Why Is Philosophy Important? An Expanded Comment

Daily Nous, the philosophy blog, posted a recent query raising this question in response to an undergraduate who had fallen in love with the subject. Presumably she’d gotten some flak from friends or maybe family. The blog’s editor, Justin Weinberg (South Carolina), solicited and received a number of responses. Most were interesting and worthwhile. One was from yours truly. Reviewing it, I decided to expand on it here because I think more can be said on, Why Is Philosophy Important? Some of it I’ve said before, but it bears repeating.

First, and as my comment noted (perhaps a bit too brusquely for the delicate tastes of most career academics), very little academic philosophy is important. It provides a paycheck for those fortunate enough to have found jobs in the field, or who didn’t eventually abandon them out of frustration.

Let me envision two roles for philosophy that could secure its importance in civilization. I will call them philosophy as service and philosophy as thought-leadership.

Philosophy as service will center on critical thinking and the analysis of language, offering a kind of mental housecleaning. This is appropriate for the academic setting if the instructor approaches it in the right way, warning in advance that some people might believe their toes are being stepped on. A good course in the subject should provide a student with a sense of what it means to support a conclusion with reasons (premises) and why this might matter. The student should learn what makes reasoning cogent or fallacious. Ideally, students will not be as prone to fallacious reasoning either in themselves or in others. A student should also come away from a philosophy course alert to the fact that not everything in our reasoning is stated openly. One’s beliefs might (usually?) contain hidden premises. How we identify these, and what we do then, will be crucial.

Philosophy might also draw attention to what seem to be the limits of our reasoning. Reason alone cannot answer every possible question or settle every dispute. First premises are notoriously difficult to prove or disprove, after all. Otherwise they would not be first premises!

A more practical focus on language in philosophy ought to alert us all to the fact that there are plenty of people in this world who use language as a means of control or even domination, sometimes as the equivalent of a weapon. Words or phrases, carefully selected, will encourage some lines of thought while inhibiting others. The political and commentary spheres provide an abundance of examples. Any reasonably intelligent person should be able to go to any popular newsfeed and find a dozen examples in less than a half hour.

If anything will hobble this approach to philosophy as service, as mental housecleaning, it is because as an academic subject, philosophy has been self-limiting and self-deprecating for well over a century now. Much of this was due to its deference to science in matters epistemic. From Auguste Comte on, positivists and their descendants saw themselves as, at best, handmaidens to science in the sense that Aquinas saw philosophy as a handmaiden to theology. For a long time, this was understandable. Unfortunately, philosophy as handmaiden to science tells us little about how to evaluate all manner of recent scientific developments ranging from nuclear weapons to genetic engineering to artificial intelligence and beyond. As Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) quipped to other characters in the film Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they forgot to stop and ask if they should!”

Positivism is therefore dead and buried, one of our worst modern wrong turns. But self-limitations on philosophy have remained. As I’ve noted previously, the analytic tradition whether in its formal or natural language varieties developed powerful techniques but never used them to their full potential. Used to their full potential, philosophical analyses of how words and phrases have crept into our the general lexicon and what they are used to do might shed great light on how those seeking controls over others’ thought accomplish this. Did Wittgenstein not say near the end of the Tractatus that asking, What do we actually use this word or proposition for? repeatedly leads to valuable insights? It also matters who the speaker is, how he or she self-identifies, where he or she is, i.e., at what level of which hierarchy, etc.

If one needs examples, consider the phrase conspiracy theory. A simple search would turn up dozens of usages. What are these usages attempting to do? This example illustrates how any good analysis of a term or phrase should include its origin and history, as the origin of this phrase with the Central Intelligence Agency back in 1967 is known. The CIA’s aim, in introducing the usage, was to circumvent, a priori, all serious discussions of ideas or theories those in power did not want around.

Or consider the term homophobia, which for over 20 years now has come to be used reflexively in response to conservatives who criticize the homosexual lifestyle and its political and legal protections. What is a phobia? The term has a recognized use, as an irrational fear of something (think of a legitimate usage, e.g., agoraphobia). Use of the term therefore automatically suggests that critics of homosexual conduct and its promoters are by definition irrational. That which is irrational is not to be answered with logic but with cured with therapy. Hence the power of the term to misdirect and confuse. Good philosophical analysis should unearth this, but typically does not for obvious reasons: it quickly runs up against powerful prevailing political / cultural currents. (Use of the phrases transphobia and Islamophobia indicates that the phobia suffix is spreading. Why not play a successful meme for all the mileage one can get from it?)

At present, if one is interested in this kinds of usages of language as instruments of control, one will glean far more from the writings of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell than from Wittgenstein or Quine or any of the other heroes of mainstream twentieth century Anglophone philosophy. The former, of course, did not have to worry about offending those signing their paychecks, or being blacklisted within the profession for having offended the wrong people with words or supposed conduct.

There is another, more ambitious role for philosophy, however, which rejects roles as handmaiden to something else, some other enterprise. This is the role of philosophy as thought-leadership.

The best role philosophy could play in present-day civilization as a repository of thought-leaders is in identifying, clarifying, and critically evaluating worldviews.

By worldviews we do not mean personal opinions. We mean usually tacit but still fairly comprehensive systems of thought that direct civilizations through their institutions (governing, mediating, etc.), manifesting themselves in culture.

These are not theories that philosophers simply spun out of their imaginations, although past philosophical theories influenced them. Those in other leadership positions, or simply in dominant ones, in society state or imply worldviews with their choices of words and phrases, or influential choices of what they see as important. Afterwards worldviews may operate as unstated premises in discussions of public issues.

Supporters of these premises may hold them so deeply that they do not see the need to state them openly. They may think anyone who rejects them (also implicitly) is pernicious, or evil. This may be one of the reasons why those on opposite sides of, e.g., the conservative vs. progressive divide increasingly tend to fly at each other’s throats instead of sitting down across a table and finding out what the other is thinking.

What they should do is explore their worldviews. Even if they still did not agree, they would have more clarity on what they were disagreeing about. They would surely not be any worse off. They might even find common ground and recognize a common foe.

Is there a dominant worldview in the West right now? Is there more than one, perhaps vying with each other for dominance? I have identified materialism as dominant even if it takes more than one form, and Christianity, once dominant, as still its chief competitor. It, too, takes more than one form. These qualify as worldviews whatever their other features, because they fully suffuse all significant aspects of the lives of those immersed in them. They define reality for that group.

A worldview will usually be expressed in some core text such as the Holy Scriptures or in key statements such as Darwin’s theory or Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship.” It will find expression in a culture’s art, its music, what its leading voices see as of value or important, and sometimes in political ambitions. Why have some civilizations’ leaders taken it upon themselves to try to dominate the world, or as much of it as possible? Because their worldview defines not just empirical reality for them but all that is good and superior. They see universal allegiance to their worldview as the path to Utopia. Communists saw revolution against the bourgeoisie this way, in accordance with the historical laws of dialectical materialism (Marx’s phrase). Global corporate capitalists since the fall of the Soviet Union have seen the superiority of a consumption-oriented marketplace as key to general material prosperity, not just for Westerners but for everybody in the world. This, to them, is superior to all else.

This brings us to: is a prevailing worldview helping us or harming us … or, perhaps, helping some (perhaps empowering them) at the expense of others? Does identifying and examining worldviews help philosophers engage systems of power and propaganda, doing what Noam Chomsky once described as the responsibility of intellectuals: “to speak the truth and to expose lies” (see his essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”)?

The academic system doesn’t encourage any of this, of course. It doesn’t encourage my service role for philosophy in this form — not really. Which is why most critical thinking courses are just logic courses that leave out their most important potential applications. As that great comedian and social commentator George Carlin once wryly observed, the last thing the truly powerful, owners of the leviathan corporations, want is a population of critical thinkers. Much less do those in dominant institutions want publicly accessible critiques of their worldview.

