Tuesday, February 14, 2012

An Academic Question

The question came up recently in conversation, why is the academic (college and university) sector so overwhelmingly liberal in its outlook? This has been the case for so long that we've come to take it for granted – of course academicians are liberal; that's just the way it is. And I suppose that this stereotype (which is nonetheless true) falls into line with liberals' own stereotypes – like the one that conservatives are stupid, primitive, ignorant, superstitious, rural, inbred, etc. ... whereas liberals (i.e. themselves) are intelligent, advanced, sophisticated, enlightened, humanistic, compassionate, etc. (This has led to, among other things, the characterization of “compassionate conservatism” as a contradiction in terms.) And I also suppose that American conservatives don't always help themselves much by embracing no-neck Evangelical preachers and allowing into their ranks people who are really and truly bigoted (even if their numbers are a small fraction of those alleged by the liberals). The truth is, there are knuckleheads on both ends of the political spectrum, and all along it. If you want to see liberal ignorance in action, just check out any of the numerous Jesse Jackson- or Al Sharpton-led “rent-a-mobs” over the years. Check out the people who voted for Obama then wondered where “their” money was the day after his inauguration. Check out, for that matter, the “Occupy” crowd, whose sense of entitlement rivals anything the Northeastern elites ever came up with.

The liberals/Democrats certainly have a multi-tiered social structure, with academicians and the media at the top, and politicians a step down (yes, I got that right – politicians are not “in charge” of liberalism, they are its product and are completely dependent on anointing by the people at the top). Below that level are the activists – some in academics, but more in politics, non-profits, churches, unions, and so forth. These are the people whose voices we are most likely to hear on the street, by way of bullhorns – and the people who get interviewed on the Sunday morning “talking heads” shows. They are supposed to represent the masses – the “people”, who are widely assumed to be incapable of speaking for themselves (and when they do, they turn out to be upsettingly conservative in their views, like Joe the Plumber).

Then we have the mass of “educated” liberal voters – the liberal elite as well as populists in fly-over country... followed by “cultural Democrats” (blue-collar or the descendants thereof), followed by the vast reservoir of tax receivers, welfare recipients, resentful minorities, and anyone motivated by envy and a desire for vengeance. Make no mistake, this is a caste system, and is every bit as ossified and impacted as anything you'll find in India. The theoreticians at the top define what is politically correct, the politicians follow their lead, the media and the activists push the agenda as far as possible, imposing it on the rest of us... the “moderates” follow along in lock-step, and the proletariat wait in readiness for the next signal to take to the streets.

So this is, basically, where academics appears in the overall political picture. Of course, their stated task is to educate youth, which they do with – let's admit – an admirable sense of duty and self-sacrifice. Because nothing is more important than to enlist the next generation in the never-ending battle against... well, whatever liberals are against, which is a heck of a lot. It starts, as it must, with the revelation -- to tender and callow youth -- that their parents don't know everything – that their knowledge base doesn't cover the waterfront, and that there are, in fact, viable alternatives to their priorities and values. (Of course, anyone who gets as far as college who hasn't already figured this out might need more than a few hints from professors – but let that go for now.) The process is, in a way, similar to that in Marine Corps basic training – first you forcibly remove all traces of certainty, ego, security, and self-respect, then you rebuild from scratch. The student who staggers, dazed, out of his first philosophy or “poly sci” class will return, like a starving dog, to his victimizers in order to partake of the fare they have substituted for everything he has known up to then. It will be strange and exotic, and contradict common sense, but it will have the advantage of being certified as true by every authority within reach – and youth of that age, contrary to stereotype, value certainty above all... even if that certainty is tied to moral anarchy, political authoritarianism, and economic pipe dreams. As long as it's not what “the old folks” think or say, it's OK.

