career path. I have watched with horrified fascination as academia has eviscerated itself in recent years. I have thanked my lucky stars, but most of all I have thanked my younger self for having understood that academia was not for me and for not having taken this path. If I had taken this path, I would be myself subject to the politicization of the academy that in some schools means compulsory political education, increasingly rigid policing of language, and an institution more and more making itself over into the antithesis of the ideal pursuit of knowledge and truth.

But the university is a central institution of western civilization; it is the intellectual infrastructure of western civilization. I can affirm this even as an autodidact who has never matriculated in the university system. I have come to understand, especially in recent years, how it is the western way to grasp the world by way of an analytical frame of mind. The most alien, the most foreign, the most inscrutable otherness can be objectively and dispassionately approached by the methods of scientific inquiry that originated in western civilization. This character of western thought is far older than the scientific revolution, and almost certainly has its origins in the distinctive contribution of the ancient Greeks. As soon as medieval European civilization began to stabilize, the institution of the university emerged as a distinctive form of social organization that continues to this day. Since I value western civilization and its scientific tradition, I must also value the universities that have been the custodians of this tradition. It could even be said that the autodidact is parasitic upon the universities that he spurns: I read the books of academics; I benefit from the scientific research carried on at universities; my life and my thought would not have been possible except for the work that goes on in universities.

It is often said of the Abrahamic religions that they all pray to the same God. So too all who devote their lives to the pursuit of truth pay their respects to the same ancestors: academicians and their institutions look back to Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, just as do I. We have the same intellectual ancestors, read the same books, and look to the same ideals, even if we approach those ideals differently. In the same way that I am a part of Christian civilization without being a Christian, in an expansive sense I am a part of the intellectual tradition of western civilization represented by its universities, even though I am not of the university system.

As an autodidact, I could easily abandon the western world, move to any place in the world where I was able to support myself, and immerse myself in another tradition, but western civilization means something to me, and that includes the universities of which I have never been a part, just as much as it includes the political institutions of which I have never been a part. I want to know that these sectors of society are functioning in a manner that is consistent with the ideals and aspirations of western civilization, even if I am not part of these institutions.

There are as many autodidacticisms as there are autodidacts; the undertaking is an essentially individual and indeed solitary one, even an individualistic one, hence also essentially an isolated undertaking. Up until recently, in the isolation of my middle age, I had questioned my avoidance of academia. Now I no longer question this decision of my younger self, but am, rather, grateful that this is something I understood early in my life. But that does not exempt me from an interest in the fate of academia.

All of this is preface to a conflict that is unfolding in Canada that may call the fate of the academy into question. Elements at the The University of Toronto have found themselves in conflict with a professor at the school, Jordan B. Peterson. Prior to this conflict I was not familiar with Peterson’s work, but I have been watching his lectures available on Youtube, and I have become an unabashed admirer of Professor Peterson. He has transcended the disciplinary silos of the contemporary university and brings together an integrated approach to the western intellectual tradition.

Both Professor Peterson and his most vociferous critics are products of the contemporary university. The best that the university system can produce now finds itself in open conflict with the worst that the university system can produce. Moreover, the institutional university — by which I mean those who control the institutions and who make its policy decisions — has chosen to side with the worst rather than with the best. Professor Peterson noted in a recent update of his situation that the University of Toronto could have chosen to defend his free speech rights, and could have taken this battle to the Canadian supreme court if necessary, but instead the university chose to back those who would silence him. Thus even if the University of Toronto relents in its attempts to reign in the freedom of expression of its staff, it has already revealed what side it is on.

There are others fighting the good fight from within the institutions that have, in effect, abandoned them and have turned against them. For example, Heterodox Academy seeks to raise awareness of the lack of the diversity of viewpoints in contemporary academia. Ranged against those defending the tradition of western scholarship are those who have set themselves up as revolutionaries engaged in the long march through the institutions, and every department that takes a particular pride in training activists rather than scholars, placing indoctrination before education and inquiry.

If freedom of inquiry is driven out of the universities, it will not survive in the rest of western society. When Justinian closed the philosophical schools of Athens in 529 AD (cf. Emperor Justinian’s Closure of the School of Athens) the western intellectual tradition was already on life support, and Justinian merely pulled the plug. It was almost a thousand years before the scientific spirit revived in western civilization. I would not want to see this happen again. And, make no mistake, it can happen again. Every effort to shout down, intimidate, and marginalize scholarship that is deemed to be dangerous, politically unacceptable, or offensive to some interest group, is a step in this direction.

To employ a contemporary idiom, I have no skin in the game when it comes to universities. It may be, then, that it is presumptuous for me to say anything. Mostly I have kept my silence, because it is not my fight. I am not of academia. I do not enjoy its benefits and opportunities, and I am not subject to its disruptions and disappointments. But I must be explicit in calling out the threat to freedom of inquiry. Mine is but a lone voice in the wilderness. I possess no wealth, fame, or influence that I can exercise on behalf of freedom of inquiry within academia. Nevertheless, I add my powerless voice to those who have already spoken out against the attempt to silence Professor Peterson.

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Sunday


graduation-caps

The Culture War is not over. Instead of being waged over textbooks for elementary and high schools, it has moved into universities, and the inflection point has become the symbolic role of the commencement address. Even while the most prestigious institutions seek the most prestigious speakers for their commencement celebrations, interest groups on campuses across the US have been agitating and campaigning to block the appearance of some of these prestigious speakers, which action constitutes a kind of symbolic victory over imagined enemies — the greater the prestige of the speaker prevented from speaking at commencement, the greater the symbolic victory.

