December 3, 2004

Once More With Feeling

I’ve largely stayed out of the recent resurgence of conversations about conservatives in academia. I don’t have a lot to add to my previous writing on the subject, and remain frustrated with most of the participants in the extended public conversation.

There is one thing I want to draw out of my earlier writing for further emphasis and exploration. I think that those who complain about “groupthink” in academia are perfectly right to do so, and they’re equally right to suggest that the character of the groupthink in the humanities and some of the social sciences, and possibly in the larger culture of academic life, produces certain kinds of political positions or arguments as assumed orthodoxies.

However, I think the conservative critics who complain about this tendency largely misattribute its causes and as a result systematically fail to articulate meaningful solutions or remedies, sometimes as a result descending to the astonishing cognitive dissonance of suggesting crude forms of “affirmative action” or state intervention, solutions which are intellectual betrayals of conservative principle as well as programmatic disasters in the making.

The critique of groupthink in academia has already gone badly astray when it begins by counting up voter registrations and assuming that this is both evidence and cause of the problem. Political partisanship as we conventionally think about it and practice it in the public sphere is only an epiphenomenal dimension of the groupthink issue in academic life. It is telling that those who perceive the issue largely as a matter of Democrats vs. Republicans or liberals vs. conservatives operate either as pundits or as think-tank intellectuals, contexts where those oppositions really do clearly structure how an intellectual operates.

Academics are not motivated to groupthink out of a loyalty to liberal causes, left-wing politics or registration in the Democratic Party, though in many disciplines at the moment, they may end up predominantly having those affiliations in a smug, uninterrogated manner. They’re motivated to groupthink by the institutional organization of academic life. The same forces that help academics to produce knowledge and scholarship are the forces which produce unwholesome close-mindedness and inbred self-satisfied attitudes. These forces would act on conservatives as well were we to magically remove the current professoriate and replace them with registered Republicans. They do act already on academics who operate in disciplines where certain kinds of political conservatism are more orthodox, or in institutional contexts, like religious universities, where conservative values are expressly connected to institutional missions.

When I was briefly at Emory many years ago, I helped organize a one-day event about “interdisciplinarity”. After about six or seven helpings of young snot-nosed punks like myself rattle on about how cool and interdisciplinary we all were, a wise senior scholar named David Hesla finally intervened. “Virtually everybody’s interdisciplinary in some way”, he said. “You guys are unhappy with departments, not disciplines.”

What Hesla was pointing was that most of the constraints, both hidden and obvious, that produce forms of “groupthink” or suppression of innovation and debate within academia are the consequence of the administrative organization of academic institutions. Groupthink isn’t enforced by partisan plotters: it happens invisibly, cumulatively, pervasively, in the space in between scholars. It happens in department or faculty meetings, in peer reviews. It lives in what has been called “the invisible college”, the pattern of normative judgements that all academics make (including yours truly) about what is cogent, what is original, what is canonical, what is important. Those judgement are formed out all the things you know already, including those you scarcely consciously know that you know, and the heuristics you use to guide yourself to further knowledge.

That is the heart of the problem. It is one thing to talk about breaking down groupthink, to attack the insularity of academic life, and another thing to figure out how to do that without destroying the productivity and usefulness of scholarship and research altogether. The administrative constraints on my life as a scholar are not just noxious restrictions on what I can and cannot do, should or should not say. They’re also necessary in both practical and philosophical ways.

If tomorrow I persuaded my colleagues that the next job that opened in the humanities in Swarthmore should not be dedicated to any particular discipline or research specialization, but thrown open to the most interesting, fertile intellect we could recruit, I would be persuading my colleagues to join in an impractical catastrophe that would involve trying to winnow a field of 25,000 applicants down to a single person.

This weblog is an exercise in the decomposition of my own authority as a specialist—I don’t write too much about African history here, though my writing as a scholar in that field is an invisible hand that guides much of my thinking here and otherwise—but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that decomposition for my colleagues or my institution as a whole. The danger beckons very quickly, and has swallowed me up more than once, of just becoming a rootless bloviator. Scholars have to know something through their labors that can’t be known without such labor, whether they’re conservative or liberal. If we get to a point where my classes can be taught just as easily by George Will or Michael Moore, we get to a point where we’re no longer thinking about how to open up academic life to the winds of change, but about how to padlock the doors and call it a day.

The heuristic constraints on any given scholarly project are what make those projects possible. Those same heuristics are what allow scholars to productively collaborate or contribute to a shared body of knowledge. What enables us also defeats us, however. The peer review that instructs me to come inside a canon so that I can be understood by an audience of comparable specialists quickly becomes the peer review that cracks the whip to force me inside a political orthodoxy. The colleague who usefully assumes a shared language about the nature of modern colonial regimes becomes the colleague who stares at me as if I were an incomprehensible freak when I break from that language, assuming they don’t just blithely move ahead without hearing my dissent. We need constraints on what we know and want to know, but we also need to always remember that those constraints are provisional, that they are merely tools. The administrative infrastructure of academic life has a way of ossifying what ought to be provisional into prisons of convention.

This problem would not go away with more conservatives in academic life. It is why I mistrust most of the critics concerned about these issues, even my judicious Cliopatria colleague KC Johnson. I generally do not disagree with Johnson’s particular complaints about particular issues, but he (and many others) don’t seem to be able to make the next step from the problems of those cases to a general revision of our expectations about academic work as a whole. Indeed, in his persistent nudging of the University of Michigan’s history department for its particular range of specializations and his related promotional arguments about political and diplomatic history, it seems to me that Johnson is operating well within the norms that are part of the problem, not the solution. We can’t get past the problem of groupthink without getting past the game of dueling specializations altogether.

The question is how to reconstruct the everyday working of scholarly business, to open up the ways in which we legitimate, value and authenticate scholarly work, to change the entire infrastructure of publication, presentation and pedagogy. Academics have to change their internal standards along these lines, but people outside academia also have to work to rethink when and where they need and are willing to respect the advice of experts. More than a few of the current round of complaints from conservatives outside academia contain a general disregard for the entire idea of expertise or scholarly knowledge. This general reconstruction of knowledge and its architecture is the real business, and it can only be tackled well with a scrupulous disinterest in scoring partisan points, with an understanding that the forces which produce a liberal groupthink among academics could easily be reversed in partisan terms without disturbing the more fundamental and difficult issues at hand.