Thus, the many-faceted mission of academics in our time – the corruption of youth as well as the inoculation of the body politic with a succession of fevers and delusions. And in this latter, they have no ally so vital and indispensable as the media – full of pseudo-intellectuals, poseurs, and frauds. The Sunday morning talking heads are the link between the halls of ivy and the heads of mainstream liberals, just as union bosses, public school teachers, and black preachers are the links between academia and the working classes. The system is admirable in its completeness and in its pseudo-democracy – by which I mean everyone is welcome as long as they know their place. Clearly, anyone who is otherwise qualified for membership – by being black, for instance – but who wanders off the reservation – by being conservative, for instance – is consigned to the outer darkness. This is simply the way the organism defends itself, and it would not have lasted all these many years if it had failed to do so.

Now, you might say, why am I only picking on liberals and Democrats? It's because the topic is academics, and we already know who enjoys the imprimatur of the vast majority of academicians and academic institutions. Plus, most of the so-called "conservatives" in academia and the media -- not to mention in politics -- are frauds. Their "conservatism" -- AKA "neoconservatism" -- is little more than a vehicle for American militarism, which is, historically, more of a liberal/populist cause than one that is truly patriotic or intended to preserve the nation and its citizens' liberties.

But even this is only a snapshot based on the current scene. A proper approach to the question also has to include a historical survey, which is what comes next. If you look back far enough, you find that, to quote an article in a recent issue of Chronicles, concerning medieval universities, “The income from the tuition charged went in large part to maintain the faculty in their pursuit of truth, an activity blessed and further underwritten by the Church, with which universities maintained a close association. Faculty took religious vows and typically lived in poverty, or close to it.” The picture we have from that time is not one of academics and scholarship “versus” the Church, but in harmony with it and with Church teachings. Even the science of that time (and yes, there was science back then, and plenty of it) was conducted within the wider context of faith – there being no better example than the work of St. Albert the Great. It would have been inconceivable to anyone at that time that there could arise a clash and a parting of the ways between science and religion – or between any sort of learning (the humanities, economics, history, etc.) and religion. It was a model of reality based on the premise that everything is part of the created order, and thus worthy of study, but also – again within the context of faith – on accepted premises that did not require scientific proof (logical proof being another matter, as exemplified by the work of Aquinas). To put it another way, science was the figure and faith the ground. The scope of science was broad, but still contained within the broader scope of non- (not anti-) science.

But then a few things happened – to put it mildly. One was the rise of heresies of various kinds, which eventually led to the Protestant Reformation and then, later on, to the secularization of most academic institutions. It was, in effect, a rebellion on all fronts -- spiritual, theological, and philosophical. It was no longer “unquestioning” faith that mattered, but only man, however defined – thus “humanism” became the leading theme in academics. Humanism, and materialism – which is why Marxism found such a ready reception in academic circles and continues to do so. But all academic disciplines suffered to some degree, not the least being economics, which Catholic social teaching was intended to speak to – which it has, but with very little tangible success. By the time the encyclical Rerum Novarum was issued in 1891, the juggernaut of secular, materialistic history, politics, and economics (as exemplified by the Industrial Revolution, socialism, and capitalism) was already up to full speed.

On the scientific side, most people would agree that Galileo's work was the first major battle in a war that continues to this day. Suddenly it appeared that faith and science could be incompatible – and the mindset of the time (and of ours) dictated that science must, inevitably, win. Any time faith and science ran into conflict, or appeared to, it was faith that had to butt out, apologetically. Two other major battles of note are Darwinism, or evolutionary theory, and Freudianism, or psychoanalysis. And what do we have in our time? I would say that the controversy over “when live begins” (in the womb) is paramount – but the battle over evolution rages on, as does a less noisy controversy over human nature. (Are we mere animals? Or animals with a spiritual side? Or animals with an illusion of a spiritual side? Etc.)

