The break in the academic spirit
Smith College is getting unwanted attention. For the rest of us, it’s a good test case for what’s going on in American colleges and universities.
Smith, a tiny womens college in western Massachusetts, made the news a lot. One employee publicly quit her job in response to compulsory training on critical racial theory, which she rightly called a “racially hostile workplace”. Smith’s endowment is currently close to $ 2 billion. That’s a big target for a hungry lawyer. If that weren’t enough, the New York Times has gone back and investigated a two-year-old episode in which a black college student was insulted by cafeteria staff who told her she couldn’t sit in an area open to visiting Reserved for students (where all persons required CORI background exams). The result was a campus-wide protest against racism and the eventual recall of two employees whose combined salaries barely matched the cost of attending Smith for a year. Other workers were threatened in their homes. Lives have been ruined. But then, after an investigation, it was found that no mistake had been made. However, no apology or reward was given to those who actually suffered, as the president of the quorum still insisted that there may be “implicit bias” at work in this case. What’s happening?
There is no single explanation for the decline in American higher education. We can look back on Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) or on Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s more recent Coddling of the American Mind (2018). Standards have fallen, convenience increased, and yet learning seems to have fallen aside. I saw a comment on the internet that said we taught Greek and Latin to high school students a century ago and now we teach healing English in college. Something must have gone wrong.
The overwhelming partiality of the universities has not escaped its critics either. However, the sudden acceptance of critical racial theory was unsettling. This is not just another step in the ever-left jolt that brings higher education beyond parody (but see Scott Johnson’s campus country, which I discussed here). It seems completely new and even goes against the rules of the radicals to which we have become accustomed. What happened to freedom of speech, free research, or the uncertainty of convenient ideas? What happened to old-fashioned liberalism and minimal respect for free debate and inquiry?
The left’s advocacy for freedom of speech, sincere as it may have been, has always coexisted with the development of what CP Snow called “two cultures”. In an essay on this title from 1956, which was expanded several times, the accomplished natural scientist and writer argued that such a gap had developed between those who study science and those who study the humanities and arts that they have become two separate cultures be. He suggested that knowing the second law of thermodynamics is as fundamental to one culture as knowing Shakespeare is to another. (Would that be the case today?) But how many English professors, for example, can explain elementary principles of physics? Unfortunately, it now seems that few can discuss their own field without resorting to arcane ideological language.
Snow said that the two cultures no longer speak to each other. A mind can no longer contain the sum total of human knowledge. With the mathematization of science in particular, large areas of knowledge are no longer accessible even to well-educated people. In a 2002 review of the book, Orin Judd added a bolder explanation. While developments in the sciences inevitably made them increasingly difficult to access, the arts had to make a concerted effort to achieve the same result:
The reaction of their peers in the arts, or those who had been their peers, was to make their own areas of expertise as obscure as possible. If Picasso couldn’t understand particle physics, he wasn’t fucking drawing anything intelligible, and if Joyce couldn’t pick up a scientific journal and read it, no one would be able to read his books.
Sure Judd is going too far, but how far is too far? Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word is an expanded study on this point. Wolfe quotes from the Dadaist Manifesto: “Every work of art that can be understood is the product of a journalist.” Fans of Picasso and Joyce might object. They will tell us that we just have to “do the work”. (Sounds familiar?)
From this position that only members of the field can talk about it, it’s not a big step to say that only members of a particular race can talk about topics that are related to them.
As the process of specialization continued and both cultures adhered to the principle of freedom of speech and inquiry, something strange happened. Not only was it impossible for either side to understand the other, but each abandoned area was impossible for the other. English professors would turn to physicists on questions of physics, and physicists would accept whatever comes from the English departments. Much like the medieval Muslim philosopher Averroës theory of two truths – one for philosophy and one for theology – each department has defined its own area and everything that might belong to it.
It is for this reason that we hear statements that begin: “As a historian I would say …” or “As an anthropologist I would say …”. Specialization limits anyone’s ability to contribute in that area only, and not just for the sake of professional courtesy. Each field should have its own perspective on the world and operate exclusively from within. Heidegger described this as “the point of view of the point of view”. With the advent of the various “studies” departments that divide the intellectual world according to race, sex and gender, we have what it takes to become an even more specialized and ceded area. The Department of Women’s Studies has the final say on women, as does the Department of African American Studies on the experience of blacks and so on.
From this position that only members of the field can talk about it, it’s not a big step to say that only members of a particular race can talk about topics that are related to them. Keep going and you have a passage like this from the New York Times article on the Smith College debacle: “The story highlights the tension between a student’s heartfelt sense of personal truth and facts that are present in the There was nothing ironic about this sentence. What can facts say about a “personal truth”? No more than a computer scientist could say about religion. (But don’t tell the always interesting David Learned.)
The multiversity, to use Clark Kerr’s phrase, was ready to accept, by both habit and structure, many of the tenets of critical racial theory. There is no coherence with the formation or even the structure of such institutions. Critical racial theory, the product of multiversity (and multiculturalism), is a perfect match. And it enables moral cleaning on the part of those who no longer believe in the demanding search for the truth.
Our institutions can influence our habits, as Aristotle taught. And this applies to our thinking habits as well as to everyone else. The American Academy, therefore, was structurally inclined to take into account critical racial theory and all of its consequences, as we see it at Smith College. Ideology also plays a role, but the habits that arose from the specialization and obscuritanism of the multiversity gave rise to the habits of critical racial theory. The good news is that habits can be broken. But the long way back to reason has yet to be covered.