But philosophy still has a job to do, if it is to be a force to be reckoned with, and otherwise, why consider it important? The two roles for philosophy I outlined above are fundamentally flipsides of the same coin, for doctrinaire and controlling language is bound to be worldview-embedded. How to carry forth this kind of project is the question those who see philosophy as important should be asking themselves and each other, and also nonphilosophers concerned about where Western civilization is going (if it is going anywhere).

If the self-identified professionals ever get out of their office cubicles, or break free of various ideologically-induced blinders, whether to look at their language or consider the role of worldviews in modern advanced civilization — if at least some can courageously rise above their present stations and engage these kinds of questions and see where they lead, then Yes, philosophy as a discipline will clearly be important. Some, I firmly believe, are up to this task. They will be the thought-leaders of tomorrow if the West is to survive.

Posted in Academia, Language, Philosophy, Where is Civilization Going?, Where Is Philosophy Going? | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Should I Pursue a Doctorate in Philosophy These Days?”

Should you even consider getting a doctorate and going into academic philosophy today? Even if you find the subject endlessly fascinating, and you have talent for it?

The question comes up occasionally on forums. Someone I am “friends” with on Facebook floated the idea. He posted that he was seriously considering it. (I’ve not met him, just read a few of his writings, thought many of them were both interesting and good whether I agreed or not, and he responded favorably to a friend request.)

I don’t often comment on his page, as I don’t really know him or his circle of real friends, but this time I felt moved. I advised against.

It has since struck me that others might find these reasons of interest, assuming those others happen to find their way to this humble, low-traffic philosophy blog — which includes not just philosophy but also the business of philosophy.

No, I would NOT recommend going into academic philosophy.

I speak as someone who did, obviously. In many respects I am still paying the price.

(1) The first and most obvious consideration is the job market for philosophy PhDs. It was horrible when I started (1980s), improved a little (not much) in the 1990s and early 2000s, and collapsed again with the financial crisis of 2008-09 during which a number of vulnerable people not in tenure track positions lost their jobs — in the state where I was then working (South Carolina) at least. Maybe things were better elsewhere, though I have no reason to think so.

The gradual replacement of tenure track jobs with part-time, adjunct positions has attracted some attention, moreover. Neoliberal administrators like hiring adjuncts because they save the institution money — so that they can spend it instead on that new building or pay for the latest campus beautification project while their corporate board (it might as well be) pays them six figures plus perks.

Media attention paid to adjuncts happened mainly because some were discovered to be, for all practical purposes, homeless, a handful had died from treatable conditions, and groups were forming attempting to unionize and bargain for better wages and working conditions (most do not have their own office space or computer terminals, which surely helps them build credibility with students who these days are going massively into debt to go to college).

Eons ago (back in saner times), adjunct faculty were usually retired professionals, willing to share their years of hands-on expertise on a subject by teaching a class. For this they may have receiving a small honorarium. There are retired professionals who did such things just to keep busy.

Most of today’s legion of adjuncts, many of them newly minted PhD’s and not retired professionals, will not find decent-paying academic employment. Many, if eventually saddled with family responsibilities, will be forced to leave academia in search of decent-paying work, as was the case after the job market initially collapsed in the 1970s.

(2) Long-time readers of this blog know my view that academic philosophy is basically a mess. Many of those in the profession would say otherwise. There are, after all, plenty of books published by academic presses, plenty of conferences held, an abundance of backslapping at national events, and every so often someone makes a splash in the waters of intellectual life with something that gets read and discussed. No one says there isn’t an abundance of activity. But when push comes to shove, these are not the days of truly first-rate minds like W.V. Quine and Ludwig Wittgenstein, or even Michel Foucault if you lean Continental. These are not even the days of Thomas S. Kuhn and/or Paul Feyerabend or Richard Rorty. These philosophers did not merely make ripples with their works. Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” caused a tsunami, as it were. As did Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and (much to the chagrin of their critics) Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Feyerabend’s Against Method.

Those days were gone by the 1990s. “Feminisms of the week” had ensued; and while the field had always been prone to fashions, the latest owed more to their conformity with rising political agendas than they did the kind of intellectual prowess of the above-listed works. If you are in an officially designated “marginalized” group, now expanded to include sexual minorities, you’ll receive at least some added attention from search committees that could lead to a tenure-track job. This could cut the other way, however, since most committees do not want to hire someone they fear would be disruptive, or might turn their department into an ideological war zone (yes, it does happen, I was there and I saw it).

What you’ll also risk is being “branded.” That is, you’ll be expected to contribute to the “literature” of your tribe, as it were. Today this includes not just “feminisms of the week” but philosophy “from a queer perspective” or now from a “transgender” perspective. And if you step out of line, e.g., by “misappropriation,” not writing from within the unique perspective of the tribe you’re writing about — even inadvertently, having written something well-intentioned — you’ll be punished. If you don’t believe this, “google” Rebecca Tuvel’s name (or go here).

You’re end up walking on eggshells around the politically protected — or just the administratively favored. Academia is not a place where you want to make enemies, something very easy to do. Conceivably, this is because so much of the work is of so little importance.

Let me qualify this. It is not as if pivotal historical figures like Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein are being driven out by professionalized agitators seeking to “expand the canon.” That’s an exaggeration. But the writings of “dead European white guys” are clearly overshadowed these days, deemed less relevant in an age of “inclusion” or simply as “unexciting” (i.e., hard). While I’m in no position to take a survey and find out, I would love to know how many “feminist philosophers” of whatever stripe, or “gay philosophers” or “transgender philosophers,” or whatever next year’s favorite “marginalized” group will be, can outline and evaluate, from memory, Aquinas’s cosmological argument, or Hume’s criticism of miracles, or the second version of Kant’s categorical imperative, or offer coherent thoughts on what Nietzsche might have meant by “God is dead,” or offer some original, informed, and thoughtful commentary on the strengths and limitations of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. These are things my generation needed to be able to do. Questions about such figures and their key contributions were on my prelims (a series of both written and sometimes oral exams doctoral students have to pass before advancing to actual candidacy).

Summation: academic philosophy has declined. The decline may be irreversible. Those able to reverse it are either struggling to survive in multiple part-time jobs leaving them little or no time for sustained scholarly endeavors (this is what I would deem marginalized in an accurate sense of that term). Or they have left for greener pastures and taken their talents with them.

(3) These are not days when subjects like philosophy are taken seriously at the administrative level, or necessarily by average students. In this neoliberal age, there is no money in them. If anything, they use university “resources” and don’t give anything back. The department I was in when I lived in South Carolina was the most poorly funded on campus. I felt supremely lucky at the time to have escaped the axe in 2008-09, because at the time I needed the job! Today, entire philosophy departments are actually being closed down at some institutions (Wisconsin Stevens Point is an example; Western Illinois I think is another; more are likely to follow). Those with tenured positions at such places are losing them!

In my experience, the majority of students do not take the subject especially seriously. I had many students who appeared to expect good grades just for showing up. In a sense, I get it. As mentioned briefly in passing, students are now paying through their noses to attend a university, or going massively into debt. Doubtless most are conscious of this, and want to make sure they graduate employable. They come to a philosophy class and wonder what studying Aquinas or Kant contributes to their future employability, and when they come up empty, they grow restless. They’ve been indoctrinated to think of themselves as consumers as well as students, future inhabitants of our mass-consumption paradise. With them having grown up in a media-saturated and entertainment-saturated culture, the professor who is a cross between Socrates and Seinfeld has something of an advantage in class. Can you do that? is a question I would ask a prospective academic philosopher. Are you willing to do it?