Now, I'm not going to try and condense a few libraries' worth of work into a single paragraph, but suffice it to say that, in Galileo's case, the Church may have dug in a bit too hard – or, let's say, it may have over-interpreted what faith requires in the face of observed phenomena. It's not as if faith has boundaries, but it certainly should be able to accommodate any and all true findings about nature; this was certainly the premise upon which St. Albert and St. Thomas operated. Even being willing to consider the validity of evolutionary mechanisms does not require a compromise with faith – providing that said mechanisms are kept within the bounds of science and not granted extra-scientific or metaphysical status. And as for Freud, he dismissed religion as an “illusion”, which is curious considering that he was perfectly open to all other human traits and habits, and anxious to describe their functions – their “survival value” if you will (thus, an area of overlap between Darwinism and Freudianism that today's liberals are curiously phobic about contemplating).

Another problem was that, since the Church and science had different missions and priorities, and spoke a different language, the Church did not have ready scientific answers for Darwin, for example. All the faithful could do was kind of sputter and say, well, it can't be true, because it's against faith – and thus the fault line became wider and deeper. Since then, however, at least one major line of research (and mathematics, and logic) has come along, namely Intelligent Design theory, that is able to ride out and do battle with Darwinism on its own terms... and this, I hasten to add, is not the same as “creation science” or “creationism” -- although liberals love to conflate the two. (This is also why you hear a lot more about "creationism" than about Intelligent Design, since secular materialism has ready answers for creationism, but is strangely silent about Intelligent Design.)

There are also plenty of perfectly sound economic arguments against Marxism, some of which actually predate Marx and some of which have come along since – and many of these are compatible with Catholic social teaching. So in this sense the tide is turning, and we find, in small, isolated pockets of academia, robust theories and models that are a match – and more than a match – for Marx, Darwin, and Freud, but which are also compatible with faith. And yet there is still a long, uphill climb ahead, simply because many areas of science, economics, etc. are no longer (assuming they ever were) matters of fact, data, and logic, but matters of – dare I say it? -- faith.

Yes, there is a “secular faith” that has grown, and broadened, over the years to take in virtually every human endeavor (including religion, if it's studied in an anthropological and/or psychological way) – and its premises are simple (if seldom stated) and self-serving – namely that anything worth study must fit into a “scientific” mold, and that only findings resulting from this process are valid as a basis for human activity (to include education, government, etc.). But at the same time this secular faith is corrupted by decidedly non-scientific premises having to do with the nature of man and the significance (or lack thereof) of human existence. Whether we say that it's all about economics, or survival, or sex, and nothing more, we are are not making a scientific statement. But because this “faith” is purely secular, it fails to answer man's highest needs, including the need for meaning – and it is thus a form of despair. At least the existentialists were willing to go all the way in this regard – if life is meaningless and absurd, then each of us is set back on his own devices; we are lonely people in a lonely world, with naught but cold infinity on either side. But this is taking a very negative “is” and deriving from it an even more negative “ought”. Most so-called humanists don't have this sort of courage – they insist on making up values out of whole cloth as a poor substitute for genuine faith. The problem is that so many of the values they come up with turn readily into catastrophes like revolution, war, totalitarianism, collectivism, etc. If human beings are, somehow, provided with a consciousness, but then given nothing to think about other than their own mortality... well, then doesn't this make us the most pathetic of species? Hateful, even? And sure enough, one typically finds, within the ranks of secular humanists of all stripes, people who hate themselves, but who hate humanity even more. Their “humanism” is just a disguise for despair. Is it really an accident that all attempts to change human nature... to collectivize... create little but death, destruction, and misery? They want us to believe that a life without faith is perfectly benign... that it doesn't hurt anyone else... “live and let live”, “tolerance”, "diversity", and all that – but the results tell a different story. And I don't care whether you're talking about left-wing secular humanism or right-wing fascism; the end result is the same. Deny a big part of human nature, and you deny man. Deny man, and you deny his right to live in a meaningful way – or to live at all. The tragedy of our time is that the academic world, which should be the strongest force against this point of view, is its biggest promoter. But this is a consequence of the great schism I have tried to describe above... and the answer is not for the Church to pull further away from science, and from academics, but to reclaim both and put them back into their rightful place within the larger context of faith.

I know there's much more that could be said on this topic, but I hope I've made a good start.

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