1.11.18

IF THERE ARE NO RULES FOR PLAYING WITH IDEAS, WHY SET UP PLAY PLACES?

McGill anthropologist P. C. Salzman sees dogma crowding out emergence in the academy, and he doesn't like it.
Among all the cultures of the world throughout history, the only two self-correcting systems known are products of the Enlightenment: science and democracy. Science and its technological offspring were slow to develop, but by the 20th century, they were central to Western society, while religion was removed from societal institutions and limited to the personal. This did not stop closed ideological movements such as Nazism and Communism from appropriating science and technology to advance their absolutist ideological goals. But with the self-destruction of Nazism and Communism, science itself has remained an open culture.

Since the eclipse of theology in the 19th century, science has been the backbone of higher education in the West. As the most successful method for understanding the world, it was taken as a model for most academic work. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, social studies emulated the natural sciences, as best they could, in the hope of producing valid findings.
Alas, finding understanding mutated into creating understanding which became a Glass Bead Game gone nuts.
To gain any attention and stature, academics, especially in the social sciences and humanities, must come up with something original to say. Furthermore, while natural scientists can express their creativity by discovering or refining a relationship between natural phenomena, social scientists and humanists do not get very far by dwelling on ethnographic or statistical or historical details. Rather, to make a splash, they must invent a new theory, a new “ism,” a new epistemology. So new theoretical arguments in the social sciences and humanities tend to come not from responding to the bulk of scientific evidence, but from professional and career considerations.

For example, in literary criticism, one generation will require understanding a literary work in terms of the social and political environment of an author, while the next rejects that and demands that the text is examined only in itself, while the succeeding generation demands an understanding in terms of the author’s biography. None of this is driven by the evidence, but by the fads and fashions of academic competition.
Those developments are not bad per se, but once academicians lose sight of the distinction between the positive and normative and attempt to make the world on the basis of will alone, or, worse, the latest fads and fashions suggest that anything goes, the academy is done for.  Professor Salzman might be overly pessimistic, or perhaps dramatic, but he's not completely wrong:
By the 1980s, the social sciences and humanities had taken what some called “the postmodern turn,” also characterized as a “paradigm shift.” This included a rejection of attempts to be objective, and, in its place, a celebration of subjectivity. Absoluteness, as in absolute truth, was rejected in favor of relativism. Academics came to say that “everyone has their own truth.” Science was rejected as a model for studies of humanity. The ideas of “data” and “evidence” were set aside in favor of “interpretation.” Scientific laws, generalizations, and “master narratives,” were rejected as unfeasible and oppressive.
I'm not prepared to accept that without qualifications. Incentives still matter. Perhaps, though, it's going to take the demise of more than a few institutions of higher education before the madness stops. Yes, madness.
The rejection of Truth and of evidence has now made its way into university administrations. Disciplinary tribunals have now accepted that “everyone has their own truth,” and they accept the “truths” of the oppressed victims and dispense with “evidence” that might be presented on behalf of accused “oppressors.” This rejection of Truth and evidence has diffused far beyond universities, to businesses, funding agencies, Government Agencies, and Departments of Education, and has now made its way to the U.S. Senate in the Kavanaugh hearings. What someone did or did not do is no longer important; the only thing that is important in universities and beyond is what category someone belongs to.
Perhaps so, or perhaps the effusion of Student Affairs values into hiring offices and Congressional hearings will inspire the necessary correctives.

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