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Loitering With Intent
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The earlier post Anti-Intellectualism took exception to the common accusation that those outside elitist institutions were anti-intellectual arguing that they were squicked out by the narrow mindedness of those institutions and so pursued knowledge through other mechanisms, especially ICT.
This is a great good thing. As ever more people have access through information and communication technologies to written materials and live commentary by both professional and amateur scholars the increase of the general level of knowledge in the social mind is explosive. It is uneven, and includes as much dross as gold, as we should expect. Every idea is exposed to critique by commenters ranging from the intelligent and informed to delusional ignoramuses. They not only critique the ideas of the anointed, they have the temerity to propose their own theories.In Liberal Groupthink Is Anti-Intellectual Mark Baurlein hoists those who so glibly accuse others of anti-intellectualism on their own petards. [via Arts & Letters Daily]
Such parochialism and alarm are the outcome of a course of socialization that aligns liberalism with disciplinary standards and collegial mores. Liberal orthodoxy is not just a political outlook; it's a professional one. Rarely is its content discussed. The ordinary evolution of opinion -- expounding your beliefs in conversation, testing them in debate, reading books that confirm or refute them -- is lacking, and what should remain arguable settles into surety. With so many in harmony, and with those who agree joined also in a guild membership, liberal beliefs become academic manners. It's social life in a professional world, and its patterns are worth describing.The mechanisms and effects of groupthink have been discussed in previous post such as All The Way, Unanimous Fallacies and Situation Normal. The problem isn't just that the insularity and provincialism of monks cocooned in echo chambers is divisive and creates social polarization. More importantly, it is a cause of the crushingly stupid policy proposals developed in such places, in effect dumbing down all of society since they are operationally anti-intellectual whatever their intentions and pretensions.
Baurlein identifies some patterns and effects.
The Common Assumption:
The first protocol of academic society might be called the Common Assumption. The assumption is that all the strangers in the room at professional gatherings are liberals. Liberalism at humanities meetings serves the same purpose that scientific method does at science assemblies. It provides a base of accord. The Assumption proves correct often enough for it to join other forms of trust that enable collegial events. A fellowship is intimated, and members may speak their minds without worrying about justifying basic beliefs or curbing emotions...Apart from the ill-mannered righteousness, academics with too much confidence in their audience utter debatable propositions as received wisdom.False Consensus Effect:
That effect occurs when people think that the collective opinion of their own group matches that of the larger population. If the members of a group reach a consensus and rarely encounter those who dispute it, they tend to believe that everybody thinks the same way.
The tendency applies to professors, especially in humanities departments, but with a twist. Although a liberal consensus reigns within, academics have an acute sense of how much their views clash with the majority of Americans. Some take pride in a posture of dissent and find noble precursors in civil rights, Students for a Democratic Society, and other such movements. But dissent from the mainstream has limited charms, especially after 24 years of center-right rule in Washington. Liberal professors want to be adversarial, but are tired of seclusion. Thus, many academics find a solution in a limited version of the False Consensus that says liberal belief reigns among intellectuals everywhere.
Such a consensus applies only to the thinking classes, union supporters, minority-group activists, and environmentalists against corporate powers. Professors cannot conceive that any person trained in critical thinking could listen to George W. Bush speak and still vote Republican.
The dangers of aligning liberalism with higher thought are obvious. When a Duke University philosophy professor implied last February that conservatives tend toward stupidity, he confirmed the public opinion of academics as a self-regarding elite -- regardless of whether or not he was joking, as he later said that he was. When laymen scan course syllabi or search the shelves of college bookstores and find only a few volumes of traditionalist argument amid the thickets of leftist critique, they wonder whether students ever enjoy a fruitful encounter with conservative thought. When a conference panel is convened or a collection is published on a controversial subject, and all the participants and contributors stand on one side of the issue, the tendentiousness is striking to everyone except those involved. The False Consensus does its work, but has an opposite effect. Instead of uniting academics with a broader public, it isolates them as a ritualized club.Law of Group Polarization (information cascades):
...when like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common beliefs. In a product-liability trial, for example, if nine jurors believe the manufacturer is somewhat guilty and three believe it is entirely guilty, the latter will draw the former toward a larger award than the nine would allow on their own. If people who object in varying degrees to the war in Iraq convene to debate methods of protest, all will emerge from the discussion more resolved against the war...The consequences Baurlein attributes to these patterns and effects are worrisome for us all and illuminate the recent elections.