Let’s take note of another obvious sea-change of the past 20 years: the rise of mobile devices. There is probably no one in any advanced nation in the world that doesn’t own at least one. A recent study shows that social media has greatly shortened the average attention span (it has been measured as less than that of a goldfish). Students are now addicted to instant gratification, and the addiction is borderline-physical. We have other studies that have documented that checking Facebook on your phone and seeing the latest “likes” on your posts actually supplies a dopamine rush to your brain that reinforces the behavior. This means that millions of social media addicts are literally unable to go more than a few minutes without checking their phones. Tell students at the start of a class to turn their phones off, and by the end of a 50 minute class they may actually be feeling physically uncomfortable — the discomfort of the addict who needs his fix!

This is the landscape you’ll have to navigate if you decide to embark on a doctoral program in philosophy (or in many other subjects, for that matter). Incidentally, it will begin with not pissing off the wrong people when you’re still a graduate student. I knew a guy who did this simply by being an outspoken Republican, and eventually rose to being president of the campus Republican Party group. That was the 1980s. Reagan was president. The situation is magnitudes worse today, with Trump in the White House. Today, on some campuses, outspoken Republicans are called “Nazis” or “fascists.” They risk being physically assaulted. Cases are too numerous to link to individually, and there are likely many cases we don’t know about.

(4) Obviously, if you want to navigate this minefield, it’s your decision. It’s your life. In that case, choose a “ranked” doctoral program you’ll be hired out of. There are programs where you can learn a great deal, of course, and avoid most of the trendy rubbish. University of Pittsburgh seems to be such a place, or at least it still was a decade ago. University of California at Berkeley may seem zoolike because of all the adverse publicity surrounding conservative speakers there, but graduates of the school’s philosophy doctoral program tend to find good jobs. Numerous important recent philosophers have taught there: John Searle, Hubert Dreyfus, and the above-mentioned Paul Feyerabend, are just three examples. The department continues to have a top-flight reputation.

If you must embark on getting a PhD in philosophy, do your homework. Interview those in a prospective department, even as they are interviewing you. Presumably you are there because you have some idea where you want to specialize, and what will be your AOS (Area of Specialization) is well-represented there, and known by others to be well-represented there. Ask for the ratio of those who eventually found tenure-track jobs out of their program to the total number of those who sought jobs, which would include part-timers or those forced to take nonacademic employment.

Keep in mind, too, that if you end up in this final category, you’ll have to get used to being told you’re “overqualified” for whatever bullshit job you might find yourself applying for, increasingly out of desperation. Entrepreneurship is a possibility, but getting a doctorate in philosophy will not give you entrepreneurial skills. It might even do the exact opposite, by encouraging you to write for the tiniest and most academic of audiences material that will be light years over the heads of average readers. Let’s note in passing that the number of people who read books has also fallen off dramatically during the social media era.

(5) Given the World Wide Web, there are plenty of venues for discussing philosophical problems — and for all I know, some of them might be monetizable (for those who have asked, this blog doesn’t get enough traffic to make it worth the effort).

You can lecture on a YouTube channel if you’re so inclined (again, I’m not).

You can do podcasts.

My point is, there are ways of involving yourself with philosophy, and with other philosophers, that do not subject you to the abuses of academia, and to a discipline that is arguably slowly and painfully killing itself.

As I said, though, it’s your decision. Good luck. And remember: you were warned.

Posted in Academia, Higher Education Generally, Philosophy, Where Is Philosophy Going? | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Anti-Intellectualism and How Fascism Works”: A Comment

I followed the link from here to IHE’s “Anti-Intellectualism and How Fascism Works,” an interview with Jason Stanley (Yale) who has authored a book entitled How Fascism Works. I’d been thinking of posting a comment, but discovered that the comments thread had been closed by the site administrator. This seems odd, since the interview is less than two days old.

Ninety comments appear. While comments sections do often degenerate into pointless slugfests, except for a very few posts this one did not strike me that way. While there was sustained and sometimes vigorous disagreement, some fundamental issues were being raised. I’ll leave it to readers to ponder why the comment section was closed so soon.

In any event …

Admittedly this was a short interview, and I’d been anticipating something longer, conspicuous in its absence was a clear, concise definition of what the author means by fascism. Why is this important? Not just because it is in his book title, but because of the way the term is thrown around and never defined. How gullible do you have to be to realize that fascist has become one of the big demonizing and weaponized words of the day?

The closest Stanley comes to a definition is this (it is, as we see, a definition not of fascism but of a variety of fascism he calls fascist anti-intellectualism).

Fascist anti-intellectualism sets the traditions of the chosen nation, its dominant group, above all other traditions. It represents more complex narratives as corrupting and dangerous. It prizes mythologizing about the nation’s past, and erasing any of its problematic features (as we see all too often in histories of the Confederacy and the Reconstruction period, or of the treatment in history books of our indigenous communities). It seeks to replace truth with myth, transforming education systems into methods of glorifying the ideologies and heritage of the members of the traditional ruling class. In fascist politics, universities, which present a more complex and accurate version of history and current reality, are attacked for being places where dominant traditions or practices are critiqued. Fascist ideology centers loyalty to power rather than truth. In fascist thinking, the university is simply another tool to legitimate various illiberal hierarchies connected to historically dominant traditions.

I don’t question that this was true of Hitler’s German and Mussolini’s Italy. But a version of this same thing is true of any totalitarian ideology, including those of the left such as Communism, the primary difference being that they “mythologize” about their futures instead of their pasts. They surely “replace truth with myth …”  I hope no one seriously believes universities under Communism presented an “accurate version of history and current reality …”  Surely we recall the Lysenko case.

This aside, in the absence of a definition for its key term, one has to suspect that the subtext is just another attack on President Trump and his supporters. The defense of elites here, however qualified (“Our suspicion of elites and what could be seen as anti-intellectualism can be healthy at times;…”), surely supports this interpretation, since it was anti-elitism that Trump successfully appealed to from the get-go.

Thus we see more of the same: possibly yet another lengthy ad hominem argument, with no real analysis. No analysis, that is, of the whys and hows of a guy with no previous experience in the political arena was able to trounce sixteen Republican competitors and then go on to defeat the Democrats’ and cosmopolitan elites’ anointed candidate. However small the margin in the Electoral College, and whoever won the popular vote, the point is: Trump won. How was that possible? Why did it happen?

Could it be because the mainstream of both political parties has collapsed, has simply lost credibility with the voting public? Could it be, too, that alternative sources of information readily available on increasingly sophisticated Internet platforms were successfully challenging dominant narratives? The latter would explain the cold war against “fake news,” the latest gambit being played out in this war is Alex Jones’s InfoWars being kicked off Facebook and numerous other social media sites. Whatever one thinks of Alex Jones, it is hard to see this as anything other than a move by those who see their current mission as establishing Ministries of Truth.

Returning to the closed comments thread, one comment leaped out at me. The author signs himself only as “Cultural Anthropologist”:

As a Professor Emeritus who has just completed fifty years of teaching at a Ph.D. granting university, I know for sure that the statement “universities…present a more complex and accurate version of history and current reality” is wantonly false. Also false is “Above all, the mission of the university is truth.” The mission of universities today is to advance “social justice,” “diversity,” and “inclusion” (but not of Asians). At least in the social “sciences,” humanities, education, and social work, the mission is to advance a far left wing ideology about society, to undermine the West and Western civilization, to negate liberal rights and protections in favour of statism and identity categories, and to push forward practical methods for implementing “social [in]justice.”

All true. It has been a long time since truth was central to the mission of academia, or education at any level.

