Right Will hunting (badly)

The layers of irony in distinguished conservative commentator George Will’s most recent attack on the academy are deep and sad at the same time; a once sharp mind may have been blunted by age and life’s proclivities.


In ‘Academia May Now Be Beyond Satire’ (National Review, 11 January 2017), Pulitzer Prize winning Will gripes at what was an admittedly narcissistic exercise in the Chronicle of Higher Education (1 January 2017) to find some sort of enduring meaning in a hoax that exposed a bunch of trendy leftist academics as gibberish merchants.

The hoax was the product of physicist Alan Sokal writing a satirical paper aping the extant, tortured language of post-modernist critique in proposing that science offered no truths and was bedevilled by gender and social politics. It was parody designed to explore whether it would be taken seriously, as it was by the editors of the journal Social Text, who published it in 1996. When Sokal revealed the hoax, Will was among the many salivating right-wing commentators to latch onto the academic farce as proof that the humanities was a doomed field, and that its teachers and students were no better than human detritus.

It is what has become the standard ‘conservative’ argument about all education these days.

But in Will’s own self-serving reminder how right he had been in 1996, he overlooks intellectual integrity in his rush to repeat his hagiography of the humanities.

Had he read or cited some Richard Rorty, he might have avoided his descent into reductionist determinism – reducing salient factors to a few convenient stereotypes, and then proposing a conclusion as fact without acknowledging its tentative basis. That’s right: Will himself practiced a bit of the ‘deconstructionism’ and ‘poststructuralism’ he so abhors.

Rorty, a left-leaning scholar, was also a critic of America’s intellectual decline, but without finding it necessary to condemn the humanities rather than pointing at examples of how some academics attached ridiculous ideological imperatives to what should have been recognised as no more than perspectives and tools for critical analysis.

Will sans Rorty carps away in eroded language about:

… anyone whose intelligence had not been anesthetized by the patois of “deconstructionist” and “poststructuralist” professors. They move on to Nietzsche’s assertion that there are no facts, only interpretations, which he wrote shortly before going mad at age 44. They begin with a few banalities: Science is influenced by political and social forces; literature is conditioned by the writers’ contexts. And they arrive at the doctrine that everything from science to sexuality is a “social construct” reflective of society’s power relations, and therefore everything is arbitrary and political.

It may be true that the dimmest of academics and laziest of students arrive at such conclusions. But it is not inevitable. I too studied the post-modern canon in my undergraduate degree, and often thought of the assigned reading as gibberish, actually referring openly to many of the French writers as ‘gibberish merchants’ for the unintelligibility of their language – jargon-laden and unnecessarily obscurantist as it was. Possibly because the post-war Marxists thought they had to write with the tortured self-consciousness of ill-educated revolutionists from Lenin to Mao.

But I also found in these readings nuggets of brilliant insight and escape from the banality of conventional empirical or structuralist analyses.

Unlike most Americans I know, though, and plenty of others besides, I was never infected with the toxic Puritan virus of needing desperately to find absolute certainty. The kind possible only in religion and its secular analogue: ideology. Hence I saw in post-modern critique only a widening of horizons, not a need to slavishly adhere to an imagined ideological determinism. Likewise, however, I did not see in the idiocy of those who did lean towards determinism a proof that their source material was inherently wrong, useless, or even pernicious. That’s where Rorty and I would probably have agreed, though I suspect his grasp of post-modern thought was far greater than mine.

What George Will does is the same thing he accuses lefties of: he concatenates a series of cherry-picked observations to propose the determinism that all humanities are infected by the idiocy of selected cretins and fabulists. In doing it, he defends science only so long as it becomes ideologically malleable.

Anyone who attacks the results of repeatable experiments is a fool. No question. But anyone who thinks the practice of science isn’t suborned by political agenda is an even bigger fool. If any proof were necessary, one would have to look no further than the military-industrial complex, Silicon Valley and all its analogues, and big pharma, to see how much ideology shapes how science is used in practice. One might also reflect why science has not yet been aimed at eliminating common and fatal diseases, the depredations of poverty, and the ravages of climate change. If scientists cannot see in these vistas the proof that their praxis is indeed ideologically biased, they are deeply flawed and unreliable ‘experts’.

I think this goes to what author Rick Wayne had to say about the pedagogy of science:

We don’t teach Science in this country. At all. We teach its content. We teach science: Avogadro’s number and coefficients of friction and chordate anatomy and the pH scale and sine functions. As if memorizing the citric acid cycle somehow teaches you to understand Science and why it’s so powerful. Facts and tables can reinforce that understanding, but only if it’s already there. If not, nothing you learn in high school or almost any college Gen. Ed. requirement will gift it to you.

This observation precisely reflects my own experiences during my last academic venture – an MInfTech – where professors and students alike seemed to believe that memorised formulae and techniques were all that was necessary to ‘do IT’, and that actually understanding the methods being proposed, and the consequences of their application under various conditions, was extraneous to praxis.

All this to say that in his comment piece, Will was off on some geriatric, drunken goose hunt – abandoning all sense and caution, stomping around in his leery red plaid Mackinaw, the ear flaps of his matching hunting cap fluttering like dog’s ears, while even his dog ran to hide from him, and wildly blasting away with his shotgun in the snow – in proposing that humanities are the enemy of science, or that the practice of science offers up indisputable truths rather than methods whose application must be disputed hotly by human beings with a sense of decency and ethics.

Moreover, the idea that there is less constraint on dissent within the sciences than within the humanities is patently absurd. One need merely look at the history of women scientists whose work was routinely ridiculed, and then stolen by men who were honoured for the ‘discovery’ when the original findings were recognised to be significant.

The lesson lost on Will, the objects of his ire, and the paragons he presents to us, is that intellect requires questioning everything. All the time. Every time. This includes challenging gibberish merchants, tenured humanities academics, petulant students, Newton, or Einstein if it’s necessary. Not to do so is to bow to fixed truth, which is another way of saying religion or ideology. What’s more, I think Newton and Einstein would agree on that point. As would any worthy humanities academic.

Stripped of all the nonsense hot air of Will’s comment, it is possible to glimpse an ideological agenda: the humanities must be demonised because they offer the gateway to evaluating political motives, which is anathema to conservatives (which includes many nominal American ‘liberals’); and science must be embraced because its practitioners are necessary to deliver the tools of political hegemony, but only those practitioners malleable enough not to question the consequences of how their craft is applied in practice.

Will’s comment, then, is no more than a sermon by an evangelical fundamentalist pastor, thundering at an ignorant and subservient audience to not think for themselves, but to get ready to grab their pitchforks, light the torches, and hunt down the assigned dissidents. That is, after all, a perfect analogy for America’s political process these days, including its nominally intellectual public debates.

I am indebted to Eric Albin for bringing Will’s comment to my attention, and to John Raymond Peterson for re-posting Rick Wayne’s blog post.


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