Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Unruly Professor?

There's a debate going on about the value of humanities teachers claiming to be radically disruptive to the intellectual, philosophical and social status quo.
Although there were external dangers, argued Robert Post, dean of Yale Law School, the humanities also faced a number of "internal threats". Many scholars in the field claimed that their work was "inherently disruptive" and possessed "the charismatic authority of art rather than mere disciplinary competence". This, suggested Professor Post, was a huge error.

I'm suspicious. Most of us, I would think, believe that guiding students to and through thought-provoking literature in thought-provoking ways, might help them to treat and see the world differently when they leave. Get a critical mass of these enlightened thinkers and hegemony is threatened, goes the thinking.

Of course, it's a fantasy. There are totemic self-promoting radicals: Zizek, Chomsky, Bloom (on the conservative-radical wing) and others. But I think they perform another function, one which would enrage them. They're signifiers of academic freedom, the lipstick on the pig. To their supporters, they evince radical truths. To their detractors, they're publicly-funded subversives. To both groups, they're convenient icons of what's right and wrong about academia.

The rest of us are quietly liberal or actually conservative. While telling the students how wonderful Judith Butler and Foucault are, we connive in the process of churning out obedient work drones. Look at university finance/banking departments: they promoted the perfectibility of investment through ever more complex financial instruments, leading to global ruin. Not much radical thinking going on there. Or if there was, it didn't reach the bankers, politicians and regulators. And that's the wider truth: while we pretend that being vaguely subversive in class makes a difference, the status quo marginalises us even further. We're licensed clowns, and a degree is a three-year gap period for the kids in which they can pretend that gender, sexuality, race, class, identity, literature, social structures are radically mutable. Then they put on a suit and make money for The Man.

I wish we were 'inherently disruptive', that my work was Art, with the licence that implies. But it's not, and we need to stop kidding ourselves. We're not revolutionary leaders engaged on a grand project to reshape society.

Furthermore, academic freedom was essentially a bargain with the public about "the rights of scholars to make judgements in the name of the scholarly standards of their discipline". Those who undermined disciplinary professionalism were likely to regret the consequences, he suggested.

Professor Post's point is that we abuse our compact with the taxpayer if we promote grand ideals over disciplinary competence, and that their patience will wane: he assumes, of course, that the taxpayer is a cowed, conservative individual. How I wish he were wrong.

We need mavericks in academia: we just need to stop thinking that we're important in the outside world.

1 comment:

The Red Witch said...

I so agree with you.