But if inculcating herd behavior and obedience to authority are major prerogatives, departures from which are punished with ostracism at best and career destruction at worst, then higher education of the past 40 years or so has been a stunning success!

“Cultural anthropologist,” after all, was immediately attacked by subsequent posters, after all, the first of which accused him (her?) of “spew[ing] … bile.”

Another demanded evidence, making me wonder what cave he (she?) has been living in for going on 30 years now.

Admittedly it’s just a comments thread, but this is the sort of thing I’ve been talking about for a long time, and it’s hardly limited to comments threads.

And perhaps Jason Stanley defines fascism in his book, which I’ve not obtained as I am outside the U.S.; obtaining hardbound books in English in a timely manner where I currently live is possible but extremely expensive, and truth be known, resolving such matters as this is not my highest priority just now.

I’ll conclude by noting … I’ve no idea whether anyone reading this will believe me or not (or will care): the Right is far from getting everything right. I’ve no compunction to defend what the Koch Brothers do, and I’ve certainly no desire to defend the transformation of universities according to the “business model.” It seems to me, however, that this model wouldn’t have been so easy to implement over the years had academia truly had as its mission the discovery and communication of truth during the decades that preceded the current tendencies, much less in the present.

 

 

Posted in Academia, Books, Election 2016 and Aftermath, Higher Education Generally | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Philosophers and Social Media: A Comment

Those who read last week’s note will probably say, “Wow, that was a short break!” This is a comment, though, not a stand-alone essay like many of its predecessors. This despite it’s getting longer than I intended.

Should philosophers “do” social media? Rebecca Kukla (Georgetown University) says yes, they have much to gain — especially younger philosophers (for a very short excerpt go here). She is not my favorite academic philosopher. I explain why here. She is among those I label pseudo-marginalized.*

Some of her observations on social media usage are interesting in their implications, however, as are Brian Leiter’s. I’ll confine my observations to Facebook, since I’ve used it more and know it better than any other social media platforms.

Some people, academics or not, despise Facebook and refuse to use it. Their reasons aren’t all that clear. Facebook has become a corporate empire, one of many in the tech world, but that’s not necessarily a reason to avoid it. It’s being in bed with the CIA, the NSA, and probably a dozen other shadowy federal agencies, may be more telling. Facebook stores your information, but it’s hardly alone in doing that. If you refuse to use Facebook out of fear for your privacy, you are naïve. Privacy went out the window with email.

Does Facebook censor? Of course it does. I’ve known people put in “Facebook jail” (their term for it) for politically “insensitive” posts, especially about Jews (surprise, surprise). I’ve not had a problem, maybe because I don’t post about the “Jewish problem.” This despite defending Donald Trump from what I consider myopic, incompetent criticism. I’ve penned countless exposés of academic political correctness and corporate media dishonesty.

What I suspect: the upper echelons of the Facebook world disdain political discussion generally. I’m not sure I blame them. The platform wasn’t designed for that. Moreover, the research is coming in: social media are among the dividers in American society. People have a tendency to congregate with those like themselves, who share their beliefs and opinions, especially in politics. Facebook unintentionally encourages this. Its system of friending, liking posts, commenting, etc., sets up feedback loops of positive reinforcement. Don’t like a friend’s posts. Ignore them and eventually you won’t see them. Or unfriend him or her. Thus the formation of echo chambers, whether of the right or of the left or anywhere in between.

Some Internet users, moreover, had become “keyboard commandos” who found it easy to insult or bully those outside their echo chamber before Facebook was around. Now, it is as if the differences between online and offline worlds have begun to blur. Public incidents we would never have heard about 30 years ago are now filmed on mobile devices, uploaded to social media, and viewed almost instantly by millions of people. Victims of this sort of thing become involuntary celebrities. Or perhaps better, celebrities-in-reverse, since we aren’t celebrating them but shaming them. Online shaming has almost become a sport!

I think this is a reason we are living in a more hostile society generally. While pundits (Steven Pinker comes to mind) tell us how much violent crime has dropped during recent decades, such measures don’t reflect cyberbullying, personal attacks, shaming incidents, etc., none of which are illegal (some may enter what is, at best, a gray area).

Left and right, unaccustomed to opposition due to online lives in their echo chambers, are more and more willing to demonize and confront one another violently. To be clear: my boots-on-the-ground sources tell me it is usually the left that gets violent first. But those on the right are increasingly willing to get in their faces. The latter aren’t afraid of guns like the former. Were a situation like those we’ve seen in Portland, Ore., and yesterday as I write this in Berkeley, Calif., to get out of control, there’s no reason to think leftists would win even if they have superior numbers.

Facebook did not create our current divisions, of course. But it set the stage for accentuating and aggravating them.

All that said, Facebook has advantages. Through its networking possibilities I’ve formed a few strong friendships with people I would never have heard of otherwise, rediscovered folks I went through high school and college with, and maintained friendships that would have fallen by the wayside when I relocated geographically several years ago.

There are, moreover, hundreds of private groups on Facebook devoted to every conceivable subject, including philosophy. Many of these groups are closed, and don’t allow insulting other members, or bullying, or trolling. Their administrators post rules up front and do not hesitate to expel those who refuses to follow them. Such groups can be useful venues for conversation, advice on mundane problem-solving, support for those coming to them with more serious issues, and more.

Many who use Facebook, just use it to announce family events (vacations or anniversaries) the way we used to do with photo albums in the pre-Internet days. I think Facebook’s algorithms are more attuned to such usages. At the start of the month I posted an anniversary photo taken of my wife and me four years before on the day we got married. It received over a hundred “likes” and dozens of congratulatory comments. I’ve seen this happen countless times.

On the other hand, my political posts rarely get more than five “likes,” unless I’ve shared a video. Somehow, that increases the number, probably because watching a video is less demanding than reading something. Absent a video, with just a link to an article or story and a paragraph or two of commentary, many don’t seem to be seen at all. (I’ve no means of knowing, of course, how many people “lurk,” i.e., read my material without doing anything to announce their presence.)

Enter Rebecca Kukla, who (speaking of social media generally) calls it “our main opportunity to craft our public persona and to forge connections with other philosophers.” She adds that staying off social media “can actively harm your career, while using it wisely can actively help you, and can enrich your professional and intellectual life.”

There are no a priori reasons it can’t do this. Her discussion converges on Facebook, where many of her observations parallel mine, in that it creates space for professional contacts that open doors, especially for younger scholars, by having “created a vast set of interlocking philosophical communities.” She continues:

Through Facebook (and to a lesser extent Twitter) I have been exposed to, had conversations with, and formed friendships with a dramatically wider range of philosophers than I otherwise would have. My philosophical community is no longer bounded by geography, by job status, by age or social identity, by type of institution, or even by subfield or methodological approach. I expect most of us tend to disproportionately make Facebook friends with ‘people like us’ to some extent, but there is just no doubt that social media has broadened many philosophers’ exposure to different kinds of scholars, issues, and conversations. Junior philosophers who give these communities and exposures a pass are missing out on something that could enrich their intellectual and social lives, and they are forgoing crucial networking opportunities.

This makes sense, but there are dangers she wants readers to be aware of. One of the features of the Facebook world (this was true of the online forums that preceded it) is that you never know who might stumble across it, or even seek it out when they want information about you. We all know this, but how easily we tend to forget it “in the heat of the moment” (my quotes, not hers). Hence the environment, she says, “is fraught with peril. An online fight with the wrong person or a post that rubs people the wrong way can do real damage.” The norms are still evolving, she adds. Posts intended for a particular audience that will read them favorably might be read quite differently, and negatively, by readers outside that loop.

