Irresolute

Peter Wood

Wood: Hey Ashley, what would you think about our posting a New Year's article giving NAS's resolutions for 2009?

Thorne: Sure, why not? What resolutions do you have in mind?

Wood: Maybe we should resolve to be more up-to-date.

Thorne: What do you mean by "up-to-date"? NAS is up-to-date. We have written about sustainability, the financial crisis in higher ed, and even the “post secret” project.

That's all pretty trendy stuff. Think of our articles on the Settlers of Catan, Chocolate Rain, Kindle, iTunes U, environmental justice...

Wood: Well yes, we do write about up-to-date topics, but aren't we evaluating digital clocks from the perspective of the sundial makers’ guild? 

Thorne: True. Sundials are cool. 

Wood: We always advocate for ideals that many academics relegate to the past. For example, back in the 1980s when American higher education was getting excited about French theorists, we thought “This is great. Descartes, Pascal, and Montesquieu deserve some additional attention.” Alas, wrong theorists. It wasn’t those Gallic thinkers who gloried in the power of rational thinking, analysis, and evidence who had become the hot topic, but a new kind of Frenchman who rejected rationality as a mental straightjacket, considered analysis a form of oppression, and treated evidence like an expensive perfume to be used in small doses. Shouldn't we resolve to get ahead of the curve instead of pushing for ideas that are 200 or 300 years old?

Thorne: You mean we should promote what's popular now? The NAS jumps on the Baudrillard bandwagon, the Kristeva go-kart, the Derrida dragster, the Foucault four-wheeler, the Bataille batmobile?   Perhaps we should leap into the digital age and stop holding out for outdated ideas. Let's try a po-mo approach. For instance, suppose we agree with student affairs professionals that residential academic programs are the best way to educate the whole person. Or we could go all out and advocate gender equality in the sciences - after all, if we are going to be au courant, we should realize that diversity and access are more important than merit. Besides, having lots of white male scientists only propagates a stereotype. We could be po mo cons!

Wood: Hmmm. Ok. Who are you and what did you do with Ashley?

Thorne: I'm just saying - if we are really going to go postmodern, we might as well go green...and many other colors. We have to be consistent.

Wood: No, I don't think we have to be consistent. Post-modernism freed us from consistency. Think of how higher education handles the issue of race. The prevailing argument is that we can overcome a history of racial division by making racialized admissions permanent and institutionalizing racial curricula and racialized campus programs. We at NAS thought higher education could serve America as a model of how to overcome the divisive influence of race by treating all comers as equals. This turned out to be weirdly wrong. Americans relinquished racial division with surprising ease in the marketplace, courts, churches, and public life. Where it has clung on, in the name of “diversity,” is in colleges and universities. The rallying cry of "diversity" is a permission slip to adopt policies that do the exact opposite of your declared values. So who needs consistency? Consistency is one of those old-fashioned values that marks us out as a retrograde group of academics. Inconsistency is the champagne with which to toast the New Year.

Thorne: So what do you recommend we do to become more "up-to-date"? I'm skeptical about our ability to embrace current attitudes without buying into the academic fads we've always opposed.

Wood: Tactical ambiguity? Isn't the nice thing about New Years' resolutions that we don't have to say how we'll get there? In any case, we are way out in front of the campus left in trying to decipher the future of higher education. The AAUP, ACE, and the whole Dupont Circle gang are the real hidebound conservatives in contemporary higher education. They fight relentlessly to keep the current system of taxpayer-funded privileges for a tiny elite of tenured professors in place and as immune as possible from public scrutiny and public criticism. They fight like mill owners faced with an incipient trade union to keep students enslaved to the system of student loans, because the money students borrow is what props up our enormously overgrown system of higher ed. They stand squarely behind the dizzying expansion of non-academic service jobs in the academy--deans of diversity, counselors galore, sustainability vice presidents--that inflate costs and add nothing to the students' education. They do this because they have a vested interest in the system that has grown up since the 1970s. By contrast, we are an independent voice and are able to describe that system as it really is: expensive, exploitative, selfish, and profoundly vulnerable to technological, economic, and cultural change.

Thorne: So it seems you're saying that we're already ahead of the curve, fighting the status quo. Well, good. If we're already doing what we had resolved to do, there's no need to resolve! Maintain the status quo! Go quo!

Wood: Well, we could resolve to improve what we do. After all, we're still stuck with the reputation of being an organization of right-wing zealots. The People for the American way says we are and their declaration gets quoted and echoed all over the place. Traditional academic values have been so successfully stigmatized by the academic left that anyone who speaks for such goals as "the pursuit of truth" or "impartial analysis" is instantly suspect. I'd like to see us get the better of this argument. Who really speaks for the future of American higher education? Folks like the College Board who want to double college enrollment by 2025? Folks like the Carnegie Corporation who would like President Obama to drop a one-time gift of $40-$45 billion on public universities in 2009 to improve their "infrastructure?" Or folks like us who insist that the core task is educating men and women who will sustain our civilization by learning what is needful and striving to keep our society free?

Thorne: Perhaps we should take Stanley Fish's advice and "academicize" our work - neutralize it so that it's not recognizable by "conservative" terms like "truth" and "objectivity." That lingo apparently oozes with partisanship. Or maybe you're suggesting something more transformative to change our image?

Wood: No. I don't want to concede the high ground. Only a small subclass of academics and unmoored intellectuals find the notion of truth to be troubling or put it in scare quotes, as though "truth" were so doubtful a proposition that the word itself should be handled with protective gear. Stanley Fish's idea of "academicizing" deserves the scare quotes. He uses the word to refer to taking a topic from out of its "real world urgency" and treating instead with the abstracted urgency of academic analysis. That is, of course, one of the things scholars should be able to do and that students should learn. But Fish argues that it is everything. No "real world urgency" at all should be admitted to the discussion. That seems to me to be a recipe for the end of science and social science, and a denaturing of the humanities, where, among other things, the urgency of truth and beauty are parts of the real world that Fish would banish in favor of intellectual gamesmanship. Note that a month or so ago I wrote articles on our website criticizing Toni Morrison's atrocious writing, which it is fashionable to pretend is excellent, and pondering what to do with John Updike's novels which are models of excellent writing but seem deeply unsuitable to the curriculum. The kind of criticism I made in those articles would not be available in Fish's "academicizing," because I was addressing matters of real world urgency, such as faithfulness to history.

What I think is more transformative is the demonstration that the NAS perspective is broader, richer, more encompassing of human experience, and more rewarding to both students and faculty members than what is currently on offer at most American colleges and universities. I want us to compete in the arena where the question is, "Which view of higher learning is better?" Never mind that one of the reasons ours is better is that it is built on an older and better foundation. What counts is that it is indeed better for us now and for the foreseeable future. The guardians of the academic status quo don't want the public to think about that comparison because they have a strong suspicion they would lose.

Thorne: OK, so we’re doing the right thing after all. I knew the Foucault four-wheeler was a bad idea. The Descartes donkey, Pascal pony, and Montesquieu mustang are way more fun. Since yours didn’t turn out so well, I propose a new New Year’s resolution. NAS should resolve to keep surprising people. That’s what the pursuit of truth does and it is always up-to-date.

Wood: New year, same horse? OK. But isn’t there something we can tell our readers?

Thorne: How about, “HAPPY NEW YEAR!”

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