Elsewhere (18)
Volcanic Lightning

I Don’t Deserve This Shabby Treatment

Dicentra steers us to an article by Jere P Surber, a professor of philosophy at the University of Denver. Professor Surber is explaining why the humanities incline so heavily to the left. In doing so, he reveals a surprisingly explicit note of personal and collective envy: 

There’s no secret that the liberal arts are the lowest-compensated sector of academe, despite substantially more advanced study than business instructors and the equivalent of those in the natural sciences... You don’t have to be a militant Marxist to recognize that people’s political persuasions will align pretty well with their economic interests. It’s real simple: Those who have less and want more will tend to support social changes that promise to accomplish that... Who, after all, would want to preserve a situation in which others who are equivalently educated and experienced - doctors, engineers, lawyers, scientists, colleagues in other areas, and, yes, chief executives - receive vastly more compensation, sometimes by a factor of 10 or 100?

Professor Surber feels undervalued by the base calculus of the market and clearly he’s essential to the working of the world. How can it be that doctors and engineers are thought more valuable more than him, a professor of philosophy? Society must be transformed to correct this abomination. To illustrate the magnitude of the injustice at hand, the professor shifts from resentment to self-congratulation:

A second reason that liberal-arts professors tend to be politically liberal is that they have very likely studied large-scale historical processes and complex cultural dynamics.

Studies that must – simply must - lead one to the higher plains of the left. Note the implicit conceit that non-leftist outlooks lead to simplistic conclusions, unlike those who turn by default to the state and its enlargement.

Most of those in the liberal arts have concluded that there really isn’t any other intellectually respectable way to interpret the broad contours of history and culture. They are liberal, in other words, by deliberate and reasoned choice, based upon the best available evidence.

Readers may think that a liberal arts education should expose students to a variety of viewpoints and ideas to be tested. But apparently that messy and time consuming business is no longer necessary. Professor Surber and his peers have already determined the only respectable position. 

This boldness prompts Jonah Goldberg to raise an obvious question:

If liberal academics are such close and obedient students of the best available evidence, how to explain their refusal - or, to be more charitable, longstanding tardiness - to acknowledge the evidence supporting the superiority of markets, the evils of the Soviet Union or the flaws in various academic fads? To be fair I’m painting with a broad brush (but so is he). Still, as gross generalization, the idea that English, Philosophy, and Sociology professors have been at the forefront of following the evidence wherever it takes them is just hilariously absurd.

The academic left is of course renowned for its rigour and impartiality, its open-minded enquiry, and a willingness to engage honestly with challenging ideas

And there’s another, incidental issue to ponder. It perhaps has some relevance to the aforementioned complexity. In many arts subjects, especially those tethered only loosely to evidence, logic or practical verification, there’s often pressure to avoid the obvious and prosaic, even when the obvious and prosaic is true. The obligation to be unobvious, if only for the benefit of one’s academic peers, may help explain the more fanciful assertions from some practitioners of the liberal arts. Consider, for instance, Duke’s professor miriam cooke, who refuses to capitalise her name, thus drawing attention to her egalitarian radicalism and immense creativity. Professor cooke’s subtlety of mind is evident in her claim that the oppression and misogyny found in the Islamic world is actually the fault of globalisation and Western colonialism, despite the effects predating their alleged causes by several centuries. Professor cooke also tells us that “polygamy can be liberating and empowering” – a statement that may strike readers as somewhat dubious. It does, however, meet the key criteria of being both edgy and unobvious.

Meanwhile, Professor Surber’s self-regard continues to tumesce. He has fathomed all of history and it validates him:

It is because we liberal-arts professors... have carefully studied the actual dynamics of history and culture; and we have trained ourselves to think in complex, nuanced, and productive ways about the human condition that so many of us are liberals.

In short, if you haven’t reached a similarly leftwing conclusion, you haven’t achieved sufficient complexity and nuance in your thinking, you peasant. Luckily, we can count on Professor Surber and his peers to guide us to the light, such is their benign magnificence. They may be cruelly underpaid and underappreciated, but by God they’re better than us and they will save us from ourselves. I perhaps don’t need to mention how egalitarian politics are often signalled in this grand and superior manner. I will, however, mention Robert Nozick’s essay Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?, in particular the following:

Why then do contemporary intellectuals feel entitled to the highest rewards their society has to offer and resentful when they do not receive this? Intellectuals feel they are the most valuable people, the ones with the highest merit, and that society should reward people in accordance with their value and merit. But a capitalist society does not satisfy the principle of distribution “to each according to his merit or value.” Apart from the gifts, inheritances, and gambling winnings that occur in a free society, the market distributes to those who satisfy the perceived market-expressed demands of others, and how much it so distributes depends on how much is demanded and how great the alternative supply is. Unsuccessful businessmen and workers do not have the same animus against the capitalist system as do the wordsmith intellectuals. Only the sense of unrecognized superiority, of entitlement betrayed, produces that animus.

Feel free to ease my animus.