Archive for March, 2014

Illogic and Implosion

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

Would I please “describe”, you ask, “the general or characteristic tendencies of contemporary academic discourse in the humanities”? I would describe them, of course, as appalling! I doubt you were looking merely for an adjective or epithet in posing that question, however. I expect what you’re really interested in are the principal challenges, obstacles, or difficulties a conservative would-be professor like yourself will eventually have to face.

I recently came across a short, but witheringly accurate, summing up of these challenges in a piece by Peter Augustine Lawler called “Libertarians vs. Liberal Learning”. The essay is well worth your time; it’s razor sharp in its criticisms but at the same time thoughtfully, even diplomatically, worded. I don’t see how anyone, left or right, could fault his analysis. Here’s what he says about “the way the humanities are often (although not always) taught in the contemporary American academy”:

“Respect for texts is replaced by trendy theory, the open-mindedness of philosophy is replaced by strident ideology, disciplined reflection is replaced by angry activism, the guidance of tradition is replaced by relentless liberation from oppression, the search for God and the Good is replaced by dogmatic relativism, scientific inquiry (and an appreciation of its limits in grasping the whole truth about who we are) is replaced by scientism (or else its opposite: scientific truth is replaced by blather about Western logocentrism), and human dignity is replaced by class-based struggle for self-esteem in the context of identity politics” (Modern Age, Winter 2014).

Whatever the situation may be in other disciplines, no one who has ever been to a meeting of the American Academy of Religion could possibly disagree with this assessment of my own field of study! The only disagreement will be whether one thinks these replacements a good thing or bad.

In any case, if you’re in the market for summaries, Lawler’s is one I can’t top. On the other hand, if you’d like to dig a bit deeper and ponder what (I believe) is the underlying disease of which these various “tendencies” are simply the symptoms, you might wish to take a look at a short piece of mine called “An Open Letter on Tradition“. I wrote it twenty years ago, having in mind a very different set of professional colleagues, but the illogic and implosion I speak of there are, if anything, even more in evidence today.