Scholarship that Starts with Conviction: Some Thoughts on the Adjective "Academic"

Every community’s complex practices require the process of tradition, what Alasdair Macintyre helpfully identified as the ongoing debate about what it means to practice what the community practices and to belong to the community as such a practitioner.  Literary critics constantly debate one another concerning whether criticism belongs to the realm of the political, remains separate from politics, or exists in some other dialectical relationship with broader human communities.  And scientists, especially in the last decade but before that as well, contend for the boundaries of science proper, some yielding questions of ultimate meaning to the philosophers and sometimes even the theologians while others claim that all meaningful questions are subject to experimental inquiry, labeling non-questions those which do not lend themselves to laboratory tests or repeated observations.  The university, which purports to be a context in which scientists and humanists–not to mention business theorists and specialists of other sorts–can practice their specialties, itself practices self-examination and internal debate regularly, and those who find ourselves part of the tradition of post-secondary teaching do well to consider what precisely makes our work “academic.”  The good news for those interested in such debates is that, in a historical moment with more text published in books and on the Internet than anyone can handle, there’s plenty to chew on.

The Predetermined Conclusions and the Shady Origins of “Those Guys”

Thinking about what makes academic work properly academic, Peter Enns has written recently on his blog about evangelical colleges and seminaries and the fact that many state-university (and private-university) scholars do not regard them as really “academic.”  His hypothesis seems to be that, were there a genuinely “academic” culture in these institutions, then professors in those institutions might gain more respect among their colleagues from other institutions.

But, with few exceptions, that culture does not exist. The scandal of the Evangelical mind is that degrees, books, papers, and other marks of prestige are valued–provided you come to predetermined conclusions. (Enns, “Deeper Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”, boldface original)

When I read that pair of sentences, it reminded me of a book review that I wrote some five or six years ago.  At the time the debate du jour in my circles was not the evangelical college but the state university, and the critic of intellectual work with too much prior commitment was David Horowitz.  One of his central complaints in his 2007 book Indoctrination U was that certain departments at state universities start with their conclusions before any given class’s inquiry even started.  (For the sake of disclosure, I reviewed that book, at the request of some conservative friends of mine, on the Conservative Reformed Mafia blog in 2007.  Yes, I was out of my political and theological element at that blog.  I take that, and their willingness to publish my highly critical review of Horowitz, as a testimony to their hospitality.)  Writing about these programs, Horowitz noted these ideological tendencies:

  • On “Modern Marxist Theory,” a course at University of Colorado: “In other words, this is a course in how to be a Marxist. It is not–by its own description–an academic examination that might also consider how Marxism has failed or why it might not provide “insights” into current topics of importance” (Horowitz, Indoctrination U 50).
  • On Ball State’s Peace Studies program: “‘Peace studies’ is an entire field–among several that could be mentioned–whose agenda is obviously not academic but political. In the case of peace studies, this agenda is antimilitary and anticapitalist” (51).
  • From his testimony to the Kansas House of Representatives, on the topic of Kansas State’s Women’s Studies program: “Thus the [description of the program] takes an explicitly sectarian (and therefore nonacademic) view of issues that are controversial–whether women are in fact “oppressed in the United States, whether there is “gender inequality” in American society, or whether “heterosexism” and “classism” are meaningful let alone valuable categories of analysis” (64-65).

To put things even more briefly, Enns poses the pointed rhetorical question:

Can an institution claim to be fundamentally academic while at the same time centered on defending certain positions that are largely, if not wholly, out of sync with generations of academic discourse outside of evangelical boundaries? (Enns, “Can Evangelical Colleges and Seminaries Be Truly Academic Institutions?“, boldface original)

Both men are interested in the question of what constitutes “academic” discourse, and both seem convinced that certain intellectual agendas disqualify an institution (whether a department or an entire school) from the category.

If one were to interview Peter Enns and David Horowitz on the partisan horse race that gets called “politics” in 2013, no doubt their answers to the same predictable questions–the place of faith in the public square, how marriage and federal government should relate, how the nation-state should relate to the poor, whether abortion was a legalized crime or the right of the consumer properly recognized by national governments–would differ in predictable ways.  Yet both seem to agree that “academic” discourse should begin roughly from a place of neutrality (despite protestations from postmoderns like Nate Gilmour that there is no such place) and never begin with anything “political” in one’s assumptions.

