Sunday, March 27, 2005

Fake Indian, No Pony

There was time, quite a while ago, when the world was black and white (as documented in most of the photographic evidence that remains to us) and the defining property, and chief virtue, of the academe was tweediness. Universities were populated by eccentrics who, by some accident or peculiarity of temperament had become so deeply interested in some subject that they needed to be put in professorships so they could be taken care of. In exchange for this modest support and being allowed to pursue their chosen obsession, they were encouraged to discuss their topic with students passing through the institution. The idea was that most of the students would have their intellectual horizons harmlessly broadened and those susceptible few, for whom the obsession proved contagious, would stay on to replace their mentors.

Their position outside of the hubbub of everyday life gave academics a certain degree of immunity to the ordinary requirements of logic. Their interest in their fields of study could, for instance, be “passionate” and “dispassionate” at the same time – passionate in the sense that their interest was all-consuming, but dispassionate in that they examined the subject from all points of view without preconception. As with a vain man who uses a second mirror to see how he looks from behind, this desire for alternate viewpoints was part and parcel of their obsession, but it nonetheless gave them added perspective that people outside the academy would often lack. This omni-directional viewpoint would sometimes put them at odds with the particular passions of the day (thus the "dispassionate" part) but, since very little attention was paid to professors, very little damage was done.

Then, early in the second half of the last century people did start to pay attention and, somewhat gradually, everything went to Hell. Journalists, especially television reporters, looking for alternate points of view for balance started to seek out academics. Professors started to see themselves on television – many were dismayed but others rather enjoyed the attention. Academics, who could examine their subject area from a number of points of view, found that the more controversial angles got them the most attention. Other academics, covetous of the attention their colleagues were receiving, started to accentuate their own out-of-the-mainstream notions. A facility with controversial ideas, which started off as a side effect of broad scholarly inquiry, became more and more a substitute for it.

One might be tempted to think that these learned men and women, who ought to be the wisest of their generation, could handle a bit of public attention better than, say, a farmer who unearths Jimmy Hoffa while digging a ditch to irrigate his cauliflower. This supposition is especially tempting for those with little actual experience with academics. The fact of the matter is that all professors are flattered by attention from people who don’t need their classes to get the degrees needed on their resumes to obtain jobs with corner offices and high salaries. And if this flattering attention is accompanied by a hint that the world is starting to take an interest in the professor’s field of study – well, the sense of confirmation is a drug that few professors can turn away from once they have tried it.

Other faculty members and administrators got hooked on the reflected glow of their glib, controversial colleagues. With institutions as with individuals, controversiality, once a side effect of scholarship, became a good in itself. No longer a problem with one’s curriculum vitae to be offset by other factors, notoriety became a positive credential. Research became increasingly tendentious as researchers whose research suggested a concern dug a little harder to see if the concern couldn’t be widened into a crisis. Scholars whose fields did not lend themselves to alarm traded on their accomplishments to branch out into over areas of controversy. As an example, consider Noam Chomsky; his early work in formal language theory is as brilliant as his later writings on politics are appalling, and that is high praise indeed.

Given the confusion about the relation between controversy and scholarship it is inevitable that poseurs such as Ward Churchill should arrive on the scene. In a way the unpalatable nature of his ideas gave him a sort of cover. The administrators and other faculty of the university, in reviewing his work, judged it by its general shape and familiar odor. Understandably, no one was particularly interested in really digging into it. Until they were reminded that there is still such a thing as too much controversy they were content to give him the benefit of the doubt. Like the optimistic little boy in Ronald Reagan's joke, they assumed there must be a pony in there somewhere.

Note: I am not an academic. This posting consists of a laying out impressions I have gathered -- impressions waiting for others, closer to the issue, to correct. I do have a certain amount of experience with the world of academics. As a student at a major university I earned two degrees – a BS in Mass Communications and a Master’s in Computer Science. I also worked for the university. I was employed by various university departments and had occasion to help a number of professors with computer analysis and simulations for their research. My overlapping careers as student and employee lasted for seventeen years.

No comments: