On Greatness

Pelikan 100For the first time in 37 years, we have a Triple-Crown winner. American Pharaoh didn’t win by a nose. He won by five and a half lengths! It was thrilling to watch him pull away from a group comprised of the fastest horses on the planet, to see him establish a lead that it was increasingly clear would be impossible for any of the other horses to overcome. It was an elevating spectacle. Joe Draper, wrote in The New York Times that “[t]he fans in a capacity crowd strained on their tiptoes and let our a roar from deep in their souls. It was going to end, finally – this 37-year search for a great racehorse.”

That’s right, he said the fans let out a roar “from deep in their souls.” Many cried. Toward the end of that same story he refers to American Pharaoh’s run as “ethereal.” The spectacle of greatness is always edifying because there is something sublime about it. We know this, all of us. We know it innately. We are always on the lookout for greatness, just as all mammals, as social creatures, are always on the lookout for individuals to follow, individuals who can lead them, even when they have no idea of where they might be going. This is the source of the cult of personality that seems to hold sway, to some extent anyway, in even the most egalitarian of societies.

It’s easier for us to admit that some animals are superior to others than to admit that some people are. American Pharaoh is superior to all other race horses. Seabiscuit, though not a Triple-Crown winner, was superior in his time as well, not just in speed, but in endurance and intelligence.

The rhetoric of democracy leaves little room, however, for the idea that some people might be superior to other people. Even the suggestion is frightening, conjuring up as it does, thoughts of the bad old days of slavery, of the rise of National Socialism in Germany, and of other genocidal movements around the world.

“We hold these truths to be self evident,” reads Declaration of Independence, which then goes on to describe the purported inherent equality of all human beings (or at least all “men”) as chief among these self-evident truths. And yet all human beings are not equal, not even at the moment, so to speak, of their creation. It isn’t just nurture that accounts for differences among human beings, though my suspicion is that it accounts for most of them. Nature has her say as well. Some people are more beautiful than other people, some faster, some smarter or more talented in one way or another, some people are even kinder or more tolerant by nature than others. Parents who are honest will admit that many of these differences appear to be present from birth.

Why is it hard for us to admit that some people are superior to other people? Is it because we’re afraid to awaken the sleeping monster of exploitation that so often lives parasitically on this truth? That’s part of it, I believe. Religion can prevent such exploitation, however, even while acknowledging inherent differences among human beings, on the grounds that we are all God’s creatures and hence have, despite our differences, equal claim to dignity as such.

Even secular humanism can protect people from the exploitation that can come with the recognition that some people are superior to other people on the grounds that no rational, or even merely sentient, creature should ever be treated merely as a means to the ends of others.

The real source, I believe, of our failure to openly acknowledge that all human beings are not, in fact, equal comes not from fear of the evil consequences of such an acknowledgement, but from fear of the good ones. Kierkegaard talks about that, about the fear of what Plato called “the Good.” We all have it to some extent or other.

There is a relentlessly leveling dynamic in contemporary Western culture, a desire to tear down, to discredit anyone who dares to rise above the fray. Danes call this Janteloven, or the law of Jante, which can be summed up as: No one should have the temerity to think he is any better than anyone else.

This leveling tendency masquerades as a progressive force, yet it is anything but. The spectacle of greatness is sublime. It elevates us above our petty egoisms, confronts us with the fact that there is something larger and more important than our paltry, individual selves. And this, my friends, is a dangerous, dangerous truth that what I will unfashionably call “the forces of darkness” would rather keep hidden from us.

To glimpse this truth is life changing. Those whose lives are illuminated by it are not compulsive consumers. They are not petty, envious of neighbors, neurotically fearful of perceived enemies. They support the development of human potential, not retributive systems of justice and endless war.

Egalitarianism can be a force for positive social change, but all too often it is a lie designed to keep us down. We need heroes. Martin Luther King may have had his faults, but he was still better than the rest of us, and so, I submit, is Noam Chomsky. There are lots of these superior people. They have always been with us and, thankfully, they always will be. Our lives, and society as a whole, would be made better if we were allowed to openly acknowledge them as such, to celebrate them, to let out a roar at the spectacle of them – from deep within our souls.

(This article originally appeared in the 9 June 2015 issue of Counterpunch.)

On the Demise of the Professoriate

Portrait caricatureMichael Schwalbe’s recent article in Counterpunch, The Twilight of the Professors,” paints a rather darker picture of the future of the professoriate than I believe is warranted. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say, paints a somewhat misleading picture of the dynamics behind the demise of the professoriate as a positive force for social and political progress.

Schwalbe is correct that the “tightening of the academic job market has intensified competition for the tenure-track jobs that remain.” He’s also correct that it is prudent for graduate students to focus their efforts on publishing in academic journals rather than in media more accessible to a general readership. Hasn’t that always been the case, though? The problem, I submit, with academic journals is not so much that their intended audience is academics as it is that most of these journals just aren’t very good. The pressure on academics is not merely to publish in academic journals, but also to edit them with the result that there are now too many of them and too many of questionable quality. Almost anyone can get published in an academic journal nowadays, but much of the material that is published in them, as Alan Sokal demonstrated to devastating effect back in 1996, is gibberish.

