27 May 2006 - Saturday

Fear and snobbery

I am reading Julius Getman's In the Company of Scholars: The Struggle for the Soul of Higher Education (UT Press, 1992). Getman is a law professor, and the book reflects his professional experience, but many of his arguments apply to other disciplines as well.

One of the main themes of the book is the tension Getman sees between the elitist and egalitarian impulses of the academy. He is particularly critical of what he interprets as widespread pretense and arrogance on elite campuses. His complaints come from personal experience; Getman went on from a working-class childhood to get an education at Harvard Law.

Getman argues that the snobbery is a result of fear:

Academic life is frequently perceived to be a haven for the timid, and there is much to the stereotype. Many of the worst features of academic life -- the pedantry, jargon, obscurantism, and removal from reality -- have their roots in fear of discovery. Yet meaningful success requires a degree of boldness.

In later years, I realized that many students and young faculty members behave in self-defeating ways. [...] They do not believe that they have anything of value to contribute to a high-level academic debate. Often this feeling prevents people from publishing or teaching effectively and sometimes it makes them pedantic, overly abstract, or unnecessarily elegant in the presentation of their ideas. Sometimes I think that the great majority of young academics fall into two categories: the unnecessarily diffident and the infuriatingly arrogant. In more reflective moments, I realize that the two categories are essentially one. Underneath the arrogance so common among young academics, there is generally fear of being exposed as an intellectual charlatan. The feeling is almost universal. The fear reflects, among other things, that deep down almost all of us are aware of how little we know about the subjects we teach. (pp. 25-26)

This got me thinking. Assuming Getman is right (and I'm guessing he's not entirely wrong), I would add that I think similar fears lie behind a lot of the popular anti-intellectualism that some of us complain about. If many academics cloak their insecurities with arrogance, I think non-academics often do the same. At least, in my experience.

Many people speak proudly of their participation in "the real world" as if it were morally and even mentally superior to the sheltered and luxurious (ha!) life of the universities. Some openly disparage intellectuals as subversive and supercilious pantywaists (those probably aren't the terms they would use, but never mind that). I suspect such anti-intellectuals feel threatened by an educational system that obviously wields a great deal of power in society, but in which they are unlikely to be allowed a voice. Anti-intellectualism is itself often a form a snobbery prompted by fear and a sense of exclusion.

And it's true that the opinions of many segments of society are unlikely to be taken seriously by the academy. At best, the intellectuals smile indulgently and try to figure out how to liberate these people from their woeful ignorance. It's no wonder if they respond in kind.

I still think one of the best things we all could do to make everybody feel human again is to avoid politicization [edit: "polarization" might be a better term than "politicization"; the problem is not being opinionated but being antagonistic]. If we could overlook the accumulated partisan baggage of personalities, cultures, and ideologies, we might treat each other with more respect and become better thinkers, too. I'm not claiming to be good at that -- quite the contrary -- but I would like to improve.

| Posted by Wilson at 19:14 Central | TrackBack
| Report submitted to the Education Desk