Monday, March 11, 2019

Politics, Academia, and Expertise

I have a theory, not very popular among most of my fellow academics, that academia has a natural tendency to corrupt politics and reduce it to a husk. There are a number of reasons for this. For instance, as any academic knows, academics (including administrators involved in academia) have a tendency to talk about problems rather than solve them; every academic sooner or later is faced with a problem that arises and the response of faculty and administrators alike is to have a committee meeting and talk about how bad the problem is, at the end of which no one has actually solved the problem, so that what solution the problem gets is likely worked up at last minute by whoever is left holding the bag. And social media has made this even worse, because this is something social media already tends to encourage, leaving us with what we sometimes seem to have, an entire nation of people who think they are addressing a problem by gossiping about it on Facebook or on Twitter. Progressivism and conservatism get replaced by chatter. But it's already something implicit in academia itself, theorizing the problems instead of solving them.

A much more serious problem is the fact that, academia being a realm heavily governed by considerations of reputation and symbolic gesture, academics tend to reduce all political problems to problems of self-identification and symbolic gesture -- it's about associating yourself with the right group, saying the mandatory things, checking off the right boxes, presenting yourself in the right way. I remember right after the election of President Trump, when people were just starting to talk about 'the Resistance', a number of academics in social media talking about what they were doing to be part of 'the Resistance'. And if you looked carefully at what they were doing to be 'the Resistance' it was -- exactly what they would be doing anyway. Their lists closely conformed to professional and contractual obligations that they already had. And when it went beyond, it was mostly talking or holding a sign in a protest, or some such thing. Now, it's true that these are things that could be minor contributions to some kind of act of defiance, on occasion. But this is not what was happening; it wasn't as if they were breaking down their real acts of defiance into their atomic parts. Rather, they were doing what we academics have a tendency to do when calls for action go out: they re-interpreted what they were already doing as symbolic defiance. And anyone who hangs around academics when talking about politics knows that this is very common.

An even more serious problem is that the modern educational system is structured by class oppositions. The whole point of the modern university system is to create an official educated class as distinguished from the uneducated class; if everyone were educated in the same way, it would be impossible to sell degrees for the price at which they are sold. And as a teaching institution, it is very, very tempting for both faculty and administrators to fall into the notion of a 'civilizing mission' -- that one's purpose is to teach the savage natives what they need to be civilized. While obviously people put it in less bald terms, nobody in academia manages consistently to avoid thinking of the broader public as the people who need to be taught civilization by academics. One sees it in mission statements and proposals that treat the purpose of education, or of liberal arts, as 'disorientation' or 'de-familiarizing the familiar' or 'teaching students to see the world differently'. These are all civilizing-mission notions. And this colonialism-at-home kind of thinking makes it very easy to be patronizing or even dismissive of the larger public, despite the fact that all of academia depends crucially, every day, on the good will of the public at large. We only exist because farmers and factory workers and people working in the fast food industry think it is, overall, good for us to exist. But it's very easy to forget that. I've occasionally had to point out to a colleague that if they don't think it's acceptable (even if not ideal) for their vote to be outvoted by two uneducated fast food workers who get their knowledge of the world from the alien programs of the History Channel, then they don't believe in democracy and should stop pretending that they do. Everybody knows that this is how democracy is supposed to work, everyone with the dignity of a contributing voice; history shows over and over again that academics forget it and think that they can dismiss the contributing voices of non-academics who disagree with them.

All of these are probably unavoidable. They follow from the kind of institution academic institutions are, and from the kind of people who tend to become attached to them. No academic avoids falling occasionally into these traps, because the temptations are always there. It does mean that academics should not consider themselves political leaders, and should be very careful not to go about (as has regularly happened in my lifetime) co-opting political movements; and that they should probably not, in most cases, consider themselves as contributing to politics qua academics but just as citizens among citizens, people among people. But there is one kind of corrupting influence that is very definitely avoidable, and that we are very definitely not avoiding, which aggravates all the others, and that is the tendency to associate universities with expertise.

Now, obviously there are a great many experts about a great many things in universities. But this is trivial. Here's a game anyone, academic or not, can play; I call it World's Greatest Expert. Identify something in which you are probably the world's greatest expert, other than yourself and things directly related to you, and give the reason why. For instance, I'm probably the World's Greatest Expert on William Whewell's ethics of Purity. The reason is that very few people study Whewell in particular; of those who study Whewell, very few study his moral philosophy; and there is so much to his moral philosophy that probably no one in the world has studied Whewell's discussions of Purity as much as I have, simply because I find them interesting and other people are interested in other things. When I did my dissertation, I was definitely and undeniably the World's Greatest Expert on Malebranche's account of our knowledge of the external world; I'd done a dissertation on it, and the reason I'd done a dissertation on it was because no one else had worked through the whole thing, so I had to do it. (My original intent had been to do a dissertation on Hume's account of the external world in its historical context; I ended up doing Malebranche because almost nothing had been done on his views of the topic of the kind that I needed for the 'historical context' part.) It would be a bit harder to argue today, since a bit more work has been done in the long ages since, but I'm still a candidate for being the World's Greatest Expert on the subject. I could spin these out all day -- and so could you. Some people will have an easier time of it -- I have a very easy time of it because I tend to study things other people haven't even heard about, and wouldn't study if they had -- but everyone is the World's Greatest Expert, if you just draw the boundaries right. And the reason is that all it takes to be the World's Greatest Expert is to have spent a bit more time, or studied at greater length, or even to have been in the right place at the right time to find, accidentally, the solution to a problem most people haven't even thought about.