The situation is not much better with academic presses than with scholarly journals. Even some of the top presses are publishing material that would never have seen the light of day in earlier periods when there was greater quality control. Nearly all the emphasis in academia these days, as in the larger society, is on quantity rather than quality. Academic presses, such as Lexington Books, send out mass emails to academics, effectively trawling for book proposals. I spoke about this problem recently with a representative from the more selective German publisher Springer. “These guys are just publishing too much,” he said, smiling in a conspiratorial way.

No one can keep up with which among the proliferating academic journals and presses are actually any good, so emphasis tends to be placed on the quantity of publications a scholar can amass rather than on their quality. This means, of course, that the savvy self promoter with little of any real value to contribute to the life of the mind can more easily carve out an academic career now than can a genuine intellectual who would have actual scruples about dressing up old insights as new ones, as well as against publishing what is effectively the same article over and over again.

The problem is not that academic journals are in principle of no popular value so much as it is that most academic journals these days are in fact of no popular value because there are just too damn many of them and most of them are no damn good. Hardly anyone actually reads them, even among academics.

It may be true, as Schwalbe observes, that graduate students are advised to craft Facebook pages and Tweets “with the concerns of prospective employers in mind,” but what does that mean? The prospective employers in questions are other scholars, not university administrators. There are too many demands on the time of most university administrators for them to scrutinize the Facebook pages and Tweets of all the scholars who earn the department hiring committee’s seal of approval. The problem, I believe, is less that hiring committees are on the lookout for political radicals as it is that they’re too often on the lookout for people who are going to show them up. Few people are possessed of such high self esteem that they are comfortable in the company of someone they suspect might actually be smarter than they are, and academics are no exception.

The growing ranks of “contingently employed” academics “is further conservatizing” charges Schwalbe. The argument that such faculty will censor their writing in order not to offend their employers sounds good in the abstract, but as is so often the case with arguments that are internally coherent, it doesn’t correspond to the facts. Some particularly fearful and feeble-minded underemployed academics may do this, but it doesn’t take long for contingent faculty to realize that most of the tenured faculty in their own departments, to say nothing of university administrators, don’t even know who they are, let alone what they are writing.

Contingently employed academics represent a growing army of educated, literate, yet grossly underpaid workers. Such a population is the ideal breeding ground for political radicalism and, indeed, some are beginning to unionize.

Demands for grant getting, as Schwalbe observes, undeniably slant research in the sciences in the corporate direction. But, most leftist public intellectuals have traditionally come from the humanities rather than the sciences.

The real threat, I believe, to the professoriate as a force for positive social and political change, comes not so much from the factors Schwalbe mentions as from things more deeply rooted in American culture such as egoism and anti-intellectualism. The egoism that is fostered by so much in American culture keeps many academics from making what appear on a superficial level to be personal sacrifices even for the good of their students, let alone for the good of society more generally (I say “on a superficial level” because faculty who make such “sacrifices” are rewarded many times over by the satisfaction of actually bettering the lives of their students and, in that way, of humanity more generally). Tenured faculty have a responsibility to help their students develop the critical, analytical and communicative skills that are essential to actualizing the distinctively human potential for self determination, but too many abdicate this responsibility because of the time and effort required to live up to it.

The professoriate is almost universally opposed to assessment. I have never been an opponent of it however. I’m well aware, of course, that it can be abused, but it has become increasingly clear to me that at least one reason so many academics are opposed to it is that it would reveal that they are not, in fact, teaching their students much.

Some effort at assessment of student learning in the humanities could be a vehicle of revolutionary change in that it would put pressure on tenured faculty actually to teach students something, and would expose that the working conditions of many contingent faculty are such that requiring this of them is like asking them to make bricks without straw.

Assessment could be a force for radical social and political change in that implemented properly, it would make all too clear both how decades of the dismantling of the K-12 system of public education and the analogous onslaught on the funding of higher education have not simply resulted in a generation of less-than-excellent sheep, but also, as Ray Marshall and Marc Tucker argue in Thinking for a Living: Education and the Wealth of Nations (Basic Books, 1993), threaten the social and economic future of this country. In fact, assessment in higher education could have such a profoundly progressive effect that if I didn’t know better, I’d think the movement against it was a conservative plot.

It isn’t a conservative plot, though, unless conservatives are far more devious than most of us imagine and their whole sustained attack on education in general was originally designed to produce an academic job market that was so neurotically competitive it would gradually weed out academics committed to anything other than the advancement of their own, individual careers.

It’s counter productive to demonize university administrators. There are some bad ones, of course, and their salaries, like the salaries of their corporate equivalents, need to be brought back into line with those of the individuals they supervise. It’s not university administrators, however, as Schwalbe claims, who are responsible for the purported decline in leftist intellectuals, but scarcity conditions in the academic job market that are ultimately traceable back to American egoism and anti-intellectualism. But American egoism and anti-intellectualism are problems that are far less easily solved than the largely phantom “conservatizing trends” in higher education that Schwalbe discusses in his article.

(This piece originally appeared in the 8 June 2015 edition of Counterpunch under the title “The Real Threat to the American Proefssoriate.”)