The problem with “those people,” for Enns and for Horowitz, goes all the way down to the beginnings of how-things-are-right-now.  Both writers tend to make the problem genealogical.  Horowitz seems to think that the offending academic problems have their roots not in any “academic” project but a “political” one.  (Again, the scare quotes reflect my own tendency to think of “politics” as something subject to academic investigation and “academics” as something always involved in political existence, but part of this essay’s point is to see what happens when one assumes Horowitz’s and Enss’s categories.)  Horowitz lays things out thus:

An academic movement for “social justice” has inserted its radical agenda into the very templates of collegiate institutions and academic programs… Far from being a consensus that supports the pluralistic community of the American social contract, the political correctness of the left is the orthodoxy of one social faction seeking to impose its agenda on all the others–a new and disturbing development in the educational culture. (Horowitz, Indoctrination U xiv)

The way Horowitz imagines the academy, every part of the institution must encompass the whole plurality that is the university in toto.  Thus even when such programs claim to be doing “educational” and “academic” things, the definitions of those terms get muddied by the fact that their starting points are in certain partisan agendas rather than including all partisan agendas.  Along similar lines, Enns thinks that a political/dogmatic history poisons evangelical colleges right out of the gate:

Here is the problem in a nutshell. Many evangelical colleges and seminaries in America were founded in no small part as centers for defending and propagating earlier traditional positions against forces that coalesced in the 19th century: European higher criticism, biblical archaeology, and Darwin (evolution).  (Enns, “Can Evangelical Colleges and Seminaries Be Truly Academic Institutions?”)

The parallels here are striking: for both men, the problem with “those people” lies in the fact that, whether in their departments or in their seminaries (some seminaries are, after all, smaller than a large university’s bigger academic departments), the culture of the institution arose not from an all-encompassing and neutral place, as the Enlightenment and modern era often imagine intellectual work should be, but from commitments to resist certain tendencies in the larger modern culture (as in Women’s Studies departments) or conventional university circles (as in Evangelical colleges).  To be properly “academic,” for these men, means that an institution ought not to begin with the aim of transforming students and intellectual systems (as their Classical and medieval predecessors might have imagined things) but to run with the currents of pluralism (in the society) and progress (in the university), and in which anything that resists (what I take to be) such intellectual consumerism must be the enemy.

As you, O reader, might have guessed, I’m suspicious of both of these simple genealogies and of both men’s conceptions of what counts as “academic.”

Definitions and their Discontents

When I look at the history of universities, I’m not dull enough to say that nothing has changed.  I’m also not sloppy enough to say that there’s any such thing as “nineteenth century thought,” if by that we mean things that all thinking people regard as good inheritance from the period.   Instead, what one gets in the nineteenth century and the decades leading up to it (and I’ve not read all that much from that period) is a wild party of dialectic: it’s Ranke versus Hegel, Paine versus Burke, socialist Robert Owen versus radical Protestant Alexander Campbell, the Right-Hegelians versus Marx, Darwin versus the biological Aristotelians, the Utilitarians versus the Neo-Kantians.  The questions that were live then did not suddenly die, even if some wish that some of them had, and institutions carrying on both “sides” of each struggle, as well as those who have proposed different questions to ask in the first place, persist.  Certainly in those struggles and their aftermath some factions rose and some fell, but the point of rehearsing the history is to say that defining “academic” as those factions (German Biblical scholars and political pluralists) that currently enjoy greater influence at the expense of the other strikes me as a bit too simple.  More than anything else, Horowitz’s and Enss’s projects of defining “academic” thus reminds me of a passage from Fritz:

When someone hides something behind a bush and looks for it again in the same place and finds it there as well, there is not much to praise in such seeking and finding.  Yet this is how matters stand seeking and finding “truth” within the realm of reason.  If I make up the definition of a mammal, then, and then, after inspecting a camel, declare “look, a mammal” I have indeed brought a truth to light this way, but it is a truth of limited value.  That is to say, it is a thoroughly anthropomorphic truth which contains not a single point which would be “true in itself” or really and universally valid apart from man.  (Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in an Extramoral Sense”)

Had other factions in the grand battles of ideas won, of course, there would be other common-law notions of “academic,” and those who thought like Enns and Horowitz might be among the resistance (as I seem to be at this point), battling for another notion of “academic” than that which prevailed.  But the fact of the matter is that “defeated” ideas don’t go away; sometimes modern-style absolute monarchy gives way to Roman-style republicanism.  The latter is not identical to what Cicero advocated, but the influence is there nonetheless.  Sometimes (as in emergence-style evolutionary thinking) Aristotelian teleology creeps back into the discussion despite the protestations of the dogmatic materialists.  It’s not identical with Aristotle, but there’s still a sense that there is some hylomorphic drive that’s not identical with chains of efficient causes.

