In facts we trust? More on the war against education

Last week we learned that the Central European University is forced out of Hungary. While a lot of other bad things happened since then, this event confused me more than others. Why do people let this happen? And why are acts such as the abolishment of Gender Studies met with so little resistance by the scientific community? As far as I’m concerned, universities are global institutions. Expelling a university or abolishing a discipline should worry every democratic citizen in the world. But before I get onto my moral high ground again, I want to pause and understand what it actually is that I find so shocking. Perhaps you all find this trivial, but it’s only beginning to dawn on me that it is trust we’re lacking. So I think the reason that we (or too many of us) let these things happen is that we lost trust in institutions like universities. Let me explain.

In my last piece, I made some allusions about how this war against education exploits misguided beliefs about the fact-value distinction and postmodernism. I still think so, but I couldn’t really pin down what held my ideas together. I’m not sure I do now, but in focussing on the notion of trust I have more of a suspicion than last week. Loss of trust is widespread: We distrust banks, insurance companies, many politicians, and perhaps even our neighbours. That seems at least sometimes reasonable, because it often turns out that such institutions or their representatives do not act on behalf of our interest. And if they say they do, they might be lying. This distrust has probably grown so much that nobody even assumes that certain institutions would act out of anyone else’s interest.

In this respect, I guess universities and the disciplines taught there are perceived as a mixed bag. On the one hand, the commitments in the sciences and humanities seem to foster a certain trust and respectability. On the other hand, not really or not anymore. I don’t know whether this is owing to the fact that universities are increasingly run like businesses, but the effect is that it’s kind of ok to distrust academics. They might be lobbying like anyone else. They might have an agenda over and above the noble pursuit of truth.

Once you embrace this idea, you immediately see why the bashing of “experts” worked so well during the Brexit campaign. You also understand why conspiracy theories begin to be seen on a par with scientifically established results. If everyone might just be lobbying, then the very idea of academic expertise is undermined. Just today, I read a comment on FB claiming that “we don’t need any higher education, now that we’ve got free access to information via the internet”. You might be shaking your head like me, but once the trust is gone, why should anyone be more respectable than anyone else?

Now all of this is not really disheartening enough. And yes, it get’s worse. I guess most of us have of course noticed something to this effect. When we write grant applications or even papers we actually do engage in lobbying. We say: look, my evidence is better, my thought more thorough, my method more reliable! Being used to such tropes, it’s a small step towards saying that STEM fields are better because they deal with facts rather than ideologies, like Gender Studies. This simplistic opposition between facts and ideologies or values is the last straw that some scientists cling to in order to promote their own trustworthiness. But while some might be thinking that they are acting in the name of Truth, they will ultimately be perceived as just another person doing business and praising their goods.

You might want to object that it has always been (a bit) like this. But, I reply, back in the day universities were not perceived as businesses, nor academics as entrepreneurs. The upshot is that the competition for resources in academia makes us not only claim that we advance a project. It’s a fine line to saying that we are engaging in a different and better and ultimately more trustworthy kind of project than the colleague next door. In doing so, we cross the line from advancement to difference, thereby undermining the common ground on which we stand. In such cases, we insinuate that we are more trustworthy than our colleagues from different disciplines. In doing so, we undermine the trust that all academics need collectively in order for a university to remain a trustworthy institution.

Our competition and lobbying threatens to undermine the trust in institutions of higher education. Not surprising, then, that politicians who claim just that will find so much approval. If academics don’t treat one another as trustworthy, why should universities be trustworthy institutions? Why should politicians even pretend to trust experts, and why should people outside academia trust them? Yes, I know there are answers. But if we want to counter anti-democratic anti-intellectualism, we need to maintain or rather restore trust in universities. But this requires two things: we must stop undermining each other’s reputation; and we must counter the belief that a university is a business just like any other.

The war against education

Today is one of the darkest days in the history of Europe. The press reports that the Central European University in Budapest is forced to move out of Hungary despite fulfilling all demands of the Hungarian Government. We have seen this coming for quite some time. That this has not been prevented is a disaster. Or so I think. Having had the privilege to live and study in Budapest for one and a half years during the nineties, I am personally moved: I am sad and angry. While I know that there are many people – among them many friends and colleagues – who think and feel as much, I am not sure that everyone is on the same page about the meaning of this fact. I’m not well versed in the details of politics. But I am convinced that this is not a ‘Hungarian thing’ alone. I rather see it as part of a war on education and as such as a war against democracy. While I’m not in the most clearheaded mood, I still want to offer some considerations I have been mulling about recently.

The war on education is a war against democracy. You don’t need to be a convicted Habermasian to see why (higher) education is a necessary element of democracies. Informed discourse and participation cannot exist without education. Threatening teachers, lecturers and students is something we’re witnessing everywhere in Europe and elsewhere. While there is much to be said about the current Hungarian government, this move is not unique. Turkey, the US, Romania, you name it witness similar moves. As a German, I am acutely aware that the far right party (AFD) is currently attempting to facilitate a climate of denunciation, too. That’s peanuts perhaps compared to what we witnessed today, but it strikes me as part of a concerted strategy. This strategy comprises many aspects: intimidation is perhaps obvious; casualisation of the (academic) workforce, while pretending universities are businesses might seem a more nuanced way of destroying education.  If we want to fight this strategy, we have to undermine it everywhere.

As I see it, this war exploits problematic beliefs in the fact-value distinction. This second concern is more invested and difficult (for me) to articulate. But here goes: After the last US elections, there was a lot of talk about what is called “postmodernism”. Suddenly, postmodernism and relativism were held responsible for the “loss” of truth and many other things. Moreover, their proponents were held responsible for the rise of far-right opinions and politics. Perhaps trying to be defensive, some people even embraced that slogan according to which “science has no agenda”, insinuating that science deals with facts and leaves values to politics. I think I’ve never read so much crap in my life. Now, there is a lot to be said why the fact-value distinction does not amount to a dichotomy, but this is for another day.*

Anyway, I guess we’re not doing ourselves a favour, if we sacrifice discourse over such matters to such fast food slogans as “science has no agenda”. What I have in mind today is the fact that many people who should know better applauded when the Hungarian government targeted Gender Studies. Since this discipline is currently one of the favoured examples for the supposed effects of postmodernism, some people seemed not to notice that their abolishment was just another attack against (academic) freedom. While I don’t think that we have to agree about the fact-value distinction, I sincerely hope for the agreement that this is a matter of free discourse. No one should applaud when a government abolishes an academic discipline.

Finally, it is a great thing that Vienna will host the CEU in the future. But universities are not virtual places that can be moved around without loss. They are part of making a place, a city, a country, a continent, the world with its people what they are. Let’s not forget about the people who cannot move along. Being placed in Europe, we are in this together.

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* Here is a bit more on this issue.

 

Do ideas matter to philosophy? How obsession with recognition blocks diversity

When suffering from writer’s block, I spent much of my time in the library browsing through books that were shelved beside the ones I originally looked for. Often these were books that didn’t have any traces of use: neither, it seemed, had anyone read them, nor were they cited by anyone. The names of the authors were often unfamiliar and a search confirmed that they sometimes were no longer in academia. Funnily enough, these books often contained the most refreshing and original ideas. Their approach to topics or texts was often unfamiliar to me, but the effort of figuring out what they were arguing was time well spent. Nevertheless, my attempts to bring them up in discussions weren’t picked up on. People continued to cite the more familiar names. Why are we letting this happen?

Most of you probably know the following phenomenon: During a discussion someone proposes an idea; the discussion moves on. Then an established person offers almost a repetition of the proposed idea and everyone goes: “oh, interesting.” Put as a rule of thumb: prestige gets you attention; interesting ideas as such not so much. There is a gendered version of this phenomenon, too: If you want to listen to an interesting idea authored by a woman, better have a man repeat it. Now, an important aspect of this phenomenon is that it seems to incentivise that we relate our philosophical work to that of prestigious figures. In other words, we will make sure that what we say picks up on what established figures say. As Kieran Healy has shown, citation patterns confirm this. Cite David Lewis and you might join the winning in-group. We hope to get recognition by citing established people. Now you might just shrug this off as an all too human trait. But what I’d like to argue is that this behaviour crucially affects how we evaluate ideas.

I think Healy’s citation patterns show that we are inclined to value such ideas that are either closely related (in content) to those of established figures or that are presented in a similar manner or method. Put simply: you’re more likely to get recognition if you imitate some “big shot” in content or method. Conversely, if you don’t imitate “big shots”, your work won’t be valued. Why is this important? My hunch is that this practice minimises diversity of content and method. Philosophers often like to present themselves as competitors for the best ideas. But if we track value through recognition, there is no competition between ideas.

Now if this is the case, why don’t we see it? My answer is that we don’t recognise it because there are competing big shots. And the competition between big shots makes us believe that there is diversity. Admittedly, my own evidence is anecdotal. But how could it not be. When I started out as a medievalist, the thing to be done to get recognition was to prepare a critical edition of an obscure text. So I learned a number of strange names and techniques in this field. However, outside of my small world this counted for, say, not much. And when the German Research Foundation (DFG) stopped funding such projects, a lot of people were out of a job. Moving on to other departments, I quickly learned that there was a different mainstream, and that mainstream didn’t favour editions or work on obscure texts. Instead you could make a move by writing on a canonical figure already edited. Just join some debate. Still further outside of that context you might realise that people don’t value history of philosophy anyway. But rather than seeing such different approaches as complementary, we are incentivised to compete for getting through with one of these approaches.

However, while competition might nourish the illusion of diversity, the competition for financial resources ultimately blocks diversity because it will ultimately lead to one winner. And the works and books that don’t follow patterns established in such competitions seem to fall through the cracks. There is more evidence of course once we begin to take an international perspective: There are people who write whole PhD dissertations that will never be recognised outside of their home countries. So they have to move to richer countries and write a second PhD to have any chance on the international market. In theory, we should expect such people to be the best-trained philosophers around: they often have to familiarise themselves with different approaches and conventions, often speak different languages, and are used to different institutional cultures. But how will we evaluate their ideas? Will they have to write a bit like David Lewis or at least cite him sufficiently in order to get recognition?

Now you might want to object that I’m conflating cause and effect. While I say that we assign value because of prestige, you might argue that things are the other way round: we assign prestige because of value. – If this were the case, I would want to see some effort to at least assess the ideas of those who don’t align their work with prestigious figures. But where do we find such ideas? For reasons stated above, my guess is that we don’t find them in the prestigious departments and journals. So where should we look for them?

My hunch is that we ‘ll find true and worthwhile diversity in the lesser known departments and journals. So please begin: Listen to the students who don’t speak up confidently, read the journals and books from publishers whose names you cannot recognise. Listen to people whose native language isn’t English. And stop looking for ideas that sound familiar.

Against leaving academia

For quite some years, newspapers and the academic blogosphere have been packed with advice for those considering leaving academia. There are practical tips of how to enter the non-academic world or pleas against the stigma that one might see in “giving up” etc. Many pieces of such advice are very helpful indeed and imparted out of the best intentions. However, I am troubled to see that there is also an ever growing number of pieces that advise leaving academia or at least imply that it is the best thing one can do. The set of reasons for this is always the same: academia is bad, bad, bad. It is toxic, full of competition, a threat to one’s health and exploitative. On a famous philosophy blog I even read that it is “unethical” to encourage students to stay in academia. In what follows, I’d like to take issue with such claims and present three reasons against leaving academia.

Given my own academic biography, I’d be the last person to underestimate the downsides of academia. Surviving, let alone “making it”, is down to sheer luck. All your merits go nowhere unless you’re in the right place at the right time. However, that does not mean (1) that we don’t need academics, (2) that academia is worse than any other place or (3) that work in academia can’t be fun. Let’s look at these points in turn.

(1) We need academics. – Believe it or not, even though politicians of certain brands, taxpayers and even one’s parents might ceaselessly claim that most academic work and the humanities in particular are useless, the contrary is true. Discourse and reflection are an integral part of democracies. Academia is designed to enable just that: research and higher education are not just some niches; they are the beating heart of democratic cultures across the globe. Of course, our actual daily practice might often look somewhat differently. But there is more than one response to the fact that the nobler ends of our work are often under threat, from inside and outside. The alternative to leaving is attempting to improve academia. That might be quite difficult. But if masses of good people keep leaving academia, it will lead to increasing corrosion and undermine our democracies. To be sure, ultimately anyone’s personal reasons are good enough, but I find the general advice in favour of leaving slightly (if often unintentionally) anti-democratic.

