25 September 2014

Two Cultures? Not the Two That You Think

There are many more than two cultures on this vast campus.

At least once a year, I have a student in one of my classes majoring in something I didn't know one could major in (Aviation--Human Factor?  Fish and Wildlife Management?  Okay then...), and I suspect there are people on campus who didn't even know we had a Department of Asian-American Studies until it announced its no-confidence vote in our Chancellor.  "North/South of Green Street" is local slang for "STEM/Humanities," but in fact there are shiny new institutes for cutting edge science research at the south end of campus, and pillars of "The Liberal Arts and Sciences" like math and chemistry line the main quad alongside English, anthropology, and history.  There are fields south of campus where scientists plant experimental crops on Monsanto's nickel and develop their findings in lab space that the university supplies in exchange for occasional teaching and a cut of the grant. There are faculty whose work involves neither classroom or lab but extension outreach, fieldwork five or five thousand miles away, or clinical teaching and assessment.  The much-resented silence of the STEM fields with regard to the Salaita affair is shared by other powerful entities on campus that don't line up neatly on the STEM/humanities divide: the law school, the business school, various social sciences, and many campus units that exist beyond LAS and have very different kinds of institutional histories.

The effort to define reactions to this matter as a difference between the quantitative, raw data-driven, apolitical science fields, and the richly contextualizing, intersectional, discourse-driven humanities fields reflects (I suspect) a nostalgia for a mythical golden age when the work of a university fell neatly into categories branching gracefully from the trivium and quadrivium, as distinct from any practical arts or trades.

The real divide separating the two sides seemingly polarized by the Salaita affair snakes its way across campus, crossing and recrossing Green St., slithering around campus and through block parties and department meetings, causing awkward silences at social gatherings and suppressed rage in the bleachers of kids' soccer games.  It is far more pernicious than any methodological differences or disciplinary hierarchies could be.  Neither my dead canary nor my boiled frog analogy quite captures the matter.

It's not two cultures facing down across campus, but two different magnetic poles exerting their attraction.  One pole asserts that the university's main function is to provide a safe and protected space for the pursuit of the truth, in whatever direction it may lead one, and without regard to political or economic considerations.  I've blogged about it here.  This pole is sunk deep in a past where the university's primary tasks were theological, and Latin was its lingua franca.  Try as its modern acolytes might to drive off the wisps of pernicious elitism that lurk around it, its legacy lingers, as the inheritance of those who by a trick of birth and privilege don't have to worry about keeping the lights on--much less cleaning the lamps or trimming the wicks.  The other pole is the product of more modern, practical, democratizing impulses: the land grant university which has, as its mission making life better for the citizens of a state.  Its concern are always and necessarily pragmatic--the pursuit of truth is fine, but best that it be a truth that makes the world materially better, that helps people make more money, grow better crops, build better cities. Try as it will, though, this pole can't repel the opportunists ever sniffing around it, looking for ways to make the university best serve their own private interests and improve their corner of the world regardless of any detriment to the common good.

One can imagine a public university where these two poles help to keep each other in check.  Those pursuing the truth for its own sake must ever be mindful of certain bottom lines: is it everyone's truth, responsive to broad notions of humanity and its concerns?  is it shared and taught in ways that improve understanding beyond a narrow group of specialists?  is its cultural benefit worth the candle wax and vellum pages and bandwidth that are necessary for its production?  are its practitioners taking sufficient intellectual risks and staking out sufficient new territory to justify the protection they receive? Likewise, those looking for truths that can be practically applied and used to make the world better have to be mindful of larger stakes: does its work serve a responsible vision of the public good?  Are long-term benefits being sacrificed to short-term gains?  Is political expedience crowding out the pursuit of knowledge?  Are the questions being asked, the knowledge sought, sufficiently broad and public-minded to warrant the resources they receive?