There have been two recent articles in the Wall Street Journal, “The Closing of the Collegiate Mind” by Ruth R. Wisse (Monday 12 May 2014) and “Bonfire of the Humanities” by Daniel Henninger (Thursday 15 May 2014), that have taken particular aim at the withdrawn invitations for three high-profile speakers: Christine Lagarde of the IMF was to speak at Smith College, but withdrew after 480 students signed a petition against her appearance; Ayaan Hirsi Ali was to speak at Brandeis University but was uninvited due to a claim of her making anti-Islamic statements; Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of UC Berkeley, was forced to withdraw from speaking at Haverford College’s commencement due to accusations that he had condoned the use of force by Berkeley police to clear away Occupy protesters. (It’s times like these that I have no regrets about not going into academia.)

It is easy — all too easy — to spin this latest round of battles over commencement speakers as political correctness gone out of control at major universities. The readers of the Wall Street Journal are likely to lap up this narrative like a cat laps up cream. And rightly so. Colleges today have become places of “ideological conformity” (as Ruth R. Wisse puts it) and “tendentious gibberish” (as Daniel Henninger puts it) — all in the name of “tolerance.” As Pascal said, “‘Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction” And here the “religious conviction” is the surrogate religion of diversity.

This could have been the opportunity for some new and innovative political thinking — only, it hasn’t been. It has, rather, been a pretext for the same old, same old in politics. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly the response to campus radicalism deteriorates into all the familiar tropes of the trad-con axis (“trad-con” is the term used by some today to designate “traditional conservatism”). A case in point is another news story that has energized trad-con types and become a minor cause célèbre among the chattering classes, reported in Tal Fortgang not sorry for being white and privileged and Harvard’s so-called ‘white privilege’ class both by Anthony Zurcher, Editor, BBC Echo Chambers.

The young man who wrote this now widely-circulated essay in which he refuses to apologize for his “privilege” could have used the opportunity to question the left//right dialectic, but instead (and in spite of his youth) settles comfortably into a trad-con rut from which he is unlikely to ever extricate himself. Having become a hero of the moribund right in his early years, he need to do little more in order to assure himself a bright future in telling people what they want to hear. And if you can tell people what they want to hear while making their political opponents outraged, well, so much the better.

The left-right dialectic belongs to the past, and those today who seek to keep the flame alive — whether they come from the left or the right — are beating the carcass of a dead horse. In my post Ideas that will Shape the Future I wrote of the decline of left/right politics:

The political landscape as we know it today continues to be shaped by the left/right dialectic that emerged in the wake of the French Revolution, as some sought to continue the revolution, others to reverse it, and others yet to expand it. But the traditional governing coalitions based on left/right politics have been increasingly confronted with new political problems that cannot be easily analyzed along a left/right axis. As the most advanced industrialized nation-states converge on political gridlock, innovative solutions are increasingly likely to emerge from non-traditional political sources, marginalizing the left/right dichotomy and possibly giving life to new political movements that cannot be reduced to a left/right division. Moreover, structural changes within society such as increasing urbanization, globalization, technological unemployment, exponentialism (albeit selective), and bitter conflicts over the life sciences that divide people across previously established coalitions expose mass populations to new forces that shape these populations and their opinions in new ways.

The decline of left/right politics will not transform the nation-states of today into apolitical communities; political communities will continue to be political communities, but their politics will change over time, old coalitions and marriages of convenience will fall apart while new coalitions will emerge. All of this will take time. It will be a slow and very gradual political evolution. In fact, it will be such a slow transition that it will be plausible to deny for many decades — perhaps for a century or more — that anything has fundamentally changed in the political structure of society.

The “debate” today — if we can call it that — cannot move forward because it is mired in the past, it is conducted in the terms of the past, and it cannot do more than to reassert the values, meanings, and purposes of the past. And when I here write of “the past” I am not only speaking of trad-cons nostalgic for an imagined past, but also of their political opponents who are equally deluded about the world as it is today. Moreover, it is debate that is contextualized in other debates occurring simultaneously, and so it cannot move forward unless and until progress is made in these other debates.

All of this is happening at a time when college tuition is significantly outpacing inflation, students are taking on increasingly large debt burdens to pay for their education, potential employers are skeptical of the qualifications of graduates, and many see online courses as the future of higher education. No one knows in detail how these issues will play out, but the transformation of the university from an educational institution into an economic institution, and the transformation of education into a commodity, is one of those larger social forces to which the university can only respond, and it cuts across ideological lines. Some trad-cons like the idea of education as an industry, since it corresponds to their own economic preoccupations, while other conservatives are among the staunchest supporters of the traditional ideal of a liberal education.

There is a larger and older debate going on as well. Higher education in the US has always been subject to an underlying social tension, which is the desire on the one hand to fulfill the traditional ideal of a liberal education, and on the other hand to provide practical skills that are applicable in the workplace. Both imperatives have their representatives inside and their advocates outside academic institutions. The result is an ongoing compromise that shifts as the underlying social tension shifts, sometimes tending toward the traditional mission of the university and sometimes tending toward the “hands on” and “good ol’ American know-how” school of thought. Because the shift in educational institutions always follows after the shift in social attitudes, the university is never fully in harmony with American society, and always seems to be struggling to make itself relevant in the particular way that society believes higher education should be relevant at any given moment in history.

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