Beyond that, though, both Enns’s implied sense of progress and Horowitz’s concern with pluralism assume that “academy” names a monolith, a space in which radical disagreements are defects rather than promises.  I don’t deny that Women’s Studies scholarship tends to begin with sexism as a working categorical assumption and see how it works out; the rhetoric of Women’s Studies does not presume any differently.  Likewise Business departments, or at least all the Business departments and Business schools which I’m familiar, start with anti-Communist economics as a common starting point and and move forward from there.  Likewise schools of social work and their assumption that government agency can help biological families, ROTC classes and their working assumptions that working for the government as a military officer is ethically valid, and evangelical Bible departments start with the inspiration of the Bible and go from there.

I’ll never deny that either Enns or Horowitz can supply factually valid accounts of professors who have been in the “wrong neighborhood” when they published this or that conclusion, and as a rule I’d like to see departments and journals practice more rather than less flexibility in the scholarship that gets published and promoted.  But I also posit, as a working premise, that “the academy” is a broad enough category to include ROTC and Peace Studies, Marxist criticism and Capitalist business schools.  I’m happy with “the academy” as a place where advertising majors can learn to exploit the irrational desires of modern human beings for profit even as departments of rhetoric teach students to spot and defang attempts to do so.  I grant that every field of study has a history and that some arise in conflict with others, and my own tendency is not to fault the part for not encompassing the whole.  Do a religious-studies professor at a state university and a Bible professor at an evangelical college disagree about the relative ethical importance of the modern liberal individual and the authoritative text as read by the interpretive community of believers?  Great!  Does the ROTC instructor think the Peace Studies teacher naive?  Does the latter think the former blind to ideological corruption?  Fine!  So long as there are spaces and media in which the ideas have time and exposure to contend for the souls of readers and hearers, that’s precisely how I’d prefer the enterprises of publication and teaching to happen.  I understand that funding and student demand and other such extra-“academic” realities will likely shape those enterprises as long as I’m part of the game, but insofar as “the academy” is a place where dialectic happens, I want to welcome not only folks who are committed to non-commitment but also folks who are the faithful, seeking understanding.

Here’s where I get autobiographical: I’ve benefited from the scholarship that Horowitz regards as “unacademic,” and I’ve benefited from that which Enns regards likewise.  I have not always come away from my encounters with feminists, Capitalists, inerrantists, evolutionists, and other practitioners of other -isms convinced, but at the very least I’ve come away knowing a bit more clearly why my own inadequate grasp on things is the best I’ve got.  Moreover, because I encountered many of the above list not in sterile “surveys” of past (but outmoded, of course) intellectual endeavors but from primary texts and–even better–from those claimed by such convictions, I’ve learned that differences in conviction do not always succumb to the easy psychologizing and social dismissals that too often I see when people don’t like “those people’s” ideas.  Instead, friendship with those who differ has taught me that my own categories and definitions, perhaps even my own conception of “the academic,” always stand to be corrected by those who differ and refuse to defer.

The irony of all this, of course, is that I’m basically parroting Enlightenment ideas of toleration for religion, only translating them from a “state” context to an “academy” context and asking that “the academy,” whatever that term means, allow for pluralism and progress to happen among “members” who differ rather than imposing on all a uniform requirement not to start with religious, philosophical, and other sorts of commitments.   (To call for toleration and simultaneously to rule those who differ out of court means that those who remain won’t have much to tolerate, since only those who agree on the big questions are “academic” in the first place.)  As an alternative metaphor, I propose that we imagine “the academy” as a confederation of poleon rather than a singular polis, a “place” that encompasses many “places” without expectation that all of them will become the same “place.”  Some folks will find themselves a better fit for some “regions” than for others, but that ought not to deter the larger “place” from its project of welcoming not only differing individuals but differing cities-within-the-city.  Anyone, of course, would remain free to attempt a life in any of the smaller communities, and some might discover that a Capitalist in a Marxist Theory department doesn’t fit much better than an atheist in a Christian seminary’s Biblical Studies department, but the larger confederation would not see the variety of professional and intellectual ecosystems as a failure but part of its potential.  There would remain, of course, room for intellectuals who claim that they’re not bothered by hypotheses-they’d-prefer-to-be-true, and they’d be fair game for everyone else, and vice versa.

