Monday, March 24, 2014

Orthodoxy in Academia, or Why Universities are So Conservative

David Friedman has a post in which he discusses how orthodoxy arises in academia. Academia is one of the most conservative -- in the worse sense of the term -- places in the world. Few places, few departments provide a truly liberal education. The pursuit of truth (which is fundamentally anti-orthodoxy) requires people to question received truth, to question established knowledge, to unsettle all that is settled. One may end up with the answers of two thousand years ago, or one may end up with new answers, but we must be fundamentally disruptive if we are going to discover knowledge, if we are going to discover the truth.

Universities are not structured to aid in this pursuit. Quite the contrary.

The way people are hired into a department necessarily leads to uniformity and orthodoxy. Any time you have a situation in which a person is hired by a committee, you are going to have the most orthodox candidates being selected. Committees select the one who is least offensive to everyone. More than likely that candidate will be teaching using the same pedagogy as everyone (whether students learn from it or not) and will be pursuing the same kinds of research using the same methods as everyone else. Of course, the main journals are themselves representative of orthodoxy -- or they would not be the main journals -- and one gets more "points" for publishing in them than in more heterodox journals.

Take, for example, English departments, about which I am most familiar. Businesses hiring college graduates are increasingly vociferous in their complaints that their new hires cannot write well. Yet, that fact has had no effect on writing pedagogy in our universities. Marxism remains the "economic theory" of choice through which to interpret texts; Freud, Jung, and Lacan (of whom nobody outside of literary studies seems to have heard) are the psychological theorists; and postmodernism is the overall interpretive strategy. What is an Austrian school theorist, who uses evolutionary psychology, cognitive psychology, and Gravesean psychology, and unifies them with complexity theory, emergence, and J.T. Fraser's philosophy to do? Not have a job.

Now, I am hardly claiming that I can't get a job because of my interpretive strategies in literature. And I have towed the line on writing pedagogy until recently, when I have begun to toe the line. More, there are a variety of institutional problems with colleges that have resulted in composition professors being relegated to almost nothing but adjunct status (thank you, useless bureaucrats, with your 6 figure salaries!), and English and humanities and any other related majors being relegated to nothing but composition professors. The adjunct/bureaucrat situation contributes to the shameful situation of having a very high percentage of our most educated people having some of the lowest wages in the country. And I am one of this system's victims.

But this situation, too, contributes to the creation of orthodoxy. Universities can "try out" someone as an adjunct, then try them out as a lecturer, then perhaps offer tenure track, once you have proven that you are harmless and won't challenge anyone on anything ever. The result is increasing orthodoxy in our universities across the board, regardless of department. Such a situation creates the conditions for the establishment of illiberal orthodoxy, conservatism in the worst sense of the term, and thus the ultimate rejection of liberal education. Truth in our universities is already established, all are to abide by the truth as already established, and if you question anything, you will be thrown out.

And as standards become more and more centralized in the hands of those in government, things are only going to get worse.

But don't worry. Eventually, the shame of people with Ph.D.'s not being able to provide for their families will overwhelm those people, and then there will be a social revolution. At least, according to history. Unfortunately, history also shows us that these revolutions almost never turn out well.
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