Thursday, June 21, 2012

Lower Education

It is an article of liberal ideology that, given a choice between two sets of propositions, people will accept the propositions rooted in a bundle of methodologies and traditions that adhere to liberal principles - skepticism concerning authority; a trust that evidence, when provided the proper context, speaks for itself; a preference and priority for reasonableness in discourse as opposed to boldness, for measured, tentative, contingent conclusions rather than bald assertions that are both sweeping and final.  The reality is quite different, however.  There are always those who believe all sorts of things for which no evidence exists, and seek in the wider world evidences that will bolster those beliefs.

A case in point is the persistent belief among many on the right that higher education is not about providing a set of intellectual tools and skills for living in and understanding the world.  Rather, they insist, our colleges and universities are vast propaganda outfits, ideologically rigid, committed to a set of principles that are antithetical to our best traditions.  For evidence, they point out that some of those who teach and publish are opposed to various principles others hold sacred, whether they are religious, social, or political.  Ignoring the repeated demonstrations that higher education is about thinking, those who insist higher education is tainted beyond repair insist there are alternative narratives that are just as legitimate that run counter to those we receive from professors and intellectuals.  Whether about evolution, or God, or American history, there are cottage industries out there dedicated to creating counter-narratives to the dominant constructs.

At Religion Dispatches, historian Paul Harvey reviews a book dedicated to "debunking" some claims made by a man named David Barton.  Barton seems to see it as his mission to recast our understanding of Thomas Jefferson, his views on religion, race, and the relationship between the state and the churches and its citizens.  Throughout the review, Harvey makes it clear that, while Throckmorton and  Coulter (no relation!) have done a thorough, admirable job taking apart Barton's numerous assertions, he wonders if it is worthwhile.  Precisely because, as Harvey makes clear, Barton and those who buy his books and attend his lectures and write glowing things about him on blogs are not the least interested in history or intellectual integrity or any of those things people in higher education consider as central to their vocations, what possible good does "debunking" do?

As the recent contretemps at the University of Virginia make clear, intellectual freedom just isn't something people outside our colleges and universities either understand or value.  Convinced our educational institutions can and should be governed in much the same way as businesses, they are quite willing to destroy our best such places to prove their point.  So, too, do people like Barton mock real historical inquiry, not in pursuit of understanding as a good in and for itself, but rather aping what they believe to be the actions of their ideological opponents.  Convinced as they are that behind the paeans to the life of the mind lie some hideous, anti-American agenda, they feel absolutely not compunction pursuing their own counter-agenda, all the while doing violence to things like facts and reality and understanding.

I used to think it was possible, even necessary, to engage such folks as Barton at their weakest point: their writings.  I used to think it necessary to make clear how many people present erroneous material as fact; how many peddlers of intellectual snake oil are out there, preying on a people swamped with information, looking for answers that make sense.  Now, I couldn't care less.  Let Barton spread his fertilizer; the folks who eat it up aren't going to listen to people who present arguments against him.  I suppose there are those who feel it necessary to point out the many errors of fact and interpretation in Barton's works.  I just don't think it's a job that everyone who encounters such nonsense should do.

If we're going to move forward as a people, we need to recognize that not everyone is going to come along for the ride.  They are going to kick and stamp their feet; they are going to demand to be treated the way people who do actual intellectual work are treated; they are going to insist that they will hold their breath until they pass out unless people pay attention to them.  Let them.  Part of moving forward includes moving the conversation forward.  Stopping every time someone says something stupid would mean the whole process grinds to a halt.

Our intellectual life is part of what makes us great.  Getting in to heated "debates" with people like Barton, or making clear why the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia are on a path to destroy a once great institution  takes up valuable energy.  The folks who follow Barton won't listen; UVa will collapse under its new leadership, and what of it?  Responsibility includes recognizing that some people, alas, will never learn.

Virtual Tin Cup

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