Do I think that David Horowitz or Peter Enns will find this alternative metaphor compelling?  That they’ll suddenly allow “partisan” voices into their conceptions of “the academic”?  No.  Those most convinced by Enns and Horowitz?  No.  Nonetheless, my hope is that there might be thinking people who see a plurality of voices, of individuals and of communities, existing in tension but still counting as “academic” because they’re about the same pursuits, as ultimately better than the alternatives.  Here’s hoping.

 

5 thoughts on “Scholarship that Starts with Conviction: Some Thoughts on the Adjective "Academic"

  1. Let me pust back a little so you can clarify.  Isn’t Enns’ starting point open enquiry? He’s saying everyone, academics included, have their presuppositions, but Academics should have the intellectual curiosity, freedom and courage to go where their questions take them. The scandal of the Evangelical College, according to Enns, is it says it’s OK to go into the hermeneutical woods, but you better come out unchanged and just as you were before.  Horowitz, I haven’t read him, seems to be starting at the end, and refuses to go into the woods at all.   He says, I don’t like your presuppositions and we cannot discuss them period. I have had Profs on the left and right who certainly would bully you for the time of day, but the best ones were like Enns–willing to engage you and your presuppositions and push you to think them through wherever they lead you.

    1. michb I think that Enns and Horowitz would both position themselves as proponents of open inquiry, and that’s where questions of connotation come up.  Where Enns would point to Evangelicals and say “no change allowed for them” and Horowitz would point to Environmental Studies and say “no change allowed for them,” I wonder if both aren’t taking too narrow a view on things.  To return to the autobiographical part of my essay, I’ve benefited both from the writings of some who do their intellectual work as inerrantists (I’m thinking of some cats from Old Princeton and such) and from some who do theirs as Marxists, and wouldn’t want to brand either camp “un-academic,” because I’ve seen the complexity of their thoughts and refined my own modes of reading by responding to both (without myself becoming identified wholesale with either).  To label one of these camps “unacademic,” as Horowitz and Enns seem inclined to do, would mean that I would lose out on a significant body of thoughtful writing just because some academics want to universalize their own guild’s assumptions.

  2. “I’m basically parroting Enlightenment ideas of toleration for religion …”
    Desirable as religious toleration is — and a look back at the early modern period would remind us of what its absence means — I’m inclined to think that Enlightenment calls for religious toleration are, at least in part, simply a consequence of lack of belief.  Sir Thomas More would have locked you in his cellar and subjected you to torments, as he was entitled to as a magistrate, if he thought your religious opinions heretical.  And in fact he did do so.  Voltaire (shocked as I’m sure he genuinely was by sectarian brutality) would have called for toleration fundamentally because he didn’t believe.  In fact, further than that, I tend to believe that toleration for some 18th century thinkers can be something of an undeclared device for pushing back against “religious” opinion, based on the thinking: “If there are a dozen opinions, with luck none of them will stick”. (I find it hard not to think that this was what was in Voltaire’s mind in the “Letters on England”.)
    I think people tend to think of the political philosophy of liberalism in connection with Enlightenment thought.  And, in fact, I do think that if one shakes up an attitude both sceptical and overconfident long enough (but also retains, unnoticed, some hereditary Christian morality) something like that is what eventually  falls out.  However, if one looks to the early figures in that movement it seems to me that one will see that intellectuals became sceptical of traditional forms of religious belief before ever they became sceptical of traditional political arrangements.  In fact, in the  early period hope seems often to have been invested in the figure of the “enlightened despot”.
    It interests me that in C. S. Lewis’s _The Pilgrim’s Regress_ the *main* thing Mr. Enlightenment wants to tell John is that there is no God.  That allegory fascinates me.  I find the understanding and characterisations of the main intellectual currents on the 20th century penetrating and persuasive.  They’ve always seemed to me so, and independent of my “religious” views, which have waxed and waned over time.  I mean: Mr Enlightenment could be any one of a number of shallow scientific popularisers (Winwood Reade, etc.).  Mr. Savage *is* Nietzsche for me.  And Mr. Sensible, while seen in private life and not as a political thinker, seems to me to encapsulate a modern conservative viewpoint.  (There’s something very Oakeshottian about him, although i doubt Lewis had Oakeshott specifically in mind, and the dates probably don’t fit.)  And so with the other characters John meets.  It’s always seemed to me that while one might not find Lewis’s dramatic “argument” for Christianity in that book convincing, every other possible viewpoint/way of life is there heard, understood, seen “sprawling on a pin” and shown to be problematic.
    But I’m losing the plot and writing irrelevant things …
    Off topic, would you three consider doing an episode on George Macdonald?  I’d love to hear what you think of him.