Three things make this vision laughably utopian.  One is the dwindling public resources being devoted to education.  As higher education ceases to be viewed as a public good, it becomes the property of whoever pays the bills.  The second is a consequence of the first.  As public support for higher education decreases, the importance of units within the university that can pull their own financial weight or sell their services at cost increases.  The third is that, in the absence of solid public support, governing entities like Boards of Regents and Trustees become political playthings, staffed in some cases, by people who have little understanding of the multiple public commitments of the university. And so the corrective power of the pursuit of truth for its own sake diminishes to the point where it exerts little pull beyond its own hardy acolytes.

The landscape is not entirely bleak.  Although some faculty in the law school, the business school, the engineering school, and some STEM researchers who generate patents and spinoff tech companies see their existence justified by the rules of the marketplace alone, a number of other departments and individual faculty navigate gracefully between the exigencies of grantsmanship and the truth.  Others choose less-lucrative-projects-that-matter over more-lucrative-ones-that-don't. Some researchers tread delicately around political minefields in order to advance the unpopular research that will make life better for real people.  Some find sources of grant money that share a disinterested commitment to open inquiry without immediate practical application.

At the other extreme, however, where the rules of the marketplace have little sway, where good results can't be monetized, where there is little demand for faculty work outside the academy, and there are few grants of any description that can lend a dollar value to any given project, the humanities faculty find themselves more and more isolated.  Philosophers, historians, art historians, literary and language scholars, researchers in area studies and religion, musicologists, interdisciplinary scholars of many descriptions, all continue to adhere to frames of value that have no market equivalent.  They advocate for richer understanding of the past, the pursuit of new information for its own sake, aesthetic understanding, moral knowledge, more complex contextualization, the ever-better framing of questions and reasoning about those questions, not because there is anything material and quantifiable to be gained from it, not because students of these fields go on to lucrative careers in these fields, but because it matters.  It must be confessed, though--these faculty also remain at this pole of disinterested intellection because they don't have a lot of choice in the matter.  There's nobody to sell out to. 

This absence of opportunity wasn't always a problem.  Now it is seen by many in positions of power in the university as a moral failing, the fatal sign of departments that can't exist by marketplace rules and therefore, perhaps, ought not to exist at all.

Departments and faculty that can swing both ways--that can engage in disinterested inquiry for its own sake and but also draw external funding to support (literally) and affirm (by extension) what they do--find the Salaita de-hiring far less threatening than departments and individual faculty who are entirely dependent on the sheer value of disinterested inquiry alone.  Many departments and faculty are quiet about the matter not, I suspect, because they necessarily thought that Wise did the right thing, but because they know they can navigate between the two poles, bowing to political expediency where necessary and asserting unpopular truths where possible, and still do their work. This is why the argument (offered by many Salaita supporters) that climate change or evolution could be the next victims of administrative overreach falls flat.  These faculty feel little common cause with faculty who can't accommodate political realities, for whom any concession to non-academic lobbying necessarily vitiates the central values of their work with no compensating intellectual rewards.  In addition, given the pressure to locate funding sources and pay the bills, these silent faculty have little intellectual energy to devote to imagining the alternative reality inhabited by faculty on campus whose fields demand little in the way of resources but also give little of market worth back.

For faculty in those fields that exist wholly outside marketplace values and political expedience, academic freedom means not just the freedom to express unpopular ideas but the freedom to inhabit a world of ideas that can't be touched by wealth, political influence, or the raw exercise of power.  I wonder if it always felt as strange and alienating as it does now to be the person arguing that such a world of values ought to exist.

(Image: "Septem-artes-liberales Herrad-von-Landsberg Hortus-deliciarum 1180" by Herrad von Landsberg - Hortus Deliciarum. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Septem-artes-liberales_Herrad-von-Landsberg_Hortus-deliciarum_1180.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Septem-artes-liberales_Herrad-von-Landsberg_Hortus-deliciarum_1180.jpg)

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