All entirely correct. Kukla thus assembles a list of online best practices for younger philosophers, especially those struggling with a hostile job market or perhaps dealing with rejection from an academic journal. Don’t sound off about it online. It makes you sound bitter and uncollegial. She advises against posting trivial stuff — or material likely to be seen as trivial or juvenile by those a jobseeker may be trying to impress. She suggests creating a separate Facebook account for family, friends you went through high school with, and nonacademic friends generally.

But here’s a thought: is it possible to “do philosophy,” i.e., do more than simply try out ideas or banter about philosophical issues, on Facebook or other social media platforms. Kukla again has many valid points about the latter of these; she says little about the former. What she says is to refrain from dismissing entire areas of philosophy or dismissing philosophers who are well thought of or engaging a given philosopher’s post without doing some basic research to find out who they are (an easy mistake I once committed).

One must ask whether this kind of platform is really suitable for philosophical research (as opposed to networking, testing out new ideas on colleagues, etc.). Why? Because most of us originally majored in philosophy in order to “do philosophy,” not merely banter about it. Facebook wasn’t invented with that in mind, though. Nor was any other social media.

“Doing philosophy” on an independent blog such as this is hard enough! I have not done as much as I intended. I did not plan a news site like Leiter’s (who can compete with him on that, and why would anyone want to?). The Internet is simultaneously liberating and limiting! It is liberating in the sense that I don’t have an editor or referee board making trivial criticisms that I’m using this or that term “unclearly” when the truth is, he dislikes my main thesis or conclusion. On the other hand, the lack of oversight means taking full responsibility for what appears here, and seeing to it that what results is as good as I can make it! A couple of extra pairs of eyes would be helpful, but as an independent scholar with a different occupation, I don’t have that luxury! What limits me is a paranoia that what I have is not good enough! Hence a trove of things sitting in Word files!

Blog entries, moreover, no matter how thoroughly they argue a philosophical thesis, tackle a quandary, or how well they play by the rules of citing relevant literature, etc., are never cited in journals or in The Philosopher’s Index. Much of academic philosophy’s reporting system on the philosophical work out here is still stuck in the pre-Internet era. Having said that, yes, you will find philosophy on blogs that is simply lousy: unoriginal, poorly reasoned, etc.

But all this is aside. Social media is here. We might as well use if we can, if it solves certain problems like networking. But do we need to use it to advance philosophical conversation?

Leiter observed that the areas of philosophy he is most familiar with (e.g., philosophy of law) don’t make much use of Facebook. Younger philosophers will say he’s dating himself, as am I, for I am thinking he may be right. Most of us, of the generation now in its 50s and 60s — the first “lost generation,” some of us, anyway — grew up without computers. My generation had no social media when we were graduate students. I don’t believe researching the material that went into my dissertation the old fashioned way — hours of library work, consultations limited to senior faculty in my department red-penciling my work — was significantly hurt by this. We may have been limited by technological doors not yet built much less opened. Would Facebook have helped? I don’t know. Given that we were a rambunctious lot who rarely hesitated with our opinions, and in a “nonranked” department to boot, Facebook might have been disastrous for us.

What “Facebook philosophy” I’ve seen has been superficial, sometimes reinventing the wheel, sometimes taking positions that have been argued against effectively outside their preferred orbits, sometimes arguing theses so kooky and outlandish no one is going to take them seriously (e.g., about how we can know there are extraterrestrials among us). Much political-philosophical discussion, frankly, very much fits into the universe I described at the outset, in which bodies of like-minded folks have congregated because they work essentially from the same ideological premises. Academics are no less prone to the echo chamber effect than anyone else. Kukla — again: surprise, surprise! — eventually falls into this trap, advising readers:

…don’t trust people with fundamentally terrible values. The misogynists and the bigots and the Trump voters on your page are likely to harm you, because they are harmful people with no moral compass. Arguing across such large divides is emotionally exhausting and pointless anyhow. Just get rid of them and protect yourself.

Who gets to decide whose values are “terrible”? Is it obvious who has a legitimate grievance versus who is a mere “bigot”? How many “Trump voters,” I wonder, has she actually met and engaged, online or otherwise? Some of her neighbors may be “Trump voters,” after all. Is she saying that 63 million of her fellow Americans “have no moral compass” because they voted for Donald Trump?

This, of course, is the sort of arrogance that alienates career academics from their fellow Americans, even if their tenured status enables them not to have to care. It vitiates some of her earlier advice, while confirming what the research tells us about what social media might be doing to us.

What conclusions should be drawn from this? Kukla is right that academic philosophers — and those who aspire to be — have opportunities to use Facebook or other social media exercising caution appropriate to their personal situations. They can bring their work to the attention of others. This can have positive results. They should be aware that what they say online can have negative repercussions, however.

Nothing in my experience suggests that social media is of any help in “doing” philosophy. It sounds pedantic, but those who built the Western tradition, and later the various schools (analytic, continental) did just fine — and probably much better — without it. The problems with producing quality philosophy today have little or nothing to do with social media, though, and everything to do with the structural problems of academia and of a prevailing political economy in both academia and the larger society that is hostile to values presupposed by philosophy.

Real philosophy is difficult to produce, which is why we see so little of it these days. Discussions of fundamental philosophical problems, developments of extended arguments and counter-arguments against one or more premises of someone’s attempt to tackle such a problem, are bound to be far more involved than is possible on Facebook — which does have a limit on the length of a post or comment (as I’ve discovered by running up against it a few of times). Substantial contributions to philosophical debate cannot be composed in one sitting, like the majority of Facebook posts. They are not off-the-top-of-your-head events.

Again, and in sum, social media were not designed with long, involved, nuanced essays and followup conversations in mind. These call for concerted attention and effort on the part of both writer and readers. If anything, research is also showing that social media is actually shortening users’ attention spans. Blogs open some possibilities, but even they are limited as I’ve discovered. Are those of us who blog about the philosophical and larger academic community, events in the larger society that might impact on intelligent conversation, etc., really parts of an independent intellectual vanguard as we like to think of ourselves, or are we just borderline-narcissists venting in our private echo chambers?

Time will tell, but however many contacts I’ve made or maintained on Facebook, I don’t expect to see any major philosophical breakthroughs there, or on any other social media platforms.

 

*The pseudo-marginalized:

(1) invariably have tenure, typically at influential institutions almost guaranteeing visibility. Georgetown is not an insignificant university;

(2) strongly identify with identity politics, and hence can’t write without constant reminders to readers how prone to mistreatment they are, and how mistreated are those in their preferred group(s);

(3) are often bullies, without being aware that this is how they are seen by those not in their preferred group(s); Kukla’s blithe disdain for “Trump voters” is a case in point, as was her attack on philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne, someone whose work we theists find interesting and valuable;

(4) have no sense of the contradiction between their privileged status (tenure) often attained by their institution’s preferential policies, and their wearing the mantle of victimhood almost as a badge of honor; and finally,

(5) are mostly clueless about how power really operates in industrial and post-industrial civilization, and from where (what sorts of institutions) it emanates? As long as they are swinging broadsides at windmills of white-maleness (or straight white-maleness or straight white-Christian-maleness), we can expect their cluelessness on such matters to continue.

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Taking a Short Break from LGP

Hello. Those who chance to browse around this site may have noticed the dearth of posts in July, not that I posted a great deal during previous months. I’ve a few items planned, nothing completed, but truth be told, for the past several months my focus has not been on philosophy. Focusing on philosophy when you are not teaching and not independently wealthy is simply not a live option.

Thus for these past several months, last month in particular and most likely for a few months to come, my focus has been on developing what is likely to be my occupation for the next 10 to 15 years (hopefully): copywriting. I am doing what I need to do in order to learn the job and do it effectively. This takes huge chunks out of my day including my writing time, meaning that there is less time for projects like this that don’t make a contribution to it … but could eventually benefit from it.