(2) Academia is part of the rest of the world. – Academia is often called bad names. We are living in an ivory tower and some philosophers never even leave their armchairs. I often talk to students who have been advised to pursue their “plan b” before they really got started with their studies. They unanimously seem to be told that “the world outside” or the “normal world” is better. It seems that academics have a lot of special problems that don’t exist outside or at least not in such numbers. Again, I do not wish to downplay our problems, far from it. I truly believe that there are a number of issues that need urgent attention. But then again I wonder why leaving should help with that. Many problems in academia are problems owing to (bad) working conditions and policies. But why would anyone think that these very same problems do not exist in the rest of the world? Plan b won’t lead to some sort of paradise. The conditions apply to the workforce inside and outside of ivory towers. In fact, I know quite a number of people who have non-academic jobs. By and large, the conditions don’t strike me as much different. Competition, (mental) health issues, exploitation, harassment, misogyny, bullying, you name it – all of these things abound elsewhere, too. So if you want to leave, look around first: you might find the same old same old in disguise.

(3) Academic work can be fun. – We’re often told that our kind of work causes a lot of suffering (not solely in our recipients). Again, I don’t want to downplay the fact that a lot of things we are asked to do might feel quite torturous. But when I listen to myself and other people describing what it actually is that makes it so troublesome, it is often not due to the actual work itself. Writing might be hard, for instance, but the unpleasant feelings are not owing to the writing, but to the idea of it being uncharitably received. Similarly, interacting with fellow students or after a talk in the q & a might be stressful, but as I see it, the stress is often created out of (the fear of) unpleasant standards of aggressive interaction. Imagining talking through the same stuff with an attentive friend will not trigger the same responses I guess. Again, my advice would not be leaving but working towards improving the standards of interaction.

You might still say that all of these considerations are cold comfort in view of the real suffering going on. I won’t deny that this is a possibility. In fact, academia can be full of hidden or overt cruelties and people might have very good reasons indeed to leave academia. I don’t see doing so as a failure or as wrong. What I find problematic is the current trend of advising such measures on a general basis. But of course, for some this advice might still be helpful to embrace a good decision or an inevitable step. What ultimately encouraged me to write this post today are my students, two of whom came to me this week to tell me that, contrary to their previous expectations, they found their fellow students ever so supportive, charitable and encouraging. Where they were warned to fear competition, they were actually met with the friendliest cooperation. I don’t hear this all too often, but who would want to let this hopeful generation down?

Abstract cruelty. On dismissive attitudes

Do you know the story about the PhD student whose supervisor overslept and refused to come to the defence, saying he had no interest in such nonsense? – No? I don’t know it either, by which I mean: I don’t know exactly what happened. However, some recurrent rumours have it that on the day of the PhD student’s defence, the supervisor didn’t turn up and was called by the secretary. After admitting that he overslept, he must indeed have said that he didn’t want to come because he wasn’t convinced that the thesis was any good. Someone else took over the supervisor’s role in the defence, and the PhD was ultimately conferred. I don’t know the details of the story but I have a vivid imagination. There are many aspects to this story that deserve attention, but in the following I want to concentrate on the dismissive attitude of the supervisor.

Let’s face it, we all might oversleep. But what on earth brings someone to say that they are not coming to the event because the thesis isn’t any good? The case is certainly outrageous. And I keep wondering why an institution like a university lets a professor get away with such behaviour. As far as I know the supervisor was never reprimanded, while the candidate increasingly went to bars rather than the library. I guess many people can tell similar stories, and we all know about the notorious discussions around powerful people in philosophy. Many of those discussions focus on institutional and personal failures or power imbalances. But while such points are doubtlessly worth addressing, I would like to focus on something else: What is it that enables such dismissive attitudes?

Although such and other kinds of unprofessional behaviour are certainly sanctioned too rarely, we have measures against it in principle. Oversleeping and rejecting to fulfil one’s duties can be reprimanded effectively, but what can we do about the most damning part of it: the dismissive attitude according to which the thesis was just no good? Of course, using it as a reason to circumvent duties can be called out, but the problem is the attitude itself. I guess that all of us think every now and then that something is so bad that, at least in principle, it isn’t worth getting up for. What is more, there is in principle nothing wrong with finding something bad. Quite the contrary, we have every reason to be sincere interlocutors and call a spade a spade, and sometimes this involves severe criticism.

