Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Trends in the Academy


Over the years I have seen trends come and go in higher education. I was inspired to muse on this after reading this.

As an undergraduate in the early nineties, "feminism" was all the rage. Playboy came onto campus at the U of MN and the University Young Women (UYW) went nuts. Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin had just left our campus after having taught their students to be feminist activists, protesting outside of pornography shops in Minneapolis.

Now, feminism has little influence (except for the Larry Summers debacle.)

Feminism lost its credibility because it became bitter, humorless, dogmatic, intolerant, and boring. Female students nowadays are far more likely to distance themselves from what feminism has become than to identify with it. Based on what I saw twenty years ago, I can only see this as a positive development.

While in graduate school in the mid-nineties at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I noticed the currency of the idea that minorities could not be racist, since they are not in control of the mechanisms of power. This idiosyncratic understanding of racism didn't impress me whatsoever, however, because I had seen vicious racism by blacks against Asians when I was a bus driver in the Twin Cities some years before. If that didn't qualify as racism, then we should strike the word from the dictionary.

This idea had a lot of currency on campuses for a while, but it lacks credibility even among most academics these days--and that's saying a lot.

The early 2000's brought us an obsession with "diversity", by which is meant diversity of skin colors, religions, and sexual orientations, but by no means is meant diversity of political views. Hostility toward conservative and libertarian ideas in colleges and universities is often palpable in spite of any commitment to "diversity". I'm not saying that there is always such hostility, but I noticed it even when I was solidly on the left.

Diversity is losing its influence these days, I think primarily because of the above reason, but also because it is becoming boring. So many college courses--especially in the liberal arts, of course--are often little more than predictable variations on a theme.

The new kid on the block is "sustainability", which currently has tremendous momentum. "Sustainability" sounds awesome, of course, but I can't help but wonder what is really going on here. I like sustaining all kinds of things, but I can sense strong political agendas lurking below the surface. I predict with confidence that sustainability will be replaced by something else in a few years after it becomes predictable and boring, as most politically motivated innovations on campus eventually do.

And so it goes. Academics love to think that they will save the world through their intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom. They love to train their students out of the views that they received from their reactionary parents.

Personally, I have no faith in academics to save the world (what would such a thing mean?). They are hopelessly human, yet loathe to admit it. Everyday working people quite often show greater wisdom than the greatest professors. Sometimes I hear things that are so patently insane that I think that only someone who has gone to graduate school could ever believe them.

And so I say something here that a professor should never, ever say: I don't want to save the world! I wish only to strive to maintain the semblance of order that the world constantly threatens. What we have is fragile. Attempts to erect Utopia are doomed to fail. The world mocks every attempt at Utopia and punishes us severely for our naiveté.

The world is singularly unimpressed by our intentions. Results are what matter, and the world is stingy.

After sustainability, what will be the next trend among academics? I don't know, but I do know that it will carry the hallmarks of those that came before-- it will become predictable, dogmatic, quixotic, intolerant, humorless, and boring.