I have taken note which posts I’ve done in the past seemed to generate the most traffic: the review of Stefan Molyneux’s book The Art of the Argument rose to the top far and away (doubtless because a number of sites with far more visibility than mine discovered it and linked to it); the posts (e.g., this, and this) on the follies and foibles of contemporary academic philosophy collectively came in second, interestingly the more specific the post the better the traffic; the posts on important twentieth century philosophers, on Wittgenstein, and on “Consciousness and the Brain” also did well. Sadly, my observations on thinkers such as Leopold Kohr have done wretchedly; also on topics such as globalism. This is unfortunate, because both need a broader audience and wider discussion. The former definitely has something to say regarding the latter.

All of this is noted for future reference in any event, and comments and suggestions from readers are always welcome.

In the meantime, you (you’re still there, right?) can expect either a handful of much shorter posts (shorter than this one) or no posts at all for the remainder of summer and possibly for much of the fall. Rest assured, where philosophy is assured, I am never that far away.

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Identity Politics Has Nearly Destroyed the Humanities; Now It Is Threatening the Hard Sciences

This article by Heather MacDonald is a must-read! If you thought you could escape identity politics by going into the sciences, or possibly even into engineering, think again.

The article’s opening paragraphs spell out clearly what is happening in scientific organizations, academic or in government:

Identity politics has engulfed the humanities and social sciences on American campuses; now it is taking over the hard sciences. The STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math — are under attack for being insufficiently “diverse.” The pressure to increase the representation of females, blacks, and Hispanics comes from the federal government, university administrators, and scientific societies themselves. That pressure is changing how science is taught and how scientific qualifications are evaluated. The results will be disastrous for scientific innovation and for American competitiveness.

scientist at UCLA reports: “All across the country the big question now in STEM is: how can we promote more women and minorities by ‘changing’ (i.e., lowering) the requirements we had previously set for graduate level study?” Mathematical problem-solving is being deemphasized in favor of more qualitative group projects; the pace of undergraduate physics education is being slowed down so that no one gets left behind.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), a federal agency that funds university research, is consumed by diversity ideology. Progress in science, it argues, requires a “diverse STEM workforce.” Programs to boost diversity in STEM pour forth from its coffers in wild abundance. The NSF jump-started the implicit-bias industry in the 1990s by underwriting the development of the implicit association test (IAT). (The IAT purports to reveal a subject’s unconscious biases by measuring the speed with which he associates minority faces with positive or negative words; see “Are We All Unconscious Racists?,” Autumn 2017.) Since then, the NSF has continued to dump millions of dollars into implicit-bias activism. In July 2017, it awarded $1 million to the University of New Hampshire and two other institutions to develop a “bias-awareness intervention tool.” Another $2 million that same month went to the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M University to “remediate microaggressions and implicit biases” in engineering classrooms.

Back in the early to mid-1990s, I argued to anyone who would listen that if the preferential-admissions, preferential-hiring bandwagon was not stopped, and if the collective academic grievance industry was not exposed for what it was (at the time it was limited to English and comparative literature departments, and had crept into law schools) these movements would eventually inundate everything in their path, like successive tidal waves.

It was clear, at least to me, what was coming. I even detoured from my original intended academic career path (emphasizing history and philosophy of science, epistemology, and metaphysics) to write a book on the subject. My effort was not perfect. There were things I neglected. It was, however, researched from scratch and written on my own time without the sort of administrative support (e.g., grant money) that would likely have been available to someone on the other side of the fence and would have enabled a more complete job.

I argued, among other things, that we were dealing increasingly with a flood of people into academic disciplines, many of them already with tenure, who could not be reasoned with, arguing (incoherently) that reason itself as a “white male social or cultural construct.” Many are the intellectual equivalent of bullies who don’t care about anything except furthering their group-focused political agendas. Neither intellectual curiosity nor a desire for a better world for all of humanity is what motivates them.

The juggernaut, needless to say, was not stopped. It was not even seriously opposed. By serious opposition I do not mean holding a few seminars here and there, or putting together organizations and holding conferences once a year and putting out a journal filled with articles on how terrible things are getting in academia, as did the National Association of Scholars and a few similar groups characterized only by their utter ineffectiveness.

By serious opposition I mean putting financial resources behind the opponents, so they can get in front of and effectively use both national and social media, as Donald Trump did. Trump could do this because he’s a billionaire. Most of us are not billionaires, or anything close. The plain truth is, this is not a part-time job, or a hobby, something to be done on our own time! 

Read the above quote again. Governmental entities are now throwing millions into promoting “diversity” ideology!

I once contracted to write a piece critical of a “diversity” program in a city school district in Charleston, South Carolina. I was paid $2,000 by the organization that published my piece (long since taken down). I later learned that the author of the pro-“diversity” proposals I was criticizing was paid … are you sitting down?… $2 million!

That is the sort of thing critics of identity politics and “diversity” social engineering are up against!

Identity politics has advanced to the point where if you are known to oppose it, you will not be hired for a teaching position in a college or university, period. 

You cannot criticize it openly without tenure, or you will not be rehired, period.

You criticize it with tenure at your own peril, given at least one known case (Evergreen State) where so-called social justice warriors were successful in their efforts to drive a tenured biology professor (Bret Weinstein) off campus with threats of violence, which included protesters wielding baseball bats!

Cowardly administrators openly told Weinstein that if he returned to campus they could not guarantee his safety!

Telling the truth, or merely expressing points of view other than officially-approved ones, has thus become not merely difficult but dangerous, and not dangerous merely to individual academic dissidents but to Western civilization itself.

What happens when acceptability of scientific results starts to be dictated by whether or not it has the approval of what is become a national (and corporate) “diversity” police?

Do we want Western civilization to survive in any form our parents and grandparents would have recognized? If so, it will take organization, and it will take education: far more than it would have taken back in the 1990s!

What are we willing to do — if you are reading this, what are you willing to do — to help it survive?

I know of many authors and others who have given up, too many in fact to link to individually. Whether it is this issue, or the looming global debt bomb about which also nothing is being done, they figure the ship has sailed. They figure this is how empires gradually collapse.

Prove them wrong! This is a challenge! At present, no one I know of who stands on the side of more traditional forms of scholarship, in which truth and rationality in some sense of those terms meant something, is in a position to defend it in the way needed, with sufficient resources behind them. Having a blog and a website is clearly not enough. Writers with far more visibility than I have are unable to do it. Academic, governmental, and corporate entities are now almost entirely in the hands of the “diversity” committees and their thought-police forces.

What I would recommend doing, for educational background purposes, is returning to the original mindset that empowered the civil rights movement, a movement based on ideals of justice as basic fairness and encouraging of kindness (something today’s “diversity” crowd knows nothing about). I would also recommend abandoning materialism as a worldview, as I have argued elsewhere. One thing at a time, though. Read Dr. King’s letters, and other documents of the era, leaving aside cultural Marxists such as Herbert Marcuse, which was when things began to go off track; the Supreme Court’s catastrophic Griggs decision (1971) then threw everything into a tailspin from which it has never recovered. Read someone such as sociologist C. Wright Mills. Start with his The Power Elite (1956), to get a sense of how globalist forces looked to scholars at the time, in comparison to how those have advanced since. It is always helpful to remember that the globe’s real ruling class does not care about minority groups, it does not care about women as such, it does not care about homosexuals, it does not care about transgenders. It has no ideology other than money and power, although this does not prevent it from using ideologies, sometimes of the left and sometimes of the right, depending on what serves its purposes at a given time with a given audience.