However, some cases do not merely constitute criticism but acts of cruelty. But how can we distinguish between the two? I have to admit that I am not entirely sure about this, but genuine criticism strikes me as an invitation to respond, while in the case under discussion the remark about the quality of the thesis was given as a reason to end the conversation.* Ending a conversation or dismissing a view like that is cruel. It leaves the recipient of the critique with no means to answer or account for their position. Of course, sometimes we might have good reasons for ending a conversation like that. I can imagine political contexts in which I see no other way than turning my back on people. But apart from the fact that a doctoral defence shouldn’t be such an occasion, I find it suspicious if philosophers end conversations like that. What is at stake here?

First of all, we should note that this kind of cruelty is much more common than meets the eye. Sure, we rarely witness that a supervisor refuses to turn up for a defence. But anyone sitting in on seminars, faculty talks or lectures will have occasion to see that sometimes criticism is offered not as an invitation for response, but as a dismissal that is only thinly disguised as an objection. How can we recognise such a dismissal? The difference is that an opinion is not merely criticised but considered a waste of time. This and other slogans effectively end a conversation. Rather than addressing what one might find wanting, the opponent’s view will be belittled and portrayed as not being worth to be taken seriously. As I see it, such speech acts are acts of cruelty because they are always (even if tacitly) ad hominem. The conjunction of critical remarks and of ending a conversation shows that it is not merely the opinion that is rejected but that there is no expectation that the argument could be improved by continuing the conversation. In this sense, ending a conversation is owing to a severe lack of charity, ultimately dismissing the opponent as incapable or even irrational.

You would think that such behaviour gets called out quickly, at least among philosophers. But the problem is that this kind of intellectual bullying is actually rather widespread: Whenever we say that an opinion isn’t worth listening to, when we say, for instance, that analytical or continental philosophy is just completely wrongheaded or something of the kind, we are at least in danger of engaging in it.** Often this goes unnoticed because we move within circles that legitimise such statements. Within such circles we enjoy privilege and status; outside our positions are belittled as a waste of time. And the transition from calling something bad to calling something a waste of time is rather smooth, if no one challenges such a speech act.

Having said as much, you might think I am rather pessimistic about the profession. But I am not. In fact I think there is a straightforward remedy. Decouple criticisms from ending conversations! But now you might respond that sometimes a conversation cannot continue because we really do not share standards of scholarship or argument. And we certainly shouldn’t give up our standards easily. – I totally agree, but I think that rather than being dismissive we might admit that we have a clash of intuitions. Generally speaking, we might distinguish between two kinds of critical opposition: disagreements and clashes of intuition. While disagreements are opposing views that can be plotted on a common ground, clashes of intuition mark the lack of relevant common ground. In other words, we might distinguish between internal and external criticism, the latter rejecting the entire way of framing an issue. I think that it is entirely legitimate to utter external criticism and signal such a clash. It is another way of saying that one doesn’t share sufficient philosophical ground. But it also signals that the opposing view might still deserve to be taken seriously, provided one accepts different premises or priorities.*** Rather than bluntly dismissing a view because one feels safeguarded by the standards of one’s own community, diagnosing a clash respects that the opponent might have good reasons and ultimately engages in the same kind of enterprise.

The behaviour of the supervisor who overslept is certainly beyond good and evil. Why do I find this anecdote so striking? Because it’s so easy to call out the obvious failure on part of the supervisor. It’s much harder to see how we or certain groups are complicit in legitimising the dismissive attitude behind it. While we might be quick to call out such a brutality, the damning dismissive attitude is more widespread than meets the eye. Yet, it could be amended by admitting to a clash of intuitions, but that requires some careful consideration of the nature of the clash and perhaps the decency of getting out of bed on time.

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This post by Regina Rini must have been at the back of my mind when I thought about conversation-enders; not entitrely the same issue but a great read anyway.

**A related instance can be to call a contemporary or a historical view “weird”. See my post on relevance and othering.

*** Examples of rather respectable clashes are dualism vs. monism or representationalism vs. inferentialism. The point is that the debates run into a stalemate, and picking a side is a matter of decision rather than argument.