Friday, September 05, 2008

Doing it in Public

I had an interesting discussion yesterday with a grad student in our department about the conservative problem in academia and the issue of public intellectuals.

To get to the first part, let's note that he is indeed a conservative libertarian in academia, so his take on the conservative problem is different than mine. I tend to be fairly libertarian too, but probably more left libertarian. When I hear of the "conservative problem in academia", I tend to think it's overblown. The mailings I get from David Horowitz describe a world that I don't live or work in and, as with anything else, the only ways I could imagine the situation changing are through: regulation, lawsuits, or slow steady pressure. Obviously, I think the first two are impossible and the third I would argue has barely been tried by the "reformers".

Anyway, my friend is more attuned to a sort of unspoken bias against conservative students that many professors have, in his opinion. Of course, this is a problem whose supporting data is necessarily anecdotal, and I don't think I could really verify it anyway- I'm not a crusader for any political viewpoint while in the classroom, so I can't say I've been penalized by professors for my political viewpoint. And I'm a fairly easy grader myself. I would say that the students whose viewpoints I really disagree with probably get higher grades because I tend to work a bit too hard to check my own internal biases. In the recitations, I don't really lecture so much as ask questions and we generally stay on topic- discussing the Ramayana as opposed to Bush/Cheney. So, again, this is not really my world. I am not a public debater. (Besides, I hear they moon you now!)

This gets to the second question- that of "public intellectuals". I have no interest in ever being a public intellectual, and my sense is that the American public has little use for them. His point was that some people would find my attitude selfish; we are paid, after all, by our neighbors to sit around and think about things (or, for me, to walk around thinking about things); therefore, it's not too much to ask that we weigh in on topics of public debate. Besides, the way that we get trained to think- hopefully slowly and patiently- is in short supply in public discussions, so we might have something to contribute.

I suppose my problem is that most "public intellectuals" don't strike me as very supple thinkers- you go to Noam Chomsky for a quote for the same reason that you go to McDonald's for a burger: you know exactly what you're going to get. This probably gets back to the first problem- there is a sort of collective intellectual laziness on certain topics that goes with the tendency of most academics to be to the left politically. So academics are trained to be very critical of certain assumptions and allowed to be indulgent of others. And, as we get older, we all, no matter our profession, get stuck in certain assumptions about how the world works.

For me, the older I get, the more agnostic I am on issues of public debate. In the west, we have a situation in which the "left" is only right about 20% of the time, and the "right" is only right about 20% of the time, and the trick is to make use of those areas where they're right and ignore them as much as possible. I think the increasing vulgarity of public discourse has to do with the fact that people try to limit themselves to living within that 20%, and indeed turning it into a worldview, in order to present themselves as decisively "conservative" or "liberal". We want to make firm decisions; there's something weak and sniveling in doubt or vacillation- I see this attitude among people who live on the right and the left.

For me, I hope to become more agnostic as I become more educated, not more "decisive". Life is difficult, and figuring out how we should behave in the public sphere is especially difficult. If academics have any responsibility in terms of public discourse, it should be to encourage others to be less decisive- to be more patient and slower to action. Quick "gut" decisions are appropriate on the battlefield, but unnecessary, and even dangerous in the polis; and we should do what we can to prevent the two spheres from bleeding into each other, as they seem to be wont to do lately.

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