In sum, there is no repairing this damage from the inside. The dominant organizations in the U.S. are gone. What needs to be done will require organization, education, and conversation directed from outside, including from outside of academia. It will require the eventual formation (and funding) of new institutions to carry whatever is left of Western ideas forward. If this is impossible, then we have indeed signed Western civilization’s death warrant. Given that identity politics is now affecting demographics on an enlarging scale, all we will have to do is wait for whites to become a minority group in the U.S., the one minority group with no legal protections, and then for the U.S. to end up like a much larger version of South Africa.

If you approve of ideas like these, support them! Go to my Patreon site and sign up to make a pledge. This is your civilization, too! If you want to preserve it, then do something about it! Remember, the promoters of “diversity” are receiving millions from centralized governmental and corporate entities to further their goals! A few pledges of, e.g., $25 or $50 per month won’t do much against that, but it is a place to start and it is better than nothing at all!

 

Posted in Academia, Culture, Higher Education Generally, Where is Civilization Going? | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Is Higher Education Undergoing a Long-Term Structural Collapse?

Is higher education in the U.S., and almost surely in the West generally, undergoing a long-term structural collapse?

The question sounds histrionic, perhaps even hysterical and would be treated as such in many (most?) mainstream academic circles. But if we see collapse as a long-term process rather than a singular catastrophic event, then there is much we can point to that tells us that, Yes, higher education is undergoing collapse and has been for a long time … for at least four decades, in fact.

We can argue over the reasons for the collapse, including whether we are looking at mere bad decisions, accidents, or whether something more malevolent has been going on, but we can’t argue over the fact of the matter: higher education is collapsing.

What makes the problem even more serious is that contrary to what a lot of tech types will say regarding online options for learning, nothing is in place to replace existing brick and mortar higher education on a large scale. I’ll make a few remarks about this last.

I probably don’t have to discuss the rise and influence of the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse (that school’s most influential philosopher), so for completeness sake I limit it to two paragraphs: the institution of “affirmative action” preferences based on race and gender in the 1970s following the Supreme Court’s catastrophic Griggs decision (1971). This decision invented out of thin air the idea that “discrimination” equals a lack of proportional statistical outcomes. This being practically impossible — no society anywhere in the world has achieved it — within 15 years the emergency of political correctness to protect the idea of government-designated victimhood and preferential treatment to attempt to rectify it from intellectual challenge, as well as protect the various movements created by government-designated or self-identified victims from any kind of intellectually serious evaluation.

For any such evaluation would have to accord with objective standards of logicality, evidence that premises are correct, practicality of the implementation of ideas, etc., and by the late 1980s and even more in the 1990s, these were dismissed ad hominem as the social constructs of straight white males (sometimes straight white Christian males, although it was hard even then to maintain that Christianity had any influence in academia worth speaking of).

Less evident to those who focus almost exclusively on Frankfurt School “cultural Marxism” is the corporatization of higher education that began, also in 1971, with the Powell Memorandum handed down by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. In his statement Powell actually singled out Marcuse as a deleterious influence in academia, and also Ralph Nader. He was far less concerned, I would submit, about the integrity of scholarship and dusty philosophical conceptions of objectivity than the fact that the interests of corporations, and of corporate-dominated capitalism itself, had been called into question in the late 1960s. His Memorandum signaled the beginning of a stealth counterattack which was fueled by the rise of the neoliberalism that emanated over the next couple of decades, e.g., from the University of Chicago (founded and endowed originally with Rockefeller money, with Rockefeller and similar big business interests remaining dominant in the school’s governing ethos). Neoconservatism, meanwhile, was replacing traditional conservatism in the Republican Party and would spread to the Democratic Party during the Clinton presidency.

Arguably, neoliberalism-neoconservatism had become the dominant consensus among the elites by the mid-1990s. Utterly materialistic, driven by the desire for profit and the extension of a mass consumption ethos across the entire planet, and willing to launch various degrees of aggression against any and all who refused to fall into compliance, I would think it hard to argue against the destructive effects this ethos has had on the world — a world in which the lion’s share of jobs are meaningless, time-wasting affairs serving one overriding purpose, earning the money to pay rent or the mortgage, put food on one’s table, and keep one’s lights turned on. I often suspect this ethos, which divides families and sets people apart more broadly via pointless competition for jobs and other resources, has long underwritten the escape of many populations into substance abuse (think: opioid epidemic), and the fact that one of the leading causes of preventable death is now suicide.

Against this background, how can higher education as a serious enterprise, able to educate people not just in marketable skills, but in the ability to think critically, act autonomously, buy intelligently, and vote intelligently, possibly survive?!

Notice, first of all, how little the neoliberal-neoconservative consensus actually has to say to women and minorities. Much less whether it has delivered on promises made back in the 1960s and 1970s. The percentage of black philosophy professors back during Martin Luther King Jr.’s day was between 1 and 2 percent. What is it now? Between 1 and 2 percent. I’ve no reason to believe other academic disciplines differ significantly. Small wonder we have groups like Black Lives Matter, born not just of deadly violence by police against unarmed black kids but, on campuses, of frustration over the system’s failure to deliver on its promises. BLM wants more diversity in the form of more black faculty members. Okay. Where are universities supposed to find them? I have often noted (no one has ever responded, much less disputed the claim): the claim that African-Americans cannot find academic jobs because of rampant discrimination rests on the assumption that really there is a population of would-be African-American academics out there.

White women, as middle class as middle class can be, have received the lion’s share of “affirmative action” benefits. And if we can believe the MeToo’ers, their situation is hardly Utopian, whether in academia or in other arenas such as Hollywood! I’ve hardly investigated all or even most of the claims of sexual misconduct that have floated around for many years. How would I? There are too many, too much doubt over who can be believed, and in the effort to untangle all the he-said-she-said and try to determine the truth, nothing else would get done! But while some of these allegations are probably exaggerations and some may be retaliatory, I don’t believe for a minute that all of them are. Is there any doubt, for example, that Harvey Weinstein is a sexual predator … or that at least some male professors are guilty as charged?

Colleges and universities have arguably become cesspools of corruption and greed, and it is hard to believe this ethos, which includes the prevailing materialism, has nothing whatsoever to do with the situation minorities — which include intellectual minorities such as Christian and conservative intellectuals — find themselves in.

Over the past four decades or so, administrations have bloated while the population of tenured faculty has dropped. Higher education is arguably phasing out tenure as the older, tenured generation dies out and is not replaced. In a commonly cited statistic, in some institutions 70% of faculty are now adjuncts: part-timers working for starvation wages, sometimes at multiple campuses or at multiple institutions. Their efforts to conduct scholarship fade into oblivion, as between the lengthy commutes and piles of papers to grade from five or six classes (necessary, to keep those lights on and food in the freezer) consume all their time. There are cases of adjunct faculty discovered to have been living in their automobiles and sneaking into student dorms to take showers.

It is also very difficult to believe that colleges and universities do not have the money to pay their faculty living wages. The reason: the money taken in via athletic programs (in many institutions millions per year), the salaries paid university presidents and other top administrators (six figures, sometimes even seven figures at prestigious institutions), and the money spent on new buildings, new technology and facilities, new gyms and gym equipment, and on campus beautification projects. Many of these last seem intended to create and reinforce in students’ minds, almost subliminally, the mindset of a corporate environment.

The problem is not scarcity but allocation, based on intelligent priorities which support and do not work against the interests of faculty and students, as well as against the institutions themselves. Living wages for faculty might be reciprocated in many ways, as faculty have the time to do their best teaching and research, and can serve as articulate voices supporting the institution raising its visibility at national conferences … instead of having to spend all their available free time looking for their next job.

