Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Academia Platonically Construed

Plato's Republic is about justice, but, of course, there's a parallel and closely connected story, suggested throughout, about wisdom and knowledge. And in this sense, even if you don't think it's an accurate diagnosis of the situation, it's amusing to analyze the travails of academia along the lines of Plato's analysis of society. It would go something like this.

We academics are the timarchs of knowledge. In terms of our professional values, that is. To be sure, we do see the value of disinterested pursuit of knowledge, but in fact academic life is not really set up for that. Disciplines are set up timarchically: the dominance of the well-published and well-placed. In Humean terms, we feel the pull of curiosity, but our professions are actually based on vanity. We are taught to dream of the heroics of the intellectual life, to believe that if we work hard enough, sacrifice enough, publish enough, that we, too, may take our place with the Great Names of our day, to hold that scholarship with acclaim is sweet and honorable.

But if disciplines are set up with timarchic ideals, colleges are more oligarchic in tendency. Timarchs we may be, but like Plato's timarchs we cannot avoid the pressure to focus on the tangible profits: tenure, funding, health benefits. We are timarchs in self-image, but we are timarchs sliding into oligarchy, and some of us, perhaps, have become oligarchs through and through. But even where that is not so we have to deal with oligarchs. Plato amusingly notes that one of the features of the slide from timarchy to oligarchy is the dispute over money. Timarchs, he tells us, love to spend other people's money. They are, after all, not supposed to be moneygrubbers; so the solution, of course, is to get control of other people's money, without ever actually calling it yours, and use it to make a name for yourself. Timarchs seek funding, and this makes them crucially vulnerable, and thus likely to connive in the short run at things that are not likely to benefit the timarchy in the long run. Eventually a conflict arises between those who are timarchic, and thus think that what's best is for other people to give them money to use to build up the portfolio of their great deeds, and those who are oligarchic, and thus think that timarchs are useless people who spend other people's money on profitless ventures. As the oligarchs gain power, they demand that the timarchs be held accountable.

"But we are being held accountable," cry the timarchs. "We have peer review!"

"No," say the oligarchs sternly. "We don't want more studies of the divination practices of Neoplatonists after Iamblichus. You need to show that you are actually contributing something to society."

"But we are contributing something to society," cry the timarchs. "Our work on the divination practices of Neoplatonists is magisterial, a masterpiece of scholarly work that may be remembered for centuries to come!"

"No, no," say the oligarchs sternly. "By 'contributing to society' we mean 'making someone money.' And no, academic publishers do not count. Their business model only works for as long as people like you keep wasting money."

"But we've always done it this way," say the timarchs. "It's a matter of the traditions of the university and the Enlightenment and what not."

"Sure," the oligarchs say, starting to lose their temper, "you've always done it this way with other people's money. Now people want to know that their money is going to be put to good use."

"But...," say the timarchs.

"No, no, no," say the oligarchs, interrupting. "Study of the divination practices of Neoplatonists after Iamblichus is not a good use. Didn't we just say that?"

Who wins this cycle of argument depends on a number of factors. But time and money favor the oligarchs in the long run.

Thus much of academic life consists of the struggle between the timarchs of knowledge and the oligarchs of knowledge. But the timarchs and the oligarchs are not the only people on the field. One of the phenomena that is very well known to professors everywhere is what is often called 'student relativism'. Plato never talks about student relativists, but you don't have to do much guessing to figure out where they are in the scheme. Timarchs and oligarchs, meet your democratic nemesis.

Academia is a relatively simple system. The timarchs of knowledge make alliance with the oligarchs of knowledge in order to get the money to do timarchic things; the oligarchs of knowledge tolerate this as long as the timarchs of knowledge incidentally do things that let the oligarchs bring in the money. But from where do they get the money? From other oligarchs, in part, some of whom are oligarchs of knowledge and some of whom don't care one way or another about knowledge. But really what this means is that they get the money either (1) by allying ourselves with even bigger oligarchs who can make a profit off of us; or (2) by fleecing the public at large by taking tax money for things that the public at large would never vote to pay money for, if it were put specifically to the vote; or (3) by taking it from the student body. And (2) and (3) necessarily bring in the democrats.

"Why should I go to college?" asks the student democrat.

"Officially because it's shameful not to be educated. But also because you can fulfill your dreams," says the oligarch. "You'll make more money, live larger, and have a more successful life."

"That sounds cool," says the democrat. "I really would like a nice job that makes lots of money. I'll even settle for a stable job that pays the bills. How much does this cost?"

The oligarch whispers in the student's ears. The student chokes.

"What?!"

"Oh, but don't worry about it too much," the oligarch hurriedly says. "We have a nice loan system over here that will only charge you a crazy amount of interest once you're out and already making enough money to pay it all off. And lots of people get discounts, anyway, and some even get it free; that's just good business practice, because it builds up an attractive student population. Speaking of which, isn't our student population very attractive? You can tell from this brochure; we've photographed typical members of our student population, and you can see that they look like they are gorgeous and smart and having lots of fun. And we have all these other nice little perks for you."

"Hmm," says the democrat. "It does seem very nice."

And thus our democrat ends up in a classroom, and faces the timarch.

"Do we really need to do this project?" the democrat asks. (Our democrat is very outspoken, so unlike most democrats doesn't just think such things.) "I cannot imagine how knowing MLA format will help me when I am out of school and making lots of money."

"But this is the way things are done," says the timarch. "It's tradition."

"Yeah, and I can sorta accept that, but you've made this project so hard," the democrat says.

"Yes!" says the timarch, beginning to be exasperated. "It's supposed to be challenging, so that you can start your adventure of doing marvelous intellectual deeds of great renown!"