Universities are often said to produce experts; this is kinda true, and highly misleading. They are very badly designed as institutions for expertise, for the simple reason that they were never designed for it at all. They exist for exploration and teaching, neither of which requires any sort of expertise, but both of which tend to produce expertise in exactly the same way that everything in the world tends to produce it -- if you spend enough time exploring or teaching, you eventually become an expert of some kind about something. Academics become experts on something because they spend an extraordinary amount of time doing something. But this is true of absolutely everyone who is not just flitting around doing in a dilettantish way what other people are doing more seriously. It's even more obviously true in politics, where we have to remove the restriction not to include things relating directly to yourself. As Mill argues, everyone tends to be the world's greatest expert on what's beneficial for them. That doesn't mean they are right -- experts, as we all recognize when we are thinking about it, are often wrong -- but it does mean that we are all usually the people best positioned and best informed on the subject. Other people may be more right, at times; no one is ever more of an expert on it.

The tendency to think of universities as having a special association with expertise has an especially detrimental effect, I think, on the interaction between academia and politics. And the reason it ends up being detrimental is that it leads academics to think their politics are intelligent when the truth is that everyone's politics are stupid, including their own. Note that this is not to say that everyone's politics are wrong. Your politics can be as right as rain, and the fact of the matter will be that it is not because of your extraordinary intellectual insights. Politics is complicated. That sounds trite, but nothing is more easily forgotten. You simply don't have the ability to consider all of the relevant possible points of view; you don't have the ability to foresee all of the negative effects of a proposal; you don't have the ability to investigate, thoroughly and properly, everything that politics covers. Nobody does. You might, due to your personal experience and background, have a better line of reasoning about this or that particular issue than other people. You have not reasoned better about everything; chances are very good that many of your political views are not based on any serious reasoning at all. If you're right about something in politics, the chances are very good that you are so because you happened to have copied someone who knew what they were talking about, simply because it sounded good. To muddle through politics, we all cheat off other people's tests. In other cases, you just might happen to have a background that put you in the right place to see something, by sheer luck. In other cases, you might have friends with good taste. To be sure, some of your political opinions are based on reasoning. But with a lot of the political opinions for which you can give reasons, you got the reasons after you got the opinions. There is nothing wrong with such rationalization; it's literally unavoidable. If we all only had political discussions about what we really and truly knew on rational grounds, we would all be silent most of the time, and practically speaking we would never be speaking up soon enough, to the perpetual aggravation of endless numbers of problems.

But the blurring of the notion of the academic as a specialized explorer (who might have come across things other people have not) and the notion of the academic as an expert (which, on any given point even in one's own field may or may not be very true) leads, I think, a great many people in academia to see their political views as more intelligent overall, rather than just having a better argument here or there, and thus as the template of other political views. And I think the same blurring often leads non-academics to think that if they can find an academic to dress up their arguments in academic jargons, or give additional arguments they can add to their own, that this shows that their views are really the intelligent and educated views. This is, I suspect, the root of the 'Historovox' that Corey Robin recently talked about: it's a genre for people who like to pretend that they have more rational foundations for their political positions than they actually do. Of course, everyone knows that there are academics who are crackpots outside their own field; for that matter, there are academics who are crackpots in their own field. But we still over-associate academic credential with expertise when the fact of the matter is that, at best, certain kind of academic resources and means make it easier to do the exploring that might lead to someone becoming an expert.

The fundamental test for an academic as to whether their politics is really reasonable is ultimately whether they treat their own politics as on the level with everyone else's, and thus whether they would be willing to admit that random people off the street, some of whose opinions they may think awful, probably sometimes have better arguments than they do about some things. Nothing about being an academic makes your politics superior. Nothing about being college-educated, for that matter, makes your politics superior. It just one of the things that makes it yours, if that happens to be your background.

It used to be that this was not so much of a problem; academics were an insular bunch. But I think that as time has gone on, people are learning their politics less and less from particular organizations (unions and societies devoted to particular causes) and more and more from being at college. It certainly seems to be the case that all of the academic corruptions of politics have been spreading. And we are all the less for it. Nothing is more dangerous than a society of lecturers; we lecturers aren't usually listening.

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