If what we see is the future of the faculty, which is more corporatization and more “adjunctification,” the most intelligent and talented are going to leave academia, because most of the skills that make one, e.g., a good philosopher, are transferable to other occupations (computer programming, app design, health care, freelance writing, copywriting, etc.). There are now many accounts of recent Ph.Ds opting to leave, or in some cases newly-minted faculty accepting one of the kinds of jobs that are now all that is available for the majority of newly-minted Ph.D.s and realize they have made a mistake.

None of this touches what has been done to students during recent decades. As administrations have bloated and faculty have been forced into decisions between humiliating conditions of servitude amidst near-starvation and departure, it is common knowledge that students are graduating with five and sometimes six figures of student loan debt.

A cynical arrangement exists: colleges and universities can raise tuition without risk because the government pays them, not the students. Administrators know the institution will be paid, in other words, and their upper echelons couldn’t care less how that money is paid back.

They do not have, as Nassim Taleb would say, skin in the game!

The students, almost none of whom have had a class in personal finance or anything close, are willing to go massively into debt in order to get that education they are told they must have in order to be employable. They are vulnerable to the wiles of predatory lenders.

Yet when they cannot find jobs that pay well enough to enable them to pay off their debt, they default; and their credit rating is ruined. When former students cannot make large purchases such as homes due to lack of decent-paying work, outstanding debt, and/or bad credit, does this or does this not hurt the economy in any sense of that phrase?

Here are a few stories of student loan debt.

In aggregate, total student loan debt is now around $1.53 trillion.

Many students, finally, should not be in college. As far back as the 1950s, we saw the rise of the idea that Everybody Should Go To College. There are, however, many, many worthwhile skills that can be developed, and trades practiced, that do not require a university degree. While it is arguable that a college education gives students the “soft skills” they need to be, e.g., intelligent voters and participants in our so-called democracy, it is equally arguable that these can be dispensed at the secondary level, or at home. A study appeared a number of years ago that showed conclusively that university students are not really learning anything! Many, of course, are there for no other reason than to get a degree in order to get a job. They are not truly suited for academic work, and should not be forced to pursue it.

In the present “bubble” environment, student enrollment has begun to drop. In some cases, where campuses have experienced PC-related disruptions, students are speaking with their feet. Others, however, may just be weighing the perceived benefits (too small) versus the very real future costs (too large). One futurist argues that higher education can only go in one direction: down. That is our inevitable long-term collapse.

Another author observes that creeping corporatization has descended even to the lower grades, and that there are objective measures for when not just a university but an educational system more broadly is simply exploiting its teachers. She predicts: either we reverse these trends, or the system will self-destruct as people avoid teaching as a career choice.

In South Carolina, where I used to live, there were already shortages of teachers in crucial subjects such as math and the sciences. This did not stop the bureaucrats from erecting ridiculous barriers to entry. I know this for fact because I ran into them. A woman I dated for a while there, having jumped through all the bureaucratic hoops necessary to jump through in order to be a teacher in that state, was then paid less than $30,000 a year. She was — what else? — a part-timer. This designation served corporate-bureaucratic purposes of keeping wages down but was not an honest measure of her work-load, which amounted to well over 40 hours per week.

With these kinds of abuses in place, is it any wonder that people leave the teaching profession?

Invariably, we face a dilemma: is education in any sense that would have been recognizable as such even 70 years ago compatible with the corporatization that appears to be inevitable in the political economy the neoliberal-neoconservative axis has served up? What adjectives and descriptions apply to this political economy? How about: centralized, consolidated, surveyed, money-focused, obedience-focused, with massive real privileges for a tiny elite and precarity outside its corporatized enclaves and gated communities.

What do we want from an educational system? What should we want? “We” here refers — I hope — to a people whose hope is to maximize personal freedom and autonomy, while living satisfying lives — as opposed to living a present-day equivalent of Hobbes’s “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

We have the technological capabilities to create such a system. There are, as I see it, three things standing in our way.

One is the fact that a truly educated people, valuing autonomy and able to think critically, will eventually turn its attention to those who are really running the show and begin to question some (or more than some) of its policies. This began to happen, at least in part, during the 1960s, which wasn’t exclusively about Marcuse, and gave rise to the fears that prompted the Powell Memo. Modernity’s ruling class did not want, e.g., its wars questioned, and although the story is longer than I can get into here (there are abundant resources available on the topic), one has to suspect that what one might call the “destruction of the American mind” was partly deliberate. Both corporations and government, working together, long ago had wanted, and possibly needed, a compliant population. They designed schools, including colleges and universities, and teaching methods, etc., that would serve up such a population.

Postmodernity’s ruling class is no different, of course. There may be a greater diversity of visible faces, lifestyle choices, etc., and a lot more hedonism, but there is no difference of overall political-economic orientation, which is inevitably about control. Unless a critical mass of common people rejects being controlled, we cannot expect things to change.

This hints at the second thing standing in the way: ourselves. Tech types, whom I mentioned near the outset, will offer online education as an alternative to the four-year college degree. Education writer and futurist Kevin Carey argues that the Internet, the “University of Everywhere,” will make the brick-and-mortar higher educational institutions we’ve been discussing obsolete, just as new technological systems have always rendered older ways of doing things obsolete.

There are, of course, abundant opportunities for educating ourselves online. That much is true. There’s Udemy.com where one will find many structured courses on a wide variety of subjects; there are at least a dozen similar sites; and obviously, there’s YouTube where we can go to learn about any conceivable subject.

The drawback, as I see it (and wrote about here): educating oneself requires behavioral skills many people do not have, as they’ve neither learned them at home or in school. These include self-discipline and time management. If you choose the route of self-education, no one — no teacher or other superior — is standing over you, telling you to get the work done, or even to get up early enough in the morning to get the day started at a reasonable hour. It is just too easy to be a layabout, in other words. Plus, if one is trying to take classes and has to work at the same time, there are likely to be problems as the two run interference patterns with one another (and think of the mother who has kids to take care of in addition!). This all calls for time management skills many people simply do not have, or could easily develop themselves. Not being able to do this should not be judged a sign of weakness, or some such. This is just reality for many people in the real world, as opposed to the world of abstract theorists where all sorts of things look good on paper.

Finally there is the problem of knowing what to view online, and how to organize it into a logical sequence, i.e., a structured curriculum. YouTube, moreover, has a lot of great videos, but also tons of misinformation. It is very easy to go down blind alleys. The Internet itself is full of myriad temptations just to surf and waste time, moreover. The person using it has to discipline himself or herself and say, I am educating myself, when learning, just as the self-employed person must say, I am at work, when working. Otherwise nothing gets done!

The final thing standing in the way is that few employers are able to think outside the sheepskin box. They look at a resume and expect to see at least one college or university degree there. Some tech corporations might be exceptions to this, as the abilities of some of the self-educated teenage whiz kids they see are obvious. In most cases, however, the employer does not want to see a list of certificates of completion of Udemy courses, or one of YouTube videos viewed. They do not have tests the person can pass to prove himself / herself, which is why self-employment might be the only route for someone able to educate himself this way. But again, self-employment requires skills the multitudes simply do not have, and possibly never will, which is why they will remain the multitudes.

Until these bridges are identified and crossed, online self-education will not be an option except for a select few.

And if higher education continues with its present trajectory and would-be students continue to speak with their feet, many lesser institutions will be forced to close, and higher education might well return to what it was over a hundred years ago: a source of privilege for the children of the elites and out of reach (because unaffordable) for everyone else.

This leaves us with a huge and largely unrecognized predicament of major proportions.

For this result, compared to what my generation grew up with (1960s, 1970s), can only be described as a collapse. And if we do not have an educated population, very soon we will not have a civilization.

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