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Those crazy liberals

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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
engender innovation."

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.

7 Responses to “Those crazy liberals”

  1. Blogger W. Lyle Stamps 

    'Mormons unreservedly embrace "countercultural" rhetoric in declaring ourselves in opposition to the world.'

    If so, Mormons created the entire theory of countercultural rhetoric; because I don't think academia had stumbled upon that bit of knowledge in the 1840s. Unless you are being anachronistic on purpose?

  2. Anonymous Anonymous 

    D-Train, I'm pretty much in agreement with your basic point (i.e. that JMW is pretty clueless on this topic), although I have my quibbles on some of the particulars. I resisted the urge to beat down on him in the M* thread because his comments were already off-topic. Remember, though: they always return to the scene of the crime.

  3. Blogger D-Train 

    I'm not saying that Mormons created countercultural rhetoric, just that we act in a way consistent with rhetoric that we now place within that concept. It is hypocritical for us to condemn a counterculture for being a counterculture unless we are willing to condemn ourselves. It is legitimate to indict a specific counterculture, but more specific and detailed arguments are necessary to sustain that claim.

  4. Anonymous Eve's Scork 

    I seems to me that you've misread a lot of what JMW was trying to say.

    In D-Train's comment: " Academia basically produces people that don't understand society and therefore rebel against it, " he has completely turned around what JMW was really saying. Those are your own words, D-Train.

    In this comment, "Despite being the spawning tanks for counter-culture and socio-political radicalism, universities tend, in their systematic operations, toward conformity to academia," JMW is making a contrast, and not speaking for or against counterculture or radicalism. In fact, the most logical assumption to make is that he is saying it is the only force of individual thinking being shown in universities, which would imply that he is in favor of it, which makes all of your comments about "Mormons not realizing that they are radicals" inapplicable.

    Also, though you call JMW clueless, none of you have spoken up on the true issues of the grading system, or given a good argument as to why the current system is more effective or accurate than assigning personal mentors to students, who assess their progress in their field and give a more informed rating, etc, than the current cookie-cutter, multiple-choice test, repeat-whatever-the-teacher-has-said system of today. Where's the individual thinking in that? For those of you that really are clueless, it might surprise you to know that the only reason we need a grading system that is so unspecific and inaccurate is because of the masses of students that are too numerous to receive accurate individual mentoring, teaching, and rating. It would take too much time and there aren't enough professors/teachers to do it.

    Yes, D-Train may be in the political science field, but has he ever been in a philosophy or religion class where his original ideas were not only disliked by the professor, but he was given a bad grade because they directly conflicted with the professor's pet theory? I know that there are many people out there that can relate to this. What happens to the papers at the bottom of the pile? Do they get as much reflection and thought as the first, or are they skimmed and assigned a random grade letter (I have seen this happen many, many times) because the one grading is tired? You would think that this could only happen in classes that involve humanities of some sort, but this is not true. Consider the math teacher who gives partial credit for work correctly done, though the answer is wrong, or the physics teacher who grades on a curve, because otherwise most students would have a C or lower in the class. The students who are not getting the correct answers are still getting good grades.

    As D-Train admitted, you have to play the game, and if you play the game right, you get good grades and win (in this case a high GPA and acceptance to a master's or PhD program-the system where you finally begin to study and learn for yourself), or if you play the politics right, you win that professorship, or that grant, etc, etc. It's true that wildly different ideas survive, but how many of those "wild" ideas were just pet theories of their favorite professor? How many of those are truly new ideas, bred and nourished by academia?

    These problems exist not only at BYU, but also at Harvard, Cornell, Princeton, and all the other (including top-rate) schools. In fact, in my examination and categorizing of the different schools of thought in universities, I have found that more "pet (historical) theories" and less individualistic thinking come out of the top-rate schools than any other.

    Of course it is very hard for many of those who have succeded in such a system to admit that the system that gave them all of their precious credentials might be flawed, or that perhaps they were just another cookie in the tin, but there are those that realize the truth, and don't call others "clueless" just because they are made uncomfortable by their comments.

