The Authoritarian Turn of Academia, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The prolific Freddie deBoer from Purdue responds at length to the two Atlantic readers in this note. His post is well worth reading for anyone interested in this subject and the “turns” within academia—in Freddie’s case, quantitative research within English departments. Another reader joins the debate:

I’m a history graduate student at a large Midwestern research university, and I wholeheartedly agree with my fellow Midwestern research university reader’s assessment that the “cultural turn” has led many academics into an ever intensifying obsession with linguistic, rather than material, concerns.

But rather than further echo that brilliant point, I write to offer a ray of hope, at least from the field of history.

The newest generation of scholars (myself included) have been increasingly focused on the nuts and bolts of how institutions, movements, and networks in history functioned. While not ignoring the very real insights from our linguistically-inclined predecessors, we seem to be more interested in the tangible, material, aspect of historical problems.

It’s not that questions of identity and language don’t matter to us, but we have taken investigations to the next level. Or so it seems to me from the shore of Lake Michigan. I wanted to share that view with you in the spirit of (as historians love to do) “complicating” an already fascinating discussion.

One more reader via the hello@ address:

There are some big issues here, and strong feelings—about race, about privilege, about the First Amendment and other civil rights.  Yet what strikes me after reading a lot of news coverage is how irrelevant all this is to the world at large, or even to the academy. I am sure the students who feel aggrieved by aggressions micro- and macro-, and the administrators afraid for their jobs, think it is highly meaningful, and politicians will ride the issue of “political correctness” as far as they can.  

The problem is that the ideological center of the discussion resides in, and is almost entirely limited to, the humanities. Contrary to the self-congratulatory narrative of academic humanists, poets are not the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.

Here is something you will never see in any syllabus: “Trigger warning: nature of reality. The following chapter on quantum mechanics contains a discussion of entanglement and Bell’s Theorem, and may raise fundamental questions about the nature of time and space, and therefore reality, thus causing discomfort and a feeling of being unsafe on the part of those grounded in a Newtonian world view.”

Nor this:  “The following chapter and related labs on developmental biology may cause discomfort to some religious groups who do not believe in evolution, to those who believe in inherent racial superiority, or to those who are afraid of blood.”

Cheap satire? Maybe, but that’s not my intent.  Actually, I myself am terrified by the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics and by the fact that I am dependent on so many devices and technologies the workings of which I cannot comprehend.  That’s my point: Our true rulers care very little for the arguments that mean much to those of us schooled in the humanities. There is nothing “postmodern,” there is no “cultural turn,” there are no meaningful “intersectionalities” in a university’s schools of medicine, business, engineering, or in any STEM department.  

And that is where the money is. In terms of the university budget, that is where it comes from, and that is where it goes. That translates to power and relevance.  The rest of us are just playing at being Matthew Arnold or Cornel West. The only reason the news media are paying any attention at all is that they are in the reality TV business.  With all due respect to the semioticians and SJWs, you cannot change the reality of the Higgs Boson by giving it a different name, nor can you check its privilege.

Update from a reader who quotes the previous one:

“With all due respect to the semioticians and SJWs, you cannot change the reality of the Higgs Boson by giving it a different name, nor can you check its privilege.”  I take his or her point to be that science is made up of universal, constant laws, which scientists only need to discover and acknowledge. Thus the fields of physics, mathematics, engineering, medicine, etc., are immune from any cultural or social critique of their theory or practice. 

This kind of ahistorical nonsense—like something out of a 1950s sci-fi novel—is what happens when individuals embrace some ideal notion of “science” as its own complete ethos.  The entire history of the practice of science since Copernicus has been that of a constant struggle between human scientists making empirical observations and the cultural frameworks of those same scientists.  These frameworks almost always determine how scientists interpret the meaning of the information they observe. 

From Kepler—who was convinced that the planets’ orbits had to follow patterns that matched the shapes of perfect geometric solids—to Einstein, who refused to accept the reality of quantum mechanics because “God does not play at dice,” science always has existed and will always exist in a particular cultural and social context that shapes what scientists “see.” The fact that so many are willing to put science on a pedestal as some kind of ideal activity speaks to the technocratic moment we’re living in, despite some notion that the “SJW”s are ruining everything for those who simply love facts and truth.

A retort:

You followed my note with a response from a reader who thinks my view of how science relates to its cultural context is backward. S/he wrote:

The entire history of the practice of science since Copernicus has been that of a constant struggle between human scientists making empirical observations and the cultural frameworks of those same scientists.  These frameworks almost always determine how scientists interpret the meaning of the information they observe.

Really?  Catholic doctrine and The Inquisition determined how Galileo interpreted his observed data? Galileo’s recantation paid tribute to the political correctness of his day, but he did not let it determine his theory (“Still, it moves!”). From the point of view of history, Galileo sat in judgment of the cultural framework of his day, not the other way round.

My respondent’s take sounds like the English Department’s bid for relevancy—“Let the scientists play with their models and ignore us, but we determine the culture, and the culture determines everything. They can speak only on matters of science; we can speak on everything.” Vanity. C.P. Snow’s two cultures are still very much with us on campus, and even further apart than ever.

BTW, the reader also suggested that my comment implied a belief that “the fields of physics, mathematics, engineering, medicine, etc., are immune from any cultural or social critique of their theory or practice.” I didn’t say that nor do I believe it. The theories—and most definitely the practices—of science and technology are definitely liable to criticism, though the persuasiveness of such criticism will have something to do with how well the critic understands the science s/he criticizes.