Group Polarization happens so smoothly on campuses that those involved lose all sense of the range of legitimate opinion...
Deliberations among groups are ... prone to tone deafness.
The problem is that the simple trappings of deliberation make academics think that they've reached an opinion through reasoned debate -- instead of, in part, through an irrational social dynamic. The opinion takes on the status of a norm. Extreme views appear to be logical extensions of principles that everyone more or less shares, and extremists gain a larger influence than their numbers merit. If participants left the enclave, their beliefs would moderate, and they would be more open to the beliefs of others. But with the conferences, quarterlies, and committee meetings suffused with extreme positions, they're stuck with abiding by the convictions of their most passionate brethren.
The phenomenon that I have described is not so much a political matter as a social dynamic; any political position that dominates an institution without dissent deteriorates into smugness, complacency, and blindness. The solution is an intellectual climate in which the worst tendencies of group psychology are neutralized...Leftists and Liberals have become dull and soft socially and intellectually. They are fat, dumb and lazy due to lack of intellectual exercise, not only unaware of contrary ideas but also a bit dim about their own. They have never actually thought about their dogmas and are simply frozen when confronted with the intellectual agility of opponents with well exercised arguments.
Groupthink is an anti-intellectual condition, ironically seductive in that the more one feels at ease with compatriots, the more one's mind narrows. The great liberal John Stuart Mill identified its insulating effect as a failure of imagination: "They have never thrown themselves into the mental condition of those who think differently from them." With adversaries so few and opposing ideas so disposable, a reverse advantage sets in. The majority expands its power throughout the institution, but its thinking grows routine and parochial. The minority is excluded, but its thinking is tested and toughened. Being the lone dissenter in a colloquy, one learns to acquire sure facts, crisp arguments, and a thick skin.
This would be fine, the natural and acceptable evolution of aged academics who have settled to the institutional sea floor like sea squirts and become sessile, digesting their brains since they are no longer needed to live an active life in mobile pursuit of intellectual sustenance, but it strikes so early in the academic career that students are not actually educated in those institutions, merely credentialed. Education happens later and elsewhere if at all. Society is diminished by this system and the ideas of liberals are underdeveloped or stigmatized, contributing to the rightward drift of society in recent decades. There are liberal ideas that have worth, that would improve society, but the polarization created by liberal dogmatism has reduced the influence of those ideas on policy. We would be improved by better balance.
The trend to education outside institutions using ICT will continue regardless of what the institutions do. They will continue to decline even if they reform themselves but society would benefit if both things happened, if institutions became less insular and prepared students for a life of continuing education using ICT, well grounded in the full spectrum of human thought rather than just a narrow and decadent slice that reflected the closed society of those institutions. If there is any merit to those ideas, a kernel of worth that can be revealed by intellectually honest investigation, then they don't need to be protected from contrary views like delicate jewels. They should be the tools of inquiry, used often and well.
One analytical phenomenon I have learned a lot about during the two and a half years that I have been writing this website is that of the tactical, well-timed repetition. There are some arguments that have been made, and made, and made again, and that seem to have as their future endless additional remakings--not because they are flawed arguments, or even because they are particularly fascinating ones, but because they are necessary ones, and because the nature of contemporary debate demands it, because in the logorrheic world of mass media and mass marketing, gravitas is often acquired less through the compelling quality of an argument than through its seemingly infinite reiteration. Political commentators are especially attuned to this, as are academics, many of whom make their careers not by advancing original ideas, but by rehearsing, in slight variations, the accepted ideas of others. Political commentary about academe is thus particularly marked by the repetition effect--it can seem, at times, that analysis has been thoroughly displaced by emphasis, and that credibility is achieved less through careful argumentation than through (increasingly hysterical) assertion. It's also true that in the polarized zone of debates about the ideological climate of academe, one person's careful argumentation is another's hysterical assertion. That's just how things are--the terrain of academic disputation is ugly and uncivilized, the mudslinging rampant and smelly.I wish I could write so well.
So it's nice to see someone as prominent as Mark Bauerlein, Emory English professor and NEA officer, thinking temperately and publicly about the suicidally anti-intellectual political climate of contemporary academe. If his argument is not wholly new, it is exceptionally well-stated, and what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in clarity of presentation and, of course, accrued power of repetition.