At this point, our democrat will take one of two paths. On one path the timarch makes intellectual deeds of great renown sound so attractive that the democrat starts training to be a timarch. This is one of the reasons why timarchs put up with this system in the first place, of course.

"It will be so great studying at graduate school and then going on to be a well-known professor at Harvard!" the timarch-in-training says.

"Erm, yes," say the timarchs, if they are not entirely honest. Or, if they are a bit on the honest side, they will say, "Yes, but remember that it's going to be a lot of work."

And if the timarch-in-training says, "But it's well worth it, if it gives the chance to do great intellectual deeds to the applause of our peers," then they know the timarch-in-training has become a timarch indeed.

The other path the student can take, and the one our democrat will really take, is to respond, "But I'd rather play XBox."

The project will eventually get finished, and the timarch will hand it back, with the D it justly deserves. "No heroic intellectual deeds here," the timarch notes disapprovingly -- silently, of course.

The democrat is shocked, utterly shocked at the treatment, and, being outspoken, comes to the timarch's office. "I worked very hard at this. I think I should get an A."

The timarch chokes. "An A? An A? An A?"

"Yes," the democrat says stubbornly. "I worked very hard at this. And I think it lays out my opinion very accurately."

"Your opinion doesn't matter," says the timarch.

"My opinion matters very much," says the democrat indignantly. "Everyone always tells me so."

"It's wrong," says the timarch.

"Maybe for you, but it's true for me," the democrat insists.

"But it's not a good project," says the timarch. "How long did you work at it?"

"Six or seven hours," says the democrat (very outspoken, remember), "and at 3 in the morning the night before, too. That was hard work, very A-worthy, I think."

"But why were you doing it that late?" the timarch asks.

"Oh," says the democrat carelessly, "I had a lot of things to do."

"Things to do that were more important than learning the basics needed to do intellectual deeds of glory and acclaim?" the timarch says, trying not to sound too skeptical.

"Oh, yes," says the democrat. "I just never have any time. Can we finish this up? I have to go play Halo with some friends."

"Look," says the timarch, "you have to make more of an effort. Otherwise you'll never do any glorious intellectual deeds."

"I'm not expecting to do any glorious intellectual deeds, anyway," says the democrat. "It's just not fair that you expect me to try."

"You're paying to try," says the timarch.

"I'm paying because somebody convinced me that if I get a nice piece of paper, I'll have a happier life," says the democrat. "And because the student body is quite attractive. Why should I be spending so much time trying to do a project like this? And don't say that it will challenge me and teach me to do heroic intellectual things."

"Erm," says the timarch, taking a sneaky look at the oligarch's brochure. "It will give you useful skills that will help you get the job that will give you the money to fulfill your dreams."

"Well," said the democrat, half skeptically and half not, "I guess I can try a little harder."

And then the democrat meets other democrats and says, "I think what the teachers really want is just to shove their opinions down our throat, as if their opinions were more important than ours. But if we regurgitate what they tell us, then we'll get the dream-fulfilling certificate and can have whatever opinions we want. In the meantime, some of them are kinda cool and the student population is quite attractive. And also in the meantime if you all promise to respect my opinion, I'll respect yours, unless it's just ridiculous." And the democrats all think this sounds pretty reasonable.

So the democrat does the challenging assignments (that's what timarchs call them; democrats call them 'jumping through arbitrary hoops'; oligarchs, of course, call them 'winnowing out the students who can't cut it') and practices all the intellectual exercises (that's what timarchs call them; democrats call them 'busy work'), and fulfills the minimum standards of mastery (that's what timarchs call them; democrats call them 'an absurd amount of work'; oligarchs, of course, call them, 'the lowest level we can have you attain without scandal'); and, finally, gets the dream-fulfilling paper from the oligarch.

"And you have no idea," says the oligarch, "just how much pressure and coercion we've had to use to make sure these silly timarchs pass enough students to sustain our business model. Honestly, sometimes I think they'd be willing to fail an entire class just to meet their silly standards. They can't keep doing that! Those students are bringing in money!"

"Then you should pressure them to make it easier," says the democrat.

"Well," says the oligarch skeptically, "if they make it too easy then we can't charge our high tuitions anymore."

The democrat goes out in the world and finds that everybody has the dream-fulfilling paper and that the job market is awful; and, being outspoken, comes back to the oligarch.

"I want my money back!" says the democrat.

The oligarch chokes. "What?!"

"I want my money back," the democrat repeats. "You said my dreams could all be fulfilled. All that I've seen fulfilled are loan payments. And those are not fun."

"I can't give you our money back, I mean, your money back" says the oligarch. "We've already spent it on important things like studies of Iamblichus and perks for the student population and administrators' salaries. Besides, you got good value."

"Where?" the democrat demands. "I certainly didn't get a dream job that lets me do all the things I'd like to do."

"Erm," says the oligarch, "what is it that those timarchs are always saying? Ah, yes, the reason you paid for an education was officially that it is shameful to be uneducated. We met our end of that deal; you can hold your head up high filing papers or whatever it is that you do, secure in the knowledge that you took a class on cinematic theory. You challenged yourself! You should feel good about that, you know; you remember your professors telling you that."

And thus the travails of academia: the perpetual struggle of timarch, oligarch, and democrat. Like Plato's societies, all the populations of academia -- administrators, faculty, students -- have a mix of all three, although the circumstances of life tend to push for a greater distribution of one kind among each.

But if someone went looking for neither a democrat of knowledge, nor an oligarch of knowledge, nor a timarch of knowledge, but roamed around like Diogenes with his lantern, where in all of academe would the wise person be found?

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