    The school bullies always do love to "beat people down," but then, they've never been considered very smart, either.

  5. Blogger D-Train 

    Eve, I think that you probably responded in a bit of a knee-jerk fashion to the issues that you described. I'll respond to what you had to say:

    "In D-Train's comment: " Academia basically produces people that don't understand society and therefore rebel against it, " he has completely turned around what JMW was really saying. Those are your own words, D-Train."

    I think that JMW would happily concede that he is against radicalism and counterculture given his other thoughts on the M* page. I don't think that terms like "spawning tanks" carry a positive connotation and I'm pretty sure that this was meant to denigrate academia. Remember the original spirit of his comments, which was designed to argue that BYU needed to seek the spirit more, unlike other academic institutions that crave the honors of the world.

    My argument for the grading system was in the original post and went unanswered. Individual mistakes in grading are clearly likely, as are mistakes in any large statistical sample. In the aggregate, they tend to be very accurate. We've all been stiffed in classes. I know I felt like that when I had a professor here at OU that thinks Henry Kissinger's death represented the end of the Second Coming. Individual mistakes are insufficient proof that there are systematic flaws in the grading system. Kids with 4.0 GPAs are, in nearly all cases, smarter than the 3.0s (or willing to work harder). The differences do break down at very small margins, but that's due to a false interpretation of the information. The hard science kids call it false precision.

    Individual mentoring simply isn't a viable way to educate students at an undergraduate level. There is a lot more of that in graduate school, especially with dissertations and theses. Unless we're going to be a lot more restrictive in terms of who gets into college (and I mean a LOT more restrictive. Like a 1400 SAT to get into a mid-tier state school.), there simply are too many students to evaluate that way. Unless we just want "academia to produce more academia". And frankly, we don't have enough outstanding scholars to make individual mentoring work well. So maybe your idea works in an ideal world, but that's not what we have. You do acknowledge that, but you don't offer any real criticism of the alternative. You admit pretty clearly that your idea can't ever work.

    But, come to think of it, it doesn't work there either. You denounce grading that evaluates conformity to "pet theories" in no uncertain terms. Creating individual mentoring makes that thrive much more than the grading system of today. Either students get screwed a lot more (since a professor or two would be largely responsible for their career instead of Physics 101) or students are primarily exposed to one set of ideas and choose a mentor based on conformity of ideas. How is this a diverse academic environment? It isn't. It's just a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that isn't half so severe as it's being made out to be.

    Yes, there are problems with grading, but they aren't severe enough to show up in the aggregate. And even if they are, you offer no alternative. What can we do other than offer grades in the system that we have? If you can't abide the system, how can we change it?

    If wild ideas are surviving, it doesn't matter if they're just someone's pet ideas. You don't refute my claim that academia is intellectually diverse and that conformity isn't affecting this. And even if it is, what's the alternative? Do you think that there's any structure, system, or society that doesn't have a "game" and "rules"?

    Academia is flawed, but it's the best system going by a country mile. I think maybe the animosity toward grading and evaluation is largely directed in anger at the idea that, through discourse and debate, ideas can legitimately be called "clueless". Spades are spades, even in the real world.

  6. Blogger Pris 

    Well said, D, with that last paragraph.

    IN GENERAL, high-end academics represent the intellectual elite in America. Knowing how difficult it is to reach that point, the rigor it takes, I have a difficult time our-right dismissing their "pet theories". Since, generally, the academics are well-reasoned, there are (again generally) good reasons why they believe what they believe. At very least, we should actively engage with the ideas.

    I can only speak to my own experience--and I did take many philosophy and religion classes--but if I provided a well-reasoned argument, even against my prof's "pet theory", I received a good mark. But maybe I just had good professors.

    When one is up against generally intelligent people, crap doesn't fly nearly as far.

  7. Anonymous Susan M 

    I went to a college for a short while that had no grades. Instead they had self-evaluations and teacher evaluations. Total hippy school. They also had integrated programs, rather than taking individual classes you'd take a full program that combined different subjects. I really liked it.


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