I had a bit of an interesting discussion with Jonathan Max Wilson over on M* about a week ago about academia, BYU, and the Spirit v. intellectualism debate. You can find that on the thread that discusses the Mormon studies e-journal.
I didn't want to post these thoughts on that thread for a few reasons. I was already responsible for a significant sidetracking of the discussion, it deserved a larger response than is decent to put in a comment, and those that read this page might well enjoy the discussion as well. So I'm putting it here.
The gist of the debate between us is the question of the extent to which the Spirit is able to help us to make academic progress. JMW defends the Spirit as being essential to significant academic progress. I argued that you need to be the best in academia in order to make the Spirit really significant in that realm. However, another interesting question is JMW's skepticism about academic enterprise in general. I'll quote him:
"While one can learn a great deal through the academic system, academia is
largely a self-perpetuating, incestuous system designed primarily to produce
more academia. Despite being the spawning tanks for counter-culture and
socio-political radicalism, universities tend, in their systematic operations,
toward conformity to academia. And the grading system upon which they are built
is mostly smoke and mirrors, designed more to test conformity and to provide
businesses with a convenient way of ranking potential employees, than to
I think that this view of the academic system is uncharitable at best and, in short, just plain wrong. What's more, I think that it leads to an underestimation of the importance of doing well in the world to receive revelation for the world.
Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that one does not need to excel in one's profession to excel in personal righteousness. However, if one desires to receive revelation for one's profession that will significantly move that profession forward, one has to be among the best at it. Quite simply, the Spirit cannot help us beyond our preparation. For me to pray that the Spirit will show me how to be the best player in the NHL (presuming we ever have one again) is wholly inappropriate and indicates my lack of understanding of divine revelation. Why? Because I can't skate. It is possible (although, in my judgment, not particularly likely) that the Lord will take an interest in my hockey career. But, until I learn to skate, shoot, and pass at a rudimentary level (possibly aided by God), I can never even think about playing in a local rec league, much less the NHL.
God can help you succeed at school, whatever your level of proficiency. But I submit that unless you understand the state of the art, you can't go beyond it, with or without divine assistance. Milk before meat when you're feeding your baby and when you're feeding your students.
But on to the academic system. This is my real interest here, as I suspect JMW and I are much more in agreement than we thought on the Spirit in intellectual affairs issue. I think that JMW's position, which is shared by many anti-intellectuals across the fruited plain, carries with it a number of assumptions that haven't been proven.
1) The assumption that counter-culture and "sociopolitical radicalism" are somehow undesirable. Maybe they are. But that requires legions of other arguments to prove. One man's radical is another man's freedom fighter. Indeed, Mormons unreservedly embrace "countercultural" rhetoric in declaring ourselves in opposition to the world. I'd estimate that there are a couple of references to how great it is that the Church is a rock standing against the massed armies of the world in most every sacrament meeting. And I'd also estimate that the parallels between that line of thinking and Marxist literature are pretty obvious to nearly anyone familiar with either. My point isn't that radicalism is good, but that it isn't necessarily all bad. We've rather picked the wrong church if we don't want to be radicals.
2) That conformity in academia is essential to success in it. Well, you do have to do scholarly research. You do have to play office politics. Same as anywhere else. The steel mill and Wal-Mart aren't looking like paragons of virtue in these areas either. However, the fruits of academia are diverse almost to a fault. Using political science (my chosen vocation and the most overtly politicized of academic fields), the point is clear. Who are the most famous/influential political scientists out there now? Sam Huntington? The man's a conservative American through and through. He might not vote Republican every election, but he's very defensive of the traditional basis of American society and sees multiculturalism as a harmful phenomenon. Robert Putnam? Pretty moderate chap that thinks social capital is key to everything good in government or life, not unlike legions of Mormons. Michael Przeworski? Economics determines whether democracies survive. Alex Wendt? Social construction. Kenny Waltz? How many powers are there? How strong are they? I could go on. The point is that wildly differing ideas survive and flourish in the field. The same with research methods.
3) Academia is designed to produce more academia. Why yes. Of course. We want to continue learning and scientific progress. That can't happen at Mickey D's. That can't even happen at a Fortune 500 shareholder's meeting. The application of the ideas of academia in the "real world" (whatever that is) is done by scholars that work outside of academia and by those educated in those ideas that take them into the world and make them work. I don't see any reason to hate people that don't make widgets or to think that they're useless.
4) Grading systems are bogus. Well, what's the alternative? Individual grades may well be flawed. But the population of students possessing a 4.0 at Institution A is going to be more intelligent and learned than the 3.0 kids. I agree that false precision is a problem with grades. 3.6 doesn't mean a lot more than 3.59, or even 3.4. But sensible employers know that. An overemphasis on trivial differences in grades is rarely the doing of academics, but of those that choose to employ them. There might be students that are brilliant little Edisons that just can't squeeze a B from their superliberal professor. But there aren't many. A Harvard education doesn't prove that you can build a computer or a sandwich. But neither does a callous rejection of that system.
5) Academia basically produces people that don't understand society and therefore rebel against it. Quite the contrary. Academia spawns revolutions because nobody else can. Presuming some social scientists are correct in their views of crime, the most revolution that the uneducated can really foment in the U.S. of A. is to knock off a liquor store. Most change doesn't come from Cesar Chavez (with megaprops to one of the truest Americans in our history). It comes from bright people that understand the system all too well and choose to oppose it, with understandings and sensibilities forged in an academic context. Chavez is the exception, and one opposed by most anti-intellectuals, at that. If you're not learning anything, you can't have "radical" ideas because you never know that there's an alternative to how things are. Call it an ivory tower if you want, but the conventional wisdom isn't any better than the intellectual understanding of a problem. If it were, it wouldn't change all the damn time.