    1. HrothgarI’m inclined to think of religious toleration differently, namely in these terms: if we can avoid killing one another for a bit, then perhaps we’ll have the time and safety for evangelistic persuasion.  I agree that in terms of “religion” that can lean towards a methodological agnosticism, but in the realm of academic inquiry, that’s where I’d like to start at the least, not declaring a priori that this or that camp is “unacademic” and thus insulating the community of inquiry from what they might teach us.  The reason that Enns’s and Horowitz’s projects strike me as wrongheaded is that they close the doors to “unacademic” guilds that have contributed, I think, some good, creative tension to the mix.  I’m inclined to think that Enns wants to end persistent contact with those guilds.  After all, Enns complains precisely that the guilds out of his favor are  “out of sync with generations of academic discourse outside of evangelical boundaries.”  (boldface original)  Because I listen to podcasts and read online writing from just such writers on a regular basis, I’m inclined to say that their contributions, even as I agree with few of them, serve nicely to sharpen my own intellectual work.

      1. ngilmour That’s an elevated conception, ngilmour. I tend to think of it more prosaically in terms of that which, in the private sphere, allows us to rub along together.  (I think Jane Austen might approve there — c.f. interesting that she seems to see irony in conversation as a way of allowing one to express disapproval without being too confrontational.)  The dictionary definitions also tend to hover around notions of “putting up with” something.  As a political conception I would tend to think in terms of permitting opinions (and actions) that even if they may be foolish or wicked don’t actually threaten the peace of the realm.  Plato (the topic this week, I see) would hate that, but the modern state works on that basis, and I think has to.
        On the historical question of what Enlightenment people thought, I was taking Voltaire as a representative case.  Here is the passage that seems particularly suggestive to me:
        “If one religion only were allowed in England, the Government would very possibly become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut one another’s throats; but as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.”
        http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1778voltaire-lettres.asp
        That’s going a bit further than saying that legal disabilities on dissenters are unjust, and that no-one should suffer a penalty for an opinion honestly held.  There’s an active disbelief advancing behind that, based on a notion that traditional religious views are simply false and above and beyond that interact with people’s emotions, particularly fear, in an unfortunate and potentially dangerous way.  (Voltaire was, of course, a deist.)
        But, if I’m understanding you right, you’re saying you’re less interested in all that and more in a controversy (of which I hadn’t heard) over what religious views are supposedly permissible to a literary critic. For myself I’m not particularly worried what religious opinions a critic holds, so long as he pays attention to the work he’s supposed to be helping me to understand and doesn’t offer me his religious (or political) opinions INSTEAD OF literary criticism. I guess it depends on the circles one moves in but I think that latter (politics in lieu of) is more likely than the former (religion in lieu of). Look at the quotation rate for Althusser!
        “Those sentences are from the French philosopher Louis Althusser and the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan respectively. These authors emerged from the revolutionary ferment of Paris in 1968 to achieve an astonishing reputation, not least in America, where between them they run up more references in the academic literature than Kant and Goethe combined.”
        http://www.aeonmagazine.com/world-views/roger-scruton-fake-culture/
        That’s a sorry state of affairs.
        I don’t agree with the wider viewpoint of the author of the linked article, since he seems to see a *spiritual* value in high culture (à la Arnold), which seems dubious to me.  But when I want high culture, then high culture is what I do want, not political commentary by people who don’t understand or value it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *